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Advanced gas-cooled reactor

An advanced gas-cooled reactor (AGR) is a type of nuclear reactor. These are the
second generation of British gas-cooled reactors, using graphite as the neutron
moderator and carbon dioxide as coolant. The AGR was developed from the
Magnox reactor, operating at a higher gas temperature for improved thermal
efficiency, requiring stainless steel fuel cladding to withstand the higher
temperature. Because the stainless steel fuel cladding has a higher neutron capture
cross section than Magnox fuel cans, enriched uranium fuel is needed, with the
benefit of higher "burn ups" of 18,000 MWt-days per tonne of fuel, requiring less
frequent refuelling. The first prototype AGR became operational in 1962[1] but the
first commercial AGR did not come on line until 1976.

All AGR power stations are configured with two reactors in a single building. Each
reactor has a design thermal power output of 1,500 MWt driving a 660 MWe
turbine-alternator set. Because of operational restrictions, the various AGR stations
produce outputs in the range 555 MWe to 625 MWe

AGR design
The design of the AGR was such that the final steam conditions at the boiler stop
valve were identical to that of conventional coal fired power stations, thus the same
design of turbo-generator plant could be used. The mean temperature of the hot
coolant leaving the reactor core was designed to be 648°C. In order to obtain these
high temperatures, yet ensure useful graphite core life (graphite oxidises readily in
CO2 at high temperature) a re-entrant flow of coolant at the lower boiler outlet
temperature of 278°C is utilised to cool the graphite, ensuring that the graphite
core temperatures do not vary too much from those seen in a Magnox station. The
superheater outlet temperature and pressure were designed to be 2,485 psia
(170bar) and 543°C.

The fuel is uranium dioxide pellets, enriched to 2.5-3.5%, in stainless steel tubes.
The original design concept of the AGR was to use a beryllium based cladding.
When this proved unsuitable, the enrichment level of the fuel was raised to allow
for the higher neutron capture losses of stainless steel cladding. This significantly
increased the cost of the power produced by an AGR. The carbon dioxide coolant
circulates through the core, reaching 640°C (1,184°F) and a pressure of around 40
bar (580 psi), and then passes through boiler (steam generator) assemblies outside
the core but still within the steel lined, reinforced concrete pressure vessel. Control
rods penetrate the graphite moderator and a secondary system involves injecting
nitrogen into the coolant to hold the reactor down. A tertiary shutdown system
which operates by injecting boron balls into the reactor has been proposed 'as
retrofit to satisfy the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate’s concerns about core
integrity and core restraint integrity' [2].

The AGR was designed to have a high thermal efficiency (electricity


generated/heat generated ratio) of about 41%, which is better than modern
pressurized water reactors which have a typical thermal efficiency of 34%[3]. This
is due to the higher coolant outlet temperature of about 640 °C (1,184°F) practical
with gas cooling, compared to about 325 °C (617°F) for PWRs. However the
reactor core has to be larger for the same power output, and the fuel burnup ratio at
discharge is lower so the fuel is used less efficiently, countering the thermal
efficiency advantage [2].

Like the Magnox, CANDU and RBMK reactors, and in contrast to the light water
reactors, AGRs are designed to be refuelled without being shut down first. This on-
load refuelling was an important part of the economic case for choosing the AGR
over other reactor types, and in 1965 allowed the CEGB and the government to
claim that the AGR would produce electricity cheaper than the best coal fired
power stations. However fuel assembly vibration problems arose during on-load
refuelling at full power, so in 1988 full power refuelling was suspended until the
mid-1990s, when further trials led to a fuel rod becoming stuck in a reactor core.
Only refuelling at part load or when shut down is now undertaken at AGRs. [3]

The AGR was intended to be a superior British alternative to American light water
reactor designs. It was promoted as a development of the operationally (if not
economically) successful Magnox design, and was chosen from a plethora of
competing British alternatives - the helium cooled High Temperature Reactor
(HTR), the Steam Generating Heavy Water Reactor (SGHWR) and the Fast
Breeder Reactor (FBR) - as well as the American light water pressurised and
boiling water reactors (PWR and BWR) and Canadian CANDU designs. The
CEGB conducted a detailed economic appraisal of the competing designs and
concluded that the AGR proposed for Dungeness B would generate the cheapest
electricity, cheaper than any of the rival designs and the best coal fired stations.

There were great hopes for the AGR design. An ambitious construction
programme of five twin reactor stations, Dungeness B, Hinkley Point B,
Hunterston B, Hartlepool and Heysham was quickly rolled out, and export orders
were eagerly anticipated. However, the AGR design proved to be over complex
and difficult to construct on site. Notoriously bad labour relations at the time added
to the problems. The lead station, Dungeness B was ordered in 1965 with a target
completion date of 1970. After problems with nearly every aspect of the reactor
design it finally began generating electricity in 1983, 13 years late. The follow on
stations all experienced similar problems and delays. The financing cost of the
capital expended, and the cost of providing replacement electricity during the
delays, were enormous, totally invalidating the pre-construction economic case.

The small-scale prototype AGR at the Sellafield (Windscale) site is in the process
of being decommissioned. This project is also a study of what is required to
decommission a nuclear reactor safely.

How an AGR power station works


Nuclear Power
Coal, oil and nuclear power stations produce electricity in basically the
same way – they use fuel to raise steam that turns a turbine to generate an
electric current. In an advanced gas-cooled (AGR) station a controlled
chain reaction generates heat which turns water into steam. The steam
then powers turbines which, in turn, drive the electrical generators.
The Reactor
At the heart of the reactor is a graphite core called the moderator. Running
vertically through this core are tubes containing uranium called fuel
channels. The moderator has a vital role to play as it slows down the
neutrons released by the fuel so that they will interact with other uranium
atoms and sustain the chain reaction.
The Pre-stressed Pressure Vessel
Each reactor is encased in a concrete pressure vessel which acts as a
barrier against radiation from the reactor and as a container for the carbon
dioxide coolant gas. The walls vary in thickness from 3.8 metres to 6
metres and are pre-stressed by heavy steel wires wound from top to
bottom and around the reactor.

Each of the fuel channels in the graphite core continues upwards in a steel tube
called a standpipe, sealed at the top, which links to the top surface of the pressure
vessel, known as the pile cap.
The Reactor
At the heart of the reactor is a graphite core called the moderator. Running
vertically through this core are tubes containing uranium called fuel
channels. The moderator has a vital role to play as it slows down the
neutrons released by the fuel so that they will interact with other uranium
atoms and sustain the chain reaction.

The Pre-stressed Pressure Vessel


Each reactor is encased in a concrete pressure vessel which acts as a
barrier against radiation from the reactor and as a container for the carbon
dioxide coolant gas. The walls vary in thickness from 3.8 metres to 6
metres and are pre-stressed by heavy steel wires wound from top to
bottom and around the reactor.

Each of the fuel channels in the graphite core continues upwards in a steel
tube called a standpipe, sealed at the top, which links to the top surface of
the pressure vessel, known as the pile cap. The Fuel
The fuel elements of an AGR are comprised of 36 pins containing small
pellets containing uranium built into a graphite sleeve. Seven or eight fuel
elements are fixed together vertically by a tie bar which passes through the
centre of the elements to form a fuel stringer. A plug unit is attached to the
top of the stringer to form a complete fuel assembly. An assembly is placed
into each of the standpipes, so that the fuel elements are positioned within
the graphite core’s fuel channels and are then sealed in by the plug unit.
The Control Rods
The graphite core also contains channels for boron steel control rods,
which can be raised and lowered by electric motors to control the reactor
power by absorbing neutrons and stopping them splitting atoms. In the
event of a power failure or a need to shut the reactor down, gravity makes
these rods drop fully into the core, shutting down the reactor. When they
are partially raised, the neutrons become free to cause `fission’ in the
uranium atoms and release more neutrons. When the reaction becomes
self-sustaining, the reactor is said to be ‘critical’.

The Boilers
Within the pressure vessel the boilers are connected to the inlet and outlet
of the reactor by ducts. At the bottom of each boiler are large gas
circulators which pump high-pressure carbon dioxide coolant gas through
the graphite core and up the fuel channels, where the gas picks up the heat
generated by the nuclear reaction.
The gas – now very hot – is routed through the top of the boiler back down
to the gas circulator. As it passes through, it gives up its heat to the water
in the boiler, forming superheated high-pressure steam which is piped
away to drive the turbine.

The Turbine

The superheated steam from the boilers is first piped to the high-pressure turbine
where nozzles direct it onto the blades causing the turbine to rotate. The steam
then returns to the boilers to be re-heated before passing to the intermediate-
pressure turbine and from there to its final energy-making destination, the low-
pressure turbines.
The Condenser
Having exhausted all its useful energy, the steam passes into a condenser
where it turns back into water before being returned to the boiler. The
condenser works by directing the steam over the surface of thousands of
tubes containing cold filtered water pumped through from the sea by
circulating water pumps. When the cooling is complete the water, its
temperature raised by just a few degrees Celsius, is returned to the sea.
The condensed water, must be cleaned and heated before returning to the
boilers. First, the water travels through a chemical plant to remove
impurities and then through heaters where it is mixed with warm steam
from the turbine to increase its temperature. Next, it is pumped into a large
vessel called a de-aerator to remove any gases before the feed pump
sends it back into the boilers.
The Generator
The turbines drive a generator which consists of a large hydrogen cooled electro-magnet, called the rotor,
which revolves at 3000 revolutions per minute inside the stator – a water-cooled electrical winding.
Electricity is produced in the windings of the stator, at 23kV by the revolving magnetic field of the rotor.
Refuelling
After approximately five years the fuel in the reactor can no longer maintain
the chain reaction efficiently and must be replaced. To do this, a refuelling
machine removes and replaces fuel assemblies. These assemblies are
then dismantled into individual parts. Most of the components are reused,
but the fuel elements are sent to the cooling ponds.

Cooling Ponds

The used elements are then stored in cooling ponds of water for a
minimum of 90 days. This allows any short-lived radioactivity to decay
before the elements are packed into special shielded flasks over 30cm
thick. These flasks are carried by rail to Sellafield in Cumbria for
reprocessing of the fuel. Fuel Transport
There has never been a fuel flask accident involving the release of
radioactivity. Their safety was demonstrated in July 1984 at Old Dalby
testing track, when a nuclear flask was placed in the path of an on-coming
locomotive and three carriages travelling at 100mph. The flask remained
wholly intact and pressure tight, sustaining nothing more than a little
shallow denting and superficial damage to its cooling fins. The locomotive
was not so fortunate – it was written off.

Current AGR reactors

The two power stations with four AGRs at Heysham


Currently there are seven nuclear generating stations each with two operating
AGRs in the United Kingdom, owned and operated by British Energy:

Net
AGR Power Construction Connected Commercial Accounting
MWe
Station started to grid operation closure date
Dungeness B 1110 1965 1983 1985 2018
Hartlepool 1210 1968 1983 1989 2014
Heysham 1 1150 1970 1983 1989 2014
Heysham 2 1250 1980 1988 1989 2023
Hinkley Point
1220 1967 1976 1976 2016
B
Hunterston B 1190 1967 1976 1976 2016
Torness 1250 1980 1988 1988 2023

In 2005 British Energy announced a 10-year life extension at Dungeness B, that


will see the station continue operating until 2018,[4] and in 2007 announced a 5-
year life extension of Hinkley Point B and Hunterston B until 2016.[5] Life
extensions at other AGRs will be considered at least three years before their
scheduled closure dates.

Since 2006 Hinkley Point B and Hunterston B have been restricted to about 70%
of normal MWe output because of boiler-related problems requiring that they
operate at reduced boiler temperatures.[5] This output restriction is likely to remain
until closure.

In 2006 AGRs made the news when documents were obtained under the Freedom
of Information Act 2000 by The Guardian who claimed that British Energy were
unaware of the extent of the cracking of graphite bricks in the cores of their
reactors. It was also claimed that British Energy did not know why the cracking
had occurred and that they were unable to monitor the cores without first shutting
down the reactors. British Energy later issued a statement confirming that cracking
of graphite bricks is a known symptom of extensive neutron bombardment and that
they were working on a solution to the monitoring problem. Also, they stated that
the reactors were examined every three years as part of "statutory outages".

Hunterston B nuclear power station


Hunterston B Power Station is a nuclear power station in North Ayrshire, Scotland.
It is located about 9 km south of Largs and about 4 km north-west of West
Kilbride. It is operated by British Energy.

History
Hunterston B started generating electricity on 6 February 1976. The reactors were
supplied by Nuclear Power Group and the turbines by C.A. Parsons & Company.[2]

Its net electrical output is 1,215 MW. Operating at its current (May 2008) reduced
level of around 70% of full output, Hunterston B is capable of supplying the
electricity needs of over 1 million homes.[1]

On 3 December 1977 The Times reported [3] that seawater had entered the reactor
through a modification of the secondary cooling system. The secondary cooling
system uses fresh water to cool various items including the bearings of the gas
circulators, which circulate the carbon dioxide (CO2) coolant through the reactor to
the boilers. A small leak of CO2 through a seal had developed, and a bypass pipe
was installed to remove the water contaminated with CO2 to the seawater cooling
ponds. When maintenance work was carried out on the reactor and the pressure in
the gas cooling system was reduced, sea water was able to flow back up this
bypass pipe and into the reactor. The residual heat of the reactor was such that the
seawater evaporated rapidly, leaving deposits of salt in the reactor around the gas
circuit. It was estimated at the time that the reactor could be out of operation for a
year, that the repairs could cost £14 million, and that electricity tariffs would have
to rise by between 1 and 2 per cent. Extensive modelling work was performed in
the Nuclear Power Company's (NPC) Whetstone, Leicestershire, fluid flow
laboratories to determine where the salt would have been deposited, and the salt
was successfully removed by technicians using vacuum cleaners and the plant
returned to operation.

It is currently scheduled to be decommissioned in 2016.[4]

The graphite moderator core in each of the twin advanced gas-cooled reactors
(AGR) at Hunterston B has recently developed structural problems in the form of
cracking of the bricks.[5]
The nearby Hunterston A twin Magnox reactor buildings are now being
decommissioned.