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WEBSITE: TECHNOLOGY



A Siona and Liron Benjamin Contribution:


What is a Nuclear Reactor?

By Siona Benjamin

 

 

1-What is a Nuclear Reactor

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A nuclear reactor is a system that contains and controls sustained nuclear chain reactions. Reactors are used for generating electricity, producing radionuclides (for industry and medicine), conducting research, and military purposes. All of the various designs of power-producing reactors accomplish the same simple task: spinning a generator. Many commercial reactors pass water over heat-producing fuel rods to generate steam and run a turbine. Some designs call for the passage of helium over a pile of heat-producing fuel pebbles. Yet another design uses liquid sodium as a coolant.

 

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Components of a Nuclear Reactor

Main components

  • The core of the reactor contains all of the nuclear fuel and generates all of the heat. It contains low-enriched uranium (<5% U-235), control systems, and structural materials. The core can contain hundreds of thousands of individual fuel pins.
  • The coolant is the material that passes through the core, transferring the heat from the fuel to a turbine. It could be water, heavy-water, liquid sodium, helium, or something else. In the US fleet of power reactors, water is the standard.
  • The turbine transfers the heat from the coolant to electricity, just like in a fossil-fuel plant.
  • The containment is the structure that separates the reactor from the environment. These are usually dome-shaped, made of high-density, steel-reinforced concrete. Chernobyl did not have a containment to speak of.
  • Cooling towers are needed by some plants to dump the excess heat that cannot be converted to energy due to the laws of thermodynamics. These are the hyperbolic icons of nuclear energy. They emit only clean water vapor.

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Animated Reactor System

 

This image shows a nuclear reactor heating up water and spinning a generator to produce electricity. It captures the essence of the sytem well. The water coming into the condenser and then going right back out would be water from a river, lake, or ocean. It goes out the cooling towers. As you can see, this water does not go near the radioactivity, which is in the reactor vessel.

 

 

 

2-The Nuclear Core

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Fuel pins

A fuel pin

The smallest unit of the reactor is the fuel pin. These are typically uranium-oxide (UO2). They are surrounded by a zirconium clad to keep fission products from escaping into the coolant.

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Fuel assembly

A fuel assembly

Fuel assemblies are bundles of fuel pins. Fuel is put in and taken out of the reactor in assemblies. Click here to see a 3-D blowup diagram of an assembly.

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Full core

A full core

This is a full core, made up of several hundred assemblies. Some assemblies are control assemblies. Various fuel assemblies around the core have different fuel in them. They vary in enrichment and age, among other parameters. The assemblies may also vary with height, with different enrichments at the top of the core from those at the bottom.

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3-Types of Nuclear Reactors

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Pressurized Water Reactor

The most common type of reactor -- the PWR uses regular old water as a coolant. The primary cooling water is kept at very high pressure so it does not boil. It goes through a heat exchanger, transferring heat to a secondary coolant loop, which then spins the turbine. These use oxide fuel pellets stacked in zirconium tubes. They could possibly burn thorium or plutonium fuel as well.

Pros:

  • Strong negative void coefficient -- reactor cools down if water starts bubbling
  • Secondary loop keeps radioactive stuff away from turbines, making maintenance easy.

Cons:

  • Pressurized coolant escapes rapidly if a pipe breaks, necessitating lots of back-up cooling systems.
  • Canít breed new fuel -- susceptible to "uranium shortage"

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Sodium Cooled Fast Reactor

The first electricity-producing nuclear reactor in the world was SFR (the EBR-1 in Arco, Idaho). As the name implies, these reactors are cooled by liquid sodium metal. Sodium is heavier than hydrogen, a fact that leads to the neutrons moving around at higher speeds (hence fast). These can use metal or oxide fuel, and burn anything you throw at them (thorium, uranium, plutonium, higher actinides).

Pros:

  • Can breed its own fuel, effectively eliminating any concerns about uranium shortages (see what is a fast reactor?)
  • Can burn its own waste
  • Metallic fuel and excellent thermal properties of sodium allow for passively safe operation -- the reactor will shut itself down without any backup-systems working (or people around), only relying on physics (gravity, natural circulation, etc.).

Cons:

  • Sodium coolant is explosively reactive with air, water. Thus, leaks in the pipes results in sodium fires. These can be engineered around (by making a pool and eliminating pipes, etc.) but are a major setback for these nice reactors.
  • To fully burn waste, these require reprocessing facilities which can also be used for nuclear proliferation.
  • Positive void coefficients are inherent to all fast reactors. This is a safety concern.

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Liquid Fluoride Cooled Thorium Reactor

LFTRs have gotten a lot of attention lately in the media. They are unique so far in that they use molten fuel. So there's no worry of meltdown because theyíre already melted. The folks over at Energy from thorium are totally stoked about this technology.

Pros:

  • Can constantly breed new fuel, eliminating concerns over energy resources
  • Can be maintained online with chemical fission product removal, eliminating the need to shut down during refueling.
  • No cladding means less neutron-absorbing material in the core, which leads to better neutron efficiency and thus higher fuel utilization

Cons:

  • Radioactive gaseous fission products are everywhere, ready to escape at the first breach of containment. This violates the common practice of defense-in-depth where there are multiple levels of protection. All liquid fuel reactors have this problem.
  • The presence of an online reprocessing facility with incoming pre-melted fuel is a concern. The operator could easily divert Pa-233 to provide a stream of nearly pure weapons-grade U-233. Thus, anyone who operates this kind of reactor will have easy access to bomb material.

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Boiling Water Reactor

Second most common, the BWR is similar to the PWR in many ways. However, they only have one coolant loop. The hot nuclear fuel boils water as it goes out the top of the reactor, where the steam heads over to the turbine to spin it.

Pros:

  • Simpler plumbing reduces costs
  • Power levels can be increased simply by speeding up the pumps, giving less boiled water and more moderation. Thus, load following is fun.

Cons:

  • With liquid and gaseous water in the system, many weird transients are possible, making safety analysis difficult
  • Primary coolant is in direct contact with turbines, so if a fuel rod had a leak, radioactive material could be placed on the turbine. This complicates maintenance as the staff must be dressed for radioactive environments.
  • Canít breed new fuel -- susceptible to "uranium shortage"

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High Temperature Gas Cooled Reactor

HTGRs use little pellets of fuel backed into either hexagonal compacts or into larger pebbles (in the prismatic and pebble-bed designs). Gas such as helium or carbon dioxide is passed through the reactor rapidly to cool it.

Pros:

  • Can operate at very high temperatures, leading to great thermal efficiency (near 50%!) and the ability to create process heat for things like oil refineries, water desalination plants, hydrogen fuel cell production, and much more.
  • Each little pebble of fuel has its own containment structure, adding yet another barrier between radioactive material and the environment.

Cons:

  • High temperature has a bad side too. Materials that can stay structurally sound in high temperatures and with many neutrons flying through them are hard to come by.
  • If the gas stops flowing, the reactor heats up very quickly. Backup cooling systems are necessary.

References

Sodium-cooled fast reactor

  1. http://www.whatisnuclear.com/articles/nucreactor.html
  2. http://www.cameco.com/uranium_101/uranium_science/nuclear_reactors/



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