NRC Science 101 – About Spent Nuclear Fuel Part II

Greg Casto
Branch Chief
Division of Reactor Safety Systems
science_101_squeakychalkOur last post talked about the fuel that powers nuclear reactors. Today, we’ll talk about what happens to that fuel when it’s removed from a reactor.

You’ll recall that fuel becomes very hot and very radioactive as it is used in the reactor core to heat water. After about five years, the fuel is no longer useful and is removed. Reactor operators have to manage the heat and radioactivity that remains in the “spent fuel” after it’s taken out of the reactor. In the U.S., every reactor has at least one pool on the plant site where spent fuel is placed for storage. Plant personnel move the spent fuel underwater from the reactor to the pool. Over time, as the spent fuel is stored in the pool, it becomes cooler as the radioactivity decays away.

These pools contain an enormous quantity of water—enough to cover the fuel by about 20 feet. The water serves two purposes: it cools the fuel and shields workers at the plant from radioactivity. Having 20 feet of water above the fuel means there is a lot more water than is needed for cooling and shielding the workers. Also, because of the extra water and the simple design of the pool, there is a lot of time for plant personnel to add water to the pool if needed for any reason.

fuelpoolThe pools are built to meet strict NRC safety requirements. They have very thick, steel-reinforced concrete walls and stainless-steel liners, and are protected by security personnel. There are no drains that would allow the water level to drop or the pool to become empty. The plants have a variety of extra water sources and equipment to replenish water that evaporates over time, or in case there is a leak. Plant personnel are also trained and prepared to quickly respond to a problem. They keep their skills sharp by routinely practicing their emergency plans and procedures.

When the plants were designed, the pools were intended to provide temporary onsite storage. The idea was for the spent fuel to sit in the pool for a few years to cool before it would be shipped offsite to be “reprocessed,” or separated so usable portions could be recycled into new fuel. But reprocessing didn’t end up being an option for nuclear power plants and the pools began to fill up.

In the early 1980s, nuclear plants began to look for ways to increase the amount of spent fuel they could store at the plant site. One way was to replace spent fuel storage racks in the pools with racks containing a special material that allowed spent fuel to be packed closer together. Another way was to place older, cooler and less radioactive fuel in dry storage casks that could be stored in specially built facilities at the plant site. We’ll talk more about dry spent fuel storage in future blog posts.

Most plants today use both re-designed storage racks and dry storage facilities to store spent fuel. All storage methods must be reviewed in detail and approved by the NRC before a plant is allowed to change storage methods.

Science 101 – What is Nuclear Fuel?

Kevin Heller
Reactor Systems Engineer, Division of Safety Systems

science_101_squeakychalkIn earlier Science 101 posts, we told you about nuclear chain reactions and how they are used to generate electricity in reactors. This post focuses on the fuel that reactors use to create those chain reactions.

You may recall that nuclear fuel rods get hot because of the nuclear reaction, and that heat is key to generating electricity. But what exactly are these fuel rods?

Nuclear fuel starts with uranium ore, which is found in the ground throughout the world. For now, we’ll just say that uranium ore goes through several steps to be processed and manufactured into nuclear fuel. In a future Science 101 post, we’ll talk more about the process of turning uranium ore into fuel pellets.

fuelpelletEach pellet is about the size of a pencil eraser. These pellets are stacked inside 12-foot long metal tubes known as fuel cladding. The tubes are sealed on each end to form a fuel rod, and between 100 and 300 fuel rods are arranged in a square pattern to form a fuel assembly. The number of fuel rods used to make a fuel assembly depends on the type of reactor the assembly will be used in and the company that makes the fuel.

fuelrodsWhile the assemblies are very long (about 12 feet), they are less than 1 foot wide. The assemblies have special hardware at the top and bottom and at intervals in between to keep the fuel rods firmly held and evenly spaced. Fuel assemblies are only slightly radioactive before they are placed into a reactor core. Typically, a reactor core will have between 150 and 250 fuel assemblies.

We talked before about the form of uranium that is important in commercial nuclear reactors. It is an “isotope,” or an atom with a very specific number of neutrons, known as U-235. Part of the process of turning uranium ore into nuclear fuel is enrichment—which increases the amount of U-235 relative to the other isotopes naturally found in uranium. Under the right conditions in a reactor, neutrons will cause U-235 atoms to fission, or split. This leaves two new, different atoms and a couple of neutrons. These new neutrons will then cause other U-235 atoms to fission, forming a chain reaction.

As U-235 atoms fission, energy is released in the form of heat. That heat creates steam which turns a turbine to create electricity. After a few years, there is considerably less U-235 in the fuel. If the amount of U-235 were to drop too low, there would no longer be enough to keep a chain reaction going. So every 18-24 months about one-third of the fuel in a reactor core is removed and replaced with new, fresh fuel. The used fuel is often called “spent fuel.”

Spent fuel is very hot and very radioactive. The atoms created by the fission process are unstable at first and emit particles that create heat. Therefore, spent fuel must be handled and stored carefully, and under controlled conditions. We’ll talk more about spent fuel and how it is managed in a future Science 101 post.

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