How Germany’s Troubled Pebble Bed Reactor Came Of Age In China

Although the concept of nuclear fission is a simple and straightforward one, the many choices for fuel types, fuel design, reactor configurations, coolant types, neutron moderator or reflector types, etc. make that nuclear fission reactors have blossomed into a wide range of reactor designs, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. The story of the pebble bed reactor (PBR) is among the most interesting here, with its development winding its way from the US Manhattan Project over the Atlantic to Germany’s nuclear power industry during the 1960s, before finding a welcoming home in China’s rapidly growing nuclear power industry.

As a reactor design, PBRs do not use fuel rods like most other nuclear reactors, but rather spherical fuel elements (‘pebbles’) that are inserted at the top of the reactor vessel and extracted at the bottom, allowing for continuous refueling, while helium acts as coolant. With a strong negative temperature coefficient, the design should be extremely safe, while providing high-temperature steam that can be used for applications that otherwise require a coal boiler or gas turbine.

With China recently having put its twin-PBR HTR-PM plant into commercial operation, why is it that it was not the US, Germany or South Africa to first commercialize PBRs, but relative newcomer China?

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Getting IEC Standards For Free

The International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) is an international body that issues standards on a wide range of electronics-related topics. How wide? Their mandate seems to span rules for household product safety to the specification of safety logic assemblies in nuclear power plants. Want to know how to electrically measure sound loudness? Test methods for digital door lock systems? Or maybe you’re interested in safety interlock systems for laser processing machines. There’s an IEC standard for that too.

Unfortunately, this information is kept behind a paywall. OK, it’s a lot more like a pay fortress. They really, really don’t want you accessing their documents without first coughing up. This is a shame.

The IEC doesn’t just make the standards in a vacuum, however. Before the scribes touch their chisels to the stone tablets, there are draft versions of the standards that are open for public comment by those knowledgeable in the field. And by “those knowledgeable”, we mean you, dear hacker. Head on over to the public commenting page, sign up, and you’ve got free access to every document that’s currently up for discussion.

Now, it does look like the IEC doesn’t want you sharing these PDFs around — they watermark them with your username and threaten all sorts of things if you use them for anything other than commenting purposes — so don’t go abusing the system. But on the other hand, if you are a private individual who knows a thing or two about a thing or two, we think you’re entirely right to look over their shoulders. Let us know in the comments if you find any gems.

They’ve even got a weekly update feature (in the registration pages) that’ll keep you up to date. And who knows, maybe your two cents, submitted to your country’s chapter of the IEC, will influence future international standards.

Thanks to [Johann] for the great tip!