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By Charles Rhodes, P.Eng., Ph.D.

A FNR uses argon as a cover gas to prevent the liquid sodium chemically combining with atmospheric gases.

A FNR contains two isolated gas spaces, the space over the primary sodium pool which contains argon and the service access space which contains air and rubber bladders that contain variable amounts of argon.

The gas space over the primary sodium pool undergoes wide temperature variations ranging from 20 degrees C to 500 degrees C.

The service access space normally operates at close to room ambient temperature and consists of the following connected spaces:
a) Space inside the dome;
b) Space between the innner and outer hexagonal enclosure walls.
c) Space below the pool deck;
d) Space underneath the heat exchange galleries.

The primary sodium pool space is separated from the service access space by a flexible thermally insulated but gas tight wall and ceiling. This wall and ceiling, hereinafter referred to as the inner wall, must easily flex to allow for thermal expansion and contraction while remaining gas tight under small pressure differentials. However, this flexible wall would quickly fail if it was exposed to the large pressure differentials that typically occur in tornados.

There are large rubber bladders located in the nearly constant temperature service access space. The inside volume of these bladders is connected to the pool space. The effect of these bladders is to keep the pressure differential between the pool space and the service access space very low.

A FNR uses argon as a primary sodium pool cover gas to prevent the liquid sodium chemically combining with atmospheric gases. This argon thermally contracts when the liquid sodium temperature drops which lowers the pressure in the pool space. The resulting pressure differential across the inner wall causes argon to flow from the bladders in the service access space and into the pool space until the two pressures are again equal. Similarly, when the primary liquid sodium temperature rises the argon expands causing argon to flow from the pool space and into the bladders in the service access space.

This automatic pressure balancing mechanism prevents an inner wall structural failure due to a high pressure differential.

When the sodium temperature is rising hot argon flows from the primary sodium pool space toward the bladders. This hot argon must flow through a gas cooler to prevent the hot argon damaging the bladders. This issue imposes a limit on the argon flow rate and hence the rate of rise of primary liquid sodium surface temperature and rate of pressure balancing between the service access space and the primary liquid sodium pool space.

The primary sodium pool space is surrounded by service access space. There is a strong rigid outer wall with a steel dome between the service access space and the outside. This rigid wall is rated for a pressure differential of 10,000 Pa and is nearly gas tight.

In the event of a tornado there will be sudden changes outside air pressure. That pressure change appears across the rigid wall. If the rigid wall is gas tight the pressures in the service access space and over the primary sodium pool are unaffected.

Thus in a tornado the outside air pressure may qyuckly fall or rise by 10,000 Pa but the pressure difference between the service access space and the primary sodium space remains very small. Hence the high temperature gas tight wall between the primary sodium pool space and the service access space is not stressed by the rapid change in outside air pressure caused by the tornado.

The system can tolerate a small air leak in the rigid outside wall provided that the leakage rate is no larger than the permitted maximum argon gas flow rate into or out of the bladders.

The total volume of the service access space is about _____m^3. The service access space contains about ____m^3 air and about ____ m^3 of argon in large rubber bladders. The inside of these bladders is connected to the pool space via a gas cooler.

The basement spaces under the eight heat exchange galleries and under the pool deck contain the argon bladers. The available basement space under each heat exchange gallery is about 12 m high X 8 m wide X 10 m long. Hence the available basement volume under the heat exchange galleries is about:
8 X 12 m X 8 m X 10 m = 7680 m^3.

The available basement volume under the pool deck while keeping a 1 m wide service corridor has a width of (29 m - 26 m) / 2 = 1.5 m. The available length is about Pi (27.5 m) = 86.4 m. The available height is about 17 m. Hence the available volume under the pool deck for argon bladder storage is:
1.5 m X 86.4 m X 17 m = 2203 m^3

Hence the total available argon bladder volume in the FNR basement is:
7680 m^3 + 2203 m^3 = 9883 m^3

In order to allow for gradual bladder expansion during a sustained hurricane the maximum available bladder volume in normal operation is:
0.9 X 9883 m^3 = 8895 m^3.

The volume of argon over the primary sodium pool is approximately:
Pi (12.5 m)^2 X 15.5 m = 7609 m^3

When the reactor space cools from 500 degrees C (773 degrees K) to 27 degrees C (300 degrees K) the argon in the reactor space shrinks to:
(300 / 773) X 7609 m^3

Hence the amount of replacement argon that must be supplied by the argon bladders is:
(473 / 773) X 7609 m^3 = 4656 m^3

Thus there is:
(8895 - 4656) = 4239 m^3 of spare argon bladder storage.

There should be a sufficiently large supply of stored argon kept on-site to prevent sodium combustion while the liquid sodium temperature is being reduced following a sudden major roof failure or other unplanned emergency event.

The gas connection between the liquid sodium primary pool space and the argon bladders is fitted with a cold trap. During reactor warmup when the argon temperature is rising this trap protects the bladder material from high temperature argon and also condenses any radio cesium vapor that might be present in the argon due to a failed reactor fuel tube. This gas cooling system can potentially also be used to condense krypton for selective removal of Kr-85.

A practical FNR has several hundred thousand vertical fuel tubes with tops located about 6 m below the surface of the liquid sodium pool. Over time each such fuel tube builds up an internal pressure due to formation of inert fission product gases, some of which have radioactive isotopes such as Kr-85. Ideally the fuel tubes are all well sealed so that these fission product gases remain contained in the fuel tubes.

We need to keep the radioactive gas concentration in the sodium pool cover gas sufficiently low to permit suitably suited workers into the cover gas space for the purpose of eventual changing of heat exchange bundles and servicing the gantry crane. The flange connections to such heat exchange bundles are difficult to execute via robotics. The alternative is to flood the sodium surface with kerosene, vent all the argon and then replace the argon. That is a lot of argon to be discarded and still needs kerosene recovery.

Over time the cover gas will likely gradually become polluted with radioactive inert gas fission products. Hence from time to time each argon bladder must be vented to the atmosphere. Hence there is enough spare argon storage to allow bleeding off of one bladder full of contaminated argon at a time.

Suppose that a fuel tube has a defective top plug. Once the gas pressure inside the fuel tube exceeds the liquid sodium head pressure at the top of the fuel tube the fission product gases will slowly leak out and will bubble to the surface of the liquid sodium. The liquid sodium is covered by argon gas. The fission product radioisotope gas Kr-85 will mix with that argon. Its presence can be detected with a radiation detector which monitors the argon. However, at that point we need to figure out which fuel tube in which fuel bundle is leaking and replace it or its fuel bundle to stop further Kr-85 accumulation in the argon cover gas.

Suppose that we lower the liquid sodium surface temperature to about 120 degrees C. Suppose that we then flood the liquid sodium surface with a thin layer of kerosene or something similar. This kerosene should contain an additive which promotes the formation of foam bubbles. Hence any Kr gas bubbling up from below should form visible bubbles, similar to soap bubbles that are used to detect leaks in natural gas pipes or automobile tires.

The issue is: What kerosene like liquid and what bubble promoting additive should be used? These must operate to form visible bubbles at around 120 degrees C. As the temperature of the liquid sodium is raised both the kerosene like liquid and the additive should fully evaporate and then condense on a cool surface. These materials need to be totally extracted from the reactor space as they will likely decompose at normal FNR operating temperatures of 460 to 500 degress C. An additional complication is that the argon pressure is maintained at one atmosphere by large ambient temperature argon filled bladders. We do not want the kerosene plus additive to attack the bladder material.

Argon flowing from the reactor space into a bladder is first cooled to near ambient temperature, so the vapor pressure of the kerosene plus additive inside the bladder should be very small at 20 degrees C. A device, analogous to a dehumidifier, should be used to capture most of the kerosene before the sodium temperature is raised to its normal operating temperature.

While doing this kerosene extraction we should also try to simultaneiously concentrate and extract the krypton. The krypton can then be either vented or cryogenically condensed. Are there any suitable separation membranes? An alternative is a high speed gas centrifuge to concentrate the krypton. It will also catch xenon and radon.

The object is to reject the high atomic weight inert gas fission products while rejecting minimal argon.

Before the sodium is loaded the air in the sodium pool space must be replaced by argon. Then after the sodium is loaded the argon cover gas will gradually become polluted with leakage air. The gas mixture above the sodium pool must be continuously recycled to remove and reject all molecule types except argon.

A crucial part of the FNR is its supporting argon plant. The argon plant draws in both air and a argon-air mixture via a three way valve, sends the argon molecules one way and discharges all other gas molecules to the outside. The rate of argon discharge will depend on the argon concentration in the space over the sodium pool. Hence the three way valve needs to be adjusted so that the gas volume input from the sodium pool space equals the gas volume discharged to the sodium pool space.

The argon plant must be efficient because it runs continuously. We need to focus on the detail of the argon plant. This plant must recycle the gas over the sodium many times to clean it up.

Argon is industrially extracted from liquid air in a cryogenic air separation unit by means of fractional distillation.

GASB.P. degrees C% In Air


This web page last updated June 10, 2023

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