Nuclear Meltdown - Other Reactor Types - Gas-cooled Reactors

Gas-cooled Reactors

One type of Western reactor, known as the advanced gas-cooled reactor (or AGCR), built by the United Kingdom, is not very vulnerable to loss-of-cooling accidents or to core damage except in the most extreme of circumstances. By virtue of the relatively inert coolant (carbon dioxide), the large volume and high pressure of the coolant, and the relatively high heat transfer efficiency of the reactor, the time frame for core damage in the event of a limiting fault is measured in days. Restoration of some means of coolant flow will prevent core damage from occurring.

Other types of highly advanced gas cooled reactors, generally known as high-temperature gas-cooled reactors (HTGRs) such as the Japanese High Temperature Test Reactor and the United States' Very High Temperature Reactor, are inherently safe, meaning that meltdown or other forms of core damage are physically impossible, due to the structure of the core, which consists of hexagonal prismatic blocks of silicon carbide reinforced graphite infused with TRISO or QUADRISO pellets of uranium, thorium, or mixed oxide buried underground in a helium-filled steel pressure vessel within a concrete containment. Though this type of reactor is not susceptible to meltdown, additional capabilities of heat removal are provided by using regular atmospheric airflow as a means of backup heat removal, by having it pass through a heat exchanger and rising into the atmosphere due to convection, achieving full residual heat removal. The VHTR is scheduled to be prototyped and tested at Idaho National Laboratory within the next decade (as of 2009) as the design selected for the Next Generation Nuclear Plant by the US Department of Energy. This reactor will use a gas as a coolant, which can then be used for process heat (such as in hydrogen production) or for the driving of gas turbines and the generation of electricity.

A similar highly advanced gas cooled reactor originally designed by West Germany (the AVR reactor) and now developed by South Africa is known as the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor. It is an inherently safe design, meaning that core damage is physically impossible, due to the design of the fuel (spherical graphite "pebbles" arranged in a bed within a metal RPV and filled with TRISO (or QUADRISO) pellets of uranium, thorium, or mixed oxide within). A prototype of a very similar type of reactor has been built by the Chinese, HTR-10, and has worked beyond researchers' expectations, leading the Chinese to announce plans to build a pair of follow-on, full-scale 250 MWe, inherently safe, power production reactors based on the same concept. (See Nuclear power in the People's Republic of China for more information.)

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