Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Large Reactors not the only Option

While the world waits in anticipation for a non catastrophic resolution of the nuclear reactor crises in Japan after the earthquake, many are wondering about future options for the industry.

The nuclear-power industry has been increasingly looking at new approaches. Rather than relying on huge, traditional reactors costing billions, it is turning to small, inexpensive ones, many of which are based on proven designs from nuclear submarines or warships.

A global race is under way to develop small-reactor designs, says a spokesman of the Nuclear Energy Institute. He estimates that more than 20 countries have expressed serious interest in buying mini-reactors.

"TerraPower, an American firm backed by Bill Gates, thinks it has the solution. It is working with Toshiba to design a small reactor based on a “travelling wave” design. Once kick-started with a tiny amount of enriched uranium, it would run for decades on non-enriched, depleted uranium, a widely available material. This will be possible because the nuclear reaction, eating its way through the core at the rate of about one centimetre a year, would gradually convert the depleted uranium into fissionable plutonium—in effect “breeding” high-grade fuel and then consuming it.

Mr Gates points out that nuclear power has historically been dogged by five worries: safety, proliferation, waste, cost and fuel availability. “This thing is a miracle that solves all five,” he says. John Gilleland, TerraPower’s boss, says that a single enrichment plant would then suffice to produce all the enriched uranium needed to spark up the world’s mini-reactors."

Mini-reactors still depend on a combination of technical, commercial, and regulatory factors. Wouldn't it be idyllic if a new generation of smaller, less obtrusive and dangerous power plants could be designed and built to provide future energy needs?