The design and the analysis of nuclear power plants (NPPs) require computational codes to predict the behavior of the NPP nuclear components and other systems (i.e., reactor core, primary coolant system, emergency core cooling system, etc.). Coupled calculations are essential to the conduct of deterministic safety assessments.

Inasmuch as the physical phenomena that govern the performance of a nuclear reactor are always present simultaneously, ideally computational modeling of a nuclear reactor should include coupled codes that represent all of the active physical phenomena. Such multi-physics codes are under development at several institutions and are expected to become operational in the future. However, in the interim, integrated codes that incorporate modeling capabilities for two to three physical phenomena will remain useful. For example, in the conduct of safety analyses, of paramount importance are codes that couple neutronics and thermal-hydraulics, especially transient codes. Other code systems of importance to safety analyses are those that couple primary system thermal-hydraulics to fission product chemistry, neutronics to fuel performance, containment behavior and structural mechanics to thermal-hydraulics, etc. This paper surveys the methods used traditionally in the coupling of neutronic and thermal-hydraulics codes.

The neutron kinetics codes are used for computing the space-time evolution of the neutron flux and, hence, of the power distribution. The thermal-hydraulics codes, which compute mass, momentum and energy transfers, model the coolant flow and the temperature distribution. These codes can be used to compute the neutronic behavior and the thermal-hydraulic states separately. However, the need to account with fidelity for the dynamic feedback between the two sets of properties (via temperature and density effects on the cross section inputs into the neutronics codes) and the requirement to model realistically the transient response of nuclear power plants and to assess the associated emergency systems and procedures imply the necessity of modeling the neutronic and thermal-hydraulics simultaneously within a coupled code system. The focus of this paper is a comparison of the methods by which the coupling between neutron kinetics and thermal-hydraulics treatments has been traditionally achieved in various code systems. As discussed in the last section, the modern approaches to multi-physics code development are beyond the scope of this paper.

From the field of the most commonly used coupled neutron kinetic-thermal-hydraulics codes, this study selected for comparison the coupled codes RELAP5-3D (NESTLE), TRACE/PARCS, RELAP5/PARCS, ATHLET/DYN3D, RELAP5/SCDAPSIM/MOD4.0/NESTLE. The choice was inspired by how widespread the use of the codes is, but was limited by time availability. Thus, the selection of codes is not to be construed as exhaustive, nor is there any implication of priority about the methods used by the various codes.

These codes were developed by a variety of institutions (universities, research centers, and laboratories) geographically located away from each other. Each of the research group that developed these coupled code systems used its own combination of initial codes as well as different methods and assumptions in the coupling process. For instance, all these neutron kinetics codes solve the few-groups neutron diffusion equations. However, the data they use may be based on different lattice physics codes. The neutronics solvers may use different methods, ranging from point kinetics method (in some versions of RELAP5) to nodal expansion methods (NEM), to semi-analytic nodal methods, to the analytic nodal method (ANM). Similarly, the thermal-hydraulics codes use several different approaches: different number of coolant fields, homogenous equilibrium model, separate flow model, different numbers of conservation equations, etc. Therefore, not only the physical models but also the assumptions of the coupled codes and coupling techniques vary significantly. This paper compares coupled codes qualitatively and quantitatively. The results of this study are being used both to guide the selection of appropriate coupled codes and to identify further developments into coupled codes.