Components of a nuclear reactor


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There are several components common to most types of reactors:

Fuel. Uranium is the basic fuel. Usually pellets of uranium oxide (UO2) are arranged in tubes to form fuel rods. The rods are arranged into fuel assemblies in the reactor core.*
* In a new reactor with new fuel a neutron source is needed to get the reaction going. Usually this is beryllium mixed with polonium, radium or other alpha-emitter. Alpha particles from the decay cause a release of neutrons from the beryllium as it turns to carbon-12. Restarting a reactor with some used fuel may not require this, as there may be enough neutrons to achieve criticality when control rods are removed.

Moderator. Material in the core which slows down the neutrons released from fission so that they cause more fission. It is usually water, but may be heavy water or graphite.

Control rods. These are made with neutron-absorbing material such as cadmium, hafnium or boron, and are inserted or withdrawn from the core to control the rate of reaction, or to halt it.*  In some PWR reactors, special control rods are used to enable the core to sustain a low level of power efficiently. (Secondary control systems involve other neutron absorbers, usually boron in the coolant – its concentration can be adjusted over time as the fuel burns up.)
* In fission, most of the neutrons are released promptly, but some are delayed. These are crucial in enabling a chain reacting system (or reactor) to be controllable and to be able to be held precisely critical.

Coolant. A fluid circulating through the core so as to transfer the heat from it.  In light water reactors the water moderator functions also as primary coolant. Except in BWRs, there is secondary coolant circuit where the water becomes steam. (See also later section on primary coolant characteristics)

Pressure vessel or pressure tubes. Usually a robust steel vessel containing the reactor core and moderator/coolant, but it may be a series of tubes holding the fuel and conveying the coolant through the surrounding moderator.

Steam generator. Part of the cooling system of pressurised water reactors (PWR & PHWR) where the high-pressure primary coolant bringing heat from the reactor is used to make steam for the turbine, in a secondary circuit. Essentially a heat exchanger like a motor car radiator*. Reactors have up to six ‘loops’, each with a steam generator. Since 1980 over 110 PWR reactors have had their steam generators replaced after 20-30 years service, 57 of these in USA.

* These are large heat exchangers for transferring heat from one fluid to another – here from high-pressure primary circuit in PWR to secondary circuit where water turns to steam. Each structure weighs up to 800 tonnes and contains from 300 to 16,000 tubes about 2 cm diameter for the primary coolant, which is radioactive due to nitrogen-16 (N-16, formed by neutron bombardment of oxygen, with half-life of 7 seconds). The secondary water must flow through the support structures for the tubes. The whole thing needs to be designed so that the tubes don’t vibrate and fret, operated so that deposits do not build up to impede the flow, and maintained chemically to avoid corrosion. Tubes which fail and leak are plugged, and surplus capacity is designed to allow for this. Leaks can be detected by monitoring N-16 levels in the steam as it leaves the steam generator.

Containment. The structure around the reactor and associated steam generators which is designed to protect it from outside intrusion and to protect those outside from the effects of radiation in case of any serious malfunction inside. It is typically a metre-thick concrete and steel structure.

Newer Russian and some other reactors install core melt localisation devices or ‘core catchers’ under the pressure vessel to catch any melted core material in the event of a major accident.

There are several different types of reactors as indicated in the following table.

Nuclear power plants in commercial operation

Reactor type Main Countries Number GWe Fuel Coolant Moderator
Pressurised water reactor (PWR)
US, France, Japan, Russia, China
enriched UO2
Boiling water reactor (BWR)
US, Japan, Sweden
enriched UO2
Pressurised heavy water reactor (PHWR)
Canada, India
natural UO2
heavy water
heavy water
Gas-cooled reactor (AGR & Magnox)
natural U (metal),
enriched UO2
Light water graphite reactor (RBMK & EGP)
11 + 4
enriched UO2
Fast neutron reactor (FBR)
PuO2 and UO2
liquid sodium
TOTAL 438 376
IAEA data, end of 2014.  GWe = capacity in thousands of megawatts (gross)
Source: Nuclear Engineering International Handbook 2011, updated to 1/1/12
For reactors under construction: see paper Plans for New Reactors Worldwide.


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