Helping nuclear plants keep their cool
November 6, 1996
Web posted at: 4:45 p.m. EST
From Correspondent Dick Wilson
WEST LAFAYETTE, Indiana (CNN) -- Sometimes a complicated
problem can be solved with a simple solution, even when the
problem is as difficult as keeping a nuclear reactor
Traditional systems have relied on powered mechanical pumps.
Now, a simpler method relies on the law of gravity.
Accidents at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986
were pivotal events in the history of nuclear power plants.
Both became fixed in the public mind as fearful, even
disastrous accidents. In both cases a cooling system failure
caused the reactors to overheat.
Some nuclear scientists say there is a new and safer way to
run nuclear power plants that could prevent such mishaps.
At Purdue University in Indiana, scientists are working on a
reactor-like device that uses water circulated by gravity to
keep the core cool. Most nuclear plants throughout the world
currently rely on a system of electric pumps to keep from
Purdue scientists say their gravity-driven cooling system
would keep working by itself, even if operators walked away
during an accident.
The project is now in the design and testing phase.
In one test, scientists simulate the conditions of a main
steam-line break. "That is one of the worst scenarios. If you
break this large pipe, then the coolant will gush out," said
Purdue scientist Mamoru Ishii.
The gravity-based system responded as it was designed to,
circulating water and steam in a continuous loop to keep the
scale-model reactor at a safe temperature automatically.
The prototype system is run by a set of computer codes,
rather than plant personnel.
"The final result will be a ... next-generation computer code
which the public can have confidence in," said professor
Victor Ransom, who is also on the Purdue team.
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This type of passive safety system may sound simple. But
scientists say it could take another 10 years of research and
construction before the design is ready to be used in a
nuclear power plant in the United States.
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