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Next-Generation Nuclear Power

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This week’s Economist nicely presents the current status of global nuclear power development.

The Generation IV International Forum (GIF, a consortium of 10+ countries) has drawn up plans for six new reactor designs.  From these six, they will whittle down to the design that becomes the standard for the fourth generation of nuclear power plants.  These six designs range from merely updated designs to entirely new types of fuels and coolants.

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Image courtesy The Economist.

The more daring of these designs eschew the current “use once, store forever” mode of thinking and recycle the fuel using a mixed oxide (MOx) recycling system.  In a standard (> 80% of generating plants currently in use) cycle, over 96% of the original uranium remains in the “waste”.  In the MOx system, that fuel gets recycled by the plant to generate more energy.  The major downside is the final uranium is highly refined, nearly weapons-grade — however, that has not stopped France from successfully using these reactors and storing the very dangerous leftovers safely.

Other than discussions about using a MOx fueling system (which seems moot given current political climates), the innovation has focused on the cooling systems in the new designs.  “four … [of the] designs take a completely different approach to the nuclear-fuel cycle. Three of them are ‘fast neutron’ reactors, which do not include a moderator to slow down free neutrons during the fission process.”  The fourth radical design is the molten salt reactor (MSR), which melts the uranium fuel into a molten salt mix which acts both as a coolant and as a fuel in the nuclear process.

Generation IV Reactors (from the GIF Website)

Category: Engineering & Design, Interesting Stuff

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