Are Molten Salt Reactors the Real Clean Alternative Energy Source to Bridge us to the Time When Nuclear Fusion Really Exists?
Perhaps, but I believe it is more like wishful thinking. By the time the prototype technology is functional, we may have finally discovered a way to use fusion power – or maybe not. According to the September 4th MIT Technology Review article, “Meltdown-Proof Nuclear Reactors Get a Safety Check in Europe” the goal is to build a prototype in perhaps ten years – maybe a little less, but we’re not talking about next month or next year, or anytime soon. It’s a ways away.
The public agenda is about safety and being green, while the business agenda is about cost and profit. Natural gas, now used in about 31% of domestic generating stations, is incredibly cheap, and developing molten salt reactor technology and nuclear fusion is incredibly expensive at this stage. Once perfected the payoff could be one if not the largest in history. Fortunately, in spite of the enormous cost, both the Netherlands and France have organizations conducting multi-year safety assessments with the goal of having a fully functioning prototype in the early part of the next decade.
Molten salt reactor technology is not new. The first prototypes were actually developed in the 1960’s at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Modern designs have improved on the old and look encouraging. It can’t be over emphasized that studies are still very much in the experimental phases. Some suggested designs, such as the Seaborg Wasteburner, will actually consume nuclear waste and are green and hypothetically clean.
Nuclear power, in some form, is an immediate solution to burning fossil fuels and greenhouse gas reduction. We are a nation that has become mired far too deeply in regulatory approval. The process was well intentioned, but the delays and costs and controls and red tape are holding us back technologically. Other countries have moved ahead of us and our process needs to be streamlined. Safety need not be compromised in any way.
So what is this technology really all about? Here is a brief layman’s overview. Traditional nuclear generating stations use enriched uranium or plutonium (used in about one-third of reactors) as fuel. Japan and France use plutonium as well. Fission – the breaking apart of atoms (much like a pool ball striking a cluster of balls) causes more and more scattering of neutrons (the balls) which causes more impacts and more scattering striking more atoms. If allowed to go unchecked you have a runaway chain reaction and you don’t want that. Neutron absorbing materials are used to keep the reaction at specific levels.
Basically generating stations boil water creating steam. This is true whether the source of the heat comes from burning coal, natural gas, or from a nuclear reactor. The pressure of the steam turns turbines which power generators which produce electricity. Issues with older reactors still in use concern the question of the safety of the operation in the event of a system failure, or with the occurrence of a natural disaster (as with the Fukushima plant in Japan). Those are pretty big issues, and here’s another one; we also had to deal with the issue of what to do with radioactive waste products when they were created.
Molten salt reactors don’t create nuclear waste rather they can use it to create their reaction, reducing the amount of waste. It also uses a liquid fuel instead of solid. When the liquid heats up, it expands. This slows down the reaction. As the reaction slows, the fuel cools, and the reaction resumes, making the process self-governing. Proposals are to essentially build it like a bathtub with a drain plug termed a freeze plug that will melt if temperatures exceed what is desired, allowing the liquid to be drained and divided into a shielded underground safety tanks. It’s an interesting process.
Hopefully, by the time the technology has been built and tested, and proven safe, our minds will have opened and we will embrace it.
Tell me about your thoughts on using nuclear power to reduce carbon emissions and produce a safe clean way to power our planet?
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