It’s simple. Take all the nuclear waste in the world, currently 270,000 metric tons, equivalent to the weight of the same number of African elephants, put it into WAMSR (Waste Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor), power the entire world for 72 years, including accounting for the expected rise in energy demand over that time, and get rid of nearly all the world’s nuclear waste, reducing it to the volume of 270,000 baseballs. That’s right, from a metric ton to a baseball! Sounds like science fiction, but it’s not.
Transatomic Power founders, Russ Wilcox, Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie may one day be household names for the benefits they are about to bestow on humanity and our natural environment: a non-carbon energy sources that is safe.
Miraculously, the dynamic trio, Dewan & Massie being MIT students, and Wilcox their professor, went back half a century to revisit the birth of nuclear energy and dusted off an old technology called the “Molten Salt Reactor” and came up with a new way to “burn” radioactive fuel. In fact, the new reactor doesn’t use pellets at all, it runs on liquid radioactive waste obtained from them.
According to Forbes, instead of using highly enriched uranium as a fuel source, Transatomic removes the metal cladding or outside metal covering of the radioactive pellets that are considered spent by “light water” reactor operators. This is done by dissolving them in molten salts. Getting rid of the cladding and using the liquid by-product allows the fuel to stay in the reactor for as long as it takes to extract all the remaining energy. Due to the design of current nuclear power plants only 3% of a radioactive pellet’s energy potential is used before the it must be taken out of production and put into waste dumps.
And the waste that comes out of WAMSR is much less radioactive. Conventional waste stays around for hundreds of thousands of years. The new technology produces waste that is radioactive for only a few hundred years; the problem of dealing with waste now becomes an engineering challenge of manageable proportions.
It gets better. According to Reuters, conventional light water reactors need immense cooling systems. As we saw at Fukushima, when adverse events occur, cooling systems can fail with catastrophic consequences up to and including meltdowns.
WAMSR doesn’t need a conventional cooling system and so plants no longer need to be built near large bodies of water with the risks that entails. The new technology has a “freeze valve” and when a plant loses power the liquid fuel flows out of the reactor core and into an auxiliary container tank where the fuel loses heat and turns into a solid over a couple of days time.
The plant is “Walk Away Safe” which means the electricity could go off and the plant workers abducted by space aliens and the plant would “coast” to a safe stop.
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References and related content:
- Start-up: Transatomic Power Wants to Build a Better Reactor – IEEE Spectrum
- Sponsor – NuMat2014: The Nuclear materials Conference
- Nuclear startups reimagine atomic energy – Business – The Boston Globe