A S hort Primer on Modern Nuclear Reactor Design
My post this morning about nuclear power touched off a substantial Twitter conversation, most of it based on misconceptions about modern nuclear reactor designs. I don’t desire to get into a long defense of nuclear here, however I idea it may be rewarding to at least offer a quick primer for individuals who sanctuary’t truly kept up with advancements considering that Three Mile Island. Here are some of the primary points:
- Thorium. Back in the Atoms for Peace days, nuclear power was inextricably bound up with nuclear weapons advancement. This suggested that uranium ended up being the fuel of option for nuclear reactors, and the reality that it produced plutonium as a by-product was viewed as a good thing. But there’s constantly been another great choice of fissile material: thorium, which is far more abundant than uranium and makes a perfectly good fuel for electrical power production. The first thorium reactor was built in 1965 and worked well, however the innovation was never pushed forward after that. Just recently interest in thorium has been restored, and there are now thorium research study reactors in use around the world. India is particularly interested in advertising them because they have substantial reserves of thorium.
- Thermal breeders. Even though thorium is more abundant than uranium, there’s still not an infinite supply of the stuff. This indicates that breeder reactors, which produce more fuel than they utilize, will almost certainly need to be part of the option for any long-term buildout of nuclear capability. They’ve been a subject of research study forever, however they have a number of downsides, one of which is that they turned out to be extremely expensive to style and develop. However, thermal breeder designs for thorium plants, which rely on lower-speed neutrons in the reproducing process, are likely to be less costly.
- Meltdowns. All the original designs for nuclear reactors used pressurized water to cool the nuclear core. If something goes wrong, the water stops streaming and the core melts down. Modern styles have actually done away with pressurized water and rather usage gas or molten salt as cooling fluids. This makes the reactor all but immune to disasters. This innovation can be used with both thorium and uranium designs.
- Nuclear waste. This is the huge one. Even modern styles fruit and vegetables waste, and we still put on’t have any terrific ideas about how to dispose of it. Nevertheless, thorium breeders fruit and vegetables less waste, and in particular, they produce less of the longest-lasting waste. Storing what’s left on site is, for now, most likely a viable option.
- Nonproliferation. This has always been an concern with nuclear reactors, however once again, thorium helps on this front since it doesn’t fruit and vegetables anything beneficial for making a bomb.
None of this is uncontroversial. There are plenty of technical and engineering concerns that you can check out about if you’re interested. Simply for starters, we have only restricted experience with thorium reactors because of our decision years ago to focus on uranium.
However, lots of of these points also apply to uranium reactors. They generally go under the rubric of Gen III or Gen IV styles, which you can read more about here. Even if you’re opposed to nuclear development, it’s worth boning up on this stuff so you wear’t noise like an moron when you get into a conversation with someone who knows something about the present state of the art.
It’s likewise good to keep in mind that every energy source has disadvantages. Would a huge buildout of nuclear cost a lot? Sure, however the very same is real of solar and wind. Is nuclear waste a issue? Yes, but solar is only viable in parts of the world with lots of sun, and large-scale wind creates severe land-use problems. Is nuclear more expensive than oil and gas? At the minute, yes, however the costs of nuclear can come down if we invest in research. Besides, moving to a carbon-free world isn’t going to be totally free no matter how we do it. If the world isn’t ready to construct out nuclear just because it would expense a few percent of GDP, then it means that the world is flatly unwilling to address environment modification in any major method at all. After all, any solution that takes money and not much else is by far the most possible plan we have.
In the end, no one technology will rid us of our reliance on fossil fuels. Some of the answer will come from thorium reactors, some from uranium reactors, some from solar, some from wind, and who knows—maybe one day it will even come from combination power plants. The only specific thing is that all of these innovations deserve pails of cash for research to make them ever cheaper, more trusted, and simpler to keep.