Industry Developments: Cooling Nuclear Power Plants

By Norman Quesnel, Senior Member of Marketing Staff
Advanced Thermal Solutions, Inc.

(This article will be featured in an upcoming issue of Qpedia Thermal e-Magazine, an online publication dedicated to the thermal management of electronics. To get the current issue or to look through the archives, visit

Most man-made electricity in the U.S. is provided by thermoelectric power plants. In these large scale installations, water is boiled to steam to spin the plant’s turbines and to ultimately generate electricity. To provide the heat necessary to produce this steam, a power plant could burn coal, natural gas or oil. But, in fact, most plants don’t burn anything. Instead, they use a very hot, but carefully controlled core of nuclear material to provide the thermal energy for continuous steam.

Most large power plants use pressurized water reactors (PWRs) with nuclear fuel as their power source. There are different cooling requirements inside these plants and they are typically achieved with primary, secondary and tertiary thermal solutions. First, heat must be managed inside their reactor vessels where the radioactive material is housed. Then, in the steam generators, hot water from the reactor vessels is cooled by transferring its heat to a separated water source, converting it to steam. Lastly, after the steam moves past the turbines, it is condensed back to liquid water, which then returns to the steam generator. An illustration of a nuclear power plant with a pressurized water reactor is shown in Figure 1. [1]

Nuclear  Power Plant

Figure 1. Components of a Pressurized Water Reactor in a Nuclear Power Plant. [2]

Inside a PWR’s reactor core, the primary coolant, usually ordinary water, is heated by energy from atomic fission. Under high pressure to keep it from boiling, the heated water flows along a primary, closed-loop piping system into a steam generator. Here, the heat from the primary loop transfers into an isolated, lower-pressure secondary loop also containing water.

The water in the secondary loop enters the steam generator at a pressure and temperature slightly below that required to initiate boiling. Upon absorbing heat from the primary loop, it becomes saturated and slightly super-heated. The water changes phase to steam, which serves as the working fluid to push the turbine blades and generate electricity.

Finally, the steam is condensed back to water and re-enters the secondary loop. There are different ways to provide this tertiary level of cooling to cause this condensation. [3]

Fueling a Nuclear Reactor

A nuclear power plant’s reactor is most often fueled by U-235, a type of uranium that fissions easily. U-235 is a component of uranium hexafluoride fuel, which is made from mined or milled uranium oxide, called yellowcake. To make the uranium hexafluoride usable as a fuel, it is enriched to increase its U-235 content from 1 percent up to 3-5 percent. This is a low concentration and the enriched uranium is stable over a wide range of environmental conditions.

After the uranium hexafluoride is enriched, a fuel fabricator converts it into uranium dioxide powder and presses the powder into solid fuel pellets. The fabricator loads the ceramic pellets into long, pencil-thin rods made of a noncorrosive material, usually a zirconium alloy. These tubes, each about 4 meters long, are grouped by the hundreds into bundles that are called fuel assemblies. [4]

Figure 2. A Pressurized Water Reactor Includes Inlets and Outlets for Passing Water Coolant. [5]

Figure 2. A Pressurized Water Reactor Includes Inlets and Outlets for Passing Water Coolant. [5]

A single fuel rod assembly for a pressurized water reactor (PWR) is approximately 13 feet high and weighs about 1,450 pounds. [6]

Step 1. Cooling the Nuclear Core

During a nuclear fission chain reaction, fuel rods heat up to about 800°C. If they are left uncovered by water, they’ll reach temperatures well about 1,000°C and begin to oxidize. That oxidation will react with any water that remains in the vicinity, producing highly explosive hydrogen gas. So, fuel rods are kept submerged in demineralized water, which serves as the primary coolant. The water is kept in a pressurized containment vessel and reaches about 325°C. [7]

At the atomic level, continuous exothermic fission in the fuel rods releases heat into the water in the PWC’s reactor. Nuclear power plants manage this fission and its resulting heat with the use of control rods. The rate of fission can be controlled–even stopped–by inserting and removing the control rods in the reactor. The control rods are made with neutron-absorbing material such as cadmium, hafnium or boron. Their presence controls the rate of nuclear reaction by absorbing neutrons, which otherwise would contribute to the fission chain reaction.

Figure 3.  Control Rods Manage the Fission Rate Inside Nuclear Reactor Cores. [8]

Figure 3. Control Rods Manage the Fission Rate Inside Nuclear Reactor Cores. [8]

A single uranium fuel pellet the size of a fingertip contains as much energy as 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas or 1,780 pounds of coal. This relatively clean energy property, along with its vast half-life (700 million years), makes U-235 a viable alternative to burning fossil fuels to turn power plant turbines. [6]

Control Rod Drive Mechanisms (CRDMs) lower, raise, and keep in position assemblies of control rods inside a nuclear reactor. The rods absorb free neutrons, limiting the number available to cause fission of nuclear fuel. [8]

Step 2: Heat Transfer in Steam Generators

In a PWC-style nuclear power plant, the primary coolant, carrying heat from the reactor core, flows through a looped system into and out of a steam generator. Inside the generator it transfers its heat to an isolated, secondary coolant, water, converting it to steam. This steam travels in a secondary loop to the turbines. The transfer of heat from the primary loop to the secondary loop is accomplished without mixing the two fluids to prevent the secondary coolant from becoming radioactive.

Figure 4. Illustration of a Steam Generator. [9]

Figure 4. Illustration of a Steam Generator. [9]

There are multiple generators in a nuclear power plant. Each can measure up to 70 feet in height and weigh as much as 800 tons. A generator has more than 10,000 tubes, adding up to hundreds of miles in total length. A steam generator’s tubes are in a U-shape formation and each tube is about 19mm in diameter. Coolant from the reactor enters the generator’s inlet nozzle and circulates through the U-tubes.

The secondary coolant flows upward by natural convection through the bundle absorbing heat from the tubes of primary coolant. As heat is transferred through the tube walls, the secondary coolant, water, is turned into steam that flows from the top of the generator.

The materials that make up the steam generators and tubes are specially made and specifically designed to withstand heat, thermal expansion, high pressure, corrosion and radiation. The tubes are an important barrier between the radioactive and non-radioactive sides of the plant. For this reason, the integrity of the tubing is essential in minimizing the leakage of water between the two sides. [9]

Figure 5.  Steam Generator Tubes Transfer Heat from the Primary to the Secondary Loop. [8]

Figure 5. Steam Generator Tubes Transfer Heat from the Primary to the Secondary Loop. [8]

Step Three: Condensing the Steam

Once the steam has passed through a turbine, it must be cooled back into water by a third process and returned to the steam generator to be heated once.

Figure 6. Simple Illustration of Recirculation Scheme for Power Plant Steam. [10]

Figure 6. Simple Illustration of Recirculation Scheme for Power Plant Steam. [10]

There are three main methods of cooling a power plant’s steam and residual hot water:

Once-through systems take water from nearby sources (rivers, lakes, oceans), circulate it through condensers, and discharge the now warmer water to the local source. Once-through systems were initially popular because of their simplicity, low cost, and the abundant supplies of cooling water. But these systems can cause disruptions to local ecosystems, mainly from the large water withdrawals.

Wet recirculating systems reuse cooling water in a second cycle rather than immediately discharging it back to the original water source. Typically, wet recirculating systems use cooling towers to expose water to ambient air. Some water evaporates, but the rest is sent back to the condenser in the power plant. Because wet-recirculating systems only withdraw water to replace what’s lost through evaporation, these systems have much lower water withdrawals than once-through systems. Before being fed into the steam generator, the condensed steam (referred to as feed water) is sometimes preheated in order to minimize thermal shock.

More recently, plants have started using a third type of steam cooling system called dry cooling. Instead of using water to lower cooling water temperature, these systems use air passed over the cooling water by one or more large fans. Running those fans can require a significant amount of electricity, which makes this system less suited for large plants that require a lot of steam such as those powered by coal or nuclear energy. [11]

Three Integrated Cooling Systems

The illustration below is a simplified look at the main cooling loops in the Davis-Besse nuclear power station in Ohio. It features a pressurized water reactor in which uranium fuel is in long metal fuel rods (1) leading down to the reactor core (2). The reactor core is inside the reactor vessel (3) which is filled with purified water. Control rods (4) on top of the reactor start and stop the chain reaction that produces heat. When the rods are withdrawn, the nuclear chain reaction occurs, producing heat.

Figure 7. The Three Main Cooling Loops in a Nuclear Power Plant. [12]

Figure 7. The Three Main Cooling Loops in a Nuclear Power Plant. [12]

The water inside the Davis-Bessie PWR is under pressure so it won’t boil as its temperature rises by passing through the nuclear core. The water then travels along tubes through the steam generator (5) and back to the reactor. This constitutes the primary loop (green). After it has passed through the steam generator, the water has cooled down. The average temperature in this cycle is maintained at 582°F.

When the primary coolant water passes through the steam generator, its heat is transferred to the secondary loop (blue). Heat is transferred without the water in the primary loop and secondary loop ever coming in contact with each other. The water in the secondary loop boils to steam in the steam generator. This steam flows to the turbine generator (6). It is here that the steam’s energy is made into electricity.

When the steam leaves the turbine, it comes in contact with pipes carrying cooling water. As the steam cools, it changes back into water. The third loop (yellow) contains the water that is cooled by the large cooling tower (7). [12]

Among all of the power plants in the US, just over half reuse their cooling water. The rest are either dry systems or hybrid systems which can switch between dry and some sort of wet cooling depending on the temperature and availability of water.

[1] Bright Hub Engineering,
[2, 3]
[6] Nuclear Energy Institute,
[8] Vallourec,
[10] Union of Concerned Scientists,

One response to “Industry Developments: Cooling Nuclear Power Plants

  1. It’s amazing to think that advances in nuclear energy have led to unprecedented amounts of efficiency. My wife and I want to move to an area that is ready to switch to cleaner energy. We’ll be sure to keep your facts in mind as we find somewhere to move!

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