Steam generator (nuclear power)

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This is an article about nuclear power plant equipment. For other uses, see steam generator (disambiguation).
The bend at the top of an old nuclear power plant steam generator, image courtesy of the NRC.

Steam generators are heat exchangers used to convert water into steam from heat produced in a nuclear reactor core. They are used in pressurized water reactors (PWR) between the primary and secondary coolant loops.

In other types of reactors, such as the pressurised heavy water reactors of the CANDU design, the primary fluid is heavy water. Liquid metal cooled reactors such as the Russian BN-600 reactor also use heat exchangers between primary metal coolant and at the secondary water coolant.

Boiling water reactors (BWR) do not use steam generators, as steam is produced in the pressure vessel.


In commercial power plants steam generators can measure up to 70 feet (~21m) in height and weigh as much as 800 tons. Each steam generator can contain anywhere from 3,000 to 16,000 tubes, each about three-quarters of an inch (~19mm) in diameter. The coolant (treated water), which is maintained at high pressure to prevent boiling, is pumped through the nuclear reactor core. Heat transfer takes place between the reactor core and the circulating water and the coolant is then pumped through the primary tube side of the steam generator by coolant pumps before returning to the reactor core. This is referred to as the primary loop.

That water flowing through the steam generator boils water on the shell side to produce steam in the secondary loop that is delivered to the turbines to make electricity. The steam is subsequently condensed via cooled water from the tertiary loop and returned to the steam generator to be heated once again. The tertiary cooling water may be recirculated to cooling towers where it sheds waste heat before returning to condense more steam. Once through tertiary cooling may otherwise be provided by a river, lake, or ocean. This primary, secondary, tertiary cooling scheme is the most common way to extract usable energy from a controlled nuclear reaction.

These loops also have an important safety role because they constitute one of the primary barriers between the radioactive and non-radioactive sides of the plant as the primary coolant becomes radioactive from its exposure to the core. For this reason, the integrity of the tubing is essential in minimizing the leakage of water between the two sides of the plant. Steam generator tubes often degrade over time. There is the potential that, if a tube bursts while a plant is operating, contaminated steam could escape directly to the secondary cooling loop. Thus during scheduled maintenance outages or shutdowns, some or all of the steam generator tubes are inspected by eddy-current testing, and individual tubes can be plugged to remove them from operation.[1]

Entire steam generators are often replaced in plant mid-life, which is a major undertaking. Most of U.S. PWR plants have had steam generators replaced.[1]


Westinghouse and Combustion Engineering designs have vertical U-tubes with inverted tubes for the primary water. Canadian, Japanese, French, and German PWR suppliers use the vertical configuration as well. Russian VVER reactor designs use horizontal steam generators, which have the tubes mounted horizontally. Babcock and Wilcox plants (e.g., Three Mile Island) have smaller steam generators that force water through the top of the OTSGs (once-through steam generators; counter-flow to the feedwater) and out the bottom to be recirculated by the reactor coolant pumps. The horizontal design has proven to be less susceptible to degradation than the vertical U-tube design.

Typical operating conditions[edit]

Steam generators in a "typical" PWR in the USA have the following operating conditions:

Side Pressure, MPa (absolute) Inlet Temperature, °C Outlet Temperature, °C
Primary side (tube side) 15.5 315 (liquid water) 275 (liquid water)
Secondary side (shell side) 6.2 220 (liquid water) 275 (saturated steam)

Tube material[edit]

Various high-performance alloys and superalloys have been used for steam generator tubing, including type 316 stainless steel, Alloy 400, Alloy 600MA (mill annealed), Alloy 600TT (thermally treated), Alloy 690TT, and Alloy 800Mod.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "US steam generator replacement a winner". World Nuclear News. 30 January 2014. Retrieved 1 February 2014. 

External links[edit]

  • John M. Dyke and Wm. J. Garland, "Evolution of CANDU Steam Generators – a Historical View" pdf