Traditional reactor safety systems are active in the sense that they involve electrical or mechanical operation on command systems (e.g., high-pressure water pumps). But some engineered reactor systems operate entirely passively, e.g., using pressure relief valves to manage overpressure. Parallel redundant systems are still required. Combined inherent and passive safety depends only on physical phenomena such as pressure differentials, convection, gravity or the natural response of materials to high temperatures to slow or shut down the reaction, not on the functioning of engineered components such as high-pressure water pumps.

Current pressurized water reactors and boiling water reactors are systems that have been designed with one kind of passive safety feature. In the event of an excessive-power condition, as the water in the nuclear reactor core boils pockets of steam are formed. These steam voids moderate fewer neutrons, causing the power level inside the reactor to lower. The BORAX experiments and the SL-1 meltdown accident proved this principle.

A reactor design whose inherently safe process directly provides a passive safety component during a specific failure condition in all operational modes is typically described as relatively fail-safe to that failure condition. However most current water cooled and moderated reactors, when scrammed, can not remove residual production and decay heat without either process heat transfer or the active cooling system. In other words, whilst the inherently safe heat transfer process provides a passive safety component preventing excessive heat in operational mode "On", the same inherently safe heat transfer process does not provide a passive safety component in operational mode "Off (SCRAM)". The Three Mile Island accident exposed this design deficiency: the reactor and steam generator were "Off" but with loss of coolant it still suffered a partial meltdown.

Third generation designs improve on early designs by incorporating passive or inherent safety features which require no active controls or (human) operational intervention to avoid accidents in the event of malfunction, and may rely on pressure differentials, gravity, natural convection, or the natural response of materials to high temperatures.

In some designs the core of a fast breeder reactor is immersed into a pool of liquid metal. If the reactor overheats, thermal expansion of the metallic fuel and cladding causes more neutrons to escape the core, and the nuclear chain reaction can no longer be sustained. The large mass of liquid metal also acts as a heatsink capable of absorbing the decay heat from the core, even if the normal cooling systems would fail.

The pebble bed reactor is an example of a reactor exhibiting an inherently safe process that is also capable of providing a passive safety component for all operational modes. As the temperature of the fuel rises, Doppler broadening increases the probability that neutrons are captured by U-238 atoms. This reduces the chance that the neutrons are captured by U-235 atoms and initiate fission, thus reducing the reactor's power output and placing an inherent upper limit on the temperature of the fuel. The geometry and design of the fuel pebbles provides an important passive safety component.

Single fluid fluoride molten salt reactors feature fissile, fertile and actinide radioisotopes in molecular bonds with the fluoride coolant. The molecular bonds provide a passive safety feature in that a loss-of-coolant event corresponds with a loss-of-fuel event. The molten fluoride fuel can not itself reach criticality but only reaches criticality by the addition of a neutron reflector such as pyrolytic graphite. The higher density of the fuel along with additional lower density FLiBe fluoride coolant without fuel provides a flotation layer passive safety component in which lower density graphite that breaks off control rods or an immersion matrix during mechanical failure does not induce criticality. Gravity driven drainage of reactor liquids provides a passive safety component.

Some reactors such as the liquid metal and molten salt variants use Thorium-232 fuel which is more abundant in nature than Uranium isotopes and requires no enrichment. The difficulty of enrichment in the Uranium fuel cycle provides a passive safety component against nuclear proliferation. Neutron capture of Thorium-232 breeds both the fissile Uranium-233 and trace amounts of Uranium-232 by neutron knock-off. Neutron cross-section and decay products of Uranium-232 complicate designs and damage electronics if built into nuclear weapons, although Operation Teapot demonstrated its plausibility. Isolation of Uranium-233 from Uranium-232 is not currently believed possible providing a partial passive safety component against nuclear proliferation.

Low power pool-type reactors such as the SLOWPOKE and TRIGA have been licensed for unattended operation in research environments because as the temperature of the low-enriched (19.75% U-235) uranium alloy hydride fuel rises, the molecular bound hydrogen in the fuel cause the heat to be transferred to the fission neutrons as they are ejected. This Doppler shifting or spectrum hardening dissipates heat from the fuel more rapidly throughout the pool the higher the fuel temperature increases ensuring rapid cooling of fuel whilst maintaining a much lower water temperature than the fuel. Prompt, self-dispersing, high efficiency hydrogen-neutron heat transfer rather than inefficient radionuclide-water heat transfer ensures the fuel cannot melt through accident alone. In uranium-zirconium alloy hydride variants, the fuel itself is also chemically corrosion resistant ensuring a sustainable safety performance of the fuel molecules throughout their lifetime. A large expanse of water and the concrete surround provided by the pool for high energy neutrons to penetrate ensures the process has a high degree of intrinsic safety. The core is visible through the pool and verification measurements can be made directly on the core fuel elements facilitating total surveillance and providing nuclear non-proliferation safety. Both the fuel molecules themselves and the open expanse of the pool are passive safety components. Quality implementations of these designs are arguably the safest nuclear reactors.

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