Is a picture worth 1000 words? For people interested in how light water reactors work, the mix of GIF images available on the Internet sometimes falls short. Here’s a link to a beautifully designed set of animation of how one works.
It is also a good basic educational item so feel free to link to this post or copy it as needed for your nonprofit or educational use. Be sure to use the credit line below when you do.
Hat tip to the folks at http://siegemedia.com for letting me know about their work that developed this content for their client SaveOnEnergy in Plano, TX.
How Nuclear Energy Works
This piece explains the process of how nuclear power works and outlines the process in a series of simple, easy-to-understand animations.
Why is nuclear power still such a heated point of debate? It may be due to the fact that people are unfamiliar with the inner workings of nuclear power.
Most don’t realize how similar a nuclear power plant actually is to any other type of power plant. The plant still heats water into steam which powers a turbine generator. This is the same way a coal plant works, for instance. The main difference is the radioactive fuel used to power the core of a nuclear plant.
Nuclear power’s source is uranium. This is a natural element found in the earth’s crust. It naturally undergoes spontaneous fission which gives off heat. A nuclear power plant’s core contains rods of uranium. These rods get submerged in a pool of water and produce an intense amount of heat. This heated water (now radioactive) never comes in touch with anything outside of the core. It moves through a pipe which heats another body of water. That body of water then produces the steam that powers a turbine which makes electricity.
This is the one of the three very cool animations at the SaveOnEnergy site. Click on this URL to see the others.
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The similarity to other thermal plants is important. The near-miracle of producing this heat energy for months on end from the same small sealed vessel is a remarkable difference.
The change I’d make to the description is to introduce the role of geometry – careful spacing and alignment of the uranium rods in water so that they interact to produce the needed rate of energy. Spontaneous fission is rare – the special conditions inside the reactor make it possible for one fission to generate another, and another, etc.
The heated reactor water is not very radioactive as I understand it; a little bit of N-16 and a trace of activated contaminants. And in about a third of reactors – BWRs – it does indeed exit the core to drive the turbines, although it is still well contained, and then cycles back into the core.
Unfortunately, the fission video makes the same mistake all “commercial” descriptions have made since day one – the displayed chain reaction only works for bombs! There must be a depiction of neutron moderation (de-energizing) to make it power reactor-appropriate. Without the neutron moderation being depicted, it perpetuates the power-reactor/bomb myth.
The same reaction works in both bombs and reactors. A neutron hits a uranium atom to release ON AVERAGE a little more that 2 more neutrons and fission daughters. SAME reaction, just a very different rates. A reactor’s neutron cycle is moderated, like you stated, but the reaction is not different. A bomb’s reaction is NOT moderated other than to allow it to happen as quickly as possible in order to maximize fuel exhaustion in fractions of a second.
A reactor is designed to moderate n’s by fuel placement, fuel choice/mix and concentration, control rods, and moderator (usually water) flow/channel design.
Drew, you’re missing her point.
Nuclear bombs are UNmoderated reactions.
Nuclear power plants us moderated reactions.
The first video shows no moderators, — leaving the impression that the activity inside the reactor chamber is identical to a bomb. The public is dumb enough on this as it is, without deliberate oversights such as this.
Moderation is to increase the number of fissions, not to decrease them. Other systems are used to dampen criticality and prevent runaway reactions.