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Graphite Pebble for Reactor

The pebble bed reactor (PBR) is a graphite-moderated, gas-cooled, nuclear reactor. It is a type of Very high temperature reactor (VHTR) [formally known as the high temperature gas reactor (HTGR)], one of the six classes of nuclear reactors in the Generation IV initiative. Like other VHTR designs, the PBR uses TRISO fuel particles, which allows for high outlet temperatures and passive safety.

The base of the PBR's unique design is the spherical fuel elements called "pebbles". These tennis ball-sized pebbles are made of pyrolytic graphite (which acts as the moderator), and they contain thousands of micro fuel particles called TRISO particles. These TRISO fuel particles consist of a fissile material (such as U235) surrounded by a coated ceramic layer of SiC for structural integrity and fission product containment. In the PBR, 360,000 pebbles are amassed to create a reactor core, and are cooled by an inert or semi-inert gas such as helium, nitrogen or carbon dioxide.

This type of reactor is also unique because its passive safety removes the need for redundant, active safety systems. Because the reactor is designed to handle high temperatures, it can cool by natural circulation and still remain intact in accident scenarios, which may raise the temperature of the reactor to 1600°C. Because of its design, its high temperatures allow higher thermal efficiencies than possible in traditional nuclear power plants (up to 50%) and has the additional advantage that the gases do not dissolve contaminants or absorb neutrons as water does, so the core has less in the way of radioactive fluids. A number of prototypes have been built. Active development is ongoing in South Africa as the PBMR design, and in China whose HTR-10 is the only prototype currently operating.

The technology was first developed in Germany[1] but political and economic decisions were made to abandon the technology.[2] In various forms, it is currently under development by MIT, the South African company PBMR, General Atomics (U.S.), the Dutch company Romawa B.V., Adams Atomic Engines [1], Idaho National Laboratory, and the Chinese company Huaneng.[3] In June 2004, it was announced that a new PBMR would be built at Koeberg, South Africa by Eskom, the government-owned electrical utility.[4] There is opposition to the PBMR from groups such as Koeberg Alert and Earthlife Africa, the latter of which has sued Eskom to stop development of the project.[5] In September 2009 the demonstration power plant was postponed indefinitely.[6]

One proposed design of nuclear thermal rocket uses pebble-like fuel containers in a fluidized bed to achieve extremely high temperatures.


Pebble bed design

A pebble bed power plant combines a gas-cooled core[7] and a novel packaging of the fuel that dramatically reduces complexity while improving safety.[8]

The uranium, thorium or plutonium nuclear fuels are in the form of a ceramic (usually oxides or carbides) contained within spherical pebbles a little smaller than the size of a tennis ball and made of pyrolytic graphite, which acts as the primary neutron moderator. The pebble design is relatively simple, with each sphere consisting of the nuclear fuel, fission product barrier, and moderator (which in a traditional water reactor would all be different parts). Simply piling enough pebbles together in a critical geometry will allow for criticality.

The pebbles are held in a bin or can. An inert gas (such as helium, nitrogen or carbon dioxide) circulates through the spaces between the fuel pebbles to carry heat away from the reactor. If helium is used, because it is lighter than air, air can displace the helium if the reactor wall is breached. Pebble bed reactors need fire-prevention features to keep the graphite of the pebbles from burning in the presence of air although the flammability of the pebbles is disputed. Ideally, the heated gas is run directly through a turbine. However, if the gas from the primary coolant can be made radioactive by the neutrons in the reactor, or a fuel defect could still contaminate the power production equipment, it may be brought instead to a heat exchanger where it heats another gas or produces steam. The exhaust of the turbine is quite warm and may be used to warm buildings or chemical plants, or even run another heat engine.

Much of the cost of a conventional, water-cooled nuclear power plant is due to cooling system complexity. These are part of the safety of the overall design, and thus require extensive safety systems and redundant backups. A water-cooled reactor is generally dwarfed by the cooling systems attached to it. Additional issues are that the core irradiates the water with neutrons causing the water and impurities dissolved in it to become radioactive and that the high pressure piping in the primary side becomes embrittled and requires continual inspection and eventual replacement.

In contrast, a pebble bed reactor is gas cooled, sometimes at low pressures. The spaces between the pebbles form the "piping" in the core. Since there is no piping in the core and the coolant contains no hydrogen, embrittlement is not a failure concern. The preferred gas, Helium, does not easily absorb neutrons or impurities. Therefore, compared to water, it is both more efficient and less likely to become radioactive.

A large advantage of the pebble bed reactor over a conventional light-water reactor is that it operates at higher temperatures. The reactor can directly heat fluids for low pressure gas turbines. The high temperatures allow a turbine to extract more mechanical energy from the same amount of thermal energy; therefore, the power system uses less fuel per kilowatt-hour.

A significant technical advantage is that some designs are throttled by temperature, not by control rods. The reactor can be simpler because it does not need to operate well at the varying neutron profiles caused by partially-withdrawn control rods. For maintenance, many designs include control rods, called "absorbers" that are inserted through tubes in a neutron reflector around the reactor core. A reactor can change power quickly just by changing the coolant flow rate and can also change power more efficiently (say, for utility power) by changing the coolant density or heat capacity. The reactor design is such that it is power-limited or inherently self controlling due to Doppler broadening.

Pebble bed reactors are also capable of using fuel pebbles made from different fuels in the same basic design of reactor (though perhaps not at the same time). Proponents claim that some kinds of pebble-bed reactors should be able to use thorium, plutonium and natural unenriched uranium, as well as the customary enriched uranium. There is a project in progress to develop pebbles and reactors that use MOX fuel, that mixes uranium with plutonium from either reprocessed fuel rods or decommissioned nuclear weapons.

In most stationary pebble-bed reactor designs, fuel replacement is continuous. Instead of shutting down for weeks to replace fuel rods, pebbles are placed in a bin-shaped reactor. A pebble is recycled from the bottom to the top about ten times over a few years, and tested each time it is removed. When it is expended, it is removed to the nuclear waste area, and a new pebble inserted.

The core generates less power as its temperature rises, and therefore cannot have a criticality excursion when the machinery fails, it is power-limited or inherently self controlling due to Doppler broadening. At such low power densities, the reactor can be designed to lose more heat through its walls than it would generate. In order to generate much power it has to be cooled, and then the energy is extracted from the coolant.

Safety features

When the nuclear fuel increases in temperature, the rapid motion of the atoms in the fuel causes an effect known as Doppler broadening. The fuel then sees a wider range of relative neutron speeds. U238, which forms the bulk of the uranium in the reactor, is much more likely to absorb fast or epithermal neutrons at higher temperatures. [2] This reduces the number of neutrons available to cause fission, and reduces the power of the reactor. Doppler broadening therefore creates a negative feedback because as fuel temperature increases, reactor power decreases. All reactors have reactivity feedback mechanisms, but the pebble bed reactor is designed so that this effect is very strong and does not depend on any kind of machinery or moving parts. Because of this, its passive cooling, and because the pebble bed reactor is designed for higher temperatures, the pebble bed reactor can passively reduce to a safe power level in an accident scenario. This is the main passive safety feature of the pebble bed reactor, and it makes the pebble bed design (as well as other very high temperature reactors) unique from conventional light water reactors which require active safety controls.

The reactor is cooled by an inert, fireproof gas, so it cannot have a steam explosion as a light-water reactor can. The coolant has no phase transitions—it starts as a gas and remains a gas. Similarly, the moderator is solid carbon, it does not act as a coolant, move, or have phase transitions (i.e., between liquid and gas) as the light water in conventional reactors does.

A pebble-bed reactor thus can have all of its supporting machinery fail, and the reactor will not crack, melt, explode or spew hazardous wastes. It simply goes up to a designed "idle" temperature, and stays there. In that state, the reactor vessel radiates heat, but the vessel and fuel spheres remain intact and undamaged. The machinery can be repaired or the fuel can be removed. These safety features were tested (and filmed) with the German AVR reactor.[9]. All the control rods were removed, and the coolant flow was halted. Afterward, the fuel balls were sampled and examined for damage and there was none.

PBRs are intentionally operated above the 250 °C annealing temperature of graphite, so that Wigner energy is not accumulated. This solves a problem discovered in an infamous accident, the Windscale fire. One of the reactors at the Windscale site in England (not a PBR) caught fire because of the release of energy stored as crystalline dislocations (Wigner energy) in the graphite. The dislocations are caused by neutron passage through the graphite. At Windscale, a program of regular annealing was put in place to release accumulated Wigner energy, but since the effect was not anticipated during the construction of the reactor, the process could not be reliably controlled, and led to a fire.

The continuous refueling means that there is no excess reactivity in the core. Continuous refueling also permits continuous inspection of the fuel elements.

The design and reliability of the pebbles is crucial to the reactor's simplicity and safety, because they contain the nuclear fuel. The pebbles are the size of tennis balls. Each has a mass of 210 g, 9 g of which is uranium. It takes 380,000 to fuel a reactor of 120 MWe. The pebbles are mostly high density graphite and keeps its structural stability at the maximum equilibrium temperature of the reactor. The graphite is the moderator for the reactor, and are strong containment vessels. In fact, most waste disposal plans for pebble-bed reactors plan to store the waste within the spent pebbles.[citation needed]

The pebbles contain about fifteen thousand TRISO particles. Each TRISO particle is the size of a grain of sand (0.5 mm), and contain a kernel of fissile material.



Most pebble-bed reactors contain many reinforcing levels of containment to prevent contact between the radioactive materials and the biosphere.

  1. Most reactor systems are enclosed in a containment building designed to resist aircraft crashes and earthquakes.
  2. The reactor itself is usually in a two-meter-thick-walled room with doors that can be closed, and cooling plenums that can be filled from any water source.
  3. The reactor vessel is usually sealed.
  4. Each pebble, within the vessel, is a 60 mm (2.6") hollow sphere of pyrolytic graphite.
  5. A wrapping of fireproof silicon carbide
  6. Low density porous pyrolytic carbon, high density nonporous pyrolytic carbon
  7. The fission fuel is in the form of metal oxides or carbides

Pyrolytic graphite is the main structural material in these pebbles. It sublimes at 4000 °C, more than twice the design temperature of most reactors. It slows neutrons very effectively, is strong, inexpensive, and has a long history of use in reactors. Its strength and hardness come from anisotropic crystals of carbon. Pyrolytic graphite is also used, unreinforced, to construct missile reentry nose-cones and large solid rocket nozzles.[10] It is nothing like the powdered mixture of flakes and waxes in pencil leads or lubricants.

Pyrolytic carbon can burn in air when the reaction is catalyzed by a hydroxyl radical (e.g., from water).[citation needed] Infamous examples include the accidents at Windscale and Chernobyl—both graphite-moderated reactors. Some engineers insist that pyrolytic carbon cannot burn in air, and cite engineering studies of high-density pyrolytic carbon in which water is excluded from the test. However, all pebble-bed reactors are cooled by inert gases to prevent fire. All pebble designs also have at least one layer of silicon carbide that serves as a fire break, as well as a seal.

The fissionables are also stable oxides or carbides of uranium, plutonium or thorium which have higher melting points than the metals. The oxides cannot burn in oxygen, but have some potential to react via diffusion with graphite at sufficiently high temperatures; the carbides might burn in oxygen but cannot react with graphite. The fission materials are about the size of a sand grain, so they are too heavy to be dispersed in the smoke of a fire.

The layer of porous pyrolytic graphite right next to the fissionable ceramic absorbs the radioactive gases (mostly xenon) emitted when the heavy elements split. Most reaction products remain metals, and reoxidize.[citation needed] A secondary benefit is that the gaseous fission products remain in the reactor to contribute their energy. The low density layer of graphite is surrounded by a higher-density nonporous layer of pyrolytic graphite. This is another mechanical containment. The outer layer of each seed is surrounded by silicon carbide. The silicon carbide is nonporous, mechanically strong, very hard, and also cannot burn.

Many authorities consider that pebbled radioactive waste is stable enough that it can be safely disposed of in geological storage thus used fuel pebbles could just be transported to disposal.[citation needed]

Production of fuel

Most authorities agree (2002) that German fuel-pebbles release about three orders of magnitude (1000 times) less radioactive gas than the U.S. equivalents.[11][12]

All kernels are precipitated from a sol-gel, then washed, dried and calcined. U.S. kernels use uranium carbide, while German (AVR) kernels use uranium dioxide.

The precipitation of the pyrolytic graphite is by a mixture of argon, propylene and acetylene in a fluidized-bed coater at about 1275 °C. The fluidized bed moves gas up through the bed of particles, "floating" them against gravity. The high-density pyrolytic carbon uses less propylene than the porous gas-absorbing carbon. German particles are produced in a continuous process, from ultra-pure ingredients at higher temperatures and concentrations. U.S. coatings are produced in a batch process. Although the German carbon coatings are more porous, they are also more isotropic (same properties in all directions), and resist cracking better than the denser U.S. coatings.[citation needed]

The silicon carbide coating is precipitated from a mixture of hydrogen and methyltrichlorosilane. Again, the German process is continuous, while the U.S. process is batch-oriented. The more porous German pyrolytic carbon actually causes stronger bonding with the silicon carbide coat. The faster German coating process causes smaller, equiaxial grains in the silicon carbide. Therefore, it may be both less porous and less brittle.[citation needed]

Some experimental fuels plan to replace the silicon carbide with zirconium carbide to run at higher temperatures.

Criticisms of the reactor design

The most common criticism of pebble bed reactors is that encasing the fuel in potentially combustible graphite poses a hazard. Were the graphite to burn, fuel material could potentially be carried away in smoke from the fire. Since burning graphite requires oxygen, the fuel kernels are coated with an impermeable layer of silicon carbide, and the reaction vessel is purged of oxygen. While silicon carbide is strong in abrasion and compression applications, it does not have the same strength against expansion and shear forces. Some fission products such as xenon-133 have a limited absorbance in carbon, and some fuel kernels could accumulate enough gas to rupture the silicon carbide layer.[citation needed] Even a cracked pebble will not burn without oxygen, but the fuel pebble may not be rotated out and inspected for months, leaving a window of vulnerability.

Some designs for pebble bed reactors lack a containment building, potentially making such reactors more vulnerable to outside attack and allowing radioactive material to spread in the case of an explosion. However, the current emphasis on reactor safety means that any new design will likely have a strong reinforced concrete containment structure.[13] Also, any explosion would most likely be caused by an external factor, as the design does not suffer from the steam explosion-vulnerability of some water-cooled reactors.

Since the fuel is contained in graphite pebbles, the volume of radioactive waste is much greater, but contains about the same radioactivity when measured in becquerels per kilowatt-hour. The waste tends to be less hazardous and simpler to handle[citation needed]. Current US legislation requires all waste to be safely contained, therefore pebble bed reactors would increase existing storage problems. Defects in the production of pebbles may also cause problems. The radioactive waste must either be safely stored for many human generations, typically in a deep geological repository, reprocessed, transmuted in a different type of reactor, or disposed of by some other alternative method yet to be devised. The graphite pebbles are more difficult to reprocess due to their construction,[citation needed] which is not true of the fuel from other types of reactors. Proponents point out that this is a plus, as it is difficult to re-use pebble bed reactor waste for nuclear weapons.

Critics also often point out an accident in Germany in 1986, which involved a jammed pebble damaged by the reactor operators when they were attempting to dislodge it from a feeder tube.[citation needed] This accident released radiation into the surrounding area, and led to a shutdown of the research program by the West German government.[citation needed]

In 2008, a report[14][15] about safety aspects of the AVR reactor in Germany and some general features of pebble bed reactors have drawn attention. The claims are under contention.[16] Main points of discussion are

  • Contamination of the cooling circuit with metallic fission products (Sr-90, Cs-137)
  • improper temperatures in the core (200 °C above calculated values)
  • necessity of a containment

The pebble bed reactor has an advantage over traditional reactors in that the gases do not dissolve contaminants or absorb neutrons as water does, so the core has less in the way of radioactive fluids. However, the pebbles generate graphite particulates that can blow through the coolant loop and will absorb fission products if fission products escape the TRISO particles.

There is significantly less experience with production scale Pebble Bed Reactors than Light Water Reactors. As such, claims made by both proponents and detractors are more theory-based than based on practical experience.


The concept of a very simple, very safe reactor, with a commoditized nuclear fuel was invented by Professor Dr. Rudolf Schulten in the 1950s. The crucial breakthrough was the idea of combining fuel, structure, containment, and neutron moderator in a small, strong sphere. The concept was enabled by the realization that engineered forms of silicon carbide and pyrolytic carbon were quite strong, even at temperatures as high as 2000 °C (3600 °F). The natural geometry of close-packed spheres then provides the ducting (the spaces between the spheres) and spacing for the reactor core. To make the safety simple, the core has a low power density, about 1/30 the power density of a light water reactor.



AVR in Germany.

A 15 MWe demonstration reactor, Arbeitsgemeinschaft Versuchsreaktor (AVR—roughly translated to working-group research reactor or working-group experimental reactor), was built at the Jülich Research Centre in Jülich, West Germany. The goal was to gain operational experience with a high-temperature gas-cooled reactor. The unit's first criticality was on August 26, 1966. The facility ran successfully for 21 years, and was decommissioned on December 1, 1988, in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster and operational problems.

The AVR was originally designed to breed 233Uranium from 232Thorium. 232Thorium is about 400 times as abundant in the Earth's crust as 235Uranium, and an effective thorium breeder reactor is therefore considered valuable technology. However, the fuel design of the AVR contained the fuel so well that the transmuted fuels were uneconomic to extract—it was cheaper to simply use natural uranium isotopes.

The AVR used helium coolant. Helium has a low neutron cross-section. Since few neutrons are absorbed, the coolant remains less radioactive. In fact, it is practical to route the primary coolant directly to power generation turbines. Even though the power generation used primary coolant, it is reported that the AVR exposed its personnel to less than 1/5 as much radiation as a typical light water reactor.

Thorium High Temperature Reactor

Following the experience with AVR, a full scale power station (the Thorium High Temperature Reactor or THTR-300 rated at 300 MW) was constructed, dedicated to using thorium as fuel. THTR-300 suffered a number of technical difficulties and owing to these and political events in Germany was closed after only three years of operation. Cause of the closing was an accident in May 1996 with a greater release of the radioactive inventory into the environment. The reactor also suffered from the unplanned high destruction rate of pebbles during normal operation and the resulting higher contamination of the containment and problems with compact pebble allocations which caused deformations to the control rods. From 1985 to 1989 the THTR-300 registered 16,410 operation hours and generated 2,891,000 MWh electrical power.

Current designs



China has licensed the German technology and is actively developing a pebble bed reactor for power generation.[17] The 10 megawatt prototype is called the HTR-10. It is a conventional helium-cooled, helium-turbine design. The program is at Tsinghua University in Beijing. The first 250-MWt plant is scheduled to begin construction in 2009 and commissioning in 2013.[18] There are firm plans for thirty such plants by 2020 (6 gigawatts). By 2050, China plans to deploy as much as 300 gigawatts of reactors of which PBMRs will be a major component. If PBMRs are successful, there may be a substantial number of reactors deployed. This may be the largest planned nuclear power deployment in history.

Tsinghua's program for Nuclear and New Energy technology also plans in 2006 to begin developing a system to use the high temperature gas of a pebble bed reactor to crack steam to produce hydrogen. The hydrogen could serve as fuel for hydrogen vehicles, reducing China's dependence on imported oil. Hydrogen can also be stored, and distribution by pipelines may be more efficient than conventional power lines. See hydrogen economy.

South Africa

Pebble Bed Modular Reactor Pty. Ltd. (PBMR) in South Africa is developing a modular pebble-bed reactor with a rated capacity of 165 MWe. On June 25, 2003, the South African Republic's Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism approved a prototype 110 MW pebble-bed modular reactor for Eskom at Koeberg, South Africa. On 30 January 2007 it was reported that the South African government had approved the manufacture of PBMR fuel at Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa's Pelindaba Beva complex in the North West Province, and transporting of the raw materials to this site and manufactured fuel from it to Koeberg.[citation needed]

PBMR's primary coolant is helium. The helium directly turns low-pressure turbo-machinery, without intervening losses from heat-exchangers. Helium is favoured because it is chemically inert, and neutrons do not transmute it to a radioactive element which means that the turbo-machinery should not become radioactive, even though it operates on primary coolant. The use of helium does require that the turbine must be somewhat larger, and therefore more expensive. The prototype test of the closed-cycle helium system including compressors, turbine and recuperator has been developed in the engineering lab at the Potchefstroom Campus of the North-West University.[citation needed] The turbine's compressors are decoupled from the turbine, which permits the turbine's pressurization to be decoupled from the generator speed. Utility generators must be synchronized to the power grid.

The "modular" concept of the pebble bed reactor uses several small reactors in a large power plant. This is convenient because new investment can be gradual, and tuned to the actual demand for electric power. Sites that require larger generation capacity can simply install more reactors. Depending on the design, there also can be economies of scale and better reliability when several reactors share equipment, and can switch sets of equipment when some part fails.

The modular design also allows a small reactor to be mass-produced, reducing the life-cycle costs of safety-certification and design qualification. In modular systems, the equipment to cool the turbine's exhaust must be adapted to the site. The cooling equipment adaptable to the most sites is a cooling tower. However, near water, water cooling is far less expensive because the larger heat capacity of water permits the equipment to be much smaller.

The pebble bed reactor's design can be throttled in real time to meet peak electric power loads just like conventional reactors, where power follows steam demand in seconds. The modular design also supports the speculation that it will be useful in building peak load plants. South Africa lacks natural gas for the gas turbines that normally power peak loads, but it exports uranium and thorium.[citation needed]

PBMR's web site has also said that the reactor was designed to desalinate seawater, to help with South Africa's continuing lack of fresh water.[citation needed]

If the trial is successful, PBMR says it will build up to ten local plants on South Africa's coast. PBMR also wants to export up to 20 plants per year. The estimated export revenue is 8 billion rand (roughly US$ 1.1 billion) per year, and could employ about 57,000 people.[citation needed] The program's total cost is about US$ 1 billion, and the developers estimate that about 30 plants will need to be produced to break even.[citation needed]

In 2005, environmental group Earthlife Africa won a court challenge requiring further hearings on the Koeberg reactors (which were originally approved in September 2003) [3]. The Cape Town city government and other civic and environmental groups also say they oppose the plant. In July 2003, following the approval of the environmental impact assessment, there were public demonstrations against the project in both Johannesburg and Cape Town. Earthlife Africa also opposed the Pelindaba fuel plant.[citation needed]

In December 2005, South Africa's PBMR company awarded a contract for engineering, procurement and construction management to SLMR - a Canadian-South African joint venture made up of Montreal-based engineering firm SNC-Lavalin and South-African construction and engineering firm Murray & Roberts - for its demonstration Pebble Bed Modular Reactor at Koeberg. Construction is envisaged starting 2007, and a second round of environmental hearings is under way at present. Meanwhile the BNFL share in PBMR has been passed to Westinghouse Electric Company and negotiations are under way with other possible investors to enable Eskom (the South African Power Utility) to reduce its stake from 30% to 5%.[citation needed]

This followed the dismissal by Environment Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk of appeals brought by Earthlife Africa including opposition to the de-linking of the fuel plant and the PBMR. The appeal claimed that "neither process should be viewed in isolation". The appellants also registered concern about the long-term storage of high-level radioactive waste and contaminated materials, and alleged inadequate consideration of alternatives to the fuel plant.[citation needed]

In dismissing the appeals, van Schalkwyk noted that the two projects would be established in different places, were of different natures and came with "vastly different" environmental risks. He added that "negative environmental impacts ... can be sufficiently mitigated, provided the conditions contained in this record of decision are implemented and adhered to."[citation needed]

On February 18th, 2010 the South African Government announced that the funding of PBMR will finish end of March 2010, because PBMR was not able to attract investors or customers. Technical problems and the pronounced increase of costs are supposed to have discouraged investors. PBMR Ltd. started beginning of March, 2010 to set free 600 of its still 800 employees. The acting director of PBMR Ltd. resigned on March 8th, 2010. The South African Government declared to concentrate in future on the construction of conventional light water reactors instead of pebble bed reactors.

Mobile power systems

Pebble-bed reactors can theoretically power vehicles. There is no need for a heavy pressure vessel. The pebble bed produces gas hot enough that it could directly drive a lightweight gas turbine.


Romawa B.V., Netherlands, promotes a design called Nereus. This is a 24 MWth reactor designed to fit in a container, and provide either a ship's power plant, isolated utilities, backup or peaking power. Romawa has neither produced nor is licensed to produce a nuclear reactor at this time.[citation needed]

It is basically a replacement for large diesel generators and gas turbines, but without fuel transportation expenses or air pollution. Because it requires external air, Romawa's design limits itself only to environments in which diesel engines can already be used.

Romawa's reactor heats helium, which in turn heats air that drives a conventional gas turbine that are well-developed for the aircraft and stationary power industries.. The Romawa design reduces the size and expense of heat exchangers by operating at very high temperatures, and should therefore be small, inexpensive and efficient. The design exhausts the air from the turbine, avoiding the large, inefficient, expensive low-temperature heat exchanger that would otherwise be necessary to cool the turbine's exhaust.

The air passing through the turbine never passes through the reactor, and is therefore never exposed to neutron flux, and therefore particles and gasses cannot become radioactive. The turbine is likewise not part of the primary loop, and uses air as its working fluid. The technology is therefore very standard. Most moving parts do not touch the primary loop, and therefore service should be relatively easy and safe. Romawa proposes two types of throttling. For vehicular power, they advocate a valve between the turbine and reactor while for efficient utility-style throttling, they advocate a system that reduces the pressure of helium in the coolant loop that connects the reactor to the turbine.

Romawa proposes a refueling and maintenance plan, based on "pool service." Users of large gas turbines customarily pool their repair resources to minimize expensive equipment, spares and training. By shipping entire reactors, Romawa plans to eliminate on-site service, and provide all service in one or a few centralized, specialized workshops.[citation needed]

Romawa has a business agreement with Adams Atomic Engines in the U.S., which promotes a similar reactor system.[citation needed]

Adams Atomic Engines

AAE's engine is completely self-contained, and therefore adapts to dusty, space, polar and underwater environments. The primary coolant loop uses nitrogen, and passes it directly though a conventional low-pressure gas turbine. Nitrogen is a major component of air, so a turbine designed for air should work well with very few changes.[citation needed] The gas turbine can be directly throttled using a technique discovered and patented by AAE[19], and due to the rapid ability of the turbine to change speeds, it can be used in applications where instead of the turbine's output being converted to electricity, the turbine itself could directly drive a mechanical device, for instance, a propeller aboard a ship.

AAE's engine is inherently safe, as the engine naturally shuts down due to Doppler broadening, stopping heat generation if the fuel in the engine gets too hot. (The engine also naturally shuts down in the event of a loss of coolant or a loss of coolant flow as well.) This phenomenon suggests that some form of heat removal in the engine, somewhat like a radiator in a motor vehicle, to remove residual heat from the closed engine cooling loop and gas circulation system could be beneficial for the design to work optimally. This could be a sea-water-cooled heat exchanger aboard a ship, while a stationary engine might use a small forced-draft or natural-draft cooling tower, and in a very small version of the engine, some form of passive heat rejection system might be optimal for use, for instance, a passive metal heat sink cooled by convection of air, or passive heat pipes. Further, the heat rejected could be used for process heating, district heating and cooling, or desalinization.

AAE holds the U.S. patent on direct throttling of a closed-cycle gas turbine system, U.S. Patent 5,309,492[19], including those turbines driven by atomic energy or other power sources. Prior to this advance in the art, closed cycle gas turbines were throttled indirectly, either by varying the pressure of the working gas (inventory control) or by bypassing the turbine completely (bypass control); direct throttle control will allow a greater degree of responsiveness from the turbine to rapidly changing conditions[19]. As of 2009, Adams Atomic Engines has not yet produced an atomic engine, but developments within the United States indicate that there is increased interest in high-temperature gas reactors due to the near-term construction of the U.S. Next Generation Nuclear Plant by the U.S. Department of Energy, and U.S. collaboration with the South African developers of the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor, providing for possible near-term leveraging of the corporation's major advance in closed cycle turbine throttling.

Other issues

Both Romawa and AAE plan to use neutron reflectors (graphite) and radiation shields (heavy metals) that are bins of balls.[citation needed] This means that the shielding need not have complex ducting to cool it.

See also


  1. ^ Association of German Engineers (VDI), the Society for Energy Technologies (publ.) (1990). AVR - Experimental High-Temperature Reactor, 21 Years of Successful Operation for A Future Energy Technology. Association of German Engineers (VDI), The Society for Energy Technologies. pp. 9–23. ISBN 3-18-401015-5. 
  2. ^ NGNP Point Design – Results of the Initial Neutronics and Thermal-Hydraulic Assessments During FY-03 pg 20
  3. ^ 'Pebble-bed' cracker to begin construction
  4. ^
  5. ^ "Earthlife Africa Sues for Public Power Giant's Nuclear Plans". Environment News Service. 2005-07-04. Retrieved 2006-10-18. 
  6. ^ World Nuclear News 11 September 2009
  7. ^ Pebble Bed Modular Reactor - What is PBMR?
  8. ^ How the PBMR Fueling System Works
  9. ^
  11. ^ Key Differences in the Fabrication of US and German TRISO-COATED Particle Fuel, and their Implications on Fuel Performance Free, accessed 4/10/2008
  12. ^ D. A. Petti, J. Buongiorno, J. T. Maki, R. R. Hobbins, G. K. Miller (2003). "Key differences in the fabrication, irradiation and high temperature accident testing of US and German TRISO-coated particle fuel, and their implications on fuel performance". Nuclear Engineering and Design 222: 281–297. doi:10.1016/S0029-5493(03)00033-5. 
  13. ^ NRC: Speech - 027 - “Regulatory Perspectives on the Deployment of High Temperature Gas-Cooled Reactors in Electric and Non-Electric Energy Sectors”
  14. ^ Rainer Moormann (2008), A safety re-evaluation of the AVR pebble bed reactor operation and its consequences for future HTR concepts, Forschungszentrum Jülich, Zentralbibliothek, Verlag, Berichte des Forschungszentrums Jülich JUEL-4275,, retrieved 2009-04-02 
  15. ^ Rainer Moormann (1 April 2009). "PBR safety revisited". Nuclear Engineering International. Retrieved 2009-04-02. 
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External links

Idaho National Laboratory - United States
South Africa


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