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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.
Just as conventional power-stations generate electricity by harnessing the thermal energy released from burning fossil fuels, nuclear reactors convert the energy released by controlled nuclear fission into thermal energy for further conversion to mechanical or electrical forms.
When a large fissile atomic nucleus such as uranium-235 or plutonium-239 absorbs a neutron, it may undergo nuclear fission. The heavy nucleus splits into two or more lighter nuclei, (the fission products), releasing kinetic energy, gamma radiation, and free neutrons. A portion of these neutrons may later be absorbed by other fissile atoms and trigger further fission events, which release more neutrons, and so on. This is known as a nuclear chain reaction.
To control such a nuclear chain reaction, neutron poisons and neutron moderators can change the portion of neutrons that will go on to cause more fission. Nuclear reactors generally have automatic and manual systems to shut the fission reaction down if monitoring detects unsafe conditions.
Commonly used moderators include regular (light) water (in 74.8% of the world's reactors), solid graphite (20% of reactors) and heavy water (5% of reactors). Some experimental types of reactor have used beryllium, and hydrocarbons have been suggested as another possibility.[not in citation given]
The reactor core generates heat in a number of ways:
A kilogram of uranium-235 (U-235) converted via nuclear processes releases approximately three million times more energy than a kilogram of coal burned conventionally (7.2 × 1013 joules per kilogram of uranium-235 versus 2.4 × 107 joules per kilogram of coal).[original research?]
A nuclear reactor coolant — usually water but sometimes a gas or a liquid metal (like liquid sodium) or molten salt — is circulated past the reactor core to absorb the heat that it generates. The heat is carried away from the reactor and is then used to generate steam. Most reactor systems employ a cooling system that is physically separated from the water that will be boiled to produce pressurized steam for the turbines, like the pressurized water reactor. However, in some reactors the water for the steam turbines is boiled directly by the reactor core; for example the boiling water reactor.
The rate of fission reactions within a reactor core can be adjusted by controlling the quantity of neutrons that are able to induce further fission events. Nuclear reactors typically employ several methods of neutron control to adjust the reactor's power output. Some of these methods arising naturally from the physics of radioactive decay and are simply accounted for during the reactor's operation, while others are mechanisms engineered into the reactor design for a distinct purpose.
The fastest method for adjusting levels of fission-inducing neutrons in a reactor is via movement of the control rods. Control rods are made of neutron poisons and therefore tend to absorb neutrons. When a control rod is inserted deeper into the reactor, it absorbs more neutrons than the material it displaces—often the moderator. This action results in fewer neutrons available to cause fission and reduces the reactor's power output. Conversely, extracting the control rod will result in an increase in the rate of fission events and an increase in power.
The physics of radioactive decay also affects neutron populations in a reactor. One such process is delayed neutron emission by a number of neutron-rich fission isotopes. These delayed neutrons account for about 0.65% of the total neutrons produced in fission, with the remainder (termed "prompt neutrons") released immediately upon fission. The fission products which produce delayed neutrons have half lives for their decay by neutron emission that range from milliseconds to as long as several minutes, and so considerable time is required to determine exactly when a reactor reaches the critical point. Keeping the reactor in the zone of chain-reactivity where delayed neutrons are necessary to achieve a critical mass state allows mechanical devices or human operators to control a chain reaction in "real time"; otherwise the time between achievement of criticality and nuclear meltdown as a result of an exponential power surge from the normal nuclear chain reaction, would be too short to allow for intervention. This last stage, where delayed neutrons are no longer required to maintain criticality, is known as the prompt critical point. There is a scale for describing criticality in numerical form, in which bare criticality is known as zero dollars and the prompt critical point is one dollar, and other points in the process interpolated in cents.
In some reactors, the coolant also acts as a neutron moderator. A moderator increases the power of the reactor by causing the fast neutrons that are released from fission to lose energy and become thermal neutrons. Thermal neutrons are more likely than fast neutrons to cause fission. If the coolant is a moderator, then temperature changes can affect the density of the coolant/moderator and therefore change power output. A higher temperature coolant would be less dense, and therefore a less effective moderator.
In other reactors the coolant acts as a poison by absorbing neutrons in the same way that the control rods do. In these reactors power output can be increased by heating the coolant, which makes it a less dense poison. Nuclear reactors generally have automatic and manual systems to scram the reactor in an emergency shut down. These systems insert large amounts of poison (often boron in the form of boric acid) into the reactor to shut the fission reaction down if unsafe conditions are detected or anticipated.
Most types of reactors are sensitive to a process variously known as xenon poisoning, or the iodine pit. The common fission product Xenon-135 produced in the fission process acts as a neutron poison that absorbs neutrons and therefore tends to shut the reactor down. Xenon-135 accumulation can be controlled by keeping power levels high enough to destroy it by neutron absorption as fast as it is produced. Fission also produces iodine-135, which in turn decays (with a half-life of 6.57 hours) to new xenon-135. When the reactor is shut down, iodine-135 continues to decay to xenon-135, making restarting the reactor more difficult for a day or two, as the xenon-135 decays into cesium-135, which is not nearly as poisonous as xenon-135, with a half-life of 9.2 hours. This temporary state is the "iodine pit." If the reactor has sufficient extra reactivity capacity, it can be restarted. As the extra xenon-135 is transmuted to xenon-136, which is much less a neutron poison, within a few hours the reactor experiences a "xenon burnoff (power) transient". Control rods must be further inserted to replace the neutron absorption of the lost xenon-135. Failure to properly follow such a procedure was a key step in the Chernobyl disaster.
Reactors used in nuclear marine propulsion (especially nuclear submarines) often cannot be run at continuous power around the clock in the same way that land-based power reactors are normally run, and in addition often need to have a very long core life without refueling. For this reason many designs use highly enriched uranium but incorporate burnable neutron poison in the fuel rods. This allows the reactor to be constructed with an excess of fissionable material, which is nevertheless made relatively safe early in the reactor's fuel burn-cycle by the presence of the neutron-absorbing material which is later replaced by normally produced long-lived neutron poisons (far longer-lived than xenon-135) which gradually accumulate over the fuel load's operating life.
The energy released in the fission process generates heat, some of which can be converted into usable energy. A common method of harnessing this thermal energy is to use it to boil water to produce pressurized steam which will then drive a steam turbine that turns an alternator and generates electricity.
The neutron was discovered in 1932. The concept of a nuclear chain reaction brought about by nuclear reactions mediated by neutrons was first realized shortly thereafter, by Hungarian scientist Leó Szilárd, in 1933. He filed a patent for his idea of a simple reactor the following year while working at the Admiralty in London. However, Szilárd's idea did not incorporate the idea of nuclear fission as a neutron source, since that process was not yet discovered. Szilárd's ideas for nuclear reactors using neutron-mediated nuclear chain reactions in light elements proved unworkable.
Inspiration for a new type of reactor using uranium came from the discovery by Lise Meitner, Fritz Strassmann and Otto Hahn in 1938 that bombardment of uranium with neutrons (provided by an alpha-on-beryllium fusion reaction, a "neutron howitzer") produced a barium residue, which they reasoned was created by the fissioning of the uranium nuclei. Subsequent studies in early 1939 (one of them by Szilárd and Fermi) revealed that several neutrons were also released during the fissioning, making available the opportunity for the nuclear chain reaction that Szilárd had envisioned six years previously.
On 2 August 1939 Albert Einstein signed a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt (written by Szilárd) suggesting that the discovery of uranium's fission could lead to the development of "extremely powerful bombs of a new type", giving impetus to the study of reactors and fission. Szilárd and Einstein knew each other well and had worked together years previously, but Einstein had never thought about this possibility for nuclear energy until Szilard reported it to him, at the beginning of his quest to produce the Einstein-Szilárd letter to alert the U.S. government.
Shortly after, Hitler's Germany invaded Poland in 1939, starting World War II in Europe. The U.S. was not yet officially at war, but in October, when the Einstein-Szilárd letter was delivered to him, Roosevelt commented that the purpose of doing the research was to make sure "the Nazis don't blow us up." The U.S. nuclear project followed, although with some delay as there remained skepticism (some of it from Fermi) and also little action from the small number of officials in the government who were initially charged with moving the project forward.
The following year the U.S. Government received the Frisch–Peierls memorandum from the UK, which stated that the amount of uranium needed for a chain reaction was far lower than had previously been thought. The memorandum was a product of the MAUD Committee, which was working on the UK atomic bomb project, known as Tube Alloys, later to be subsumed within the Manhattan Project.
Eventually, the first artificial nuclear reactor, Chicago Pile-1, was constructed at the University of Chicago, by a team led by Enrico Fermi, in late 1942. By this time, the program had been pressured for a year by U.S. entry into the war. The Chicago Pile achieved criticality on 2 December 1942 at 3:25 PM. The reactor support structure was made of wood, which supported a pile (hence the name) of graphite blocks, embedded in which was natural uranium-oxide 'pseudospheres' or 'briquettes'.
Soon after the Chicago Pile, the U.S. military developed a number of nuclear reactors for the Manhattan Project starting in 1943. The primary purpose for the largest reactors (located at the Hanford Site in Washington state), was the mass production of plutonium for nuclear weapons. Fermi and Szilard applied for a patent on reactors on 19 December 1944. Its issuance was delayed for 10 years because of wartime secrecy.
"World's first nuclear power plant" is the claim made by signs at the site of the EBR-I, which is now a museum near Arco, Idaho. Originally called "Chicago Pile-4", it was carried out under the direction of Walter Zinn for Argonne National Laboratory. This experimental LMFBR operated by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission produced 0.8 kW in a test on 20 December 1951 and 100 kW (electrical) the following day, having a design output of 200 kW (electrical).
Besides the military uses of nuclear reactors, there were political reasons to pursue civilian use of atomic energy. U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower made his famous Atoms for Peace speech to the UN General Assembly on 8 December 1953. This diplomacy led to the dissemination of reactor technology to U.S. institutions and worldwide.
After World War II, the U.S. military sought other uses for nuclear reactor technology. Research by the Army and the Air Force never came to fruition; however, the U.S. Navy succeeded when they steamed the USS Nautilus (SSN-571) on nuclear power 17 January 1955.
Nuclear Reactors are classified by several methods; a brief outline of these classification methods is provided.
All commercial power reactors are based on nuclear fission. They generally use uranium and its product plutonium as nuclear fuel, though a thorium fuel cycle is also possible. Fission reactors can be divided roughly into two classes, depending on the energy of the neutrons that sustain the fission chain reaction:
Used by thermal reactors:
The first mentioning of "Gen III" was in 2000, in conjunction with the launch of the Generation IV International Forum (GIF) plans.
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More than a dozen advanced reactor designs are in various stages of development. Some are evolutionary from the PWR, BWR and PHWR designs above, some are more radical departures. The former include the advanced boiling water reactor (ABWR), two of which are now operating with others under construction, and the planned passively safe Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor (ESBWR) and AP1000 units (see Nuclear Power 2010 Program).
Generation IV reactors are a set of theoretical nuclear reactor designs currently being researched. These designs are generally not expected to be available for commercial construction before 2030. Current reactors in operation around the world are generally considered second- or third-generation systems, with the first-generation systems having been retired some time ago. Research into these reactor types was officially started by the Generation IV International Forum (GIF) based on eight technology goals. The primary goals being to improve nuclear safety, improve proliferation resistance, minimize waste and natural resource utilization, and to decrease the cost to build and run such plants.
Generation V reactors are designs which are theoretically possible, but which are not being actively considered or researched at present. Though such reactors could be built with current or near term technology, they trigger little interest for reasons of economics, practicality, or safety.
Controlled nuclear fusion could in principle be used in fusion power plants to produce power without the complexities of handling actinides, but significant scientific and technical obstacles remain. Several fusion reactors have been built, but only recently reactors have been able to release more energy than the amount of energy used in the process. Despite research having started in the 1950s, no commercial fusion reactor is expected before 2050. The ITER project is currently leading the effort to harness fusion power.
Thermal reactors generally depend on refined and enriched uranium. Some nuclear reactors can operate with a mixture of plutonium and uranium (see MOX). 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.
The amount of energy in the reservoir of nuclear fuel is frequently expressed in terms of "full-power days," which is the number of 24-hour periods (days) a reactor is scheduled for operation at full power output for the generation of heat energy. The number of full-power days in a reactor's operating cycle (between refueling outage times) is related to the amount of fissile uranium-235 (U-235) contained in the fuel assemblies at the beginning of the cycle. A higher percentage of U-235 in the core at the beginning of a cycle will permit the reactor to be run for a greater number of full-power days.
At the end of the operating cycle, the fuel in some of the assemblies is "spent" and is discharged and replaced with new (fresh) fuel assemblies, although in practice it is the buildup of reaction poisons in nuclear fuel that determines the lifetime of nuclear fuel in a reactor. Long before all possible fission has taken place, the buildup of long-lived neutron absorbing fission byproducts impedes the chain reaction. The fraction of the reactor's fuel core replaced during refueling is typically one-fourth for a boiling-water reactor and one-third for a pressurized-water reactor. The disposition and storage of this spent fuel is one of the most challenging aspects of the operation of a commercial nuclear power plant. This nuclear waste is highly radioactive and its toxicity presents a danger for thousands of years.
Not all reactors need to be shut down for refueling; for example, pebble bed reactors, RBMK reactors, molten salt reactors, Magnox, AGR and CANDU reactors allow fuel to be shifted through the reactor while it is running. In a CANDU reactor, this also allows individual fuel elements to be situated within the reactor core that are best suited to the amount of U-235 in the fuel element.
The amount of energy extracted from nuclear fuel is called its burnup, which is expressed in terms of the heat energy produced per initial unit of fuel weight. Burn up is commonly expressed as megawatt days thermal per metric ton of initial heavy metal.
Nuclear safety covers the actions taken to prevent nuclear and radiation accidents and incidents or to limit their consequences. The nuclear power industry has improved the safety and performance of reactors, and has proposed new safer (but generally untested) reactor designs but there is no guarantee that the reactors will be designed, built and operated correctly. Mistakes do occur and the designers of reactors at Fukushima in Japan did not anticipate that a tsunami generated by an earthquake would disable the backup systems that were supposed to stabilize the reactor after the earthquake, despite multiple warnings by the NRG and the Japanese nuclear safety administration. According to UBS AG, the Fukushima I nuclear accidents have cast doubt on whether even an advanced economy like Japan can master nuclear safety. Catastrophic scenarios involving terrorist attacks are also conceivable. An interdisciplinary team from MIT has estimated that given the expected growth of nuclear power from 2005–2055, at least four serious nuclear accidents would be expected in that period.
Some serious nuclear and radiation accidents have occurred. Nuclear power plant accidents include the SL-1 accident (1961), the Three Mile Island accident (1979), Chernobyl disaster (1986), and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster (2011). Nuclear-powered submarine mishaps include the K-19 reactor accident (1961), the K-27 reactor accident (1968), and the K-431 reactor accident (1985).
Nuclear reactors have been launched into Earth orbit at least 34 times. A number of incidents connected with the unmanned nuclear-reactor-powered Soviet RORSAT radar satellite program resulted in spent nuclear fuel re-entering the Earth's atmosphere from orbit.
Although nuclear fission reactors are often thought of as being solely a product of modern technology, the first nuclear fission reactors were in fact naturally occurring. A natural nuclear fission reactor can occur under certain circumstances that mimic the conditions in a constructed reactor. Fifteen natural fission reactors have so far been found in three separate ore deposits at the Oklo uranium mine in Gabon, West Africa. First discovered in 1972 by French physicist Francis Perrin, they are collectively known as the Oklo Fossil Reactors. Self-sustaining nuclear fission reactions took place in these reactors approximately 1.5 billion years ago, and ran for a few hundred thousand years, averaging 100 kW of power output during that time. The concept of a natural nuclear reactor was theorized as early as 1956 by Paul Kuroda at the University of Arkansas.
Such reactors can no longer form on Earth in its present geologic period. Radioactive decay of formerly abundant uranium-235 over the time span of hundreds of millions of years has reduced the proportion of this naturally occurring fissile isotope to below the amount required to sustain a chain reaction.
The natural nuclear reactors formed when a uranium-rich mineral deposit became inundated with groundwater that acted as a neutron moderator, and a strong chain reaction took place. The water moderator would boil away as the reaction increased, slowing it back down again and preventing a meltdown. The fission reaction was sustained for hundreds of thousands of years.
These natural reactors are extensively studied by scientists interested in geologic radioactive waste disposal. They offer a case study of how radioactive isotopes migrate through the Earth's crust. This is a significant area of controversy as opponents of geologic waste disposal fear that isotopes from stored waste could end up in water supplies or be carried into the environment.
Nuclear reactors produce tritium as part of normal operations, which is eventually released into the environment in trace quantities.
As an isotope of hydrogen, tritium (T) frequently binds to oxygen and forms T2O. This molecule is chemically identical to H2O and so is both colorless and odorless, however the additional neutrons in the hydrogen nuclei cause the tritium to undergo beta decay with a half-life of 12.3 years. Despite being measurable, the tritium released by nuclear power plants is minimal. The United States NRC estimates that a person drinking water for one year out of a well contaminated by what they would consider to be a significant tritiated water spill would receive a radiation dose of 0.3 millirem. For comparison, this is an order of magnitude less than the 4 millirem a person receives on a round trip flight from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles, a consequence of less atmospheric protection against highly energetic cosmic rays at high altitudes.
The amounts of Strontium-90 released from nuclear power plants under normal operations is so low as to be undetectable above natural background radiation. Detectable Strontium-90 in ground water and the general environment can be traced to weapons testing and the Chernobyl accident that occurred during the mid-20th century.
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