Towards a Cleaner Future: The Molten Salt Reactor


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.


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.


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!


NASA’s Cold Fusion Technology

cold_fusionIn 1989, two scientific researchers – Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons – announced the achievement of cold fusion. In a press release that garnered massive amounts of publicity, they stating that their experiment, involving a electrified palladium rod placed in a solution of heavy water, had succeeded in absorbing hydrogen and compressing it within the rod to the point that individual atoms began to fuse and helium was formed.

Naturally, other labs began to test their method and found that the same did not happen for them. With time, the experiment was revealed to be the result of a false positive as more and more labs claimed they unable to replicate the results. In the end, their announcement appeared premature and their claims unscientific. Still, the men never retracted their claim and moved their labs overseas.

NASA_coldfusionAnd interestingly enough, the declaration that they had achieved the dream of clean, abundant, cheap energy fueled the public’s imagination. Henceforth, the concept of cold fusion, as they had preached it, was featured in numerous movies and stories, even though it was now believed to be something of a pipe dream. And for some, the idea of the technology never died. Cold fusion remained a scientific dream similar to a Grand Unifying Theory or the elusive Higgs Boson.

One such organization is NASA, who continues work on this science through the development of their low-energy nuclear reaction (LENR) technology. It is their hope that one day the technology will be sophisticated enough to become commercially viable, making cold fusion reactors that could power everything  – from homes, to cars, to planes – a reality.

lner-nickel-hydrogen-latticeAnd unlike previous attempts that sought to harness basic fusion, the technology behind the LENR is really quite revolutionary. Rather than rely on strong nuclear forces to meld atoms and produce energy, LENR harnesses the power of weak nuclear force.

This is done by using an oscillating nickel lattice that takes in hydrogen atoms and then exchanges electrons with them. This has the effect of forming slow-moving neutrons which are absorbed, making the nickel unstable. To regain its stability, the nickel strips a neutron of its electron so that it becomes a proton — a reaction that turns the nickel into copper and creates a lot of energy in the process.

The big upside to this process is the fact that it produces zero ionizing radiation and zero radioactive waste, making it the safest and cleanest nuclear process to date. In addition, NASA claims that relying on reactors like these, it would only take 1% of the world’s nickle production to meet the world’s current energy needs, and at a quarter of the cost of dirtier fuels like coal. On top of that, they’ve also indicated that the same process can be done using a carbon lattice instead of nickel, making it even more versatile.

???????????????????????????????So the question remains, why isn’t every household running on a LENR reactor already? Well, two problems. For one, the amount of energy needed to get the ball rolling is quite high. Initially, the LENR requires a 5-30THz frequency burst of energy to make the nickel lattice begin oscillating, which is difficult to efficiently produce.

Second, other labs have experienced a few… uh, accidents… trying to reproduce the process, which included a few explosions and some melted windows. No deaths were reported, mind you, but it does demonstrate that the process can generate a LOT of power if not properly controlled.

Still, other means of generating electricity, such as nuclear fission, have experienced some bumps along the way (i.e. Chernobyl and Three Mile Island) and we still rely on them. And oil and coal are what we’ve come to think of as “dirty means” of generating power, meaning they cause tremendous amounts of pollution or can lead to environmental debacles, such as oil spills. And natural gas can only last so long. So realistically, there may be hope for LENR and cold fusion yet.

Fingers so very crossed! And be sure to check out NASA’s video explaining the process: