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Everything you want to know about Nuclear Power.

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Safety of Nuclear Power Plants

Safety is taken very seriously by those working in nuclear power plants. The main safety concern is the emission of uncontrolled radiation into the environment which could cause harm to humans both at the reactor site and off-site. A summary by the nuclear world association on environmental, health and safety issues can be found at the Nuclear World Association website.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has an extensive website devoted to the detailed safety issues faced by American Nuclear Power Industry. These provide an interesting perspective on the importance both of a vigilent safety culture and a pro-active regulatory oversight.

Safety Mechanisms of a Nuclear Power Reactor

By regulation, the design of the nuclear reactor must include provisions for human (operator) error and equipment failure. Nuclear Plants in the western world use a "Defense in Depth" concept which is a system with multiple safety components, each with back-up and design to accommodate human error. The components include:

1. Control of Radioactivity

This requires being able to control the neutron flux. Recall that in a nuclear reactor when a neutron is captured by a fuel nucleus (generally uranium) the nucleus splits releasing radioactive particles (or undergoes fission). Hence if we decrease the neutron flux we decrease the radioactivity. The most common way to reduce the neutron flux is include neutron-absorbing control rods. These control rods can be partially inserted into the reactor core to reduce the reactions. The control rods are very important because the reaction could run out of control if fission events are extremely frequent. In modern nuclear power plants, the insertion of all the control rods into the reactor core occurs in a few seconds, thus halting the nuclear reaction as rapidly as possible. In addition, most reactors are designed so that beyond optimal level, as the temperature increases the efficiency of reactions decreases, hence fewer neutrons are able to cause fission and the reactor slows down automatically.

2. Maintenance of Core Cooling

In any nuclear reactor some sort of cooling is necessary. Generally nuclear reactors use water as a coolant. However some reactors which cannot use water use sodium or sodium salts.

3. Maintenance of barriers that prevent the release of radiation

There is a series of physical barriers between the radioactive core and the environment. For instance at the Darling Nuclear Generation Station in Canada the reactors are enclosed in heavily reinforced concrete which is 1.8m thick. Workers are shielded from radiation via interior concrete walls. A vacuum building is connected to the reactor buildings by a pressure relief duct. The vacuum building is a 71m high concrete structure and is kept at negative atmospheric pressure. This means that if any radiation were to leak from the reactor it would be sucked into the vacuum building and therefore prevented from being released into the environment.

The design of the reactor also includes multiple back-up components, independent systems (two or more systems performing the same function in parallel), monitoring of instrumentation and the prevention of a failure of one type of equipment affecting any other.

Further, regulation requires that a core-meltdown incident must be confined only to the plant itself without the need to evacuate nearby residence.

Safety is also important for the workers of nuclear power plants. Radiation doses are controlled via the following procedures,

  • The handling of equipment via remote in the core of the reactor
  • Physical shielding
  • Limit on the time a worker spends in areas with significant radiation levels
  • Monitoring of individual doses and of the work environment

See the following websites for more detailed information and further references,

World Nuclear Association Summary on Nuclear Reactor Safety

Wikipedia information on Nuclear Reactors

Safety Mechanisms at a Canadian Nuclear Power Station

Final report of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission on the Advanced Westinghouse AP1000 Nuclear Reactor design

In addition readers should be aware that the safety of any large scale industrial activity is an on-going concern and must always be taken seriously. Nuclear Power is certainly no exception and unfortunately the US Nuclear Industry did not give it the full attention it needed before the Three Mile Island accident. An excellent description of the safety issues surrounding early nuclear power plants is provided by Robert Pool. It can be downloaded from here. The article describes how complex interacting technologies offer substantial challenges to safety. Consequently a major goal of 3rd generation Power plants is to provide inherent safety and simpler design.

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