Light water is used as the primary coolant in a PWR. It enters the bottom of the reactor core at about 275 °C (530 °F) and is heated as it flows upwards through the reactor core to a temperature of about 315 °C (600 °F). The water remains liquid despite the high temperature due to the high pressure in the primary coolant loop, usually around 155 bar (15.5 MPa 153 atm, 2,250 psig). In water, the critical point occurs at around 647 K (374 °C or 705 °F) and 22.064 MPa (3200 PSIA or 218 atm).
Pressure in the primary circuit is maintained by a pressurizer, a separate vessel that is connected to the primary circuit and partially filled with water which is heated to the saturation temperature (boiling point) for the desired pressure by submerged electrical heaters. To achieve a pressure of 155 bar, the pressurizer temperature is maintained at 345 °C, which gives a subcooling margin (the difference between the pressurizer temperature and the highest temperature in the reactor core) of 30 °C. Thermal transients in the reactor coolant system result in large swings in pressurizer liquid volume, total pressurizer volume is designed around absorbing these transients without uncovering the heaters or emptying the pressurizer. Pressure transients in the primary coolant system manifest as temperature transients in the pressurizer and are controlled through the use of automatic heaters and water spray, which raise and lower pressurizer temperature, respectively.
To achieve maximum heat transfer, the primary circuit temperature, pressure and flow rate are arranged such that subcooled nucleate boiling takes place as the coolant passes over the nuclear fuel rods.
The coolant is pumped around the primary circuit by powerful pumps, which can consume up to 6 MW each. After picking up heat as it passes through the reactor core, the primary coolant transfers heat in a steam generator to water in a lower pressure secondary circuit, evaporating the secondary coolant to saturated steam — in most designs 6.2 MPa (60 atm, 900 psia), 275 °C (530 °F) — for use in the steam turbine. The cooled primary coolant is then returned to the reactor vessel to be heated again.
Pressurized water reactors, like thermal reactor designs, require the fast fission neutrons to be slowed down (a process called moderation or thermalization) in order to interact with the nuclear fuel and sustain the chain reaction. In PWRs the coolant water is used as a moderator by letting the neutrons undergo multiple collisions with light hydrogen atoms in the water, losing speed in the process. This "moderating" of neutrons will happen more often when the water is denser (more collisions will occur). The use of water as a moderator is an important safety feature of PWRs, as an increase in temperature may cause the water to turn to steam - thereby reducing the extent to which neutrons are slowed down and hence reducing the reactivity in the reactor. Therefore, if reactivity increases beyond normal, the reduced moderation of neutrons will cause the chain reaction to slow down, producing less heat. This property, known as the negative temperature coefficient of reactivity, makes PWR reactors very stable.
PWRs are designed to be maintained in an undermoderated state, meaning that there is room for increased water volume or density to further increase moderation, because if moderation were near saturation, then a reduction in density of the moderator/coolant could reduce neutron absorption significantly while reducing moderation only slightly, making the void coefficient positive. Also, light water is actually a somewhat stronger moderator of neutrons than heavy water, though heavy water's neutron absorption is much lower. Because of these two facts, light water reactors have a relatively small moderator volume and therefore have compact cores. One next generation design, the supercritical water reactor, is even less moderated. A less moderated neutron energy spectrum does worsen the capture/fission ratio for 235U and especially 239Pu, meaning that more fissile nuclei fail to fission on neutron absorption and instead capture the neutron to become a heavier nonfissile isotope, wasting one or more neutrons and increasing accumulation of heavy transuranic actinides, some of which have long half-lives.
PWR fuel bundle
After enrichment the uranium dioxide (UO2) powder is fired in a high-temperature, sintering furnace to create hard, ceramic pellets of enriched uranium dioxide. The cylindrical pellets are then clad in a corrosion-resistant zirconium metal alloy Zircaloy which are backfilled with helium to aid heat conduction and detect leakages. Zircaloy is chosen because of its mechanical properties and its low absorption cross section. The finished fuel rods are grouped in fuel assemblies, called fuel bundles that are then used to build the core of the reactor. A typical PWR has fuel assemblies of 200 to 300 rods each, and a large reactor would have about 150–250 such assemblies with 80–100 tonnes of uranium in all. Generally, the fuel bundles consist of fuel rods bundled 14 × 14 to 17 × 17. A PWR produces on the order of 900 to 1,500 MWe. PWR fuel bundles are about 4 meters in length.
Refuelings for most commercial PWRs is on an 18–24 month cycle. Approximately one third of the core is replaced each refueling, though some more modern refueling schemes may reduce refuel time to a few days and allow refueling to occur on a shorter periodicity.
In PWRs reactor power can be viewed as following steam (turbine) demand due to the reactivity feedback of the temperature change caused by increased or decreased steam flow. Boron and control rods are used to maintain primary system temperature at the desired point. In order to decrease power, the operator throttles shut turbine inlet valves. This would result in less steam being drawn from the steam generators. This results in the primary loop increasing in temperature. The higher temperature causes the reactor to fission less and decrease in power. The operator could then add boric acid and/or insert control rods to decrease temperature to the desired point.
Reactivity adjustment to maintain 100% power as the fuel is burned up in most commercial PWRs is normally achieved by varying the concentration of boric acid dissolved in the primary reactor coolant. Boron readily absorbs neutrons and increasing or decreasing its concentration in the reactor coolant will therefore affect the neutron activity correspondingly. An entire control system involving high pressure pumps (usually called the charging and letdown system) is required to remove water from the high pressure primary loop and re-inject the water back in with differing concentrations of boric acid. The reactor control rods, inserted through the reactor vessel head directly into the fuel bundles, are moved for the following reasons:
The control rods can also be used:
These effects are more usually accommodated by altering the primary coolant boric acid concentration.