2.2 Defense in Depth
Controlling Nuclear Reactions in Light Water Reactors
The Enrico Fermi was the first nuclear scientist to find a solution for controlling chain reactions in a nuclear reactor. Fermi said that his Chicago Pile was "a crude pile of black bricks and wooden timbers." Of course natural uranium fuel was added. There was, Fermi realized, something else needed in order to make his reactor safe. That was a means of soaking up the neutrons created by the chain reaction in order to control it. The way Fermi chose to control the Chicago Pile was to insert a number of cadmium-coated control rods into the reactor. Inserting the rods would slow the chain reaction and eventually stop it. In fact history reports that the chain reaction in Fremi's first pile was initiated by lifting control rods that were initially embedded in the pile.
Fermi and his associates were none to confident in the mechanical reliability of the control rods. Thus a back up system was devised for an emergency shut down of the reactor in case the control rods failed to operated properly during a shut down. A history of the Chicago Pile experiment states:
Since this demonstration was new and different from anything ever done before, complete reliance was not placed on mechanically operated control rods. Therefore, a “liquid-control squad,” composed of Harold Lichtenberger, W. Nyer, and A. C. Graves, stood on a platform above the pile. They were prepared to flood the pile with cadmium-salt solution in case of mechanical failure of the control rods.
In many respects the Fermi's CP-1 was the evolutionary ancestor of the Light Water Reactor, and the control scheme for Light Water Reactors is basically the same as for the CP-1 although a few twists have been added. The control rods now use Hafnium rather than cadmium for neutron absorption. And rather than flooding the core with a Cadmium salt solution, boron in the form of boric acid is injected directly into the cooling water. Because the dilution of the boric acid in the cooling water can be easily altered, the use of boron is by no means limited to reactor shutdown. By altering the boric acid content of cooling water reactor operators can actually control the chain reaction, thus providing a simple but effective throttle for a chain reaction.
It is possible to completely shut dow a LWR by increasing the boron content of the coolant water, or by a high concentration of boric acid in the emergency coolant water. However reactor shut downs and start ups are normally controlled by the control rods. Control rods can also be used to control chain reactions in parts of the reactor, and the play a major role in counteracting Xenon poisoning.
Xenon-135 is a nobel gas that is produced in the fusion process. It is highly radioactive, but in addition it has a very powerful neutron absorbing property. Because of this property, even a relatively small amount of Xenon, produced during a chain reaction has the capacity to slow down and even stop the chain reaction. Hence reactor controls must posses a means of balancing reactor power output as the amount of Xenon in the reactor increases due to Xenon production by nuclear fission.
Controlling reactor power in the face of Xenon poisoning is not simple. Xenon builds up with the fission process, and decreases as it undergoes nuclear decay. There can be a lag between the positioning of a control rod and its effect on the power level and heat generation of a reactor. Running a light water reactor at low power increases difficulties related to Xenon poisoning. Xenon may not be evenly spread through the core. Thus hot and cool spots may develop in the core. since coolant flow is based on average power output, coolant flow to reactor hot spots may not be sufficient, and as fuel pellets begin to overheat, and their cladding begin to overheat, their integrity may begin to break down.
Control rods played a far more critical role in the Chernobyl accident than would be possible in a light water reactor accident. In the Chernobyl RBMK reactors the control rods were divided into three segments. The upper and lower segments were made of graphite, while the middle segment was made of graphite a nuclear moderator, while the middle segment was made of a of a material that served as a neutron poison. As the control rod is lifted coolant water fills the bottom of the control rod channel. Under normal operations the control rod is lifted to the position in which its lower graphite segment fills the channel inside the reactor core. But because a highly dangerous test was being conducted on the Chernobyl reactor, the lower graphite segments of control rods were also partially withdrawn from the reactor. Thus more water entered the reactor core through the control rods channels. As I have already observed coolant water served as a break on the chain reaction within the Chernobyl reactor. As we observed poor management of the Chernobyl reactor during a test lead to the boiling of the coolant water inside the reactor and the voids created by the steam bubbles began to removed the break placed on the chain reaction by the presence of coolant water in the core. As the overly withdrawn control rods began to descend into the core of the Chernobyl reactor they first displaced water that had served as a break on the chain reaction, and replace it with graphite, a moderator that greatly increased the chain reaction.
The insertion of the graphite tips of the control rods into the core of the Chernobyl RBMK was sort of like attempting to hit the breaks of car that is running out of control, and hitting the accelerator instead. The power level of the Chernobyl reactor went off the charts, and as reactor heat increased dramatically the remaining coolant water in the reactor core flashed to steam. There was a large steam explosion, which as we have seen destroyed the top of the reactor and the surrounding radiation shield.
A similar accident could not occur in a light water reactor because (a) water in the control rod channels moderates rather than slows the nuclear reaction, (b) the water in the control rod channels is immediately displaced by a neutron poisoning material in the control rod, and (c) voids created by heat related bubbles in the reactor coolant work in concert with the control rods rather than against them.
Control rod insertion during an accident can be accomplished by gravity rather than mechanical means. Control rods can be attached to the lifting mechanism by electro-magnets. The termination of power output during an accident would automatically produce control rod insertion and shut down. The shutdown can also be triggered by operator control.
There are redundancies in the control rod system and of course reactor operators always have the options of shutting the reactor down by adding more boric acid to the coolant water. The loss of reactor coolant does cause a termination of the chain reaction, because the water serves as a moderator for the chain reaction in Light Water Reactors. At the same time the loss of coolant water is highly undesirable, because coolant water is required to remove the residual heat from fission product decay from the reactor core.
The control system of Light Water Reactors thus provides for operational redundancies and safety backups. Emergency shutdowns can be accomplished by passive safety features that use the law of nature to insure that a chain reaction stops as soon as the reactor ceases to produce electrical power. Different control systems insure that operators have more than one emergency shutdown system available. Finally automatically operating passive shut down systems, insure that the reactor will automatically shut down before serious safety problems emerge, thus interrupting chains of events that could lead to serious reactor accidents.