What Is the Difference Between a Nuclear Power Plant & a Coal Power Plant?

By John Brennan
Thermal power plants use heat released by chemical or nuclear reactions to generate electrical energy.
power plant image by Zbigniew Nowak from Fotolia.com

Nuclear power plants and coal-fired power plants share many similarities in terms of their function and operation; there are, however, several key differences. The most important of these lies in the nature of the reaction they use for energy.

Types

Both coal-fired and nuclear power plants are thermal power plants, meaning that they use heat energy to vaporize water and make superheated steam. The steam then drives a turbine, which turns a generator to generate electricity. The differences lie in the nature of the process used to heat the water.

Function

Nuclear power plants produce heat using nuclear reactions, which convert mass into energy by splitting the nuclei of atoms of heavy elements like uranium. Coal-fired power plants, on the other hand, use chemical reactions (the combustion of coal) to produce heat. In a chemical reaction, mass is conserved; only the bonds between atoms in molecules are changed.

Significance

The nuclear reactions in a nuclear power plant create unstable isotopes as byproducts of the reaction; these unstable isotopes are highly radioactive and hence must be buried until they have decomposed to where the radiation is at a safe level. Coal-fired power plants, on the other hand, release pollutants in the form of sulfur dioxides, carbon monoxide/dioxide and other compounds formed during combustion.

About the Author

Based in San Diego, John Brennan has been writing about science and the environment since 2006. His articles have appeared in "Plenty," "San Diego Reader," "Santa Barbara Independent" and "East Bay Monthly." Brennan holds a Bachelor of Science in biology from the University of California, San Diego.