01 May, 2007

Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR)

Pressurized water reactors (PWRs) (also VVER if of Russian design) are generation II nuclear power reactors that use ordinary water under high pressure as coolant and neutron moderator. The primary coolant loop is kept under high pressure to prevent the water from boiling, hence the name. PWRs are one of the most common types of reactors and are widely used all over the world. More than 230 of them are in use to generate electric power, and several hundred more for naval propulsion. They were originally designed by the Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory as a nuclear submarine power plant.The below diagram shows the PWR and its main parts.

1.Reactor vessel 2.Fuel elements 3.Control rods 4.Control rod drive 5.Pressurizer 6.Steam generator 7.Main circulating pump 8.Fresh steam 9.Feedwater 10.High pressure turbine 11.Low pressure turbine 12.Generator 13.Exciter 14.Condenser 15.Cooling water 16.Feedwater pump 17.Feedwater pre-heater 18.Concrete shield 19.Cooling water pump

The pressurized water reactor belongs to the light water type: the moderator and coolant are both light water (H2O). It can be seen in the figure that the cooling water circulates in two loops, which are fully seperated from one another.
The primary circuit water (dark blue) is continuously kept at a very high pressure and therefore it does not boil even at the high operating temperature. (Hence the name of the type.) Constant pressure is ensured with the aid of the pressurizer (expansion tank). (If pressure falls in the primary circuit, water in the pressurizers is heated up by electric heaters, thus raising the pressure. If pressure increases, colder cooling water is injected to the pressurizer. Since the upper part is steam, pressure will drop.) The primary circuit water transferes its heat to the secondary circuit water in the small tubes of the steam generator, it cooles down and returns to the reactor vessel at a lower temperature.
Since the secondary circuit pressure is much lower than that of the primary circuit, the secondary circuit water in the steam generator starts to boil (red). The steam goes from here to the turbine, which has high and low pressure stages. When steam leaves the turbine, it becomes liquid again in the condenser, from where it is pumped back to the steam generator after pre-heating.
Normally, primary and secondary circuit waters cannot mix. In this way it can be achieved that any potentially radioactive material that gets into the primary water should stay in the primary loop and cannot get into the turbine and condenser. This is a barrier to prevent radioactive contamination from getting out.
In pressurized water reactors the fuel is usually low (3 to 4 percent) enriched uranium oxide, sometimes uranium and plutonium oxide mixture (MOX). In today's PWRs the primary pressure is usually 120 to 160 bars, while the outlet temperature of coolant is 300 to 320 °C. PWR is the most widespread reactor type in the world: they give about 64% of the total power of the presently operating nuclear power plants.

Two things are characteristic for the pressurized water reactor (PWR) when compared with other reactor types:
  • In a PWR, there are two separate coolant loops (primary and secondary), which are both filled with ordinary water (also called light water). A boiling water reactor, by contrast, has only one coolant loop, while more exotic designs such as breeder reactors use substances other than water (i.e., liquid metal as sodium) for the task.
  • The pressure in the primary coolant loop is at typically 15-16 Megapascal, notably higher than in other nuclear reactors. As an effect of this, the gas laws guarantee that only sub-cooled boiling will occur in the primary loop. By contrast, in a boiling water reactor the primary coolant is allowed to boil and it feeds the turbine directly without the use of a secondary loop.
Ordinary water is used as primary coolant in a PWR and flows through the reactor at a temperature of roughly 315 °C (600 °F). The water remains liquid despite the high temperature due to the high pressure in the primary coolant loop (usually around 2200 psig [15 MPa, 150 atm]). The primary coolant loop is used to heat water in a secondary circuit that becomes saturated steam (in most designs 900 psia [6.2 MPa, 60 atm], 275 °C [530 °F]) for use in the steam turbine.
Pressurized water reactors, like thermal reactor designs, require the fast fission neutrons in the reactor to be slowed down (a process called moderation) in order to sustain its chain reaction. In PWRs the coolant water is used as a moderator by letting the neutrons undergo multiple collisions with light hydrogen atoms in the water, losing speed in the process. This "moderating" of neutrons will happen more often when the water is more dense (more collisions will occur). The use of water as a moderator is an important safety feature of PWRs, as any increase in temperature causes the water to expand and become less dense; thereby reducing the extent to which neutrons are slowed down and hence reducing the reactivity in the reactor. Therefore, if reactor activity increases beyond normal, the reduced moderation of neutrons will cause the chain reaction to slow down, producing less heat. This property, known as the negative temperature coefficient of reactivity, makes PWR reactors very stable.
FuelThe uranium used in PWR fuel is usually enriched several percent in 235U. After enrichment the uranium dioxide (UO2) powder is fired in a high-temperature, sintering furnace to create hard, ceramic pellets of enriched uranium dioxide. The cylindrical pellets are then put into tubes of a corrosion-resistant zirconium metal alloy (Zircaloy) which are backfilled with helium to aid heat conduction and detect leakages. The finished fuel rods are grouped in fuel assemblies, called fuel bundles, that are then used to build the core of the reactor. As a safety measure PWR designs do not contain enough fissile uranium to sustain a prompt critical chain reaction (i.e, substained only by prompt neutron). Avoiding prompt criticality is important as a prompt critical chain reaction could very rapidly produce enough energy to damage or even melt the reactor (as is suspected to have occurred during the accident at the Chernobyl plant). A typical PWR has fuel assemblies of 200 to 300 rods each, and a large reactor would have about 150-250 such assemblies with 80-100 tonnes of uranium in all. Generally, the fuel bundles consist of fuel rods bundled 14x14 to 17x17. A PWR produces on the order of 900 to 1500 MWe. PWR fuel bundles are about 4 meters in length.Refuelings for most commercial PWRs is on an 18-24 month cycle. Approximately one third of the core is replaced each refueling.
ControlGenerally, reactor power can be viewed as following steam (turbine) demand due to the reactivity feedback of the temperature change caused by increased or decreased steam flow. Boron and control rods are used to maintain primary system temperature at the desired point. In order to decrease power, the operator throttles shut turbine inlet valves. This would result in less steam being drawn from the steam generators. This results in the primary loop increasing in temperature. The higher temperature causes the reactor to fission less and decrease in power. The operator could then add boric acid and/or insert control rods to decrease temperature to the desired point.
Reactivity adjustments to maintain 100% power as the fuel is burned up in most commercial PWR's is normally controlled by varying the concentration of boric acid dissolved in the primary reactor coolant. The boron readily absorbs neutrons and increasing or decreasing its concentration in the reactor coolant will therefore affect the neutron activity correspondingly. An entire control system involving high pressure pumps (usually called the charging and letdown system) is required to remove water from the high pressure primary loop and re-inject the water back in with differing concentrations of boric acid. The reactor control rods, inserted through the top directly into the fuel bundles, are normally only used for power changes. In contrast, BWRs have no boron in the reactor coolant and control the reactor power by adjusting the reactor coolant flow rate.Due to design and fuel enrichment differences, naval nuclear reactors do not use boric acid.
  • PWR reactors are very stable due to their tendency to produce less power as temperatures increase, this makes the reactor easier to operate from a stability standpoint.
  • PWR reactors can be operated with a core containing less fissile material than is required for them to go prompt critical. This significantly reduces the chance that the reactor will run out of control and makes PWR designs relatively safe from criticality accidents.
  • Because PWR reactors use enriched uranium as fuel they can use ordinary water as a moderator rather than the much more expensive heavy water.
  • PWR turbine cycle loop is separate from the primary loop, so the water in the secondary loop is not contaminated by radioactive materials.
  • The reactor has high power density.
  • The reactor responds to supply more power when the load increases.
  • The coolant water must be heavily pressurized to remain liquid at high temperatures. This requires high strength piping and a heavy pressure vessel and hence increases construction costs. The higher pressure can increase the consequences of a Loss of Coolant Accident.
  • Most pressurized water reactors cannot be refueled while operating. This decreases the availability of the reactor- it has to go offline for comparably long periods of time (some weeks).
  • The high temperature water coolant with boric acid dissolved in it is corrosive to carbon steel (but not stainless steel), this can result in radioactive corrosion products to circulate in the primary coolant loop. This not only limits the lifetime of the reactor, but the systems that filter out the corrosion products and adjust the boric acid concentration add significantly to the overall cost of the reactor and radiation exposure.
  • Water absorbs neutrons making it necessary to enrich the uranium fuel, which increases the costs of fuel production. If heavy water is used it is possible to operate the reactor with natural uranium, but the production of heavy water requires large amounts of energy and is hence expensive.
  • Because water acts as a neutron moderator it is not possible to build a fast neutron reactor with a PWR design. For this reason it is not possible to build a fast breeder reactor with water coolant.
  • Because the reactor produces energy more slowly at higher temperatures, a sudden cooling of the reactor coolant could increase power production until safety systems shut down the reactor.
For flash animation of PWR operation Click here

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