Mar 252011
 
Graphite Pebble for Pebble Bed Reactor

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While engineers at Japan’s stricken nuclear power plant struggle to keep its uranium fuel rods from melting down, engineers in China are building a radically different type of reactor that some experts say offers a safer nuclear alternative.

The technology will be used in two reactors here on a peninsula jutting into the Yellow Sea, where the Chinese government is expected to let construction proceed even as the world debates the wisdom of nuclear power.

Rather than using conventional fuel rod assemblies of the sort leaking radiation in Japan, each packed with nearly 400 pounds of uranium, the Chinese reactors will use hundreds of thousands of billiard-ball-size fuel elements, each cloaked in its own protective layer of graphite.

The coating moderates the pace of nuclear reactions and is meant to ensure that if the plant had to be shut down in an emergency, the reaction would slowly stop on its own and not lead to a meltdown.

The reactors will also be cooled by nonexplosive helium gas instead of depending on a steady source of water — a critical problem with the damaged reactors at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant. And unlike those reactors, the Chinese reactors are designed to gradually dissipate heat on their own, even if coolant is lost.

If the new plants here prove viable, China plans to build dozens more of them in coming years.

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