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Nuclear Reactors and Safety

Nuclear Reactor_062722A
[Nuclear Reactor - US Department of Energy]


- Overview

"Nuclear energy, in terms of an overall safety record, is better than other energy." -- Bill Gates.

Nuclear power plants maintain the highest standard for operational safety, security, cybersecurity and emergency preparedness. The industry’s comprehensive safety procedures and stringent federal regulations keep nuclear power plants and neighboring communities safe.
A nuclear reactor, formerly known as an atomic reactor, is a device used to initiate and control a fission nuclear chain reaction or nuclear fusion reaction. Nuclear reactors are used in nuclear power plants to generate electricity and for nuclear ship propulsion. 

The heat from nuclear fission is transferred to the working fluid (water or gas), which in turn flows through the steam turbine. They either drive the ship's propeller or turn the shaft of a generator. 

Steam from nuclear energy can in principle be used for industrial process heating or district heating. Some reactors are used to produce isotopes for medical and industrial use, or to produce weapons-grade plutonium.


- Heat Generation

The reactor core generates heat in a number of ways: 

  • The kinetic energy of fission products is converted to thermal energy when these nuclei collide with nearby atoms.
  • The reactor absorbs some of the gamma rays produced during fission and converts their energy into heat. 
  • Heat is produced by the radioactive decay of fission products and materials that have been activated by neutron absorption. This decay heat source will remain for some time even after the reactor is shut down.

A kilogram of uranium-235 (U-235) converted via nuclear processes releases approximately three million times more energy than a kilogram of coal burned conventionally (7.2 × 1013 joules per kilogram of uranium-235 versus 2.4 × 107 joules per kilogram of coal). 

The fission of one kilogram of uranium-235 releases about 19 billion kilocalories, so the energy released by 1 kg of uranium-235 corresponds to that released by burning 2.7 million kg of coal.


- Nuclear Energy Safety

Nuclear power plants in the United States are considered some of the safest industrial facilities in the country. Nuclear power is considered a safe and clean energy source when compared to fossil fuels, with a low and declining risk of accidents. The consequences of an accident or terrorist attack are also considered minimal compared to other commonly accepted risks. 

Nuclear power plants have many safety and security features to prevent uncontrolled nuclear reactions that could contaminate air and water. These features include:

  • Operational safety: Highly trained experts run the plants, and the NRC provides oversight
  • Security: Plant design, screening systems, behavioral observation, and highly trained forces protect the reactors
  • Safety systems: In case of an accident, these systems protect the containment from internal pressure due to steam releases inside the reactor building.

- Nuclear Energy Safety Standards

Nuclear energy safety standards are a set of principles, recommendations, and requirements that ensure nuclear safety for people and the environment. These standards apply to activities such as:

  • Medical uses of radiation
  • Operation of nuclear installations
  • Production, transport, and use of radioactive material
  • Management of radioactive waste

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) establishes or adopts safety standards in consultation with the United Nations and specialized agencies. States can apply these standards through their regulatory provisions for nuclear and radiation safety. 

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) specifies that reactor designs must meet a theoretical 1 in 10,000 year core damage frequency. However, modern designs exceed this, with US utility requirements being 1 in 100,000 years. The best currently operating plants are about 1 in one million and those likely to be built in the next decade are almost 1 in 10 million. 

The Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) also develops codes and standards in nuclear safety that govern activities such as welding, fabrication, testing, and non-destructive examination. These codes and standards are typically developed by non-governmental Standards Development Organisations (SDOs) as optional guidance. 

The nuclear industry uses a defense-in-depth approach to safety that includes: access controls, physical barriers, redundant and diverse safety equipment, and emergency response measures.


[More to come ...]

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