Last updateTue, 27 Oct 2020 7pm


Actuation in Nuclear Power Plants


Because motor operators are very simple with just a motor, gear set, and limit and torque switches within robust cast iron and steel housing, some advanced options are available that can assist the nuclear industry in certain applications.

For example, several major actuator manufacturers offer a thrust monitoring component so the nuclear plant can monitor valve thrust requirements and actuator thrust outputs. While that capability is a standard item with a smart actuator, it’s not as simple with the nuclear actuator. The typical way this capability is achieved in a nuclear actuator is by measuring the deflection of the motor shaft via the spring pack on the end of the motor.

Another example of a nuclear option becoming very popular is the torque limiter. When sizing an actuator for a valve in a nuclear application, the criteria are different than for most other applications. The valve factors used to calculate the thrust required are very high so sufficient safety margins are ensured. The safety margins are set by the industry and monitored very closely.

Another factor that comes into play is power voltage. The actuators must be sized to work on reduced voltages that might be available during accident conditions. When a motor is running on reduced voltage, it produces reduced torque. The combination of these challenges means an actuator might be much larger for a valve than normally used.

Motor operators are also very powerful and have a reserve torque and thrust capability. The industry calls them stall torques, and they can more than double the rated output torque of an actuator. Because of the demands, the associated valve must have a stronger superstructure as well as a larger stem than what might be expected. The larger stem then might require a larger thrust, and the exact balance becomes a challenge for specifying engineers.

The torque limiter is a brake that will reduce the force put on the valve during abnormal operation so that the valve does not need as large a structure to hold the actuator. Another option used for high-speed valve applications is thrust compensators, which are essentially disc spring packs that allow for a gradual loading of the actuator as the valve seats.


Various nuclear plant applications use pneumatic piston operators. In many cases, spring-return actuators are used when the valve must fail to a position on loss of air supply. In other cases, nitrogen-charged accumulators can power the cylinders to achieve the desired failure position. Often, these actuators are used in critical applications, such as to operate main steam isolation valves. Typically, such pneumatic spring-return actuators will have very fast operating times with many redundant sets of controls to ensure operation during a plant shutdown.

Pneumatic spring-return actuators can be constructed of ductile iron, cast iron or steel and have to pass the same difficult tests as their electric counterparts. Because the controls for pneumatic actuators tend to be bolted onto the cylinder and gearbox housings, these controls usually require their own IEEE testing. Once the controls are mounted to the cylinders, they are tested as a dedicated package.

The cylinders themselves can also be hydraulically powered. Because of the compressibility of air, hydraulics can provide more precise control than pneumatics. However, hydraulics can add cost and complexity to a system. Also, hydraulic equipment could require more maintenance during its life because of the nature of the sealing surfaces with cylinders.

To best meet the needs of nuclear customers, many manufacturers of hydraulic actuation equipment offer maintenance programs to assist utilities in keeping equipment up to date and in line with current qualifications and standards, which is an important goal of every well-run nuclear facility.

Nuclear plants also have a need for traditional quarter-turn cylinder actuators to operate the growing population of quarter-turn valves in their facilities. For example, rubber-seated butterfly valves for water service are used extensively as well as the more industrial-service butterfly valves. In the past, electric actuators were often employed, but today, with the addition of more high-pressure severe service quarter-turn valves in the market, many of these valves are provided with spring-return, quarter-turn cylinders and are mainly pneumatic.

Inside the containment, there is still a large population of diaphragm-operated control valves. The actuators tend to be an integral part of the valve in this case. While pneumatic actuators are the norm for this application in nuclear plants, many industrial process plants are starting to look at the use of electric actuators to operate various control valves. Also, interest is growing among new plant designers for electric solutions for modulating service particularly where instrument air is difficult to provide or maintain.

Finally, no nuclear plant would be complete without a large number of manual gear operators. If these operators are in critical areas, they also need to be seismically tested and qualified. This can be difficult since the gears can be quite large, which makes finding shaker tables for seismic testing big enough to handle those gears a ­challenge. Bevel, spur and worm gears also are all used in various nuclear applications.


Because of the hundreds of different valve-actuator applications in a nuclear facility, it’s essential that those involved in specifying and maintaining such equipment work closely with ­reputable actuator manufacturers to determine the best solution for each situation.

Safety, efficiency, meeting the appropriate standards and longevity are all crucial issues that need to be considered for each and every valve actuator installed in a nuclear plant.

Pete Kundin is general manager of the Eastern USA business unit, Rotork, Rochester, NY. (www.rotork.com). Reach Kundin at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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