The Nuclear Fission Power Plant
Introduction:Currently, about half of all nuclear power plants are located in the US. There are many different kinds of nuclear power plants, and we will discuss a few important designs in this text. A nuclear power plant harnesses the energy inside atoms themselves and converts this to electricity. This electricity is used by all of us. By now, you should have an idea of the fission process and how it works. A nuclear power plant uses controlled nuclear fission. In this section, we will explore how a nuclear power plant operates and the manner in which nuclear reactions are controlled.
Uranium Preparation:Earlier we talked about nuclear fission with 235U. In reality, this will not be the only isotope of uranium present in a nuclear reactor. In naturally occurring uranium deposits, less than one percent of the uranium is 235U. The majority of the uranium is 238U. 238U is not a fissile isotope of uranium. When 238U is struck by a loose neutron, it absorbs the neutron into its nucleus and does not fission. Thus, by absorbing loose neutrons, 238U can prevent a nuclear chain reaction from occurring. This would be a bad thing because if a chain reaction doesn't occur, the nuclear reactions can't sustain themselves, the reactor shuts down, and millions of people are without electrical power. In order for a chain reaction to occur, the pure uranium ore must be refined to raise the concentration of 235U. This is called enrichment and is primarily accomplished through a technique called gaseous diffusion. In this process, the uranium ore is combined with fluorine to create a chemical compound called uranium hexafluoride. The uranium hexafluoride is heated and vaporizes. The heated gas is then pushed through a series of filters. Because some of the uranium hexafluoride contains 238U and some contains 235U, there is a slight difference in the weights of the individual molecules. The molecules of uranium hexafluoride containing 235U are slightly lighter and thus pass more easily through the filters. This creates a quantity of uranium hexafluoride with a higher proportion of 235U. This is collected, the uranium is stripped from it, and the result is an enriched supply of fuel. Usually, nuclear power plants use uranium fuel that is about 4% 235U.
Parts of a Nuclear Reactor - Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR):
A typical nuclear reactor has a few main parts. Inside the "core" where the nuclear reactions take place are the fuel rods and assemblies, the control rods, the moderator, and the coolant. Outside the core are the turbines, the heat exchanger, and part of the cooling system.
The fuel assemblies are collections of fuel rods. These rods are each about 3.5 meters (11.48 feet) long. They are each about a centimeter in diameter. These are grouped into large bundles of a couple hundred rods called fuel assemblies, which are then placed in the reactor core. Inside each fuel rod are hundreds of pellets of uranium fuel stacked end to end.
Also in the core are control rods. These rods have pellets inside that are made of very efficient neutron capturers. An example of such a material is cadmium. These control rods are connected to machines that can raise or lower them in the core. When they are fully lowered into the core, fission can not occur because they absorb free neutrons. However, when they are pulled out of the reactor, fission can start again anytime a stray neutron strikes a 235U atom, thus releasing more neutrons, and starting a chain reaction.
Another component of the reactor is the moderator. The moderator serves to slow down the high speed neutrons "flying" all around the reactor core. If a neutron is moving too fast, and thus is at a high-energy state, it passes right through the 235U nucleus. It must be slowed down to be captured by the nucleus and to induce fission. The most common moderator is water, but sometimes it can be another material.
The job of the coolant is to absorb the heat from the reaction. The most common coolant used in nuclear power plants today is water. In actuality, in many reactor designs the coolant and the moderator are one and the same. The coolant water is heated by the nuclear reactions going on inside the core. However, this heated water does not boil because it is kept at an extremely intense pressure, thus raising its boiling point above the normal 100° Celsius.
From Fission to Electricity:A nuclear power plant produces electricity in almost exactly the same way that a conventional (fossil fuel) power plant does. A conventional power plant burns fuel to create heat. The fuel is generally coal, but oil is also sometimes used. The heat is used to raise the temperature of water, thus causing it to boil. The high temperature and intense pressure steam that results from the boiling of the water turns a turbine, which then generates electricity. A nuclear power plant works the same way, except that the heat used to boil the water is produced by a nuclear fission reaction using 235U as fuel, not the combustion of fossil fuels. A nuclear power plant uses much less fuel than a comparable fossil fuel plant. A rough estimate is that it takes 17,000 kilograms of coal to produce the same amount of electricity as 1 kilogram of nuclear uranium fuel.
Another type of reactor is the Heavy Water Reactor (HWR). A HWR uses heavy water as a moderator instead of normal water. Heavy water is water with deuterium, which is an isotope of hydrogen with 1 neutron. Deuterium is heavier than normal hydrogen, which has no neutrons. HWR's come in two types, pressurized and boiling, just like normal "light water" reactors. The advantage of a HWR is that un-enriched uranium fuel can be used. This is because the heavy water is a much more efficient moderator than light water. Thus, more stray neutrons can be slowed down enough to cause fission in 235U. This more efficient moderator makes up for the greater abundance of the neutron-capturing 238U.
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