Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Can There Be Nuclear Reactors That Consume Their Own Radioactive Wastes?

With mankind’s energy demand slated to double in the next 30 years, will a nuclear reactor that burns its own radioactive wastes provide an answer? 

By: Ringo Bones 

With coal burning power plants that emit excessive carbon dioxide no longer viable in our increasingly climate change conscious global village, is there a power plant that provides reliable safe and competitively priced energy with the extremely low carbon dioxide output of traditional nuclear fission power plants? If Leslie Dewan gets her way, there will probably be – and lots of them. 

Leslie Dewan CEO of TransAtomic Power already has plans for a “carbon neutral” energy generating power plant sans the risk and waste disposal problems of current nuclear fission power plants. Dewan was also named Time magazine’s 30 people under 30 that changed the world in 2013. Leslie Dewan got the idea of a nuclear fission power plant that consumes its own long-lived nuclear wastes back in February 2010 together with TransAtomic Power co-founder Mark Massie while working on her white-paper finishing her PhD in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

Dewan and Massie turned to a nuclear fission power plant technology developed but never commercialized in the 1950s due to its relatively high initial building cost in comparison to competing designs - i.e. the  light-water fission reactors that comprise 99-percent of commercial power plants that had been in operation for over 50 years. The TransAtonic Power's WAMSR or Waste Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor - can burn spent nuclear fuel safely in a liquid salt reactor instead of a traditional light water reactor similar to the design used in the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant that went into a tragic meltdown after the March 2011 tsunami.

TransAtomic Power's WAMSR or Waste Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor, it is way safer than current nuclear fission power plants – even from a defense analyst’s / counter-terror analyst’s point of view – because the uranium fuel assembly used to start WAMSR is “too diluted” to be used in a uranium-235 based nuclear device. On the long-lived radioactive waste issue, WAMSR produces only 20 to 30 kilograms of long-lived atomic wastes a year – like the “notorious” neptunium-237 which has a half-life of 2.2-million years (it still contains half of its radioactive strength after laying around for 2.2-million years) that can still be fashioned, with some skill, into a crude nuclear bomb. 

This is way less than a conventional commercial light-water nuclear reactor which generates 20 to 30 tons of long-lived highly radioactive wastes in a typical year of operation. Speaking of the long-lived radwaste issue, commercial light-water nuclear fission power plants currently in operation have a current stockpile of 270,000 metric tons worth of long-lived radwastes whose permanent disposal is still in Limbo. Would TransAtomic Power’s WAMSR plant provide a viable solution?

Unfortunately, TransAtomic Power currently only has 3.5-million US dollars in government funding, way less than the billions of dollars of “subsidies” rubber-stamped by “conservative politicians” at Capitol Hill to conventional commercial light-water reactors currently in operation in strategic areas in the United States. In economic viability terms, TransAtomic Power’s WAMSR nuclear fission power plant only has half the operating cost per megawatt generated when compared to conventional commercial light-water nuclear fission power plants. If Uncle Sam green-lights Dewan and Massie’s proposal, it would take 8 to 10 years to open a Waste Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor and probably just a few years to solve the United States’ high-level long-lived radioactive waste disposal and future energy problems. 

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