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Intellectual Ventures is hard at work developing its TerraPower 'traveling wave' reactor design that doesn't require enriched uranium, but uses depleted uranium in a process that produces less waste and might generate power for a century before refueling.

Last night during the State of the Union address, President Obama called for a renewed look at nuclear power. Specifically he stated, "To create more of these clean energy jobs, we need more production, more efficiency, more incentives.  And that means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country."

America's current fleet of nuclear power plants are aging, as is the labor pool to engineer, build and maintain them. Concerns about cost overruns and stranded assets now weigh as heavily on fate of the industry as worries about nuclear proliferation, accidents and waste storage. The financial black hole that is the latest generation of reactor being built in Finland, as well as concerns over the quality of its construction and potential safety issues doesn't help the call for a nuclear renaissance in America, despite the ongoing construction of new plants in India, Korea and China.

I've had the opportunity to stand atop the world's very first nuclear power reactor, touched the light bulb it lit back in the late 1940s at what is now Idaho Falls National Laboratory. I've looked into the pool of glowing blue water where the facility's own spent fuel is stored. I've even come close to accepting nuclear power, only to cautiously  back away from edge of the 'pool.'  I like the idea that nuclear power has such a small physical and -- depending on your perspective -- environmental footprint. Certainly, it is far cleaner than coal, which I am told releases more radiation than all the world's 400 or so power plants put together. All the world's nuclear waste, removed from its protective cladding and stacked shoulder-to-shoulder would fit into one standard American football field at the height of five feet. Its carbon dioxide emissions is a fraction that of coal or natural gas.

Still, I keep coming back to the problem of waste and proliferation, with operational safety ranking third given the industry's track record to date. The problem with our current technology is that we only use something like 8% of the available energy in the nuclear fuel rods that power our reactors. The only way to get more use out of them is to reprocess them, which creates its own host of problems from environmental to economic. And little discussed in the media is the growing problem of depleted uranium, the waste left over from the initial enrichment process. According to Dr. John Gilleland, who is the featured speaker in the video below, there are 38,000 cylinders of DU like those depicted above at just one storage site in America. The only practical use we've found for this is to put it in the tips of our munitions to destroy armored vehicles, and not without serious public health consequences, it's alleged.

These problems haven't escaped the notice of people in the industry, and some very bright people are looking for ways to solve them. One of those businesses is Intellectual Ventures, which is working on a several decades-old idea called Traveling Wave Reactors (TWR). Think of it as a very slow burning bullet. At one end of the fuel assembly is the primer, in this case a small amount of enriched U-235. Packed like gunpowder in the rest of the 'cartridge' is depleted uranium. The primer ignites the DU immediately around it and this sets off a chain reaction that propagates forward through the fuel at a rate that would take anywhere from months to decades, possibly as much as a century. The Intellectual Venture computer drawing below illustrates what a first generation TW reactor might look like.

In the online video, shot last Spring at UC Berkeley's Nuclear Engineering Department, Dr. Gilleland, who heads up TWR project for IV, estimates that the value of just the DU stored at the Paducah facility might be worth the equivalent of $100 TRILLION dollars in electricity. Others estimate that there's enough DU stored around the planet to provide electric power for all of the people on Earth for the next millennium.

So, what's the hang up? At the moment, all this is just pure theory based on computer models; and as Gilleland explains, there's no real practical way to build a working "model." We'd have to pretty much build something full scale to see if the computer simulations and the equations they're based on would actually work. And the system still produces its share of waste, but at a "factor of ten" below that currently being created by Light Water Reactors, the most widely used design today. However, it would also take less time to cool before being placed in permanent storage or itself reprocessed.

And because this is all based on theoretical models, how much the system would cost is still being worked out. While other forms of power are projected to remain either relatively stable in the coming decades or, as in the case of wind, solar and geothermal, decrease; nuclear power is likely to continue to increase in cost, despite attempts to reduce this by building more modular, cookie cutter types of plants; something TWR lends itself too.

So, here I am again looking over the edge of that glowing pool, pulled by an irresistible urge to see us move beyond the 18th century and towards a Type One civilization that has figured out how to peacefully, safely harness the power of a star for the good of all.

See diagram of TWR Generation One reactor design on EV World

Originally posted to My EV World on Fri Jan 29, 2010 at 05:38 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  The Traveling Wave Reactor (0+ / 0-)

    is a neat concept, but it does have its own particular technical challenges.

    Personally, I wouldn't count it out, but today, it is a definite longshot for providing significant amounts of electricity anytime in the near future.  I'd rank it slightly more likely than nuclear fusion.

    An idealist is one who, on noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it will also make better soup.
    -- H. L. Mencken

    by bryfry on Fri Jan 29, 2010 at 06:00:46 PM PST

    •  Stop trolling here (0+ / 0-)

      Comments like this really piss me off. You mention some unsubstantiated "technical challenges" and then, without even hinting at a reason, you declare the technology to essentially be a pipe dream. (Let's face it, comparing something to fusion is nothing if not that.)

      So, what do you know that the scientists don't?

      People would be entitled to say that any clean technology has "technical challenges" because every technology does. But we'd be idiots if we wrote off everything with technical challenges. When did we lose the attitude that when we encounter challenges, we do research to overcome those challenges?

      As far as clean technologies on the horizon, this is about as ideal as we're going to get in terms of a balance of cost/feasibility/scale/reliability.

      Again, if you don't agree, don't just troll. Tell us what you know that the scientists don't.

      •  Not "trolling," just technical (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Garrett, Boreal Ecologist

        I was just offering up my own personal opinion. I didn't want to get bogged down in the details. After all, I am somewhat familiar with the concept, and this diary (note: I recommended it) has very little technical details, which however is appropriate for the audience here.

        Nevertheless, the diary did a descent job of briefly explaining the issues surrounding the neutronics -- i.e., whether the controlled chain reaction will work the way that it has been modeled to work. Outside of that, there are various thermal challenges that will need to be overcome. These, in my opinion, are the real potential show stoppers.

        I never said that this concept is unworkable. I wish Intellectual Ventures all the luck in the world. I just don't want people to adopt expectations that are unrealistic.

        An idealist is one who, on noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it will also make better soup.
        -- H. L. Mencken

        by bryfry on Fri Jan 29, 2010 at 06:26:34 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  You know, the diary has a useful link (0+ / 0-)

          The linked video is an address to the UC Berkeley department of nuclear physics. These are not fools, and the speaker did get into details.

          But here you go again, repeating without a shred of reason the FUD that their expectations are unrealistic. And that's the sort of comment I hate. It's a backhanded dismissal of something that might or might not save our asses.

          To answer that question will require research, and if you wait for private firms to pay for it all, our planet might already be a deforested Haiti-ball. (The environmental problems in Haiti are many, but probably the most important one is that the trees have been cut down for cooking fuel. That's what happens when people run out of energy.)

          Like many people here, I think the government should support promising clean energy projects. My second favorite is solar-thermal. And this is my first.

          •  The rest of us (0+ / 0-)

            will wait for a prototype, if they ever get that far, to see how well it may work. What real life, full scale drawbacks might be. Then, if the prototype works well, we'll discuss perhaps deploying one or two. If any utilities in this country can afford them. You never know... 30 or 40 years down the line, maybe the Fed (if it still exists) will print enough money to build more of them to pick up where decommissioned thermal reactors leave off - assuming there's ever enough money in the fund to decommission them rather than simply locking the gates and walking away from the accumulated filth.

            Then, by about 2070 or so if everything works out great, we might be getting 17-20% of our generation capacity from these puppies!

            Doesn't sound all that promising to me, but maybe my great-grandkids will need the AC 12 months a year by then and not care where it comes from.

  •  My brain hurts. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I'm still very skeptical that a single nuclear plant will go from planning to joining the grid during my lifetime. I would very much like to be wrong, I think there's a lot of promise in it, but I can understand the concerns: The second you fuel a plant, you're signing on for a serious commitment in time and money to maintain it.

    Good write-up, thanks!

    •  I know it won't happen (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      in my lifetime. We aren't on a Cold War "Atoms For Peace" crash program anymore, and even the nuclear industry itself is buying seriously used parts at fire sale prices. Presumably because they just can't stick their ratepayers with the costs of shiny new parts.

      This doesn't exactly inspire much confidence.

      •  That is part of the problem. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        I am paying a little over 10 cents per kWh, and there are parts of the country where that would be considered high.

        Right now the only generating capacity being built in the US are types made attractive by Obama (and god, it chaps my energy business' co-workers ass to come out and say it. You can hear the cognitive dissonance.)

        I really would like to be wrong about my prediction. I do worry about the long-term (i.e. multi-century) planning that has to go into atomic energy, but, we've solved big problems before.

        •  Why must the future go nuclear? (0+ / 0-)

          The humans that design, build and run these things aren't going to suddenly evolve in the next few hundred years. The only way nuclear on a large scale could ever be viable is as a government-run entity, and government hacks aren't going to do any evolving any time soon either.

          The technology simply doesn't scale well, and presents too much risk on a number of levels to entrust either to corporate greedheads or conscience-less government idiots. There's a reason no new plants have been ordered since 1978 - BEFORE Three Mile Island, btw - and a reason we don't do commercial reprocessing in this country. None of the issues related to those realities have been dealt with. And neither has waste been dealt with.

          We can do better.

  •  Clean energy stimulus money should support this! (0+ / 0-)

    TWR has been on my radar for a while, and I think it's by far the most promising clean energy technology. Just to make this clear to readers who aren't familiar with the technology:

    Standard light-water reactors only burn one isotope of Uranium - U235 - which comprises less than 1% of natural Uranium. Concentrating U235 so that it burns in traditional reactors is called "enriching" - a technology that could also be used to make bombs. But the most stupid thing about light water reactors is that they waste more than 99% of the Uranium we mine. TWR could burn all of it, which means we only need to mine and refine one hundredth of Uranium to get the same energy output. Already, fission provides 20% of our electricity. Now picture amping this up by a factor of a hundred, without any need for additional mining.

    That's the promise of TWR. And if that doesn't sound promising to you, I suggest you turn in your "environmentalist" card.

    •  Other than energy (0+ / 0-)

      for what little heavy manufacturing is still done in this country, and for population-intensive cities, we have no real need for super-gigawatt monstrosities. And the flat refusal of NRC and utilities to heed the strongest recommendations from both Kemeny and Rogovin to site any new capacity far from concentrated populations is telling.

      Perhaps someday, maybe, our grid will allow for sources far from cities to supply without losing most of the 'trons in transit, then the U.S. could designate "national sacrifice" areas where intensive multi-source (including nuclear) generation plants could be located. But so long as it's utility companies footing the bill, they'll be siting their plants near their customers, or at least in their own states. And the people who then get dumped on regularly (and end up with thyroid cancer or leukemia, etc.) have no say in the matter. That sucks.

      But that time is not now, and some serious social/governmental changes would have to take place before it's even imaginable. Meanwhile the air gets dirtier, the climate warms, and social unrest grows. Distributed generation is the best choice for reality in our age. That does not require either big nukes or big coal.

  •  This is the new idea that that uses magnets (0+ / 0-)

    and the process is  fusion (not fission), right?

  •  I suppose that (0+ / 0-)

    since you've been to Idaho Falls, you are aware of what would happen if some fool actually did attempt to remove spent fuel from its cladding and stack them "shoulder to shoulder." This sort of propaganda is incredibly misleading. Like like saying the earth is really the size of a marble because atoms are mostly empty space. There's a reason for the space, and a reason nuclear waste isn't stacked raw "shoulder to shoulder."

    So I'll just note that between a third and half (or more, depending on length of operation and depletion of U-235 in the core) of the energy produced by current thermal reactors comes from plutonium. Thus transmutation of U-238 to plutonium isn't so revolutionary.

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