Reactor Safety

US Power Reactor Safety Research

Nuclear reactor safety research in the United States and around the world has focused detailed attention to a wide range of concerns. One of the ramifications of events like Chernobyl is the intense technological scrutiny of the causes that lead to the accident and technological solutions to these problems. Public interest in nuclear plant safety research heightened after the Chernobyl accident just as it did after the Three Mile Island (TMI) accident in 1979. However, it is not generally recognized that extensive research into nuclear plant safety had occurred in the U.S. and other countries long before either of these events happened.

  • Power Reactor Safety Research: 1955 -> 1978 - The lack of severe accidents in power plants necessitated the development of computer and probabilistic techniques to estimate the likelihood of such events and their impact on public health. Facilities were built for the purpose of simulating and conducting loss-of-coolant tests. The design of fuel, cooling, and containment systems were based on worst-case estimates of what would happen following major and minor loss-of-coolant events. The principle research effort performed during this time, the Reactor Safety Study, helped to define the technique of "probablistic risk assessment" (PRA) and applied it to U.S. Light Water Reactors.

    Though the TMI accident is regarded as a major setback for the industry, one of the more positive results was the validation of the design process used in building nuclear power plant safety systems. The accident showed that, in the event of a meltdown, the containment vessel does prevent the release of harmful amounts of radioactive materials.

  • Power Reactor Safety Research: 1978 -> present - TMI focused attention on accidents that could lead to severe core damage. The PRA technique developed before the accident received increased attention as an important tool for the estimation of accident frequencies and the probability of additional failures (human or equipment) which could lead to a severe accident situation. Utilities now perform comprehensive plant-specific PRAs on their own plants in order to identify potential failure modes. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) began using PRAs for a number of regulatory tasks including the development of containment failure modes from meltdowns and mitigation strategies.

  • Current Power Reactor Safety Research Current efforts in nuclear reactor safety research around the world are concentrating on integrated systems analysis and simulation.

    Although the safety of nuclear power plants in the U.S. and elsewhere has been the subject of much intense debate only since TMI and Chernobyl, nuclear engineers and scientists have studied reactor safety and accidents since the first power lants were built in the 1950's. From the start, decisions regarding the integrity of the plant design have been based on sound engineering principles and the latest available technology. For this reason, the risk of injury or death from a U.S. nuclear power plant is far lower than that of comparable industries.

    Back to Main Page