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TerraPower is Researching a New Renewable Nuclear Energy Reactor Design


plant_visualizationx519New designs for nuclear energy reactors could lead to a very sustainable, steady, and abundant source of renewable energy. One of the companies working on sophisticated ways to produce that energy is TerraPower, a company with ties to both of Microsoft’s founders.

Bill Gates is also an advocate and financial supporter of the company. That’s gotten TerraPower a lot of attention,  but many have been disappointed that no reactor prototype has been released in the six years since the company started its work.

Previously focused primarily on a technology known as “traveling wave” reactors, TerraPower announced last week that it is researching a new idea, something known as “molten chloride” reactors.

In traveling wave technology, the nuclear reaction itself propagates through the fuel and turns the uranium into plutonium through a “standing wave” which oscillates back and forth, changing the fuel’s molecular structure. TerraPower has also explored molten salt reactors as well as reactors that run on thorium. Molten salt reactors turned out to spring a lot of leaks, however.

TerraPower is keeping the design of its molten chloride reactors secret for now,  but the company highlighted many of its benefits:

  • power density and efficiency is high
  • no fuel fabrication needed
  • no need for constant uranium enrichment
  • uranium dissolves easily in the chloride solution
  • the waste from one reactor could power a different reactor

The company’s director of innovation, Jeff Latkowski, explains that traveling wave technology is still the foundation of TerraPower’s research plan, but that the molten core technology “addresses the three critical areas for nuclear power: safety, the environment, and costs”.

Good science can take awhile, but the results are always worth it.

Image (c) TerraPower

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  1. Molten Salt Reactors “tend to spring a lot of leaks.” Really? Which one? The ARE “Fireball” in 1954, or the MSRE at Oak Ridge in the late 60s? Because those are the only two MSRs that have ever been built.

    And even if they did spring leaks (they didn’t…), so what?

    MSRs never operate under pressure, so a leak would dribble out, cool, and quickly solidify into a solid mass. It wouldn’t spew out like steam from a Light Water Reactor and carry contaminants downwind or downstream.

    A “catastrophic” spill (the entire contents of the reactor) would be measured in square meters, not square kilometers. Like a full load spilled from a concrete truck, it would form pancake of solidified radioactive rock salt about the size of a house slab.

    The mess could easily cordoned off, then broken up and recovered by remote-controlled machinery. The pieces could then be melted down, filtered of contaminants, and used in a new or repaired MSR. Try that with a damaged Light Water Reactor.


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