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Light Water Reactors

The nuclear fission reactors used in the United States for electric power production are classified as “light water reactors” in contrast to the “heavy water reactors” used in Canada. Light water (ordinary water) is used as the moderator in U.S. reactors as well as the cooling agent and the means by which heat is removed to produce steam for turning the turbines of the electric generators. The use of ordinary water makes it necessary to do a certain amount of enrichment of the uranium fuel before the necessary criticality of the reactor can be maintained.

The two varieties of the light water reactor are the pressurized water reactor (PWR) and boiling water reactor (BWR).

Fusion Reactors

Reactors for nuclear fusion are of two main varieties, magnetic confinement reactors and inertial confinement reactors. The strategies for creating fusion reactors are largely dictated by the fact that the temperatures involved in nuclear fusion are far too high to be contained in any material container.

The strategy of the magnetic confinement reactor is to confine the hot plasma by means of magnetic fields which keep it perpetually in looping paths which do not touch the wall of the container. This is typified by the tokamak design, the most famous example of which is the TFTR at Princeton.

The strategy of the inertial confinement reactor is to put such high energy density into a small pellet of deuterium-tritium that it fuses in such a short time that it can’t move appreciably. The most advanced test reactors involve laser fusion, particularly in the Shiva and Nova reactors at Lawrence Livermore Laboratories.

Fast Breeder Reactors

Under appropriate operating conditions, the neutrons given off by fission reactions can “breed” more fuel from otherwise non-fissionable isotopes. The most common breeding reaction is that of plutonium-239 from non-fissionable uranium-238. The term “fast breeder” refers to the types of configurations which can actually produce more fissionable fuel than they use, such as the LMFBR. This scenario is possible because the non-fissionable uranium-238 is 140 times more abundant than the fissionable U-235 and can be efficiently converted into Pu-239 by the neutrons from a fission chain reaction.

France has made the largest implementation of breeder reactors ( it halted electricity production in 1996 and was closed as a commercial plant in 1997) with its large Super-Phenix reactor and an intermediate scale reactor (BN-600) on the Caspian Sea for electric power and desalinization.