Shield and Containment System
During its operation, a nuclear reactor produces neutrons and other radiation. Even when shut down, the decay products are radioactive. In addition, an operating reactor is thermally very hot, and high pressures result from the circulation of water or another coolant through it. Thus, a reactor must withstand high temperatures and pressures, and must protect operating personnel from the radiation. Reactors are equipped with a containment system (or shield) that consists of three parts:
- The reactor vessel, a steel shell that is 3–20-centimeters thick and, with the moderator, absorbs much of the radiation produced by the reactor
- A main shield of 1–3 meters of high-density concrete
- A personnel shield of lighter materials that protects operators from γ rays and X-rays
In addition, reactors are often covered with a steel or concrete dome that is designed to contain any radioactive materials might be released by a reactor accident.
Click here to see some information and watch a 3-minute video from the Nuclear Energy Institute on how nuclear reactors work.
Nuclear power plants are designed in such a way that they cannot form a supercritical mass of fissionable material and therefore cannot create a nuclear explosion. But as history has shown, failures of systems and safeguards can cause catastrophic accidents, including chemical explosions and nuclear meltdowns (damage to the reactor core from overheating). The following Chemistry in Everyday Life feature explores three infamous meltdown incidents.
The energy produced by a reactor fueled with enriched uranium results from the fission of uranium as well as from the fission of plutonium produced as the reactor operates. As discussed previously, the plutonium forms from the combination of neutrons and the uranium in the fuel. In any nuclear reactor, only about 0.1% of the mass of the fuel is converted into energy.
The other 99.9% remains in the fuel rods as fission products and unused fuel. All of the fission products absorb neutrons, and after a period of several months to a few years, depending on the reactor, the fission products must be removed by changing the fuel rods. Otherwise, the concentration of these fission products would increase and absorb more neutrons until the reactor could no longer operate.
Spent fuel rods contain a variety of products, consisting of unstable nuclei ranging in atomic number from 25 to 60, some transuranium elements, including plutonium and americium, and unreacted uranium isotopes. The unstable nuclei and the transuranium isotopes give the spent fuel a dangerously high level of radioactivity.
The long-lived isotopes require thousands of years to decay to a safe level. The ultimate fate of the nuclear reactor as a significant source of energy in the United States probably rests on whether or not a politically and scientifically satisfactory technique for processing and storing the components of spent fuel rods can be developed.
Explore the information in this webpage to learn about the approaches to nuclear waste management.