Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Betting on the Need, Scientists Work on Lighter, Cleaner Nuclear Energy

Brady Mackowiak, a fuels engineer, with a press that will fabricate uranium pellets for TerraPower's nuclear venture. (Credit: Jim McAuley for The New York Times) Click to Enlarge.
Many experts, as well as investors, say that for the world to meet rising demand for electricity and simultaneously reduce carbon emissions, nuclear power will have to be part of the mix.

Now, 60 years after the United States adapted Navy submarine-propulsion technology to build the first civilian nuclear plants, hundreds of scientists and engineers are looking at new kinds of reactors, intended to be safer, cheaper and deployable worldwide.

From reactor designs that use sodium instead of water, to those that substantially reduce the waste that lasts thousands of years, the new reactors would represent a significant break from the past.

“There’s a whole class of reactors that are not evolutionary concepts relative to what you have out there now — they’re really different,” said Mark T. Peters, associate laboratory director at Argonne National Laboratory, another Energy Department site, this one a few miles southwest of Chicago, that is also deeply involved in new designs.  Current reactors use uranium and water under high pressure; new ones could run on thorium, plutonium or more exotic materials, and in place of water might have molten metal.

There is no market for these reactors now, he and others say; in fact, at the moment most nuclear utilities are focused on trying to nurse old reactors through lean times in the electricity market, created by cheap natural gas.

But if the world decides in the 2030s and 2040s that it is time to deploy a new fleet of reactors, those will be based on work done in the few labs like this over the next decade, experts predict.

“In a carbon-constrained world, with that time frame, you better have some advanced reactors ready to go,” Dr. Peters said.

Read original article at Betting on the Need, Scientists Work on Lighter, Cleaner Nuclear Energy - NYTimes.com

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