Could These Unconventional Reactors Restart The Nuclear Age?

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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Unconventional nuclear reactors based on molten salt and modular reactors could restart the atomic age, according to the president of a company investing in the potentially innovative technology.

“A molten-salt reactor [MSR] uses a liquid mixture of salts, some of which are salts of uranium and thorium, as the medium in which nuclear fission reactions take place,” Kirk Sorensen, president and chief technologist of the reactor company Flibe Energy, told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

Flibe Energy is pouring resources into the MSR concept, which the Chinese Academy of Sciences said in 2014 would be one of its “five innovation centers that will unite the country’s leading talents for research in advanced science and technology fields.”

“These reactions heat up the salt which is pumped around a circuit and is cooled by another fluid, also generally a molten salt,” Sorensen said.

“By using salt mixtures instead of solid fuels, higher operating temperatures can be achieved, which leads to greater efficiency, while operating at low — essentially ambient — levels of pressure,” he said. “The salt mixtures that we consider are not chemically reactive with air or water and chemically trap fission products in non-releasable forms.”

MSRs were originally developed at the Energy Department’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, but were abandoned because they couldn’t be used by the military. MSRs can’t cause major nuclear accidents, like those seen at Chernobyl and Fukushima, because they operate under regular atmospheric pressure and use a more stable fuel source.

MSRs produce no carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, and could be directly integrated into the existing power grid.
But Obama administration policies supporting wind and solar power are huge obstacles to integrating new nuclear reactors into the electric grid, according to Sorensen.

“Government favoritism towards wind and solar are derailing the plans for all baseload forms of power,” Sorensen said. “A combination of ‘grid priority’ and ‘renewable’ tax credits are generating artificial negative prices, which profoundly disincentivize any steady producer of energy.”

Environmental regulations require that solar and wind power always be used if they are avalaible and give substantial financial incentives to encourage green energy use. These regulations compromise the reliability of the entire power grid. The U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is currently investigating how green energy undermines the reliability of the electrical grid.

FERC believes there is a “significant risk” of electricity in the United States becoming unreliable because “wind and solar don’t offer the services the shuttered coal plants provided.”

At times, solar and wind power can actually make the price of electricity negative and still turn a profit because of the lucrative financial incentives.

“Negative pricing is not real and nothing to be celebrated,” Sorensen continued. “It is a direct consequence of government pronouncements, and it is driving all forms of steady reliable power off the grid, regardless of how much CO2 they might release.”

Molten salt or liquid fluoride thorium nuclear reactors could potentially be much cheaper as well, generating electricity for less than one-third the cost of current nuclear technology because it wouldn’t require expensive high-pressure containment vessels to hold potential releases.

“I don’t think any molten-salt reactor designer can make a defensible estimate of electricity costs,” Sorensen continued. “Of course we are all shooting for costs below what we pay today, and there are a lot of reasons to think that will be the case, because of the enhanced safety and simplicity of the reactors.  But at present no one knows.”

Flibe Energy isn’t the only one attempting to restart the atomic age. China has plans to build a similar reactor over the next few years, as part of plans to build more than 350 gigawatts of nuclear power and invest trillions into the industry. A gigawatt of power provides enough energy for roughly 700,000 homes.

Power companies in Idaho and Utah announced plans in June to build small modular reactors to provide electricity to nine Western states. These reactor designs can generate 50 megawatts of energy and the plan is to build six to 12 of them. Sorensen’s reactors are intended to generate 450 megawatts of electricity.

Small modular reactors could be a game changer for nuclear power. They have the potential to be much cheaper than conventional reactors since they can be manufactured completely in a factory. These reactors would also require far less up front investment, making them much more capable of powering remote areas. These reactors would also be cost competitive with natural gas electricity.

New innovative nuclear designs could cause a nuclear renaissance, despite a recent downturn in the U.S. nuclear industry. Of the 59 new nuclear reactors under construction worldwide, only four of them are being built in the U.S., just enough to compensate for older reactors that are shutting down. The average American nuclear reactor is 35 years old, nearly obsolete by modern design standards and near the end of its operating license. Within the past two years, six states have shut down nuclear plants and many other reactors are risking premature retirement.

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