Since it was 30 years since the Chernobyl accident on Tuesday, I was thinking it would be a good idea with 10 facts related to that as a little "comeback" of Friday Facts (so sorry that I don't manage to make these facts every week, it's just that lately I've either been travelling, or really busy with my PhD, which I sort of have to prioritize sometimes 😉 ). Or, not just ten facts, but ten differences between the Chernobyl type RBMK reactor ("reaktor bolshoy moshchnosty kanalny", meaning high-power channel reactor), and the standard pressurized water reactor (PWR).
- PWR is the most common type of reactor in the world operated in countries like USA, Belgium, Brazil, China, Finland, France, Germany, India, Japan (the Fuksuhima reactor was not a PWR, though), Russia, Spain, and Sweden, and several more. The RBMK was a Soviet develloped design - only built in the former Soviet Union.
- the PWR uses water as both moderator (for slowing down all the neutrons from really high energies, to really low energy - which is what we want <3 ) and as cooling medium, but the RBMK uses graphite as moderator, and water as cooling medium. Normally we say that the PWR is light water (light water is what we normally just call "water", instead of heavy water) moderated and cooled, and the RBMK is graphite moderated and light water cooled.
- the RBMK was designed with a positive void coefficient; I'll don't go in detail on that now (if you want me to, I can make a separate blogpost about what this means), but in short it is the reason why the RBMK is unstable under certain conditions
- the tip of the control rods of the RBMK actually didn't control the reactor/absorb the neutrons -it was made out of graphite that speeds up the fission process, instead of a material that actually shuts it down
- the control rods of the RBMK could be withdrawn completely from the reactor - even if it wasn't allowed (no one should EVER be able to overrun safety systems, like it was done the night of the accident)
- it took almost half a minute to insert the control rods into the RBMK reactor; on a PWR it takes around a second or so
- a PWR needs fuel which is enriched to 5% uranium-235, but the RBMK only needed 2% - so it was economical with the fuel
- the RBMK could have its fuel changed while it was running. This, together with the low enrichment (no 7) made it ideal as a producer of weapons plutonium
- a PWR is passively safe, but the RBMK definitely wasn't
- the Chernobyl reactor didn't have any outer barrier; meaning the reactor was placed more or less in a warehouse rather than a full containment building. Therefore, when the reactor actually exploded, the radioactive inside of it could get out, and fresh air (oxygen...!) could get in, making a strong fire that lasted for days
These are just the first ten big differences I could think of, but there are even more.
When I, or other nuclear scientists, say that Chernobyl could never happen in a modern, Western reactor, it's not because we just don't want to see reality or something silly like that, but it's because of these facts listet above - which makes that accident physically impossible in, for example a PWR...!
testing of reactor grade concrete - the concrete stays intact, as the plane is just disintegrated (plane vs concrete: plane 0, concrete 1)
PS: There are still some RBMKs operating in the world today, but major modifications have been made to these reactors.