Friday, April 13, 2012

Innovative Approaches to Nuclear Power Offer Great Hope

Transatomic Power Team Presentation

In a recent posting at Idaho Samizdat Nuke Notes, Dan Yurman highlights two of the most promising new approaches to nuclear power, for the intermediate term future:
In Massachusetts, Transatomic Power, run by two Ph.D. candidates at MIT, Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie, the effort is focused on using uranium-based spent nuclear fuel to provide the energy to run the reactor. Their business model is to license a design to a major reactor vendor or a state-owned reactor development agency.

...Asked why they chose this specific technology, they point to three specific factors - safety, waste, and economics. Massie says the team chose the molten salt design concept because they feel it will provide more bang for the buck, and it will be faster and cheaper for someone licensing their technology to bring it to market.

The most significant reason is that when compared to a new design for a fast reactor, there is no need for fuel design, qualification, and fabrication, a process that could add years to the development timeline.

Financial backing for the firm is coming from private investors as seed funding. Dewan says the hunt is on for early stage funding to establish a stronger financial base.

The real challenge in the next two years is to build a team to complete the design. The firm has gone back to some of the experts who worked on the molten salt reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, but what it really needs is a new generation of engineers to work on the design.

"What we offer to a new PhD. or engineering graduate is the excitement and opportunity to develop new aspects of nuclear energy. There is a misconception that there is not a lot of room for innovation," Dewan said. _IdahoSamizdat: Nuke Notes
China may be interested in their approach, but the Transatomic Power team is uncertain whether China would steal control over their innovations and intellectual property.

The other promising innovative approach to nuclear fission is Flibe Energy, Kirk Sorensen's liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR):
Liquid-fluoride reactors operate at high temperature but not at high pressure because they use a chemically stable medium as the fuel and the coolant, making them much safer to operate than conventional reactors.

He says that "Thorium is the only abundant nuclear fuel that can be efficiently utilized in a thermal-spectrum reactor and is uniquely chemically suited for use in a fluoride reactor."

Introduction to Flibe Energy

The market for the design is based on an assessment that there are many remote sites where electrical power is generated by diesel fuel that is transported over great distances and over challenging or hostile terrain. A small modular power source has the potential to reduce the costs, hazards and vulnerability of power supply-lines, saving money and even lives in term of providing power to military bases. _Dan Yurman
Much more at Dan Yurman's Idaho Samizdat Nuke Notes, linked above.

Both approaches are capable of much higher energy efficiencies from a given nuclear fuel -- either uranium or thorium. The thorium approach may offer marginally better fuel costs, once the infrastructure for thorium production is developed and scaled up. But with plans for energy extraction from fuel above 98%, the cost and availability of fuel should be the least of concerns for either company.

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