Different types of nuclear reactors

Nuclear reactors

A nuclear reactor, formerly known as an atomic pile, is a device used to initiate and control a self-sustained nuclear chain reaction. Nuclear reactors are used at nuclear power plants for electricity generation and in propulsion of ships. Heat from nuclear fission is passed to a working fluid (water or gas), which in turn runs through steam turbines. These either drive a ship’s propellers or turn electrical generators’ shafts. Nuclear generated steam in principle can be used for industrial process heat or for district heating. Some reactors are used to produce isotopes for medical and industrial use, or for production of weapons-grade plutonium. Some are run only for research. As of April 2014, the IAEA reports there are 435 nuclear power reactors in operation, in 31 countries around the world. By 2017, this increased to 447 operable reactors according to the World Nuclear Association.

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.


Types of Reactors

There are many different kinds of nuclear fuel forms and cooling materials can be used in a nuclear reactor. As a result, there are thousands of different possible nuclear reactor designs.

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.

The Pros of having pressurized water reactor are as follows:

  • Strong negative void coefficient — reactor cools down if water starts bubbling because the coolant is the moderator, which is required to sustain the chain reaction.
  • Secondary loop keeps radioactive stuff away from turbines, making maintenance easy.
  • Very much operating experience has been accumulated and the designs and procedures have been largely optimized.

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.

The pros of boiling water reactor are as follows:

  • Simpler plumbing reduces costs
  • Power levels can be increased simply by speeding up the jet pumps, giving less boiled water and more moderation. Thus, load-following is simple and easy.
  • Very much operating experience has been accumulated and the designs and procedures have been largely optimized.


Nuclear fuel cycle

Thermal reactors generally depend on refined and enriched uranium. Some nuclear reactors can operate with a mixture of plutonium and uranium. The process by which uranium ore is mined, processed, enriched, used, possibly reprocessed and disposed of is known as the nuclear fuel cycle.

Under 1% of the uranium found in nature is the easily fissionable U-235 isotope and as a result most reactor designs require enriched fuel. Enrichment involves increasing the percentage of U-235 and is usually done by means of gaseous diffusion or gas centrifuge. The enriched result is then converted into uranium dioxide powder, which is pressed and fired into pellet form. These pellets are stacked into tubes which are then sealed and called fuel rods. Many of these fuel rods are used in each nuclear reactor.

Most BWR and PWR commercial reactors use uranium enriched to about 4% U-235, and some commercial reactors with a high neutron economy do not require the fuel to be enriched at all (that is, they can use natural uranium). According to the International Atomic Energy Agency there are at least 100 research reactors in the world fueled by highly enriched (weapons-grade/90% enrichment uranium). Theft risk of this fuel (potentially used in the production of a nuclear weapon) has led to campaigns advocating conversion of this type of reactor to low-enrichment uranium (which poses less threat of proliferation).

Fissile U-235 and non-fissile but fissionable and fertile U-238 are both used in the fission process. U-235 is fissionable by thermal (i.e. slow-moving) neutrons. A thermal neutron is one which is moving about the same speed as the atoms around it. Since all atoms vibrate proportionally to their absolute temperature, a thermal neutron has the best opportunity to fission U-235 when it is moving at this same vibrational speed. On the other hand, U-238 is more likely to capture a neutron when the neutron is moving very fast. This U-239 atom will soon decay into plutonium-239, which is another fuel. Pu-239 is a viable fuel and must be accounted for even when a highly enriched uranium fuel is used. Plutonium fissions will dominate the U-235 fissions in some reactors, especially after the initial loading of U-235 is spent. Plutonium is fissionable with both fast and thermal neutrons, which make it ideal for either nuclear reactors or nuclear bombs.

Most reactor designs in existence are thermal reactors and typically use water as a neutron moderator (moderator means that it slows down the neutron to a thermal speed) and as a coolant. But in a fast breeder reactor, some other kind of coolant is used which will not moderate or slow the neutrons down much. This enables fast neutrons to dominate, which can effectively be used to constantly replenish the fuel supply. By merely placing cheap unenriched uranium into such a core, the non-fissionable U-238 will be turned into Pu-239, “breeding” fuel.

In thorium fuel cycle thorium-232 absorbs a neutron in either a fast or thermal reactor. The thorium-233 beta decays to protactinium-233 and then to uranium-233, which in turn is used as fuel. Hence, like uranium-238, thorium-232 is a fertile material.



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