National Academies Press: OpenBook

Safety and Security of Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage: Public Report (2006)

Chapter: D.3.1 Pressurized Water Reactors

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Suggested Citation:"D.3.1 Pressurized Water Reactors." National Research Council. 2006. Safety and Security of Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage: Public Report. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11263.

shipment or dry storage. Re-racking can make it more difficult to cool the freshly discharged fuel if there is catastrophic loss of the fuel pool water.

D.2.3 Effect of the Three Mile Island Accident

The final factor driving the retrenchment of the nuclear power industry was the Three Mile lsland-2 (TMI-2) accident that occurred on March 28, 1979, in Pennsylvania (Walker, 2004). In that accident a small failure in the reactor coolant system was compounded by operator errors to result in catastrophic damage; a partial core melt occurred. The inability of the operators to understand and control the events, and the confusion among the state, the USNRC, and other responsible agencies about public protection had a devastating effect on public trust in the safety of nuclear power. The USNRC escalated safety requirements after the TMI–2 accident. These new requirements substantially modified the operation of licensed plants, delayed completion of new plants, and further increased their construction costs. The accident also resulted in the retrenchment of nuclear power in the 1980s and led to the cancellation of many plants, decommissioning of some plants, and the sale of some plants to other owners. The fleet of operating U.S. reactors was reduced to the presently operating 103 described here.


All of the commercial power reactors operating in the United States are light water reactors. BOX D.2 describes the LWRs that are currently operating in the United States.

D.3.1 Pressurized Water Reactors

About two-thirds of the U.S. reactors are pressurized-water reactors (PWRs), dual-cycle plants in which the primary cooling water is kept under a pressure of about 2000 pounds per square inch absolute (psia) as it circulates to remove fission and decay heat from the reactor fuel in the core and carry that energy to the steam generators, to generate steam in the lower-pressure secondary loop. The reactor, primary loop piping, and steam generators are all located in the containment structure; the steam lines penetrate the containment carrying the steam to the turbine to generate electrical power.

About one-third of the U.S. reactors are boiling-water reactors (BWRs), single-cycle plants in which the primary coolant of the reactor core is operated at about 1000 psia as it recirculates within the reactor core. The fission and decay heat generated in the core cause a substantial amount of the reactor coolant water to boil into steam that passes out directly from the reactor pressure vessel to the turbine-generator system. Plant differences stem initially from the different designs of the nuclear steam system supplier, the different designs of the architect-engineers that built the plants, and the owners that often specified additional modifications.


replacement racks typically have solid metal walls with neutron-absorbing material for nuclear safety reasons. This configuration inhibits water or air circulation more than the earlier configuration.

Suggested Citation:"D.3.1 Pressurized Water Reactors." National Research Council. 2006. Safety and Security of Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage: Public Report. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11263.
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In response to a request from Congress, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Homeland Security sponsored a National Academies study to assess the safety and security risks of spent nuclear fuel stored in cooling pools and dry casks at commercial nuclear power plants. The information provided in this book examines the risks of terrorist attacks using these materials for a radiological dispersal device. Safety and Security of Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel is an unclassified public summary of a more detailed classified book. The book finds that successful terrorist attacks on spent fuel pools, though difficult, are possible. A propagating fire in a pool could release large amounts of radioactive material, but rearranging spent fuel in the pool during storage and providing emergency water spray systems would reduce the likelihood of a propagating fire even under severe damage conditions. The book suggests that additional studies are needed to better understand these risks. Although dry casks have advantages over cooling pools, pools are necessary at all operating nuclear power plants to store at least the recently discharged fuel. The book explains it would be difficult for terrorists to steal enough spent fuel to construct a significant radiological dispersal device.

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