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Daily RC Article 120

Revolutionizing Nuclear Energy: The Promise of Molten Salt Reactors

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Troels Schönfeldt can trace his path to becoming a nuclear energy entrepreneur back to 2009, when he and other young physicists at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen started getting together for an occasional “beer and nuclear” meetup... The “nuclear” part was usually a session about their options for fighting two of humanity’s biggest problems: global poverty and climate change. “If you want poor countries to become richer,” says Schönfeldt, “you need a cheap and abundant power source.” But if you want to avoid spewing out enough extra carbon dioxide to fry the planet, you need to provide that power without using coal and gas.

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It seemed clear to Schönfeldt and the others that the standard alternatives simply wouldn’t be sufficient. Wind and solar power by themselves couldn’t offer nearly enough energy, not with billions of poor people trying to join the global middle class. Yet conventional nuclear reactors — which could meet the need, in principle — were massively expensive, potentially dangerous and anathema to much of the public. And if anyone needed a reminder of why, the catastrophic meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant came along to provide it in March 2011.

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On the other hand, says Schönfeldt, the worldwide nuclear engineering community was beginning to get fired up about unconventional reactor designs — technologies sidelined 40 or 50 years before, but that might have a lot fewer problems than existing reactors. And the beer-and-nuclear group found that one such design, the molten salt reactor, had a simplicity, elegance, and, weirdness that especially appealed. The weird bit was that word “molten,” says Schönfeldt: Every other reactor design in history had used fuel that’s solid, not liquid. This thing was basically a pot of hot nuclear soup. The recipe called for taking a mix of salts — compounds whose molecules are held together electrostatically, the way sodium and chloride ions are in table salt — and heating them up until they melted. This gave you a clear, hot liquid that was about the consistency of water. Then you stirred in a salt such as uranium tetrafluoride, which produced a lovely green tint, and let the uranium undergo nuclear fission right there in the melt — a reaction that would not only keep the salts nice and hot, but, could power a city or two besides.

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…Weird or not, molten salt technology was viable; the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee had successfully operated a demonstration reactor back in the 1960s. And more to the point, the beer-and-nuclear group realized, the liquid nature of the fuel meant that they could potentially build molten salt reactors that were cheap enough for poor countries to buy; compact enough to deliver on a flatbed truck; green enough to burn our existing stockpiles of nuclear waste instead of generating more — and safe enough to put in cities and factories. That’s because Fukushima-style meltdowns would be physically impossible in a mix that’s molten already. Better still, these reactors would be proliferation resistant, because their hot, liquid contents would be very hard for rogue states or terrorists to hijack for making nuclear weapons. Molten salt reactors might just turn nuclear power into the greenest energy source on the planet.

Troels Sch?nfeldt and colleagues from the Niels Bohr Institute fostered nuclear energy discussions over beer, pondering solutions for global poverty and climate change. Recognizing the limitations of standard alternatives like wind and solar power, they turned to unconventional reactor designs, particularly the molten salt reactor. The liquid fuel in this design, weird but viable, offered potential for cheaper, safer, and proliferation-resistant reactors, capable of utilizing existing nuclear waste while providing green energy.
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