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Publication Title | GOT WATER

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GOT WATER?

Nuclear power plants are usually built next to lakes, rivers, and oceans.1 Not for the scenic views that such locales provide, but because water can absorb the waste heat produced by the plants. Nuclear power plants consume vast amounts of water during normal operation to absorb the waste heat left over after making electricity and also to cool the equipment and buildings used in generating that electricity. In event of an accident, nuclear power plants need water to remove the decay heat produced by the reactor core and also to cool the equipment and buildings used to provide the core’s heat removal. This issue brief describes the reliance of nuclear power plants on nearby bodies of water during normal operation and under accident conditions.

All of the 104 nuclear reactors currently licensed to operate in the United States are light2 water reactors. Sixty-nine (69) are pressurized water reactors (PWRs) and 35 are boiling water reactors (BWRs).

In a PWR, water flowing through the reactor core is heated by its thermal energy. Because this water is maintained under high pressure (over 2,000 pounds per square inch), it does not boil even when heated to over 500oF. The hot water flows from the reactor vessel and enters thousands of metal tubes within the steam generator. Heat passes through the thin tube walls to boil water at lower pressure that surrounds the tubes. The water leaves the tubes about 10oF cooler and returns to the reactor vessel for another cycle. Steam leaves the steam generator and enters the turbine. The steam spins the turbine, which is connected to a generator that produces electricity. The steam exits the turbine into the condenser. Water from the nearby lake, river, or ocean flows through thousands of metal tubes in the condenser. Steam flowing past outside these tubes cools and changes back into water. The condensed water flows back to the steam generator for another cycle. The water leaves the condenser tubes up to 30oF

In a BWR, water flowing through the reactor core is heated by its thermal energy and boils. The steam flows from the reactor vessel to the turbine. The steam spins the turbine, which is connected to a generator that produces electricity. The steam exits the turbine into the condenser. Water from the nearby lake, river, or ocean flows through thousands of metal tubes in the condenser. Steam flowing past outside these tubes cools and changes back into water. The condensed water flows back to the reactor vessel for another cycle. The water leaves the condenser tubes nearly 30oF warmer and returns to the nearby lake, river , or ocean.

1 An exception to the rule is the Palo Verde nuclear plant. Built in the arid region west of Phoenix, Arizona, cooling water is brought to the facility.

2 Another type of reactor uses “heavy” water – water enriched in deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen, that makes it heavier than regular or “light” water.

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