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Nuclear Energy: Peaceful Ways of Serving Humanity 03. Research Nuclear Power Reactors Many research reactors
Nuclear Energy: Peaceful Ways of Serving Humanity
03.
Research Nuclear Power Reactors
Many research reactors were built in the 1960s and 1970s. 1975 saw the peak number of
operating research reactors with 373 in 55 countries.
These reactors are primarily designed to produce neutrons, activate radioactive or other
ionizing radiation sources for scientific, medical, engineering or other research purposes
including teaching and training. Many of them are located on university campuses.
According to IAEA, no new research nuclear reactors were added to the list of more than 240
operation research power reactors around the world in 2009. Many of these reactors are used
for materials testing and the production of isotopes for medicine and industry. As older
reactors are retired and replaced by fewer more multipurpose reactors, the number of
operational research reactors is expected to drop to between 100 and 150 by 2020.
The figure 3-1 presented above illustrates that Russia has the highest number of research
reactors, followed by USA, Japan, France, Germany and China. Many developing countries also
have research reactors, including Algeria, Bangladesh, Colombia, Ghana, Jamaica, Libya,
Thailand and Vietnam. The trends reveal that even though many research reactors are under-
utilized and many older ones will be shut down and subsequently undergo decommissioning;
the need for research reactors is not waning. Presently, seven new research reactors are under
construction and nine more are planned. Some of these new reactors are innovative reactors
designed to produce high neutron fluxes and will be either multipurpose reactors or dedicated
to specific needs.
Edited by Dr. Mir F. Ali
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Nuclear Energy: Peaceful Ways to Serve Humanity These reactors are relatively smaller than power reactors
Nuclear Energy: Peaceful Ways to Serve Humanity
These reactors are relatively smaller than power reactors whose primary function is to produce
heat to generate electricity. Their power is designated in megawatts or kilowatts thermal
(MWth or MWt), but a common practice is to use MW or KW for megawatts or kilowatts. Most
of these reactors range up to 100 MW, compared with 3,000 MW (ie.1000 MWe) for a typical
power reactor. These reactors operate at lower temperatures. They need far less fuel, and far
less fission products build up as the fuel is used. On the other hand, their fuel requires more
highly enriched uranium, typically up to 20 percent U-235 (Uranium), although some older
ones use 93 percent U-235. They also have a very high power density in the core, which requires
special design features. Like power reactors, the core needs cooling, and usually a moderator is
required to slow down the neutrons and enhance fission. As neutron production is their main
function, most research reactors also need a reflector to reduce neutron loss from the core.
1.
TYPES OF RESEARCH NUCLEAR REACTORS:
Because of a wide range of research covered by these reactors, a much wider array of designs
are used for research reactors whereas 80 percent of the world’s nuclear plants are of two
similar types. They also have different operating modes, producing energy that may be steady
or pulsed. The common designs for research nuclear reactors are divided into the following
three categories:
1.1
The Pool Type Research Nuclear Reactors:
Edited by Dr. Mir F. Ali
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Nuclear Energy: Peaceful Ways to Serve Humanity A common design is the pool type reactor
Nuclear Energy: Peaceful Ways to Serve Humanity
A common design is the pool type reactor where the core is a cluster of fuel elements sitting in
a large pool of water. Between the fuel elements are control rods and empty channels for
experiments. In one particular design (Material Testing Reactor), a fuel element comprises
several curved aluminium-clad fuel plates in a vertical box. The water moderates and cools the
reactor, and graphite or beryllium is generally used for the reflector, although other materials
may also be used. Apertures to access the neutron beams are set in the wall of the pool.
The swimming pool reactor is very simple and initially more than 40 such reactors were built in
the United States alone. The core is often made up of what are called Materials Testing Reactor
(MTR) type fuel elements; aluminium clad, curved plates of fuel arranged in long rectangular
boxes, which are arranged between grid plates to form the core. Several positions in the grid are
not occupied by fuel elements, but by control rods, beryllium reflectors, or experimental
capsules. Cooling may be by natural convection of the pool water, although this is augmented
for operation at higher power by pumping pool water through the core. This design led to the
tank-in-pool reactor, similar to the open-pool type but with the core contained in an
aluminium tank. The cooling (light) water is pumped through the core, but the pressure within
the tank is only moderately elevated above that in the open pool. The pressurization being
mostly due to the pressure drop across the core of the pumped coolant water flow. Again, in the
United States, aluminium clad fuel plates are usual.
1.2
The Tank Type Research Nuclear Reactor:
This type of research reactors is similar except that cooling is more active.
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Nuclear Energy: Peaceful Ways to Serve Humanity 1.3 The TRIGA Type Research Nuclear Reactor: The
Nuclear Energy: Peaceful Ways to Serve Humanity
1.3
The TRIGA Type Research Nuclear Reactor:
The core of this type of research nuclear reactor consists of 60-100 cylindrical fuel elements
about imperial equivalent for 36 mm diameter with aluminium cladding enclosing a mixture of
uranium fuel and a zirconium hydride moderator.
It sits in a pool of water and generally uses graphite or beryllium as a reflector. This kind of
reactor can safely be pulsed to very high power levels (e.g., 25,000 MW) for fractions of a
second. Its fuel gives the TRIGA a very strong negative temperature coefficient, and the rapid
increase in power is quickly cut short by a negative reactivity effect of the hydride moderator.
Perhaps the most interesting reactor design of the common types, from a technical and safety
perspective, is the TRIGA, developed in the 1950s by General Atomic. Its unique fuel and core
design concept has a very large and very prompt negative temperature coefficient; it is being a
homogenized mixture of fuel and hydrogenous moderator in the form of uranium-zirconium
hydride. This provides prompt negative feedback because there is no delay between fuel and
moderator temperature variations. This is in addition to the usual prompt Doppler Effect in
U238 in reduced enrichment fuels. Beyond these effects, erbium can be added as a burnable
poison and adds even more prompt negative temperature coefficient because it has a strong
resonance: Absorption at about 0.5 eV.
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Nuclear Energy: Peaceful Ways to Serve Humanity The fuel/moderator/poison has a design operating temperature of
Nuclear Energy: Peaceful Ways to Serve Humanity
The
fuel/moderator/poison has a design operating temperature of up to 750 C (1382 F) degrees
and
a safety limits of 1150 C (2102 F) degree, obviously much higher than aluminudfuel
mixtures. It is formed into rods clad with stainless steel (Incoloy 800). With this combination
of design features very large reactivity insertions can be tolerated, and many TRIGA research
nuclear reactors are routinely and safely operated as pulsed reactors with peak power levels,
during a few millisecond pulse, of up YO 10 GW.
Cooling is by natural convection of light water for power levels up to two MW. At higher power
levels forced flow is used, but the high fuel temperature tolerance and negative reactivity
coefficients mean that pony motors are not needed for shutdown cooling following a loss of the
primary coolant Dumps.
Other designs are moderated by heavy water or graphite. A few are fast reactors that require no
moderator and can use a mixture of uranium and plutonium as fuel. Homogenous type reactors
have a core comprising a solution of uranium salts as a liquid contained in a tank about 300
mm
diameter. The simple design made them popular early on, but only five are now operating.
The
IAEA has classified broadly research nuclear reactors into several categories. They include
60 critical assemblies (usually zero power), 23 test reactors, 37 training facilities, 2 prototypes
and
even 1 producing electricity. However, most (160) are largely for research, although some
may
also produce radioisotopes. As expensive scientific facilities, they tend to be multi-purpose,
and
many have been operating for more than 30 years.
Russia has the most research nuclear reactors (62), followed by USA (54), Japan (18), France
(15), Germany (14) and China (13). Many small and developing countries also have research
nuclear reactors, including Bangladesh, Algeria, Colombia, Ghana, Jamaica, Libya, Thailand and
Vietnam. About 20 more reactors are planned or under construction, and 361 have been shut
down or decommissioned, about half of these in USA.
2. THE USE OF RESEARCH NUCLEAR REACTORS:
Research nuclear reactors have a wide range of uses, including analysis and testing of materials,
and
production of radioisotopes. Their capabilities are applied in many fields within the nuclear
industry as well as in fusion research, environmental science, advanced materials development,
drug design and nuclear medicine.
Using neutron activation analysis it is possible to measure minute quantities of an element.
Atoms in a sample are made radioactive by exposure to neutrons in a reactor. The characteristic
radiation each element emits can then be detected.
Neutron beams are uniquely suited to studying the structure and dynamics of materials at the
atomic level. Neutron scattering is, used to examine samples under different conditions such as
variations in vacuum pressure, high temperature, low temperature and magnetic field,
essentially under real-world conditions.
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Nuclear Energy: Peaceful Ways to Serve Humanity Neutron activation is also used to produce the
Nuclear Energy: Peaceful Ways to Serve Humanity
Neutron activation is also used to produce the radioisotopes, widely used in industry and
medicine, by bombarding particular elements with neutrons. For example, yttrium-90
microspheres to treat liver cancer are produced by bombarding yttrium-89 with neutrons. The
most widely used isotope in nuclear medicine is technetium-99, a decay product of
molybdenum-99. It is produced by irradiating uranium-235 foil with neutrons and then
separating the molybdenum from the other fission products in a hot cell.
Research nuclear reactors can also be used for industrial processing. Neutron transmutation
doping makes silicon crystals more electrically conductive for use in electronic components. In
test reactors, materials are subject to intense neutron irradiation to study changes. For
instance, some steels become brittle and alloys, which resist embitterment, must be used in
nuclear reactors.
Like nuclear power reactors, research nuclear reactors are, covered by IAEA safety inspections
and safeguards, because of their potential for making nuclear weapons. India’s 1974 explosion
was the result of plutonium production in a large, but internationally unsupervised, research
nuclear reactor.
This chapter was published on “Inuitech – Intuitech Technologies for Sustainability” on
December 13, 2010: http://intuitech.biz/?p=7828
Resources:
1. IAEA – Research Reactors Worldwide: http://www-
naweb.iaea.org/napc/physics/ACTIVITIES/Research_Reactors_Worldwide.htm
2. World Nuclear Association – Research Reactors: http://www.world-
nuclear.org/info/default.aspx?id=544&terms=research%20reactors
3. Research Reactors – An Overview: http://www.osti.gov/bridge/servlets/purl/471422-
hDVlCH/webviewable/471422.pdf
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