Monday, July 02, 2007

News from the Nuclear Front

As more countries begin ramping up plans for new nuclear power plants, IBM has committed itself to playing a leading advisory role.
Big Blue's Global Center of Excellence for Nuclear Power sits in southern France, near Cadarache, the site of the International Thermonuclear Experimental reactor fusion project.

The center will provide consultation for the design, construction, safety and operations of power plants based on IBM software, hardware and services. The company is eager to vend its expertise to utility companies looking to build new reactors or put older ones back in shape after the EU opened the energy market to all Europeans at the beginning of July. Theoretically, all Europeans are free to get their energy from any company, making a market ripe for competition — and perhaps consulting.

"France possesses world-class expertise in the area of nuclear power," IBM Lead Architect Frederic Bauchot said. "Establishment of the Center enables IBM to utilize not only local IBM talent and experience in nuclear systems design and implementation, but also advanced skills of a leading nuclear power market".

Meanwhile, South Korea will be assisting the Ukraine in construction and management of new nuclear plants. In India, nuclear scientists are designing an advanced Thorium reactor.
The novel Fast Thorium Breeder Reactor (FTBR) being developed by V. Jagannathan and his team at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) in Mumbai has received global attention after a paper was submitted to the International Conference on Emerging Nuclear Energy Systems (ICENES) held June 9-14 in Istanbul.

Power reactors of today mostly use a fissile fuel called uranium-235 (U-235), whose "fission" releases energy and some "spare" neutrons that maintain the chain reaction. But only seven out of 1,000 atoms of naturally occurring uranium are of this type. The rest are "fertile", meaning they cannot fission but can be converted into fissionable plutonium by neutrons released by U-235.

Thorium, which occurs naturally, is another "fertile" element that can be turned by neutrons into U-233, another uranium isotope. U-233 is the only other known fissionable material. It is also called the "third fuel".

Thorium is three times more abundant in the earth's crust than uranium but was never inducted into reactors because - unlike uranium - it has no fissionable atoms to start the chain reaction.

But once the world's uranium runs out, thorium - and the depleted uranium discharged by today's power reactors - could form the "fertile base" for nuclear power generation, the BARC scientists claim in their paper.

Development of alternative fuels for nuclear reactors can not come soon enough, since the market for uranium is threatening to burst through the roof.



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