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Molten Salt Reactor can transform nuclear power costs

Molten Salt Reactor can transform nuclear power costs Anthony Harrington

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One of the biggest, most insuperable problems with nuclear power generation, namely what to do with the waste that remains toxic for aeons to come, looks like it has been solved by a US start up. Say hello to the Massachusetts-based Transatomic Power, part-founded by entrepreneur Russ Wilcox, former CEO of E Ink Corporation, which commercialized electronic paper materials. That technology went into Amazon’s Kindle and other reading tablets such as the SONY Reader and B&N’s Nook. Wilcox sold E Ink for $450 million in 2009. The nuclear know-how behind the company comes from co-founder Dr. Leslie Dewan, former MIT graduate who holds a PhD in nuclear engineering; and fellow co-founder Mark Massie, the company’s Chief Technology Officer, also an MIT nuclear science and engineering graduate.

What Transatomic Power’s reactors do differently to conventional nuclear generators is to use dissolved nuclear waste from conventional nuclear  power stations, transformed into a molten salt. The company explains:

“Suspending the fuel in a liquid allows us to keep it in the reactor longer and therefore to capture more of its energy.”

Whereas reactors using standard solid fuel pins can use only about 3% of the potential fission energy in a given amount of uranium, leaving 97% as highly radioactive waste, Transatomic Power’s molten salts reactor can capture up to 98% of the remaining energy. In the process, the waste is transformed from a product that will be highly toxic for thousands of years, to a much smaller waste product that is only mildly radioactive for a few hundred years.

I touched on molten salt reactors (MSRs), which are not of themselves a new technology, in a blog on the potential for Thorium MSR to replace current nuclear technologies back in August 2012. MSRs were originally developed at the US Oak Ridge National Laboratory back in the 1950s; but Richard Nixon pulled the plug on the process in the 1970s because, unlike conventional reactors, MSRs do not develop weapons grade plutonium as a by-product. By contrast, Transatomic Power’s molten salt reactor uses some advanced new technologies, such as a metal hydride moderator and LiF (Heavy metal) F4 fuel salts, which allow its reactors to be much more compact and more cost-effective than conventional reactors. They are also able to use fresh fuel enriched to no more than 1.8% of U-235,  avoiding of the 33% enrichment process required by the early Oak Ridge MSRs. Transpower has named its reactor the “Waste-Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor”, or WAMSR (pronounced Wamser). Transpower also claims that the reactor can be manufactured economically and transported by rail to the chosen reactor site.

The Thorium MSR website, dedicated to publicizing the merits of MSRs, recently interviewed Wilcox who pointed out that WAMSR is actually some 20 times more compact than the OakRidge MSRs. The approach works with either thorium or uranium, though their idea prototype is a uranium reactor. According to Wilcox, a functioning prototype is probably about ten years away, with a two-year bench top proving period, being followed by a 5-8 year build and license process. With the world spend on nuclear power generation currently topping $100 billion a year and growing, there is plenty of incentive for Transpower to press on. Most importantly, according to Wilcox, using WAMSR means that the annual amount of long-life waste produced from the MSR approach will probably amount to no more than a few kilograms rather than the 20 tons or so per year of highly radioactive waste produced from conventional nuclear plants.

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Further reading on energy

Tags: E Ink , energy costs , metal hydride , molten salts reactors , MSR , nuclear power , Richard Nixon , Russ Wilcox , Transatomic Power , US Oak ridge National Laboratory
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