For nuclear, good things come in small packages
The days of the behemoth nuclear plants may be numbered, King writes. There is a movement to design and build smaller nuclear reactors that are more affordable and flexible.
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The future for these is so alluring that eight U.S.-based manufacturers are competing for seed funding from the DOE for reactors that range in size from 10 MWe up to 265 MWe. Other countries are also revved up including Argentina, China, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and South Africa.Skip to next paragraph
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Whatever the design, one of the big advantages the new entrants will have is that they will be wholly or partly built in factories, saving money and assuring quality. (Related article: Will Moribund Uranium Prices Rebound?)
Some designs, like those of Babcock & Wilcox (which won the first round of funding) and Westinghouse, are sophisticated adaptations of light water technology.
Others, like General Atomics’ offering, called the Energy Multiplier Module, or EM2, are at the cutting-edge of nuclear energy. It relies on a high operating temperature of 850 degrees Centigrade to increase efficiency, reduce waste, and even to use nuclear waste as fuel. It is designed to work for 30 years without refuelling, relying on a silicon carbide fibre ceramic that will hold the fuel pellets.
“The ceramic does not melt and if it is damaged, the material tends to heal itself,” says John Parmentola, senior vice president at General Atomics, which developed the Predator unmanned aerial vehicle and the electromagnetic launch system for aircraft carriers, which replaces the steam catapult.
Others designs include thorium fuel instead of uranium, the use of molten salt as a moderator and coolant. Three of them, including General Atomics' design are so-called fast reactors, where a moderator is not used to slow down the neutrons as they collide with the target atoms. Think fission on steroids.
It is as though nuclear designers have thrown off the chains of legacy and are free to dream up wondrous new machines, similar to the start of the nuclear age.
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