The ultimate safety system inside and outside of every BWR are the numerous levels of physical shielding that both protect the reactor from the outside world and protect the outside world from the reactor.

There are five levels of shielding:

  1. The fuel rods inside the reactor pressure vessel are coated in thick Zircaloy shielding;
  2. The reactor pressure vessel itself is manufactured out of 6-inch-thick (150 mm) steel, with extremely high temperature, vibration, and corrosion resistant surgical stainless steel grade grade 316L plate on both the inside and outside;
  3. The primary containment structure is made of steel 1 inch thick;
  4. The secondary containment structure is made of steel-reinforced, pre-stressed concrete 1.2–2.4 meters (4–8 ft) thick.
  5. The reactor building (the shield wall/missile shield) is also made of steel-reinforced, pre-stressed concrete 0.3 m to 1 m (1–3 feet) thick.

If every possible measure standing between safe operation and core damage fails, the containment can be sealed indefinitely, and it will prevent any substantial release of radiation to the environment from occurring in nearly any circumstance.

Varieties of BWR containments

As illustrated by the descriptions of the systems above, BWRs are quite divergent in design from PWRs. Unlike the PWR, which has generally followed a very predictable external containment design (the stereotypical dome atop a cylinder), BWR containments are varied in external form but their internal distinctiveness is extremely striking in comparison to the PWR. There are five major varieties of BWR containments:

  • The "premodern" containment (Generation I); spherical in shape, and featuring a steam drum separator, or an out-of-RPV steam separator, and a heat exchanger for low pressure steam, this containment is now obsolete, and is not used by any operative reactor.
  • the Mark I containment, consisting of a rectangular steel-reinforced concrete building, along with an additional layer of steel-reinforced concrete surrounding the steel-lined cylindrical drywell and the steel-lined pressure suppression torus below. The Mark I was the earliest type of containment in wide use, and many reactors with Mark Is are still in service today. There have been numerous safety upgrades made over the years to this type of containment, especially to provide for orderly reduction of containment load caused by pressure in a compounded limiting fault. The reactor building of the Mark I generally is in the form of a large rectangular structure of reinforced concrete.
  • the Mark II containment, similar to the Mark I, but omitting a distinct pressure suppression torus in favor of a cylindrical wetwell below the non-reactor cavity section of the drywell. Both the wetwell and the drywell have a primary containment structure of steel as in the Mark I, as well as the Mark I's layers of steel-reinforced concrete composing the secondary containment between the outer primary containment structure and the outer wall of the reactor building proper. The reactor building of the Mark II generally is in the form of a flat-topped cylinder.
  • the Mark III containment, generally similar in external shape to the stereotypical PWR, and with some similarities on the inside, at least on a superficial level. For example, rather than having a slab of concrete that staff could walk upon while the reactor was not being refueled covering the top of the primary containment and the RPV directly underneath, the Mark III takes the BWR in a more PWRish direction by placing a water pool over this slab. Additional changes include abstracting the wetwell into a pressure-suppression pool with a weir wall separating it from the drywell.
  • Advanced containments; the present models of BWR containments for the ABWR and the ESBWR are harkbacks to the classical Mark I/II style of being quite distinct from the PWR on the outside as well as the inside, though both reactors incorporate the Mark III-ish style of having non-safety-related buildings surrounding or attached to the reactor building, rather than being overtly distinct from it. These containments are also designed to take far more than previous containments were, providing advanced safety. In particular, GE regards these containments as being able to withstand a direct hit by a tornado of Old Fujitsa Scale 6 with winds of 330+ miles per hour. Such a tornado has never been measured on earth. They are also designed to withstand seismic accelerations of .2 G, or nearly 2 meters per second2 in any direction.

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