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It’s Mole Day for the Whole Day at the NRC

6946377219_6486264c6f_zChemistry fans often refer to Oct. 23 as “Mole Day,” since the numbers 10 and 23 are part of a basic constant in chemistry, the mole. This unit describes how many atoms exist in a given sample of any substance, so scientists use moles to simplify lots of calculations. For example, when an average nuclear reactor first starts up its core has about 120,000 kilograms of uranium in its fuel. A mole of uranium weighs about 238 grams, so a brand-new core has about 504,000 moles of uranium. A plant scientist or NRC specialist would base some core calculations on a more exact definition of moles in the core.


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.

Science 101: How a Chain Reaction Works in a U.S. Nuclear Reactor

Paul Rebstock
Senior Instrumentation and Control Systems Engineer


science_101_squeakychalkThe primary active ingredient in nuclear reactor fuel is a particular variety, or “isotope,” of uranium, called U235. U235 is relatively rare — only about 0.7% of uranium as it exists in nature is U235. Uranium must be enriched to contain about 5% U235 to function properly as fuel for a U.S. commercial nuclear power plant.

U235 has 92 protons and 143 neutrons. Protons and neutrons are some of the almost unimaginably tiny particles that make up the nucleus of an atom — see Science 101 Blog #1. All other isotopes of uranium also have 92 protons, but different isotopes have slightly different numbers of neutrons.

Uranium is a radioactive element. Uranium atoms break apart, or disintegrate, into smaller atoms, releasing energy and a few leftover neutrons in the process. This happens very slowly for U235. If you have some U235 today, in about 700 million years you will have only half as much. You will have the remaining U235, plus the smaller atoms. The energy released will have gone into the environment too slowly to be noticed, and the extra neutrons will have been absorbed by other atoms.

While this happens very slowly, the disintegration of each individual atom happens very quickly, and the fragments are ejected at a very high speed. Those high-speed fragments are the source of the heat generated by the reactor. Under the right man-made conditions, the number of U235 atoms that disintegrate each second can be increased.

When a U235 atom disintegrates, it releases some neutrons. Some of those neutrons can be made to interact with other U235 atoms, causing them to disintegrate as well. Those “target” atoms release more neutrons when they disintegrate, and then those neutrons interact with still other U235 atoms, and so on. This is called a “chain reaction.” This process does not work well for other isotopes of uranium, which is why the uranium needs to be enriched in U235 for use as nuclear fuel.

Most of the energy released when a U235 atom disintegrates is in the form of kinetic energy — the energy of physical motion. The fragments of the disintegrated atom collide with nearby atoms and set them vibrating. That vibration constitutes heat. The fuel rods get hot as the reaction progresses. The faster the chain reaction — that is, the larger the number of U235 atoms that disintegrate each second — the faster energy is released and the hotter the fuel rods become.

The uranium in a U.S. commercial nuclear reactor is thoroughly mixed with neutral material and formed into pellets about half inch wide and three-quarters of an inch long. The pellets are stacked tightly in metal tubes, forming “fuel rods” that are several feet long. Each fuel rod is just wide enough to hold a single column of pellets. The fuel rods are sealed, to keep all of the radioactive materials inside. There are thousands of these fuel rods in a typical reactor. They contain around 60 tons of uranium – but only about three tons are U235. (The majority of the uranium in the reactor is in the form of the most abundant naturally occurring isotope of uranium, U238, which cannot sustain the fission process without the help of an elevated concentration of the isotope U235.)

The people in charge of the reactor can control the chain reaction by preventing some or all of the released neutrons from interacting with U235 atoms. The physical arrangement of the fuel rods, the low U235 concentration, and other design factors, also limit the number of neutrons that can interact with U235 atoms.

The heat generated by the chain reaction is used to make steam, and that steam powers specialized machinery that drives an electrical generator, generating electricity. Science 101 will look at how that works in more detail in a later issue.

The author has a BS in Electrical Engineering from Carnegie-Mellon University.


NRC Science 101: The What and How of Geiger Counters

Joe DeCicco
Senior Health Physicist
Source Management and Protection Branch

In earlier Science 101 posts, we talked about ionizing radiation and different types of radiation. In this post, we’ll look at the Geiger counter, an instrument that can detect radiation.

science_101_squeakychalkJust to recap, the core of an atom (the nucleus) is surrounded by orbiting electrons, like planets around a sun. The electrons have a negative charge and usually cancel out an equal number of positively charged protons in the nucleus. But if an electron absorbs energy from radiation, it can be pushed out of its orbit. This action is called “ionization” and creates an “ion pair”—a free, negatively charged electron and a positively charged atom.

Humans cannot detect creation of an ion pair through their five senses. But the Geiger counter is an instrument sensitive enough to detect ionization. Most of us have heard or seen a Geiger counter. They are the least expensive electronic device that can tell you there is radiation around you—though it can’t tell you the original source of the radiation, what type it is or how much energy it has.

How does it work? A Geiger counter has two main parts—a sealed tube, or chamber, filled with gas, and an information display. Radiation enters the tube and when it collides with the gas, it pushes an electron away from the gas atom and creates an ion pair. A wire in the middle of the tube attracts electrons, creating other ion pairs and sending a current through the wire. The current goes to the information display and moves a needle across a scale or makes a number display on a screen. These devices usually provide “counts per minute,” or the number of ion pairs created every 60 seconds. If the loud speaker is on, it clicks every time an ion pair is created. The number of clicks indicates how much radiation is entering the Geiger counter chamber.

You hear a clicking sound as soon as you turn on the speaker because there is always some radiation in the background. This radiation comes from the sun, natural uranium in the soil, radon, certain types of rock such as granite, plants and food, even other people and animals.

The background counts per minute will vary; the needle will move or the number will change even when there is no know radiation source nearby. Many different things cause this fluctuation, including wind, soil moisture, precipitation (rain or snow), temperature, atmospheric conditions, altitude and indoor ventilation. Other factors in readings include geographical location (higher elevations give higher counts), the size and shape of the detector, and how the detector is built (different chamber material and different gases).

geigercounterDepending on the elevation and the type of Geiger counter, a typical natural background radiation level is anywhere from five to 60 counts per minute or more. Because background radiation rates vary randomly, you might see that range standing in one spot. It is important to understand that the Geiger counter indicates when an ion pair is created, but nothing about the type of radiation or its energy.

Other types of instruments can provide an exposure rate (expressed as milliroentgen per hour or mR/hr). These counters must be calibrated to read a particular type of radiation (alpha, beta, gamma, neutron, x-ray) as well as the amount of energy emitted. The reading will only be accurate for that type of radiation and that energy level. And these instruments need to be calibrated regularly to be sure they are providing correct information over time.

For more sophisticated environmental radiation readings, check out the Environmental Protection Agency’s nationwide system, RadNet. Using equipment far more sensitive than a Geiger counter, it continuously monitors the air and regularly samples precipitation, drinking water and pasteurized milk.

Over its 40-year history, RadNet has developed an extensive nationwide “baseline” of normal background levels. By comparing this baseline to measurements across the U.S. states in March 2011, following the accident at the Fukushima reactors in Japan, the EPA was able to detect very small radiation increases in several western states. EPA detected radiation from Japan that was 100,000 times lower than natural background radiation—far below any level that would be of concern. And well below anything that would be evident using a simple Geiger counter, or even Geiger counters spread across the country.

If RadNet were to detect a meaningful increase in radiation above the baseline, EPA would investigate immediately. With its nationwide system of monitors and sophisticated analytical capability, RadNet is the definitive source for accurate information on radiation levels in the environment in the U.S.

By the way, the Geiger counter is also called a Geiger-Mueller tube, or a G-M counter. It was named after Hans Geiger, a German scientist, who worked on detecting radiation in the early 1900s. Walter Mueller, a graduate PhD student of Geiger’s, perfected the gas-sealed detector in the late 1920s and received credit for his work when he gave his name to the Geiger-Mueller tube.

NRC Science 101 — Different Types of Radiation

Donald Cool
Senior Radiation Safety Advisor

science_101_squeakychalkIn earlier Science 101 posts, we talked about what makes up atoms, chemicals, matter and ionizing radiation. In this post, we will look at the different kinds of radiation.

There are four major types of radiation: alpha, beta, neutrons, and electromagnetic waves such as gamma rays. They differ in mass, energy and how deeply they penetrate people and objects.

The first is an alpha particle. These particles consist of two protons and two neutrons and are the heaviest type of radiation particle. Many of the naturally occurring radioactive materials in the earth, like uranium and thorium, emit alpha particles. An example most people are familiar with is the radon in our homes.

The second kind of radiation is a beta particle. It’s an electron that is not attached to an atom (see previous blog post). It has a small mass and a negative charge. Tritium, which is produced by cosmic radiation in the atmosphere and exists all around us, emits beta radiation. Carbon-14, used in carbon-dating of fossils and other artifacts, also emits beta particles. Carbon-dating simply makes use of the fact that carbon-14 is radioactive. If you measure the beta particles, it tells you how much carbon-14 is left in the fossil, which allows you to calculate how long ago the organism was alive.

The third is a neutron. This is a particle that doesn’t have any charge and is present in the nucleus of an atom. Neutrons are commonly seen when uranium atoms split, or fission, in a nuclear reactor. If it wasn’t for the neutrons, you wouldn’t be able to sustain the nuclear reaction used to generate power.

The last kind of radiation is electromagnetic radiation, like X-rays and gamma rays. They are probably the most familiar type of radiation because they are used widely in medical treatments. These rays are like sunlight, except they have more energy. Unlike the other kinds of radiation, there is no mass or charge. The amount of energy can range from very low, like in dental x-rays, to the very high levels seen in irradiators used to sterilize medical equipment.

fordoncools101As mentioned, these different kinds of radiation travel different distances and have different abilities to penetrate, depending on their mass and their energy. The figure (right) shows the differences.

Neutrons, because they don’t have any charge, don’t interact with materials very well and will go a very long way. The only way to stop them is with large quantities of water or other materials made of very light atoms.

On the other hand, an alpha particle, because it’s very heavy and has a very large charge, doesn’t go very far at all. This means an alpha particle can’t even get through a sheet of paper. An alpha particle outside your body won’t even penetrate the surface of your skin. But, if you inhale or ingest material that emits alpha particles, sensitive tissue like the lungs can be exposed. This is why high levels of radon are considered a problem in your home. The ability to stop alpha particles so easily is useful in smoke detectors, because a little smoke in the chamber is enough to stop the alpha particle and trigger the alarm.

Beta particles go a little farther than alpha particles. You could use a relatively small amount of shielding to stop them. They can get into your body but can’t go all the way through. To be useful in medical imaging, beta particles must be released by a material that is injected into the body. They can also be very useful in cancer therapy if you can put the radioactive material in a tumor.

Gamma rays and x-rays can penetrate through the body. This is why they are useful in medicine—to show whether bones are broken or where there is tooth decay, or to locate a tumor. Shielding with dense materials like concrete and lead is used to avoid exposing sensitive internal organs or the people who may be working with this type of radiation. For example, the technician who does my dental x-rays puts a lead apron over me before taking the picture. That apron stops the x-rays from getting to the rest of my body. The technician stands behind the wall, which usually has some lead in it, to protect him or herself.

Radiation is all around us, but that is not a reason to be afraid. Different types of radiation behave differently, and some forms can be very useful. For more information on radiation, please see our website.

Don Cool, who holds a Ph.D. in radiation biology, advises the NRC on radiation safety and for 30 years has been active on international radiation safety committees.
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