What Is A Nuclear Reactor?

All nuclear reactors are devices designed to maintain a chain reaction producing a steady flow of neutrons generated by the fission of heavy nuclei. They are, however, differentiated either by their purpose or by their design features. In terms of purpose, they are either research reactors or power reactors.

Research reactors are operated at universities and research centres in many countries, including some where no nuclear power reactors are operated. These reactors generate neutrons for multiple purposes, including producing radiopharmaceuticals for medical diagnosis and therapy, testing materials and conducting basic research.

Power reactors are usually found in nuclear power plants. Dedicated to generating heat mainly for electricity production, they are operated in more than 30 countries (see Nuclear Power Reactors). Their lesser uses are drinking water or district water production. In the form of smaller units, they also power ships.

Differentiating nuclear reactors according to their design features is especially pertinent when referring to nuclear power reactors (see Types of Nuclear Power Reactors).

Nuclear Power Reactors

There are many different types of power reactors. What is common to them all is that they produce thermal energy that can be used for its own sake or converted into mechanical energy and ultimately, in the vast majority of cases, into electrical energy.

In these reactors, the fission of heavy atomic nuclei, the most common of which is uranium-235, produces heat that is transferred to a fluid which acts as a coolant. During the fission process, bond energy is released and this first becomes noticeable as the kinetic energy of the fission products generated and that of the neutrons being released. Since these particles undergo intense deceleration in the solid nuclear fuel, the kinetic energy turns into heat energy.

In the case of reactors designed to generate electricity, to which the explanations below will now be restricted, the heated fluid can be gas, water or a liquid metal. The heat stored by the fluid is then used either directly (in the case of gas) or indirectly (in the case of water and liquid metals) to generate steam. The heated gas or the steam is then fed into a turbine driving an alternator.

Since, according to the laws of nature, heat cannot fully be converted into another form of energy, some of the heat is residual and is released into the environment. Releasing is either direct – e.g. into a river – or indirect, into the atmosphere via cooling towers. This practice is common to all thermal plants and is by no means limited to nuclear reactors which are only one type of thermal plant.

Types of Nuclear Power Reactors

Nuclear power reactors can be classified according to the type of fuel they use to generate heat.

Uranium–fuelled Reactors

The only natural element currently used for nuclear fission in reactors is uranium. Natural uranium is a highly energetic substance: one kilogram of it can generate as much energy as 10 tonnes of oil. Naturally occurring uranium comprises, almost entirely, two isotopes: U238 (99.283%) and U235 (0.711%). The former is not fissionable while the latter can be fissioned by thermal (i.e. slow) neutrons. As the neutrons emitted in a fission reaction are fast, reactors using U235 as fuel must have a means of slowing down these neutrons before they escape from the fuel. This function is performed by what is called a moderator, which, in the case of certain reactors (see table of Reactor Types below) simultaneously acts as a coolant. It is common practice to classify power reactors according to the nature of the coolant and the moderator plus, as the need may arise, other design characteristics.

Reactor Type





Pressurised water reactors (PWR, VVER)

Light water

Light water

Enriched uranium

Steam gener-ated in secondary loop

Boiling water reactors (BWR)

Light water

Light water

Enriched uranium

Steam from boiling water fed to turbine

Pressurised heavy water reactor (PHWR)

Heavy water

Heavy water

Natural uranium


Gas-cooled reactors (Magnox, AGR, UNGG)



Natural or enriched uranium


Light water graphite reactors (RBMK)

Press-urised boiling water


Enriched uranium

Soviet design

PWRs and BWRs are the most commonly operated reactors in Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. VVERs, designed in the former Soviet Union, are based on the same principles as PWRs. They use “light water”, i.e. regular water (H2O) as opposed to “heavy water” (deuterium oxide D2O). Moderation provided by light water is not sufficiently effective to permit the use of natural uranium. The fuel must be slightly enriched in U235 to make up for the losses of neutrons occurring during the chain reaction. On the other hand, heavy water is such an effective moderator that the chain reaction can be sustained without having to enrich the uranium. This combination of natural uranium and heavy water is used in PHWRs, which are found in a number of countries, including Canada, Korea, Romania and India.

Graphite-moderated, gas-cooled reactors, formerly operated in France and still operated in Great Britain, are not built any more in spite of some advantages.

RBMK-reactors (pressure-tube boiling-water reactors), which are cooled with light water and moderated with graphite, are now less commonly operated in some former Soviet Union bloc countries. Following the Chernobyl accident (26 April 1986) the construction of this reactor type ceased. The operating period of those units still in operation will be shortened.

Plutonium-fuelled Reactors

Plutonium (Pu) is an artificial element produced in uranium-fuelled reactors as a by-product of the chain reaction. It is one hundred times more energetic than natural uranium; one gram of Pu can generate as much energy as one tonne of oil. As it needs fast neutrons in order to fission, moderating materials must be avoided to sustain the chain reaction in the best conditions. The current Plutonium-fuelled reactors, also called “fast” reactors, use liquid sodium which displays excellent thermal properties without adversely affecting the chain reaction. These types of reactors are in operation in France, Japan and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

Light Water Reactors

The Light Water Reactors category comprises pressurised water reactors (PWR, VVER) and boiling water reactors (BWR). Both of these use light water and hence enriched uranium. The light water they use combines the functions of moderator and coolant. This water flows through the reactor core, a zone containing a large array of fuel rods where it picks up the heat generated by the fission of the U235 present in the fuel rods. After the coolant has transferred the heat it has collected to a steam turbine, it is sent back to the reactor core, thus flowing in a loop, also called a primary circuit.

In order to transfer high-quality thermal energy to the turbine, it is necessary to reach temperatures of about 300 °C. It is the pressure at which the coolant flows through the reactor core that makes the distinction between PWRs and BWRs.

In PWRs, the pressure imparted to the coolant is sufficiently high to prevent it from boiling. The heat drawn from the fuel is transferred to the water of a secondary circuit through heat exchangers. The water of the secondary circuit is transformed into steam, which is fed into a turbine.

In BWRs, the pressure imparted to the coolant is sufficiently lower than in a PWR to allow it to boil. It is the steam resulting from this process that is fed into the turbine.

This basic difference between pressurised and boiling water dictates many of the design characteristics of the two types of light water reactors, as will be explained below.

Despite their differing designs, it must be noted that the two reactor types provide an equivalent level of safety.

Pressurised Water Reactors

The fission zone (fuel elements) is contained in a reactor pressure vessel under a pressure of 150 to 160 bar (15 to 16 MPa). The primary circuit connects the reactor pressure vessel to heat exchangers. The secondary side of these heat exchangers is at a pressure of about 60 bar (6 MPa) - low enough to allow the secondary water to boil. The heat exchangers are, therefore, actually steam generators. Via the secondary circuit, the steam is routed to a turbine driving an alternator. The steam coming out of the turbine is converted back into water by a condenser after having delivered a large amount of its energy to the turbine. It then returns to the steam generator. As the water driving the turbine (secondary circuit) is physically separated from the water used as reactor coolant (primary circuit), the turbine-alternator set can be housed in a turbine hall outside the reactor building.

Nuclear power plant with pressurized water reactor
Nuclear power plant with pressurized water reactor

Boiling Water Reactors

The fission zone is contained in a reactor pressure vessel, at a pressure of about 70 bar (7 MPa). At the temperature reached (290 °C approximately), the water starts boiling and the resulting steam is produced directly in the reactor pressure vessel. After the separation of steam and water in the upper part of the reactor pressure vessel, the steam is routed directly to a turbine driving an alternator.

The steam coming out of the turbine is converted back into water by a condenser after having delivered a large amount of its energy to the turbine. It is then fed back into the primary cooling circuit where it absorbs new heat in the fission zone.

Since the steam produced in the fission zone is slightly radioactive, mainly due to short-lived activation products, the turbine is housed in the same reinforced building as the reactor.

nuclear power plant with boiling water reactor
Principle of a nuclear power plant with boiling water reactor

Source: Informationskreis Kernenergie (Germany)







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