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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No-Melt Nuclear ‘Power Balls’ Might Win A Few Hearts And Minds

A nuclear power plant is large and complex, and one of the biggest reasons is safety. Splitting radioactive atoms is inherently dangerous, but the energy unleashed by the chain reaction that ensues is the entire point. It’s a delicate balance to stay in the sweet spot, and it requires constant attention to the core temperature, or else the reactor could go into meltdown.

Today, nuclear fission is largely produced with fuel rods, which are skinny zirconium tubes packed with uranium pellets. The fission rate is kept in check with control rods, which are made of various elements like boron and cadmium that can absorb a lot of excess neutrons. Control rods calm the furious fission boil down to a sensible simmer, and can be recycled until they either wear out mechanically or become saturated with neutrons.

Nuclear power plants tend to have large footprints because of all the safety measures that are designed to prevent meltdowns. If there was a fuel that could withstand enough heat to make meltdowns physically impossible, then there would be no need for reactors to be buffered by millions of dollars in containment equipment. Stripped of these redundant, space-hogging safety measures, the nuclear process could be shrunk down quite a bit. Continue reading “No-Melt Nuclear ‘Power Balls’ Might Win A Few Hearts And Minds”