An induced nuclear fission event. A neutron is absorbed by the nucleus of a uranium-235atom, which in turn splits into fast-moving lighter elements (fission products) and freeneutrons. Though both reactors andnuclear weaponsrely on nuclear chain reactions, therate of reactions in a reactor is much slower than in a bomb.The physics of operating a nuclear reactor is explained in Nuclear reactor physics.Just as many conventionalthermal power stationsgenerate electricity by harnessing thethermal energyreleased from burningfossil fuels, nuclear power plants convert thethermal energy released fromnuclear fission.
The reactor is used to convert nuclear (also known as 'atomic') energy into heat. While areactor could be one in which heat is produced by fusion or radioactive decay, thisdescription focuses on the basic principles of the fission reactor.