Boiling water reactor

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A boiling water reactor (BWR) is a type of nuclear reactor developed by the General Electric in the mid 1950s.[citation needed]


The BWR is characterized by two-phase fluid flow (water and steam) in the upper part of the reactor core. Light water (i.e., common distilled water) is the working fluid used to conduct heat away from the nuclear fuel. The water around the fuel elements also "thermalizes" neutrons, i.e., reduces their kinetic energy, which is necessary to improve the probability of fission of fissile fuel. Fissile fuel material, such as the U-235 and Pu-239 isotopes, have large capture cross sections for thermal neutrons.

Comparison with other reactors

Light water is ordinary water. In comparison, some other water-cooled reactor types use heavy water, such as the Canadian made CANDU reactor series. In heavy water, the deuterium isotope of hydrogen replaces the common hydrogen atoms in the water molecules (D2O instead of H2O, molecular weight 20 instead of 18).

The Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR) was the first type of light-water reactor developed because of its application to submarine propulsion. The civilian motivation for the BWR is reducing costs for commercial applications through design simplification and lower pressure components. There are no naval BWR type reactors. The description of BWRs below describes civilian reactor plants in which the same water used for reactor cooling is also used in the Rankine cycle turbine generators.

In contrast to the pressurized water reactors that utilize a primary and secondary loop, in civilian BWRs the steam going to the turbine that powers the electrical generator is produced in the reactor core rather than in steam generators or heat exchangers. There is just a single circuit in a civilian BWR in which the water is at lower pressure (about 75 times atmospheric pressure) compared to a PWR so that it boils in the core at about 285°C. The reactor is designed to operate with steam comprising 12–15% of the mass of the two-phase coolant flow (exit quality) in the top part of the core, resulting in less moderation, lower neutron efficiency and lower power density than in the bottom part of the core. In comparison, there is no significant boiling allowed in a PWR because of the high pressure maintained in its primary loop (about 158 times atmospheric pressure).


Steam exiting from the turbine flows into condensers located underneath the low pressure turbines where the steam is cooled and returned to the liquid state (condensate). The condensate is then pumped through feedwater heaters that raise its temperature using extraction steam from various turbine stages. Feedwater from the feedwater heaters enters the reactor pressure vessel (RPV) through nozzles high on the vessel, well above the top of the nuclear fuel assemblies (these nuclear fuel assemblies constitute the "core") but below the water level.

The feedwater enters into the downcomer region and combines with water exiting the water separators. The feedwater subcools the saturated water from the steam separators. This water now flows down the downcomer region, which is separated from the core by a tall shroud. The water then goes through either jet pumps or internal recirculation pumps that provide additional pumping power (hydraulic head). The water now makes a 180 degree turn and moves up through the lower core plate into the nuclear core where the fuel elements heat the water. Water exiting the fuel channels at the top guide is about 12 to 15% saturated steam (by mass), typical core flow may be 100E6 lb/hr with 14.5E6 lb/hr steam flow. However, core-average void fraction is a significantly higher fraction (~40%). These sort of values may be found in each plant's publicly available Technical Specifications, Final Safety Analysis Report, or Core Operating Limits Report.

The heating from the core creates a thermal head that assists the recirculation pumps in recirculating the water inside of the RPV. A BWR can be designed with no recirculation pumps and rely entirely on the thermal head to recirculate the water inside of the RPV. The forced recirculation head from the recirculation pumps is very useful in controlling power, however. The thermal power level is easily varied by simply increasing or decreasing the forced recirculation flow through the recirculation pumps.

The two phase fluid (water and steam) above the core enters the riser area, which is the upper region contained inside of the shroud. The height of this region may be increased to increase the thermal natural recirculation pumping head. At the top of the riser area is the water separator. By swirling the two phase flow in cyclone separators, the steam is separated and rises upwards towards the steam dryer while the water remains behind and flows horizontally out into the downcomer region. In the downcomer region, it combines with the feedwater flow and the cycle repeats.

The saturated steam that rises above the separator is dried by a chevron dryer structure. The steam then exits the RPV through four main steam lines and goes to the turbine.

Control systems

Reactor power is controlled via two methods: by inserting or withdrawing control rods and by changing the water flow through the reactor core.

Positioning (withdrawing or inserting) control rods is the normal method for controlling power when starting up a BWR. As control rods are withdrawn, neutron absorption decreases in the control material and increases in the fuel, so reactor power increases. As control rods are inserted, neutron absorption increases in the control material and decreases in the fuel, so reactor power decreases. Some early BWRs and the proposed ESBWR (Economic Simplified BWR) designs use only natural circulation with control rod positioning to control power from zero to 100% because they do not have reactor recirculation systems.

Changing (increasing or decreasing) the flow of water through the core is the normal and convenient method for controlling power. When operating on the so-called "100% rod line," power may be varied from approximately 70% to 100% of rated power by changing the reactor recirculation system flow by varying the speed of the recirculation pumps. As flow of water through the core is increased, steam bubbles ("voids") are more quickly removed from the core, the amount of liquid water in the core increases, neutron moderation increases, more neutrons are slowed down to be absorbed by the fuel, and reactor power increases. As flow of water through the core is decreased, steam voids remain longer in the core, the amount of liquid water in the core decreases, neutron moderation decreases, fewer neutrons are slowed down to be absorbed by the fuel, and reactor power decreases.

Start-Up ("Going Critical")

GE developed a set of rules in the '70s called BPWS (Banked Position Withdrawal Sequence) that help minimize notch worths and going critical with asymmetric patterns.

Reactor Protection System SCRAM

Depending on the power level of the reactor (i.e. ascending or at power) there are circumstances where all control rods will automatically insert, which will take the reactor to decay heat power levels within tens of seconds. Since ~ 0.6% of neutrons are emitted from fission products ("delayed" neutrons), which are born seconds/minutes after fission, all fission can not be terminated instantaneously. Automatic SCRAMs (SCRAM = immediate insertion of all control rods) are initiated upon:

  1. Low reactor water level indicative of:
    1. loss of coolant accident (i.e. LOCA)
    2. loss of proper feedwater
    3. etc.
  2. High drywell (primary containment) pressure
    1. indicative of loss of coolant accident
  3. Main Steam Isolation Valve Closure (MSIV)
    1. indicative of main steam line break
  4. Turbine stop valve or turbine control valve closure
    1. if turbine protection systems wish to cease admission of steam the Reactor SCRAM is in anticipation of a pressure transient that would increase reactivity (collapse boiling voids)
    2. generator load rejection will also cause closure of turbine valves and SCRAM reactor
  5. Loss of Offsite Power
    1. during normal operation, the reactor protection system (RPS) is powered by offsite power
      1. loss of offsite power would open all relays in the RPS would open causing all SCRAM signals to come in redundantly
      2. would also cause MSIV to close since RPS is fail safe; plant assumes a main steam break is coincident with loss of offsite power

Thermal Margins

Three calculated/measured quantities are tracked while operating a BWR, MFLCPR (Maximum Fraction Limiting Critical Power Ratio), FLLHGR (Fraction Limiting Linear Heat Generation Rate), APLHGR (Average Planar Linear Heat Generation Rate). All three of these quantities must be kept less than 1.0 during normal operation; administrative controls are in place to assure some margin to these licensed limits. Typical computer simulations divide the reactor core into 24-25 axial planes; relevant quantities (margins, burnup, power, void history) are tracked for each "node" in the reactor core (764 fuel assemblies x 25 nodes/assembly = 19100 nodal calculations/quantity). MFLCPR represents how close the leading fuel bundle is to "dry-out" or "departure from nucleate boiling." Transition boiling is the unstable transient region where nucleate boiling tends toward film boiling. A water drop dancing on a hot frying pan is an example of film boiling. During film boiling a volume of insulating vapor separates the heated surface from the cooling fluid; this causes the temperature of the heated surface to increase drastically to once again reach equilibrium heat transfer with the cooling fluid. In other words, steam semi-insulates the heated surface and surface temperature rises to allow heat to get to the cooling fluid (through convection and radiative heat transfer). MFLCPR is monitored with an empirical correlation that is formulated by vendors of BWR fuel (GE, Westinghouse, AREVA-NP). The vendors have test rigs where they simulate nuclear heat with resistive heating and determine experimentally what conditions of coolant flow, fuel assembly power, and reactor pressure will be in/out of the transition boiling region for a particular fuel design. In essence, the vendors make a model of the fuel assembly but power it with resistive heaters. These mock fuel assemblies are put into a test stand where data points are taken at specific powers, flows, pressures. It is obvious that nuclear fuel could be damaged by film boiling; this would cause the fuel cladding to overheat and fail. Experimental data is conservatively applied to BWR fuel to ensure that the transition to film boiling does not occur during normal or transient operation. Typical SLMCPR/MCPRSL (Safety Limit MCPR) licensing limit for a BWR core is substantiated by a calculation that proves that 99.9% of fuel rods in a BWR core will not enter the transition to film boiling in the event of the worst possible plant transient/scram anticipated to occur. Since the BWR is boiling water, and steam does not transfer heat as well as water, MFCLPR typically occurs at the top of a fuel assembly, where steam volume is the highest. FLLHGR (FLDRX, MFLPD) is a limit on fuel rod power in the reactor core. For new fuel, this limit is typically around 13 Kw/foot of fuel rod. This limit ensures that the centerline temperature of the fuel pellets in the rods will not exceed the melting point of the fuel material (uranium/gadolinium oxides) in the event of the worst possible plant transient/scram anticipated to occur. To illustrate the response of LHGR in transient imagine the rapid closure of the valves that admit steam to the turbines at full power. This causes the immediate cessation of steam flow and an immediate rise in BWR pressure. This rise in pressure effectively subcools the reactor coolant instantaneously; the voids (vapor) collapse into solid water. When the voids collapse in the reactor, the fission reaction is encouraged (more thermal neutrons); power increases drastically (120%) until it is terminated by the automatic insertion of the control rods. So, when the reactor is isolated from the turbine rapidly, pressure in the vessel rises rapidly, which collapses the water vapor, which causes a power excursion which is terminated by the Reactor Protection System. If a fuel pin was operating at 13.0 Kw/foot prior to the transient, the void collapse would cause its power to rise. The FLLHGR limit is in place to ensure that the highest powered fuel rod will not melt if its power was rapidly increased following a pressurization transient. Abiding by the LHGR limit precludes melting of fuel in a pressurization transient. APLHGR being an average of LHGR is a margin associated with fuel melting during a LOCA (Loss of Coolant Accident - pressure boundary rupture). The BWR plant was designed with dooms-day protection systems that will ensure the integrity of the reactor fuel in the event of a massive pipe rupture and rapid de-pressurization of the vessel, which would uncover the fuel. These protection systems have capacities that they can handle and it is required that the heat stored in the fuel assemblies at any one time does not overwhelm the protection systems. APLHGR is monitored to ensure that the reactor is not operated at an average power level that would defeat the primary containment systems. When a [reloaded] core is licensed to operate, the fuel vendor/licensee simulate transients with computer models. Their approach is to simulate worst case transients in the reactor's most vulnerable states.

Steam Turbines

Steam produced in the reactor core passes through steam separators and dryer plates above the core and then directly to the turbine, which is part of the reactor circuit. Because the water around the core of a reactor is always contaminated with traces of radionuclides, the turbine must be shielded during normal operation, and radiological protection must be provided during maintenance. The increased cost related to operation and maintenance of a BWR tends to balance the savings due to the simpler design and greater thermal efficiency of a BWR when compared with a PWR. Most of the radioactivity in the water is very short-lived (mostly N-16, with a 7 second half life), so the turbine hall can be entered soon after the reactor is shut down.


Like the pressurized water reactor, the BWR reactor core continues to produce heat from radioactive decay after the fission reactions have stopped, making nuclear meltdown possible in the event that all safety systems have failed and the core does not receive coolant. Also like the pressurized water reactor, a boiling-water reactor has a negative void coefficient, that is, the thermal output decreases as the proportion of steam to liquid water increases inside the reactor. However, unlike a pressurized water reactor which contains no steam in the reactor core, a sudden increase in BWR steam pressure (caused, for example, by a blockage of steam flow from the reactor) will result in a sudden decrease in the proportion of steam to liquid water inside the reactor. The increased ratio of water to steam will lead to increased neutron moderation, which in turn will cause an increase in the power output of the reactor. Because of this effect in BWRs, operating components and safety systems are designed to ensure that no credible, postulated failure can cause a pressure and power increase that exceeds the safety systems' capability to quickly shutdown the reactor before damage to the fuel or to components containing the reactor coolant can occur.

In the event of an emergency that disables all of the safety systems, each reactor is surrounded by a containment building designed to seal off the reactor from the environment.


A modern BWR fuel assembly comprises 74 to 100 fuel rods, and there are up to approximately 800 assemblies in a reactor core, holding up to approximately 140 tonnes of uranium. The number of fuel assemblies in a specific reactor is based on considerations of desired reactor power output, reactor core size and reactor power density.

The current generation of BWRs, in operation in Japan, are called Advanced Boiling Water Reactors (ABWR).



  • The reactor vessel and associated components operate at a substantially lower pressure (about 75 times atmospheric pressure) compared to a PWR (about 158 times atmospheric pressure).
  • Pressure vessel is subject to significantly less irradiation compared to a PWR, and so does not become as brittle with age.
  • Operates at a lower nuclear fuel temperature.
  • Fewer components due to no steam generators and no pressurizer vessel. (Older BWRs have external recirculation loops, but even this piping is eliminated in modern BWRs, such as the ABWR.)
  • Lower risk (probability) of a rupture causing loss of coolant compared to a PWR, and lower risk of a severe accident should such a rupture occur. This is due to fewer pipes, fewer large diameter pipes, fewer welds and no steam generator tubes.
  • Measuring the water level in the pressure vessel is the same for both normal and emergency operations, which results in easy and intuitive assessment of emergency conditions.
  • Can operate at lower core power density levels using natural circulation without forced flow.
  • A BWR may be designed to operate using only natural circulation so that recirculation pumps are eliminated entirely. (The new ESBWR design uses natural circulation.)


  • Complex calculations for managing consumption of nuclear fuel during operation due to "two phase (water and steam) fluid flow" in the upper part of the core. This requires more instrumentation in the reactor core. The innovation of computers, however, makes this less of an issue.
  • Much larger pressure vessel than for a PWR of similar power, with correspondingly higher cost. (However, the overall cost is reduced because a modern BWR has no main steam generators and associated piping.)
  • Contamination of the turbine by short-lived activation products. This means that shielding and access control around the steam turbine are required during normal operations due to the radiation levels arising from the steam entering directly from the reactor core.
  • Control rods are inserted from below for current BWR designs. There are two available hydraulic power sources that can drive the control rods into the core for a BWR under emergency conditions. There is a dedicated high pressure hydraulic accumulator and also the pressure inside of the reactor pressure vessel available to each control rod. Either the dedicated accumulator (one per rod) or reactor pressure is capable of fully inserting each rod. Most other reactor types use top entry control rods that are held up in the withdrawn position by electromagnets, causing them to fall into the reactor by gravity if power is lost.

List of BWRs

U.S. Commercial Boiling Water Reactor Nuclear Power Plants

(this list is believed to be complete)

Other commercial BWRs

Commercial BWRs outside the USA include:

Experimental and other BWRs

Experimental and other non-commercial BWRs include:

  • SL-1 (permanently shut down following accident in 1961)

Next-generation designs

See also

External links

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