While the reactor protection system is designed to prevent contingencies from happening, the ECCS is designed to respond to contingencies if they do happen. The ECCS is a set of interrelated safety systems that are designed to protect the fuel within the reactor pressure vessel, which is referred to as the "reactor core", from overheating. These systems accomplish this by maintaining reactor pressure vessel (RPV) cooling water level, or if that is impossible, by directly flooding the core with coolant.

These systems are of 3 major types:

  1. High pressure systems: These are designed to protect the core by injecting large quantities of water into it to prevent the fuel from being uncovered by a decreasing water level. Generally used in cases with stuck-open safety valves, small breaks of auxiliary pipes, and particularly violent transients caused by turbine trip and main steam isolation valve closure. If the water level cannot be maintained with high pressure systems alone (the water level still is falling below a preset point with the high-pressure systems working full-bore), the next set of systems responds.
  2. Depressurization systems: These systems are designed to maintain reactor pressure within safety limits. Additionally, if reactor water level cannot be maintained with high-pressure coolant systems alone, the depressurization system can reduce reactor pressure to a level at which the low-pressure coolant systems can function.
  3. Low-pressure systems: These systems are designed to function after the depressurization systems function. They have extremely large capacities compared to the high-pressure systems and are supplied by multiple, redundant power sources. They will maintain any maintainable water level, and, in the event of a large pipe break of the worst type below the core that leads to temporary fuel rod "uncovery", to rapidly mitigate that state prior to the fuel heating to the point where core damage could occur.

High-pressure coolant injection system (HPCI)

The high-pressure coolant injection system is the first line of defense in the emergency core cooling system. HPCI is designed to inject substantial quantities of water into the reactor while it is at high pressure so as to prevent the activation of the automatic depressurization, core spray, and low pressure coolant injection systems. HPCI is powered by steam from the reactor, and takes approximately 10 seconds to spin up from an initiating signal, and can deliver approximately 19,000 L/min (5,000 US gal/min) to the core at any core pressure above 6.8 atm (690 kPa, 100 psi). This is usually enough to keep water levels sufficient to avoid automatic depressurization except in a major contingency, such as a large break in the makeup water line.

Versioning note: The BWR/6 replaces HPCI with high-pressure core spray (HPCS); ABWRs and (E)SBWRs replace HPCI with high-pressure core flooder (HPCF), a mode of the RCIC system, as described below.

Reactor core isolation cooling system (RCIC)

The reactor core isolation cooling system is not a safety-related system proper, but is included because it can help cool the reactor in the event of a contingency, and it has additional functionality in advanced versions of the BWR.

RCIC is designed to remove the residual heat of the fuel from the reactor once it has been shut down. It injects approximately 2,000 L/min (600 gpm) into the reactor core for this purpose, at high pressure. It also takes less time to start than the HPCI system, approximately 5 seconds from an initiating signal.

The RCIC system is operable with no electric power other than battery power. During a station blackout (where all off-site power is lost and the diesel generators fail) the RCIC is capable of providing decay heat removal by itself.

Versioning note: RCIC and HPCF are integrated in ABWRs and (E)SBWRs, with HPCF representing the high-capacity mode of RCIC. In the (E)SBWR series of reactors, there is an additional contingency residual heat removal capability for RCIC, the Isolation Condenser System (IC); in the (E)SBWR, there are several separate trains of heat exchangers located above the RPV in deep pools of water within the reactor building but outside and above the primary containment. In the event of a contingency, the decay heat of the reactor will boil water to steam within the RPV. The RPS will activate several valves connecting the RPV to the IC system; the steam from the RPV decay heat will flow into the heat exchangers (called Isolation Condensers) and be condensed and cooled back to liquid. The water will then return to the RPV through the force of gravity.

Automatic depressurization system (ADS)

The Automatic depressurization system is not a part of the cooling system proper, but is an essential adjunct to the ECCS. It is designed to activate in the event that the RPV is retaining pressure, but RPV water level cannot be maintained using high pressure cooling alone, and low pressure cooling must be initiated. When ADS fires, it rapidly releases pressure from the RPV in the form of steam through pipes that are piped to below the water level in the suppression pool (the torus/wetwell), which is designed to condense the steam released by ADS or other safety valve activation into water), bringing the reactor vessel below 32 atm (3200 kPa, 465 psi), allowing the low pressure cooling systems (LPCS/LPCI/LPCF/GDCS), with extremely large and robust comparative coolant injection capacities to be brought to bear on the reactor core.

Low-pressure core spray system (LPCS)

The low-pressure core spray system is designed to suppress steam generated by a major contingency. As such, it prevents reactor vessel pressure from going above the point where LPCI and LPCS would be ineffective, which is above 32 atm (3200 kPa, 465 psi). It activates below that level, and delivers approximately 48,000 L/min (12,500 US gal/min) of water in a deluge from the top of the core.

Versioning note: In ABWRs and (E)SBWRs, there are additional water spray systems to cool the drywell and the suppression pool.

Low-pressure coolant injection system (LPCI)

The low-pressure coolant injection system, the "heavy artillery" in the ECCS, can be operated at reactor vessel pressures below 465 psi. The LPCI consists of 4 pumps driven by diesel engines, and is capable of injecting a mammoth 150,000 L/min (40,000 US gal/min) of water into the core . Combined with the CS to keep steam pressure low, the LPCI is designed to suppress contingencies by rapidly and completely flooding the core with coolant.

Versioning note: ABWRs replace LPCI with low-pressure core flooder (LPCF), which operates using similar principles. (E)SBWRs replace LPCI with the DPVS/PCCS/GDCS, as described below.

Depressurization valve system (DPVS) / passive containment cooling system (PCCS) / gravity-driven cooling system (GDCS)

The (E)SBWR has an additional ECCS capacity that is completely passive, quite unique, and significantly improves defense in depth. This system is activated when the water level within the RPV reaches Level 1. At this point, a countdown timer is started.

There are several large depressurization valves located near the top of the reactor pressure vessel. These constitute the DPVS. This is a capability supplemental to the ADS, which is also included on the (E)SBWR. The DPVS consists of eight of these valves, four on main steamlines that vent to the drywell when actuated and four venting directly into the drywell.

If Level 1 is not resubmerged within 50 seconds of the timer starting, DPVS will fire and will rapidly vent any pressure contained within the reactor pressure vessel into the drywell. This will cause the water within the RPV to gain in volume (due to the drop in pressure) which will increase the water available to cool the core. In addition, the depressurization will cause a lower boiling point, and thus more steam bubbles will form, decreasing moderation; this, in turn, decreases decay heat production, while still maintaining adequate cooling. (In fact, both the ESBWR and the ABWR are designed so that even in the maximum feasible contingency, the core never loses its layer of water coolant.)

If Level 1 is not again not resubmerged within 100 seconds of DPVS actuation, then the GDCS valves fire. The GDCS is a series of very large water tanks located above and to the side of the Reactor Pressure Vessel within the drywell. When these valves fire, the GDCS is directly connected to the RPV. After ~50 more seconds of depressurization, the pressure within the GDCS will equalize with that of the RPV and drywell, and the water of the GDCS will begin flowing into the RPV.

The water within the RPV will boil into steam from the decay heat, and natural convection will cause it to travel upwards into the drywell, into piping assemblies in the ceiling that will take the steam to four large heat exchangers – the Passive Containment Cooling System (PCCS) – located above the drywell – in deep pools of water. The steam will be cooled, and will condense back into liquid water. The liquid water will drain from the heat exchanger back into the GDCS pool, where it can flow back into the RPV to make up for additional water boiled by decay heat. In addition, if the GDCS lines break, the shape of the RPV and the drywell will ensure that a "lake" of liquid water forms that submerges the bottom of the RPV (and the core within).

There is sufficient water to cool the heat exchangers of the PCCS for 72 hours. At this point, all that needs to happen is for the pools that cool the PCCS heat exchangers to be refilled, which is a comparatively trivial operation, doable with a portable fire pump and hoses.

GE has a computerized animation of how the ESBWR functions during a pipe break incident on their website

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