Technical intricacies

Anyone considering nuclear reactors from outside the scientific or engineering professions can pretend, after reading and reading and reading, that he or she “understands” how they work. She can absorb all the technicalities of neutron speed, fuel, moderator, and coolant, and imagine that’s all that’s that is needed. But of course that’s naive. Huge complexity lies in the materials used in reactors, including how they affect fission and how they respond to being battered by a savage nuclear flux. One of the topics that never occurred to me was this: how does one package up the fuel to sit in a reactor. This is covered with terminology like “fuel rod,” but also (more usually in the United Kingdom) “canning,” i.e. how does one snugly encase uranium (say) in a metal “can” or cartridge. For example, listen to Leonard Owen, onetime head of the production area of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, being interviewed for a 1957 book by a journalist:

Give me a good uranium cartridge and I will give you a pile [reactor]. It is almost as easy as that. The cartridge is one of the main problems of the moment in atomic energy. It is one that we are gradually solving…

Bertin, Leonard. 1957. Atom Harvest. Secker & Warburg, London, p. 110.
Magnox fuel can
Science Museum Group Collection under Creative Commons Zero.