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Radiation Hardening 101: How To Protect Nuclear Reactor Electronics

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POSTED BY: THE IEEE SPECTRUM EDITORIAL STAFF / TUE, MARCH 22, 2011

Tucked behind shielding, most of the electronics in a working nuclear reactor are no more exposed to radiation than the humans that operate them. Problems like the loss of coolant in Japans damaged Fukushima reactors can change that, boosting radiation to levels that can threaten control systems and robots that might be sent in for repairs. How do you protect or harden electronics to prevent radiation damage? And are the electronics at the Fukushima Dai-1 nuclear power plant tough enough? IEEE Spectrum Associate Editor Rachel Courtland asked Dan Fleetwood, an expert in radiation-resistant devices at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, to take us through the basics. How does radiation pose a problem for electronics? Radiation can ionize atoms and disrupt a semiconductor's crystal structure. For electronics that are very close to a reactor, neutrons will create physical damage to the semiconductor crystal. But most chips will fail first because of leakage thats associated with the charging of insulators. In something like a metal-oxide-semiconductor device, for

example, gamma rays and x-ray radiation will knock electrons off atoms in an insulator to create electron-hole pairs. The resulting trapped positive charges will shift the operating characteristics. Devices are designed to turn on and off at a well-defined point of operation, and if that operating voltage shifts, this can create difficulties. How do you protect or harden electronics against radiation in a nuclear reactor? It involves all aspects of design, process, and testing. At a power plant there are usually design criteria to keep the most basic operating and control electronics relatively simple and relatively robust so that you can have an event like a loss of coolant and maintain control of the plant. There are special processing techniques that are used to make the insulators more resistant to the consequences of having electrons knocked out. There are ways to process insulators, for example, so that there are fewer defects, which reduces the number of sites where positive charges can be trapped, and there are ways to dope the regions between transistors to make devices more resistant to the effects of radiation. Nuclear power plants may also have the most critical electronics shielded in enclosures made of lead or some other very dense material that can help protect them from radiation. How good can radiation hardening get? The annual, whole-body limit for radiation workers is usually set in the range of 20-50 millisieverts, or 2-5 rads. Most commercial electronics can survive radiation levels in silicon of at least 500 to 1000 rads. Some commercial devices can survive levels higher than that but youre just never sure when its going to lose functionality unless detailed testing has been done in advance. The most radiation-hardened electronics can survive levels of radiation that are hundreds of thousands of times greater than what a human can survive, more than a million rads. The higher the dose the less likely you will be able to find a commercial integrated circuit to handle it. Radiationhardened electronics are typically anywhere from two to four generations behind commercial electronics in terms of their performance. It takes extra time to do the additional engineering. Can a reactors electronics survive a meltdown? Certainly in the 1960s [when the first Fukushima reactors were built], people were very aware of the risks due to radiation and there were choices of electronics that could be made that would increase the resistance to radiation by a lot. Very basic control circuits can be made to withstand exceedingly high levels of radiation, but theyre very simple in terms of function. Theyre not the kinds of electronics that you could use to run the entire plant. They would just be used to maintain the capability of being able at some point to turn cooling systems on or perform critical switching and control functions. Is it possible that electronics in the damaged Fukushima reactors could be used to boot the cooling system back up? Thats a question of how bad the damage is. My guess is the electronics are probably not the weak link there. The mechanical systems could be the weak link just because of the physical damage that appears to have occurred as a result of the explosions that have been reported. Its also possible that there could be some failures in the electronics that might recover with time. Not all the effects of radiation exposure are permanent.
TAGS: JAPAN // JAPAN NUCLEAR EMERGENCY // NUCLEAR EMERGENCY // EARTHQUAKE // NUCLEAR ENERGY // NUCLEAR POWER // RADIATION // RADIATION-HARDENED // TSUNAMI

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Harold "Hal" Frost, Ph.D. This blog was a wonderful idea, having an expert like Dan, an IEEE 'servant', give a beginner's '101' tutorial on radiation hardening of engineering materials, electronics, and so on. He provided a common sense approach for us all, such as delineating the radiation responses of electrically insulating materials from those of semiconductor and indicating that radiation-hardened electronics performance levels are generations away from those of electronics used in nominally rad-free environments. Some comments, though, to help expand the scope of the discussion: It is harder to design and make rad-hard electronics packages to perform adequately in radiation environments when these packages draw and control power-level currents as opposed to the much smaller signal-level currents used to process data from sensors, hard disk drives, and keyboards for assembling and transmitting commands to controllers mounted on hardware such as motors, pumps, and valves. The scope of radiation effects on materials is broader than just on dielectrics; mechanical and chemical properties can also be affected. And, it is possible to intrinsically 'design in' radiation hardness to materials used on electronics and other apps, such as by choosing the more stable crystalline structures of the fluorite type. Finally, there is a long history of research work on the effects of nuclear radiation in all types on monolithic materials (and interfaces between dissimilar materials) which incorporates not only rad damage expected in civilian nuclear fission reactors but also in civilian thermonuclear fusion reactors currently on the drawing boards, such as inertial confinement fusion and magnetic fusion energy.

Concerning this fourth point, ITER is a machine of the latter type for which an international facility is currently being built in France. Would it not it be nice, then, if IEEE took the bull by the horns, so to speak, and organized the disparate engineering societies into a mega-society large enough to allow cross-fertilization of ideas and exchange of data on rad effects on materials, whether used (for ex.) in producing energy, exploring space via satellites or deep space probes, hardening national power grids from potential damage from solar-induced EMPs, or advancing medicine via improved imaging machines for diagnosing illnesses in patients? Thanks for the opportunity to comment on a topic important to the future energy security of the globe, let alone of just one country like Japan, the U.S. or France, for example. Indeed, in decades ahead, materials engineering and science will be found to be even more crucially important to realizing safer and more sustainable ways of generating electric power via either type of nuclear energy.
Today, 12:45:32 AM

Flag Like Reply Delete Edit Moderate Scaliger Q1: GPS antenna is necessarily exposed. It is also crucial for outdoor autonomous navigation. - Can it be hardened, especially for perfect performance also while being irradiated, then? Q2: Can Consumer Electronics survive the Neutron beams recorded yesterday at Fukushim?
Yesterday, 5:42:07 PM

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Calvin H Woosnam Dan Fleetwood got most of it right here. The true cause of the Reactor loss of control was a combination of the Earthquake and the Tsunami severing power and control between the Control Room and the individual Reactors. After more than 14 yrs of Loss Investigation work and 40+ years in computers and electronics I discovered the real failure behind most disasters is not the Critical Electronic Components, but instead the failure of the power and communications circuits we spend so little time on insuring can survive the most basic of everyday disasters. The new CSA C22.2 No. 267-10 Life Safety Wiring Standard and the original FHIT 17 CI lev 3 UL Specification which drove this New Standard clearly identifies that off the shelf current (Riser, Plenum, 90C, Mil-Spec) solutions deemed fire safe are infact wholly inadequate. This led UL, ULC, BRE, LPCB and CSA to agree a New Wiring Standard was necessary for this all important category of Life Safety. My company therefore set out to not only assist in writing this New ASPCA standard but also getting it Publicly Published November 26, 2010. NEC, CEC and IEC Code Book Organizations are in the process now of including this new Life Safety Standard in all applications they deem needing better protection. Imagine a cable supplying power, control and communications to the Reactors that is not only Radiation Resistant, but also able to withstand 2600+ lbs of stress and more than 500+ lbs of crush resistant while able to withstand more than 1000 C, this would not have failed in this case loosing control and power to the cooling systems that are at the heart of this current problem. Support the New ASPCA Standard and lets call for end to this gambling with life.
Yesterday, 2:10:37 AM

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Jorma Nieminen In order to provide any further comment or idea there is a need for information of the actual radiation intensity inside the reactor building at the control room. In my understanding, based on the above physical description of the failure mechanisms of irradiated semiconductors, instead of annual dose more useful would be data about the maximum intensity of radiation around the location of control electronics with all those components. Does such information exist on Fukushima reactors? What order of magnitude compared to the risk levels given above? My very heuristic guesstimate, based on diverse general information from world media, is that in Fukushima we would be quite far from any real risk level. Is this correct initerpretation of the situation? Jorma Nieminen

Yesterday, 1:31:12 AM

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haghgoo The U.S. media's story is absolutely not the truth about the radiation levels. Japanese media as well as Russia Today have reported that radiation levels are 1,600 times the "normal" level outside the evacuation perimeter and this radiation is bio-accumulating in the soil.
Yesterday, 8:48:00 PM

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Natan Weissman I recommend following the situation via the website of the International Atomic Energy Agency, www.iaea.org. They use their own monitoring teams as well as data supplied by the Japanese. Once releases of radiation stop, one would expect the radiation levels around Fukushima to start decreasing (through both decay and dispersal), but further away the levels may continue to increase, albeit from a lower base (due to dispersal). The IAEA data shows levels are elevated, but doesn't support the view that they are 1,600x normal outside the evacuation zone. I'd sooner trust the IAEA on this than Russia Today.
Yesterday, 9:24:43 PM

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