A U.S. nuclear engineering company is preparing to hold the first safety tests of new nuclear fuel rods designed to significantly increase the generating output of existing nuclear power plants.
The development is important the United States is trying to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, and needs clean alternatives, now.
CO2-emitting natural gas is now abundant and widely used, and planned emission-free nuclear plants won’t be operational for decades.
Enter Lightbridge of Tysons Corner, Va., which says its rods can improve the generating capacity of existing nuclear power plants by between 10 percent and 17 percent. If the rods are proven safe and can be used to replace conventional rods, they would provide the equivalent energy of 10 new nuclear power plants in the United States.
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For now, though, the tests are focusing on safety, not output.
“We’re trying to do what is practical and what customers are asking us to address,” Seth Grae, the CEO of Lightbridge, tells MIT’s Technology Review. “The biggest problem is how to address the economics of nuclear power in a world of abundant natural gas, and with safety and security costs rising.”
The current method for making nuclear fuel rods involves loading ceramic pellets of uranium oxide into metal tubes, which are put into the water-filled core of a nuclear reactor. Chain reactions in the tubes generate enormous heat, which causes the water to boil. The resulting steam spins the reactor’s turbines, which generate electricity.
Lightbridge’s fuel rods are solid and made of an alloy of zirconium and uranium. They’re shaped into a kind of helix, not unlike a stick of licorice. The composition of the rods creates faster heat transfer, and the grooves running the length of each rod increases the contact area with the water by more than 35 percent.
By replacing conventional rods with the Lightbridge rods, an existing nuclear plant could generate 10 percent more power, the company says. Retrofitting the reactor with new parts, such as larger turbines, could increase power output by fully 17 percent, according to the company.
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Lightbridge says its initial testing shows that the concept works, but safety question have yet to be answered satisfactorily -- an even more critical concern since the nuclear disaster at Japan’s Fukushima plant in 2011.
Mujid Kazimi, a nuclear engineer at MIT, says South Korea, like Lightbridge, had been examining variations in the shapes and composition of fuel rods. “[B]ut before it moved on either, Fukushima happened and shifted the fuel development effort into avoiding or mitigating accidents, rather than increasing the power density.”
The same is true in the United States, Kazimi said, which is spending about $50 million a year researching fuel rods that can survive accidents like the one at Fukushima.
By Andy Tully of Oilprice.com
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