how do energy companies safely obtain radioactive material for nuclear power plants?

515 views

The new HBO Chernobyl series has me pondering about this. For instance, after the unfortunate indicident of the reactor core exploding, radioactive graphite was seen exposed. Consequently, radioactive particles were emitted at an extremely dangerous level.

So, how to energy companies initially obtain the radioactive material? Where do they transport the material from? How do they safely transport the material?

In: Other

Uranium requires a “critical mass” to sustain a chain reaction. If you don’t have that critical mass, you’ll just have regular old radioactivity, which can be dealt with using specialised containers and vehicles for transportation.

Raw uranium ore is processed into enriched uranium. That’s when they refer to Uranium 235 in the series. Different countries use different fuels, Uranium and Plutonium are the main elements.

Someone with a heavier background will hit you some super science, but thats the 5 year old version.

There are highly regulated facilities that produce the fuel rods. Uranium can be mined in some places. That has to be enriched to be usable as fuel for the usual reactor designs. As long as the reactor wasn’t started yet the fuel is not that radioactive. That happens when you start the chain reaction and you get fission products and other material catches neutrons and is activated.

Transporting it takes a specialized containers. If it’s already very radioactive you use https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dry_cask_storage to sore and transport the material.

Certain elements are radioactive these are found in an impure state in rocks, these rocks are mined for the element. However only certain types of the elements called isotopes are radioactive these may represent only a few percent of the element so in order to get a radioactive source you need the percentage of that isotope to be as high as possible. Transporting the element before this purification has happened is very safe, it is only after the purification has occurred that the element is really dangerous.

Reactor fuel, uranium, is mostly safe before it’s put into the reactor. You can actually hold a chunk of uranium in your hand and be just fine, as long as you don’t lick it, ingest it, or inhale any dust from it. It’s mined from the ground, enriched a little bit depending on the type of reactor, and then formed into pellets. These pellets get assembled into fuel rods, the rods get grouped into bundles, and the bundles go in the reactor. It’s the fission process that they undergo once inside the reactor that makes new isotopes that are far more dangerous than the original unused fuel.

Not every radioactive material ore is very radioactive by itself, normal uranium (238) is not much radioactive but the isotope uranium-235 is. Try to avoid associating radiation to immediate danger, not all kinds of radiation are dangerous and it’s impossible to not be exposed to radiation during your life.
Nuclear power plants that use thorium for example are very safe and efficient and not the big deal people usually think when the subject is nuclear energy.
The most dangerous

We are surrounded by naturally occurring radiation.  Only 0.005% of the average American’s yearly radiation dose comes from nuclear power; 100 times less than we get from coal, 200 times less than a cross-country flight, and about the same as eating 1 banana per year.

Obs: the most dangerous kind of radiation isn’t a particle but an electromagnetic wave (gamma radiation).