Are There Safer Ways To Produce Nuclear Energy?
While the United States is working to get four new nuclear units up-and-running in Georgia and South Carolina, it is also partnering with China and Canada to operate some highly advanced next-generation nuclear plants.
“Molten salt reactors” that burn “thorium” are not only safer but they also create less radioactive waste than uranium. As for China, its next-generation 100 megawatt smaller plant could be operational within a decade. Similarly, the national labs here are partnering with a Canadian firm to build such a modular reactor — an effort that is expected to produce an engineering design in a few years, and a commercial reactor in 10 years.
“While simple black and white statements about thorium versus uranium are the easiest point to get across, the real story is about a particular type of reactor, called molten salt reactors whose main feature is a liquid fuel form which gives outstanding potential benefits in safety, fuel economy and waste issues,” says David LeBlanc, an expert with Terrestrial Energy in Canada, which is working with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee on its project.
“Molten salt reactors are all-liquid fuel, or ‘pre-melted,’ which offers great potential for reactor safety and cost innovation,” adds LeBlanc, in prior email exchanges. “They do not need to keep coolant flowing to the reactor because the fuel itself is the coolant.”
By contrast, solid-fuel reactors burning uranium are now prevalent. Once uranium is used, it becomes highly radioactive. That waste is then cooled in spent fuel pools before it is stored in above-ground, concrete-encased steel caskets. As the world learned from both Ukraine’s Chernobyl and Japan’s Fukushima accidents in 1986 and 2011, respectively, that spent fuel could escape and do irreparable harm.