Résumé
A loss-of-coolant accident (LOCA) is a mode of failure for a nuclear reactor; if not managed effectively, the results of a LOCA could result in reactor core damage. Each nuclear plant's emergency core cooling system (ECCS) exists specifically to deal with a LOCA. Nuclear reactors generate heat internally; to remove this heat and convert it into useful electrical power, a coolant system is used. If this coolant flow is reduced, or lost altogether, the nuclear reactor's emergency shutdown system is designed to stop the fission chain reaction. However, due to radioactive decay, the nuclear fuel will continue to generate a significant amount of heat. The decay heat produced by a reactor shutdown from full power is initially equivalent to about 5 to 6% of the thermal rating of the reactor. If all of the independent cooling trains of the ECCS fail to operate as designed, this heat can increase the fuel temperature to the point of damaging the reactor. If water is present, it may boil, bursting out of its pipes. For this reason, nuclear power plants are equipped with pressure-operated relief valves and backup supplies of cooling water. If graphite and air are present, the graphite may catch fire, spreading radioactive contamination. This situation exists only in AGRs, RBMKs, Magnox and weapons-production reactors, which use graphite as a neutron moderator (see Chernobyl disaster and Windscale fire). The fuel and reactor internals may melt; if the melted configuration remains critical, the molten mass will continue to generate heat, possibly melting its way down through the bottom of the reactor. Such an event is called a nuclear meltdown and can have severe consequences. The so-called "China syndrome" would be this process taken to an extreme: the molten mass working its way down through the soil to the water table (and below) – however, current understanding and experience of nuclear fission reactions suggests that the molten mass would become too disrupted to carry on heat generation before descending very far; for example, in the Chernobyl disaster the reactor core melted and core material was found in the basement, too widely dispersed to carry on a chain reaction (but still dangerously radioactive).
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