Sunday, February 05, 2006

The Promise of Nuclear Energy

For a country that is "addicted to oil", there is surprisingly little discussion of a readily available and potentially safe form of energy: nuclear fission. Concerns about fission have been understandable, namely long-lived, hazardous waste products, the potential for use of nuclear waste in developing weapons for terrorists, and reactor safety.

In the recent article Scientific American: Smarter Use of Nuclear Waste [ ENERGY ], authors Hannum, Marsh, and Stanford detail a combination of new technologies that would essentially obviate these concerns. The approach involves a combination of fast nuclear reactors and pyrometallurgical processing (pyro). Currently, thermal nuclear reactors are typically used. These reactors use only about 5% of potential energy from nuclear fuel and create waste that requires some 10,000 years to decay to safe levels. Furthermore, the plutonium in the used fuel can be used to create nuclear weapons.

In contrast, fast reactors (already in use in Europe) burn a much greater percentage of the uranium/plutonium nuclear fuel, leading to a dramatic reduction in waste products. The real revolution will be pyro processing. A new technology, it involves reprocessing nuclear waste from thermal plants, separating unused nuclear fuel from waste products. The reprocessed fuel can then be used by fast reactors (not usable in the conventional thermal reactor). Unlike current reprocessing strategies, the reprocessed fuel is not suitable for nuclear weapons. Furthermore, the waste left over from this process requires only some 500 years to decay to safe levels, a dramatic reduction from current methods. Using this combination of technologies, some 99% of potential energy from nuclear fuel would be used.

In combining pyro with fast reactors, we would effectively have unlimited nuclear energy with minimal generation of waste products. Plutonium trafficking would be markedly reduced due to different processing methods. As far as safety is concerned, there are many ways to ensure a reactor is very safe (as an example, the authors detail building the whole reactor into the ground).

The authors estimate that, if we started now, the first such reactors combining these technologies would come online in 15 years. I am amazed that we haven't heard more discussion of this. I think there is a such a kneejerk negative reaction to the concept of nuclear power that politicians are afraid to approach it. Yet, this technology is already available and needs only to be expanded to a commercial scale.


Anonymous said...

This is a test.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to see if I could post a comment without logging in. (the publish button says 'LOGIN and publish' even when you're posting as anonymous).
As for Ryan's post, I agree that nuclear ought to be more seriously considered. But the public's paranoia with regard to the subject is difficult to overcome.
I would say that the problem in general is that the public is not concerned about potential energy crises until they arive and begin to seriously affect their quality of life. Even though energy prices have risen quite considerably in the last few years people are still sanguine about our energy future. They are also still prepared to protest any program to improve our energy infrastructure. People are not prepared to tolerate new convetional coal plants; they oppose new terminals, pipelines, and refineries; they object to neclear plants and wind farms; we love to consume energy but we seem to expect the energy producers to pull endless streams of wattage from their asses.
On a related note I thought I would reccomend the following interview. It's about world oil supply and future energy prices.