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Nuclear Power Reactors

desalination of water, beta particle, breeder reactors, beta decay, uranium oxide

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Uranium, the natural resource on which nuclear power is based, occurs in scattered deposits throughout the world. Its total supply is not fully known, and may be limited unless sources of very low concentration such as granites and shale were to be used. Conservatively estimated U.S. resources of uranium having an acceptable cost lie in the range of two million to five million metric tons. The lower amount could support an LWR nuclear power system providing about 30 percent of U.S. electric power for only about 50 years. The principal reason for this relatively brief life span of the LWR nuclear power system is its very low efficiency in the use of uranium: only approximately one percent of the energy content of the uranium is made available in this system.

The key feature of a breeder reactor is that it produces more fuel than it consumes. It does this by promoting the absorption of excess neutrons in a fertile material. Several breeder reactor systems are technically feasible. The breeder system that has received the greatest worldwide attention uses uranium-238 as the fertile material. When uranium-238 absorbs neutrons in the reactor, it is transmuted to a new fissionable material, plutonium, through a nuclear process called B (beta) decay.

In beta decay a nuclear neutron decays into a proton and a beta particle (a high-energy electron).

When plutonium-239 itself absorbs a neutron, fission can occur, and on the average about 2.8 neutrons are released. In an operating reactor, one of these neutrons is needed to cause the next fission and keep the chain reaction going. On the average about 0.5 neutron is uselessly lost by absorption in the reactor structure or coolant. The remaining 1.3 neutrons can be absorbed in uranium-238 to produce more plutonium via the reactions in equation (3).

The breeder system that has had the greatest development effort is called the liquid-metal fast breeder reactor (LMFBR). In order to maximize the production of plutonium-239, the velocity of the neutrons causing fission must remain fast—at or near their initial release energy. Any moderating materials, such as water, that might slow the neutrons must be excluded from the reactor. A molten metal, liquid sodium, is the preferred coolant liquid. Sodium has very good heat transfer properties, melts at about 100° C (about 212° F), and does not boil until about 900° C (about 1650° F). Its main drawbacks are its chemical reactivity with air and water and the high level of radioactivity induced in it in the reactor.

Development of the LMFBR system began in the United States before 1950, with the construction of the first experimental breeder reactor, EBR-1. A larger U.S. program, on the Clinch River, was halted in 1983, and only experimental work was to continue (see Tennessee Valley Authority). In the United Kingdom, France, and Russia and the other successor states of the USSR, working breeder reactors were installed, and experimental work continued in Germany and Japan.

In one design of a large LMFBR power plant, the core of the reactor consists of thousands of thin stainless steel tubes containing mixed uranium and plutonium oxide fuel: about 15 to 20 percent plutonium-239, the remainder uranium. Surrounding the core is a region called the breeder blanket, which contains similar rods filled only with uranium oxide. The entire core and blanket assembly measures about 3 m (about 10 ft) high by about 5 m (about 16.4 ft) in diameter and is supported in a large vessel containing molten sodium that leaves the reactor at about 500° C (about 930° F). This vessel also contains the pumps and heat exchangers that aid in removing heat from the core. Steam is produced in a second sodium loop, separated from the radioactive reactor coolant loop by the intermediate heat exchangers in the reactor vessel. The entire nuclear reactor system is housed in a large steel and concrete containment building.

The first large-scale plant of this type for the generation of electricity, called Super-Phenix, went into operation in France in 1984. (However, concerns about operational safety and environmental contamination led the French government to announce in 1998 that Super-Phenix would be dismantled). An intermediate-scale plant, the BN-600, was built on the shore of the Caspian Sea for the production of power and the desalination of water. The British have a large 250-MW prototype in Scotland.

The LMFBR produces about 20 percent more fuel than it consumes. In a large power reactor enough excess new fuel is produced over 20 years to permit the loading of another similar reactor. In the LMFBR system about 75 percent of the energy content of natural uranium is made available, in contrast to the one percent in the LWR.

Light-Water and Heavy-Water Reactors

The hazardous fuels used in nuclear reactors present handling problems in their use. This is particularly true of the spent fuels, which must be stored or disposed of in some way.

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