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Construction of the Fukushima nuclear power plants
The plants at Fukushima are Boiling Water Reactors (BWR for short). A BWR produces electricity by boiling water, and spinning a a turbine with that steam. The nuclear fuel heats water, the water boils and creates steam, the steam then drives turbines that create the electricity, and the steam is then cooled and condensed back to water, and the water returns to be heated by the nuclear fuel. The reactor operates at about 285 įC.
The nuclear fuel is uranium oxide. Uranium oxide is a ceramic with a very high melting point of about 2800 įC. The fuel is manufactured in pellets (cylinders that are about 1 cm tall and 1 com in diameter). These pellets are then put into a long tube made of Zircaloy (an alloy of zirconium) with a failure temperature of 1200 įC (caused by the auto-catalytic oxidation of water), and sealed tight. This tube is called a fuel rod. These fuel rods are then put together to form assemblies, of which several hundred make up the reactor core.
The solid fuel pellet (a ceramic oxide matrix) is the first barrier that retains many of the radioactive fission products produced by the fission process. The Zircaloy casing is the second barrier to release that separates the radioactive fuel from the rest of the reactor.
The core is then placed in the pressure vessel. The pressure vessel is a thick steel vessel that operates at a pressure of about 7 MPa (~1000 psi), and is designed to withstand the high pressures that may occur during an accident. The pressure vessel is the third barrier to radioactive material release.
The entire primary loop of the nuclear reactor Ė the pressure vessel, pipes, and pumps that contain the coolant (water) Ė are housed in the containment structure. This structure is the fourth barrier to radioactive material release. The containment structure is a hermetically (air tight) sealed, very thick structure made of steel and concrete. This structure is designed, built and tested for one single purpose: To contain, indefinitely, a complete core meltdown. To aid in this purpose, a large, thick concrete structure is poured around the containment structure and is referred to as the secondary containment.
Both the main containment structure and the secondary containment structure are housed in the reactor building. The reactor building is an outer shell that is supposed to keep the weather out, but nothing in. (this is the part that was damaged in the explosions, but more to that later).
Fundamentals of nuclear reactions
The uranium fuel generates heat by neutron-induced nuclear fission. Uranium atoms are split into lighter atoms (aka fission products). This process generates heat and more neutrons (one of the particles that forms an atom). When one of these neutrons hits another uranium atom, that atom can split, generating more neutrons and so on. That is called the nuclear chain reaction. During normal, full-power operation, the neutron population in a core is stable (remains the same) and the reactor is in a critical state.
It is worth mentioning at this point that the nuclear fuel in a reactor can never cause a nuclear explosion like a nuclear bomb. At Chernobyl, the explosion was caused by excessive pressure buildup, hydrogen explosion and rupture of all structures, propelling molten core material into the environment. Note that Chernobyl did not have a containment structure as a barrier to the environment. Why that did not and will not happen in Japan, is discussed further below.
In order to control the nuclear chain reaction, the reactor operators use control rods. The control rods are made of boron which absorbs neutrons. During normal operation in a BWR, the control rods are used to maintain the chain reaction at a critical state. The control rods are also used to shut the reactor down from 100% power to about 7% power (residual or decay heat).
The residual heat is caused from the radioactive decay of fission products. Radioactive decay is the process by which the fission products stabilize themselves by emitting energy in the form of small particles (alpha, beta, gamma, neutron, etc.). There is a multitude of fission products that are produced in a reactor, including cesium and iodine. This residual heat decreases over time after the reactor is shutdown, and must be removed by cooling systems to prevent the fuel rod from overheating and failing as a barrier to radioactive release. Maintaining enough cooling to remove the decay heat in the reactor is the main challenge in the affected reactors in Japan right now.
It is important to note that many of these fission products decay (produce heat) extremely quickly, and become harmless by the time you spell ďR-A-D-I-O-N-U-C-L-I-D-E.Ē Others decay more slowly, like some cesium, iodine, strontium, and argon.
What happened at Fukushima (as of March 12, 2011)
The following is a summary of the main facts. The earthquake that hit Japan was several times more powerful than the worst earthquake the nuclear power plant was built for (the Richter scale works logarithmically; for example the difference between an 8.2 and the 8.9 that happened is 5 times, not 0.7).
When the earthquake hit, the nuclear reactors all automatically shutdown. Within seconds after the earthquake started, the control rods had been inserted into the core and the nuclear chain reaction stopped. At this point, the cooling system has to carry away the residual heat, about 7% of the full power heat load under normal operating conditions.
The earthquake destroyed the external power supply of the nuclear reactor. This is a challenging accident for a nuclear power plant, and is referred to as a ďloss of offsite power.Ē The reactor and its backup systems are designed to handle this type of accident by including backup power systems to keep the coolant pumps working. Furthermore, since the power plant had been shut down, it cannot produce any electricity by itself.
For the first hour, the first set of multiple emergency diesel power generators started and provided the electricity that was needed. However, when the tsunami arrived (a very rare and larger than anticipated tsunami) it flooded the diesel generators, causing them to fail.