Jim Boswell Blog | The Complex Simplified | Talkmarkets
Executive Director, Quanta Analytics

I have nearly fifty years of professional experience in the development of management information and analytical business decision support systems. Broadly disciplined with exceptional experience. Education includes an MBA from the Wharton School-University of Pennsylvania, an MPA in public ... more

The Complex Simplified

Date: Thursday, April 1, 2021 9:49 AM EDT

I wanted to test myself to see if I could write an example of how to explain something rather complex in just a few words (e.g. 1000 words), such that a layman could understand the basics.  I tried to do this by describing the nuclear physics behind how a nuclear reactor worked on a nuclear submarine.  Here is how I did that.

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A nuclear fission takes place when a “slow neutron” hits a uranium atom.  A slow neutron is a neutron that travels along with an energy of 25 electron volts (or something like that).  When a fission occurs, the uranium atom splits into two, creating two different elements such as Iodine or Cobalt, etc.  It is from these bi-products from fission that radioactivity is given off in terms of gamma, alpha rays, etc.  In addition, when a fission occurs, on average 2.07 neutrons with energy levels of 2 Mev (Million electron volts) are created.

Now here is the rub.  What you want to do is to operate the reactor at its “critical point”.  The critical point is when 1.07 of the 2.07 fission neutrons are either lost or absorbed by using “neutron poisons” or protective shielding such as Lead.  The critical point also means that 1 of the 2.07 Mev neutrons is slowed down in such a way that it gets down to an energy level of 25 ev so it can create another fission. 

So, how is this done?  Water is passed through the reactor where the fissions are taking place.  Water works like a moderator, such that neutrons bounce around the water molecules converting the neutron’s kinetic energy into thermal energy in the water.  When a neutron hits a water molecule it heats up the water molecule, and the neutron itself loses some of its kinetic energy.  This process is managed such than for every 2.07 neutrons created from a fission only one returns at a 25 ev energy level to create a new fission.

The water in the reactor system that I have just described is called the “primary coolant” and runs through a closed system called the “primary coolant system”.  On top of the primary coolant system is a Pressurizer (like a water tower).  The water in the pressurizer is heated to 606 degrees where water boils at a pressure of 1600 psi.  This 1600 psi pressure is applied to the primary coolant system so the 480 degree water that passes through the reactor does not boil. 

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