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Dry Cask 101 – Criticality Safety

Drew Barto
Senior Nuclear Engineer

CASK_101finalIn earlier Science 101 posts, we told you about how nuclear chain reactions are used to generate electricity in reactors. In a process known as fission, uranium atoms in the fuel break apart, or disintegrate, into smaller atoms. These atoms cause other atoms to split, and so on. This “chain reaction” releases large amounts of heat and power. Another word for this process is “criticality.”

The potential for criticality is an important thing to consider about reactor fuel throughout its life. Fuel is most likely to go critical when it is fresh. It is removed from the reactor after several years (typically four to six) because it will no longer easily support a self-sustaining chain reaction. This “spent fuel” is placed into a storage pool. After cooling for some time in a pool, the fuel may be put into dry storage casks.

Here, a spent fuel assembly is loaded into a dry storage cask.

Here, a spent fuel assembly is loaded into a dry storage cask.

When fuel is removed from the reactor, we require licensees to ensure it will never again be critical. This state is referred to as “subcriticality.” Preventing an inadvertent criticality event is one safety goal of our regulations. Subcriticality is required whether the fuel is stored in a pool or a dry cask. We require it for both normal operating conditions and any accident that could occur at any time.

There are many methods that help to control criticality. The way spent fuel assemblies are positioned is an important one. How close they are to each other and the burnup of (or amount of energy extracted from) nearby assemblies all have an impact. This method of control is referred to as fuel geometry.

Certain chemicals, such as boron, can also slow down a chain reaction. Known as a “neutron absorber,” boron captures neutrons released during fission, and keeps them from striking uranium atoms. Fuel burnup is another factor. As we said above, after some time in the reactor it is harder for fuel to sustain a chain reaction. The longer the fuel is in the reactor, the less likely it is to go critical. However, high burnup fuel generates greater heat loads and radiation, which must be taken into account.

Spent fuel storage cask designs often rely on design features to make sure the fuel remains subcritical. When we review a cask design, this is one of the key elements the NRC looks at in detail.

Casks have strong “baskets” to maintain fuel geometry. They also have solid neutron absorbers, typically made of aluminum and boron, between fuel assemblies. The applications that we review must include an analysis of all the elements that contribute to criticality safety. Part of the analysis is a 3-D model that shows how the fuel will act in normal and accident conditions.

A dry storage canister is loaded into a horizontal storage module.

A dry storage canister is loaded into a horizontal storage module.

Our technical experts review this analysis to make sure the factors that could affect criticality have been identified. We check to see that the models address each of these factors in a realistic way. In cases where the models require assumptions, we make sure they are conservative. That means they result in more challenging conditions than we would actually expect. We also create our own computer models to confirm that the design meets our regulatory requirements. We will only approve a storage cask design if, in addition to meeting other safety requirements, our criticality experts are satisfied that our subcriticality safety requirements have been met.

Our reviewers look at several other technical areas in depth any time we receive an application for a spent fuel storage cask. We will talk about some of the others—materials, thermal, and shielding—in future posts.

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.


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