New nuke could POWER WORLD UNTIL 2083
Salt reactor runs on nuclear waste
A company spun off from MIT is claiming it has cracked the holy grail of nuclear technology: a reactor design that runs on materials the industry currently discards as waste and which could meet all of the world's power demands for the next 70 years. It's also "walk-away safe," the designers claim, making it immune to the kind of meltdown that destroyed the Fukushima reactors.
The Waste Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor (WAMSR) is based on designs first dreamt up in the 1950s for reactors that used liquid rather than solid fuels. Two graduate students at MIT have now upgraded those designs so that the reactors can be fueled by nuclear waste, and also designed a safety system that will automatically shut the reactor down without power or human intervention.
Most conventional nuclear reactors – in the US at least – are light-water reactors, but this design has a number of disadvantages. The reactors only use about 3 per cent of the potential energy stored in the uranium pellets that power them, and the resultant waste still contains enough energy to be radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. The average US plant produces 20 tons of such waste a year.
They also suffer from safety problems, since an external power source is required to cool the reaction chamber and to shut down the plant if necessary. It was the failure of these power systems (owing to the tsunami cutting both power to the plant and swamping the backup generators) that caused Fukushima's reactor problems.
The WAMSR takes "waste" fuel pellets and dissolves them in molten salt. The fluid is then pumped into a graphite core to induce a reaction and generate heat, which is extracted via a heat exchanger and used to drive steam turbines and generate power.
WAMSR – silly name but lovely concept
The design is much more fuel-efficient than light-water reactors – using 98 per cent of the potential energy in uranium pellets – and a WAMSR unit would produce just three kilos of waste a year that would be radioactive for only hundreds of years rather than hundreds of thousands.
With around 270,000 tons of nuclear waste available worldwide, the reactors would be enough to supply all the world's projected energy needs for the next 70 years. As a side benefit, this could also reduce nuclear proliferation since countries would no longer have to manufacturer nuclear fuel.
As a safety feature, WAMSR's liquid-fuel pipes are connected to a drain plug of salt that has been frozen solid. If humans aren't around and the power to the plant fails, the plug melts and the nuclear fuel drains into a holding tanks, cools, and solidifies over the space of a few days.
The initial design for WAMSR is a 500MWe (megawatt electrical) plant that can be manufactured as a standalone unit and be shipped directly to customers, ready to be fueled up and switched on. It would cost around $1.5bn – which may sound like a lot, but is dirt cheap compared to a garden-varity nuke plant these days.
The team has been joined by Russ Wilcox, cofounder of the E Ink, the company that produces the displays fronting many e-readers, to start a company called Transatomic Power which to sell the invention. The founders said that they weren't expecting many orders from the US, but China is a strong contender, given the hundreds of power plants the Middle Kingdom wants.
"Nuclear energy is the only low carbon energy source that is both scalable and already generating large amounts of electricity around the world," said Dr. Richard Lester, head of the department of nuclear science at MIT.
"When we look at the world's rapidly growing demand for energy and combine with the need for deep reductions in carbon emissions to avoid worst of climate change," Lester said, "it's hard to know how we're going to achieve this without an expansion in nuclear energy." ®
I really, really, really hope this is real. And I really, really, really hope that if it is real, it happens.
Unfortunately, I suspect that the general population (and a good chunk of the non-general population, for that matter) will see 'nuclear', think 'fukushimachernobylmushroomcloudwasteexplodeohmygodcancer' and run screaming from our only real hope of freedom from fossil fuel.
Re: Even if it works
"we'll probably be having scheduled power cuts and a government telling us that it's good for us and that we're helping save the planet"
LONG POST, GET A COFFEE NOW
Very probably. From a UK perspective, this is what the near future holds for those responsible for UK energy policy:
1. Having given away sovereignty to the EU, and allowed the Eurocrats to invent the Large Combustion Plant Directive, allow one eighth of UK power generating plant to be forcibly retired by the end of 2015. That's 11.8 GW shutting down out of a total of 84 GW of reliable capacity, plus the separate closure of the Magnox plant at Wylfa, taking out another 1 GW. These retirements are already happening, and once retired there's not much chance of reinstatement - there's no commercial reason to mothball the plant, it is also very difficult to mothball coal fired plant, and there's a commercial imperative to dismantle the site and sell for redevelopment.
2. Commission a handful of new CCGT's in the next couple of years of around 6 GW (but with no central oversight of the commissioning dates, so real wing & prayer stuff). Hope that 6 GW minus 12.8 GW equals zero.
3. Introduce carbon floor tax. Look on in wonder as the marginal third of plant currently opted in for LCPD (ie coal plant that DECC think will keep running) exits the market because it isn't profitable to run. Subtract another 3 to 6 GW of capacity, and act surprised. Pray that peak demand of 60 GW continues to shrink. With a rising population, increased use of things like heat pumps, and sod all industry left to offshore, further falls in peak demand seem an act of faith, with any credible forecast indicating it ought to rise towards 62 GW.
4. Make warm, welcoming sounds about how all the many GW of renewables will fill the gap - ignoring that they will contribute nothing to peak demand because that's typically after dark on very cold, very still days. Continue to pour bill-payers money into renewables, despoiling the countryside for no benefit. Likewise, point to international interconnectors - again ignoring the fact that peak demand tends to be regional, and these can't be depended on at critical times. With Germany progressively closing down its nuclear fleet, Belgium and Switzerland likewise, the availability of surplus French nuclear power cannot be presumed, because those countries will become net importers. Historically Germany has been the swing producer of Europe, and exported power, so this is a big an unhelpful change.
5. Continue lacksadaisical UK approach to nuclear funding and approval. This is already on a knife edge, with nobody willing to commit to build unless the government agree that they will be paid double current wholesale prices. The two potential builders could both yet walk away from the table within weeks. Even so, the soonest new nuclear plants will be operational is a decade or more away. The actual construction is relatively quick - could be done in three years, but the design, procurement, legislative permissions and approvals and infrastructure enablement will treble that.
6. Realise that by January 2016 UK reserve margin will have fallen from around 20% to 8%, the lowest level in several decades - industry rules of thumb put minimum safe reserve capacity at 15%. This means that you're in trouble if more than three or four major power plants go offline at once. Convince yourself that this is fine. It isn't because you can expect two of the fifteen UK reactors to be offline even in the winter peak for statutory inspection, maintenance or repairs (you can't do the whole fleet all in the summer). So now if one or two conventional plants go down (or their transmission links fail), we're in big trouble.
7. Sometime between now and winter 2016/7 panic, and incentivise the building of new CCGT. These incentives will (as usual) be added to the peasants electricity bills. This creates a further problem, that UK generation will become yet more gas dependent, compounded by the circa 2019-2023 retirements of the older AGR nukes. Accelerated build of CCGT sounds good, because they're quick to build, but the bureacratic approvals still take years, the enabling infrastructure (eg high capacity gas lines) still takes years unless you've very lucky in location, and with procurement lead times it is still an absolute minimum of six years, often more like nine.
8. Lose next election, retire on fat, undeserved parliamentary pension, with equally undeserved "resettlement grant". Or in the case of DECC, retire early on gold plated and undeserved PCPS pension. Laugh at how you've made a comfortable and secure living from f***ing the country over.
If you've got this far, well done. There's a few minor simplifications in all of this, but as a broad brush this is all based on fact. Which is most unfortunate. If El Reg want to do some more digging to establish whether this is correct or not then I'd be willing to give some pointers to how to go about it.
I'm sure by the time we've burned our way through the current waste stockpile, we'll have developed better alternatives, including thorium burners. I'd like to see this line of research given a massive boost, as this is certainly our best source of power so far.
I'm curious though... does the total amount of waste take into consideration any contaminated materials as well, or just the used fuel? And how do we get at the existing stuff that's buried in various sealed sites? I'm guessing this is more for fresh and un-buried stuff.
Still, hats off to the brains behind it all!