Salt: A nuclear energy revolution?

Nuclear energy could be taking a huge leap forward after a new energy startup secured a CAD$5.7 million grant from the Canadian Government for its pioneering salt reactors.

Terrestrial Energy was awarded the grant on March 4.

nuclear power stations
The Cattenom Nuclear Power Plant, France

Its Integral Molten Salt Reactor (ISMR) – if proven safe – could provide a clearer way forward when tackling climate change on a global level.

Terrestrial Energy hopes that this new type of nuclear energy production, which produces zero carbon emissions, could rival coal and gas and also help provide a solution to the ever increasing demand for power from the developing world.

2016-IMSR_w_nuclear_island-2
IMSR Facility Layout (c.) CC-BY-SA

The reactor would be an example of a Small Modular Reactor – which are expected to have many advantages over traditional Nuclear Power Plants – as their smaller size and pre-fabricated designs will make them cheaper to build and enable more flexibility in their deployment.

Terrestrial Energy’s approach involves a type of reactor that dissolves the radioactive material in a compound of salt which is heated into a liquid state.

In solid fuel reactors the coolant is typically kept at high pressure and must be carefully monitored and regulated to prevent a meltdown or runaway chain reaction – in an SMR the molten salt itself regulates the reaction.

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 IMSR Facility Layout (c.) CC-BY-SA

This means the reactor would be `walk-away safe’ – in theory if anything goes wrong the reaction simply comes to a halt rather than a cataclysmic out-of-control chain reaction, like the Chernobyl or Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disasters.

In addition, more of the fuel can be burned meaning better efficiency, resulting in less dangerous waste – material would be hazardously radioactive for the order of hundreds of years rather than tens of thousands.

While there is concern about the proliferation for nuclear weapons with some classes of Molten Salt Reactors, Terrestrial Energy claims that any plutonium produced in the reaction would be unsuitable for missiles or other weaponry.

There is one extra conundrum that the energy company will need to deal with however.

Although the lack of a need for highly pressurized elements in the reactor makes some aspects of the design simpler, the Molten Salt is highly corrosive and the big challenge is making materials that would adequately contain it without falling apart.

Terrestrial Energy’s solution to this is to build the reactor core as a completely sealed, self-contained unit that can be hooked up to a power station.

The core will then have a lifespan of only seven years, after which it will be removed and reprocessed and a new core shipped in and hooked up.

It remains to be seen whether this can be achieved cheaply enough to be viable in practice and there are other organizations investigating other approaches to a molten salt reactor.

Two that could beat them to the punch are the US based Transatomic and the Danish Seaborg, who are both working on aggressive timetables.

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Bill Gates has placed his bets on China in the SMR race

Bill Gates was quoted last week suggesting that the Chinese were likely to win the race for the first viable SMR – an added incentive to prove the philanthropist wrong?

Gates has invested heavily in another start-up with a tantalizingly plausible plan for a waste-burning Nuclear reactor, the American Terrapower.

Its prototype “Travelling Wave” reactor is set to be built jointly with the Chinese National Nuclear Corp, in 2017.

Terrestrial Energy says it will be ready for deployment by the early 2020s, potentially making it one of the first to break into the field.

icebergs1Icebergs in St. Anthony, Newfoundland

Whoever brings it to the market with a safe, clean and cheap reactor that can churn out the kind of power a nuclear plant is capable of, will be on its way to making a lot of money, not to mention play a big role in the move towards low carbon energy that must occur this century.

Scientists recorded 2015 as the warmest year on record with February showing a global 11.5 degree rise and record low levels of sea ice in Arctic and Russia (although a 10th of that rise was down to El Niño).

Climate Messenger will be watching intently as the race for nuclear heats up.

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