How Nuclear Fission Power Plants Work
A nuclear fission power plant uses the heat generated by a nuclear fission process
to drive a steam turbine which generates usable electricity. The underlying physical
process is the same for all power plant designs, what differs is the way in which
the nuclear reaction is controlled. This is an engineering problem which must take
into account factors such as:
- Control -- Keeping the nuclear reaction from dying out or exploding.
- Safety -- If something goes wrong it can be contained.
- Refueling -- Adding more nuclear fuel without stoping the reactor.
- Waste production -- The byproducts of the reaction must be manageable.
- Efficiency -- Capture as much of the heat as possible.
Control is the most important aspect to a design. When an atom of nuclear fuel (uranium)
absorbs a neutron, the uranium will fission into two smaller atoms (waste) and release
one to three neutrons. The kinetic energy of the waste is used to heat the water for the
steam turbine. The neutrons are used to fission the next lot of uranium atoms and the
process continues. If none of these neutrons are absorbed by another uranium atom then
the reaction dies out. If too many neutrons are absorbed then the reaction grows extremely
quickly and could explode. Current reactor designs are most usefully classified by how
they ensure this nuclear reaction is kept at a level which produces power without getting
out of hand.
Neutrons emitted in the fission of uranium have a lot of kinetic energy and so are moving very
fast. A fast reactor uses these neutrons by letting them be absorbed directly by the next
uranium atom. A problem is that the isotope U-238 (which is not part of the power producing
reaction) absorbs these fast neutrons with higher probability than U-235 (which produces the
power). To get around this problem, the fuel for fast reactors must be enriched with a much
larger fraction of U-235.
The fast reactor design is not currently used in large scale nuclear power plants.
A slow reactor, also known as a thermal reactor
, slows down the neutrons produced
in the uranium fission to a thermal speed (the same speed as the unused fuel). This allows
the neutrons to be more readily absorbed by the correct uranium isotope, U-235.
Much more detail on the operation of Nuclear Reactors is available from the website of H.Nifenecker; S.David, J.M.Loiseaux and A.Giorni here.
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