• 4 minutes China 2019 - Orwell was 35 years out
  • 7 minutes Wonders of US Shale: US Shale Benefits: The U.S. leads global petroleum and natural gas production with record growth in 2018
  • 11 minutes Trump will capitulate on the trade war
  • 14 minutes Glory to Hong Kong
  • 4 hours China's Blueprint For Global Power
  • 5 mins Yesterday Angela Merkel stopped Trump technology war on China – the moral of the story is do not eavesdrop on ladies with high ethical standards
  • 1 hour IMO 2020:
  • 1 hour World Stocks Drop And Futures Tread Water After China Reports Worst GDP Growth In 30 Years
  • 9 hours ABC of Brexit, economy wise, where to find sites, links to articles ?
  • 9 hours National Geographic Warns Billions Face Shortages Of Food And Clean Water Over Next 30 Years
  • 6 hours Why did Aramco Delay IPO again ? It's Not Always What It Seems.
  • 2 hours Deepwater GOM Project Claims Industry First
  • 9 hours Joe Biden, his son Hunter Biden, Ukraine Oil & Gas exploration company Burisma, and 2020 U.S. election shenanigans
  • 3 hours Brexit agreement
  • 11 hours Why don't the other GOP candidates get mention?
  • 11 hours Bloomberg: shale slowing. Third wave of shale coming.
Alt Text

The Death Of The World’s Most Popular Battery

Batteries provide a much-needed utility…

Alt Text

The Oil Rig Count Collapse Continues

U.S. oil and gas rigs…

Irina Slav

Irina Slav

Irina is a writer for Oilprice.com with over a decade of experience writing on the oil and gas industry.

More Info

Premium Content

The Nuclear Reactor That Makes Its Own Fuel

To say that nuclear energy has a bad name would be an understatement. To say that it has a future, however, would be to state the obvious. Despite soaring solar and wind generation capacity additions globally, the world is still almost completely reliant on fossil fuels—and nuclear power is a much cleaner, cheap alternative to these. Rather, it would be, were it not for the risk of a meltdown and the problem with radioactive waste.

One company, chaired by none other than Bill Gates, says it has found solutions to both these problems.

TerraPower came into existence in 2008 with the purpose of finding a reliable alternative to fossil fuels using a nuclear reactor concept first developed more than half a century ago. The breed and burn reactor, so called by the Russian scientist who first conceived of it, Savely Feinberg, was supposed to be able to produce the fuel it needed to sustain the nuclear reaction within itself, as the reaction progressed.

Breed and burn reactors would require much less enriched uranium and could keep the reaction going for decades. At the time, the concept proved too difficult and costly to implement, and the problem with nuclear waste as well as the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters lay too far in the future for anyone to care.

Fast-forward about four decades and two researchers, one of them the father of the H-bomb Edward Teller and the other an astrophysicist, Lowell Wood, designed a new version of the breed and burn reactor that TerraPower chose as a starting point for its quest to find the nuclear reactor of the future. Related: Rosneft Throws OPEC For A Loop, Boosts Output By 70,000 Bpd

In a recent story for IEEE Spectrum, Michael Koziol details how the TerraPower reactor works, noting its advantages over other reactors such as—primarily—the ability to use uranium waste as a fuel and need much less enriched uranium. Also, a major advantage would be the eliminated need to dispose substantial amounts of radioactive waste as there would be very little waste: most fuel will go towards keeping the chain reaction going with the help of fuel pins enclosed in the reactor. And whatever waste there is—a fifth of the waste of current reactors—would be used to start new chain reactions in other traveling wave reactors.

Theoretically, such a reactor could operate for 50 years without interference and much more efficiently than the currently dominant light water reactors as it would use liquid sodium as a coolant and not water. Liquid sodium is great at moving heat out of a reactor’s superheated core and transporting it to water-heating system that then produces heat to power the turbines. Yet sodium is also great at another thing: burning.

According to one prominent critic of traveling wave reactors using sodium as coolant, the President of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, these reactors carry a very high risk of explosion as the sodium is extremely flammable upon contact with oxygen. This, combined with other challenges, make them unviable economically.

Arjun Makhijani detailed all the challenges of such reactors in a 2013 paper, where he noted the risk of sodium leaks resulting in fire, such as the one that led to the emergency shutdown of a TWR in Japan in 1995. Sodium leaks also prevented a TWR in France from operating at above 7 percent of capacity for a decade before that reactor, too, was shut down. Besides the leaks, Makhijani said, TWRs are simply not competitive on cost and will likely be obsolete before they are commercialized. Related: Oil Kingdom In Crisis: Saudi Royal Family Rift Turns Violent 

Indeed, it will be a couple of more decades before these reactors could begin being built on a large enough scale to make a difference in global emissions. TerraPower, which has partnered with the China National Nuclear Corporation, plans to start building a test reactor using the traveling wave concept in China in 2019. If all goes well, it would start operation in the mid-2020s.

Multiplying its success, if we assume the reactor is successful, will take twenty or more years, Koziol notes. So far, everything is being done in the lab. The test reactor will reveal whether the traveling wave reactor design as developed by Bill Gates’ TerraPower has a future as a reliable, economically viable alternative to coal, gas, and existing nuclear power technology.

By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com

More Top Reads From Oilprice.com:

Download The Free Oilprice App Today

Back to homepage

Leave a comment
  • NickSJ on June 04 2018 said:
    CANDU reactors, which have already been in operation for decades, use spent fuel from PWR reactors as fuel, and can also use un-enriched uranium, without the danger posed by liquid sodium coolant.
  • Bill Simpson on June 05 2018 said:
    Liquid sodium is too dangerous to get around a lot of radioactive stuff. It is like a yacht powered by giant gasoline engines. Fast, but too dangerous to use, except in PT boats during a war.
  • G.R.L. Cowan on June 06 2018 said:
    NickSJ has it backwards: CANDUs' use of unenriched uranium is fact, their use of spent PWR fuel (after it has gone through the DUPIC process) is mere possibility.

    To say that nuclear energy has a bad name is to give the devil more than his due. Many highly rewarded attempts to defame it are made, and it pleases government to do some of the rewarding, to proceed as if the mud had stuck, and to thus gain its own reward in the form of increased fossil fuel tax revenue.

Leave a comment

Oilprice - The No. 1 Source for Oil & Energy News
Download on the App Store Get it on Google Play