With the coalition government subtly pushing England towards nuclear power as a short-term gap as we head towards a less carbon-dependent future, more and more researchers are looking into ways that nuclear power can be made safer, environmentally-friendly and generally more efficient.Far from just being a pressing issue for UK commercial energy suppliers, nuclear power has very much been a global agenda since the Fukushima disaster that gripped Japan last year – and two American scientists say they have found a way to make harmful nuclear waste work for the whole planet. At the heart of a traditional nuclear power plant, radioactive rods are inserted into a reactor core to produce energy. However, as much power as this yields it is no-where near as efficient as it could be; whilst each rod is in service for over four years, only around 3% of it’s potential nuclear energy is put into the reaction.
This leaves the used, ‘waste’ rod as still very much radioactive, and it must be correctly handled and disposed of at a nuclear repository site, where it’s remaining energy could have knock-on effects for the environment around it.
However, the two MIT-based scientists believe molten salt reactors (MSR) could allow us to harness the remaining energy in each of those waste rods. A far superior heat sink to the helium used in a standard light-water reactor, MSR’s have two distinct advantages: a greatly reduced need for additional cooling when used like a traditional reactor and – even more promisingly – nuclear waste can be directly dissolved into the coolant itself.
When mixed with a nuclear waste, the coolant can be inserted around a graphite core to send the solution critical – driving a turbine to create electricity.
What potential effects could this have on the commercial energy market? Well, the US alone has around 67,500 tonnes of nuclear waste from the last 5 decades of atomic energy. When combined with the rest of the world’s waste, the MSR research team believe that would power the entire planet until 2083; a truly incredible prospect.
As for the likelihood of business energy suppliers being excited enough to invest in having an MSR of their own? Early figures say that – at current market prices – all that untapped energy in current stocks of nuclear waste is worth $7.1 trillion. So probably just enough to excite at least one big energy company, then.
Is this another pipe dream? Is the promise of waste-to-energy too good to be true? Or is this the nuclear equivalent of anaerobic digestion and we will see it catch on? Share your thoughts on the prospect of Putting Nuclear Waste to Work on our Facebook Page or Google+ page or join the conversation on Twitter and tweet your opinion to @CatalystEnergy.
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