Towards a Cleaner Future: The Molten Salt Reactor

nuclear-power

What if you heard that there was such a thing as a 500 Megawatt reactor that was clean, safe, cheap, and made to order? Well, considering that 500 MWs is the close to the annual output of a dirty coal power station, you might think it sounded too good to be true. But that’s the nature of technological innovations and revolutions, which the nuclear industry has been in dire need of in recent years.

While it is true that the widespread use of nuclear energy could see to humanity’s needs through to the indefinite future, the cost of assembling and maintaining so many facilities is highly prohibitive. What’s more, in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, nuclear power has suffered a severe image problem, spurred on by lobbyists from other industries who insist that their products are safer and cheaper to maintain, and not prone to meltdowns!

Nuclear MOX plant : recycling nuclear waste : Submerged Spent Fuel Elements with Blue Glow

As a result of all this, the stage now seems set for a major breakthrough, and researchers at MIT and Transatomic’s own Russ Wilcox seems to be stepping up to provide it. Last year, Wilcox said in an interview with Forbes that it was “a fabulous time to do a leapfrog move”. Sounded like a bold statement at the time, but recently, Transatomic went a step further and claimed it was mobilizing its capital to make the leap happen.

Basically, the plan calls for the creation of a new breed of nuclear reactor, one which is miniaturized and still produces a significant amount of mega-wattage. Such efforts have been mounted in the past, mainly in response to the fact that scaling reactors upwards has never resulted in increased production. In each case, however, the resulting output was quite small, usually on the order of 200 MW.

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Enter into this the Transatomic’s Molten Salt Reactor (MSR), a design that is capable of producing half the power of a large-scale reactor, but in a much smaller package. In addition, MSRs possess a number of advantages, not the least of which are safety and cost. For starters, they rely on coolants like flouride or chloride salts instead of light or heavy water, which negates the need to pressurize the system and instantly reduces the dangers associated with super-heated, pressurized liquids.

What’s more, having the fuel-coolant mixture at a reasonable pressure also allows the mixture to expand, which ensures that if overheating does take place, the medium will simply expand to the point that the fuel atoms too far apart to continue a nuclear reaction. This is what is called a “passive safety system”, one that kicks in automatically and does not require a full-scale shutdown in the event that something goes wrong.

moltensalt_reactor1

Last, but not least, is the addition of the so-called freeze plug – an actively cooled barrier that melts in the event of a power failure, leading all nuclear material to automatically drain into a reinforced holding tank. These reactors are “walk away safe,” meaning that in the event of a power failure, accident, or general strike, the worst that could happen is a loss of service. In a post-Fukushima industry such disaster-proof measures simply must be the future of nuclear power.

Then, there is the costs factor. Transatomic claims their reactor will be capable of pumping out 500 megawatts for a total initial cost of about $1.7 billion, compared to 1000 megawatts for an estimated $7 billion. That’s about half the cost per megawatt, and the new reactor would also be small enough to be built in a central factory and then shipped to its destination, rather than requiring a multi-year construction project to build the plant and reactor on site.

The project has raised $1 million dollars of investment so far, and Transatomic appears to be putting all their eggs in this one basket. Their researchers also claim their design is production-ready and they are just waiting for orders to come in. And given the current energy crisis, it’s not likely to be long before government and industry comes knocking!

Source: Extremetech.com

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