We think of electric cars as a new invention, but even Thomas Edison had one. It isn’t so much that the idea is new, but the practical realization for normal consumer vehicles is pretty recent. Even in 1958, Ford wanted an electric car. But not just a regular electric car. The Ford Nucleon would carry a small nuclear reactor and get 5,000 miles without a fillup.
Of course, the car was never actually built. Making a reactor small and safe enough to power a passenger car is something we can’t do even today. The real problem, according to experts, is not building a reactor small enough but in dealing with all the heat produced.
Continue reading “The Nuclear Powered Car From Ford”
Most new nuclear fission reactors being built today are of the light water reactor (LWR) type, which use water for neutron moderation into thermal neutrons as well as neutron capture. While straightforward and in use since the 1950s in commercial settings, they are also essentially limited to uranium (U-235) fuel. This is where fast neutron reactors are highly attractive.
Fast neutron reactors can also fission other fissile elements, covering the full spectrum of neutron cross sections. TerraPower’s Natrium reactor is one such fast reactor, and it’s the world’s first fast reactor that not only targets commercial use, but also comes with its own grid-level storage in the form of a molten salt reservoir.
The upshot of this is that not only can these Natrium reactors use all of the spent LWR fuel in the US and elsewhere as their fuel, but they should also be highly efficient at load-following, traditionally a weak spot of thermal plants.
TerraPower and its partners are currently looking to build a demonstration plant in Wyoming, at the site of a retiring coal plant. This would be a 345 MWe (peak 500 MWe) reactor.
Continue reading “TerraPower’s Natrium: Combining A Fast Neutron Reactor With Built-In Grid Level Storage”
Steve Martin was ahead of his time when he told us “Let’s get small!” While you usually think of a nuclear reactor as a big affair, there’s a new trend towards making small microreactors to produce power where needed instead of large centralized generation facilities. The U.S. Department of Energy has a video about the topic, you can watch below.
You probably learned in science class how a basic nuclear fission reactor works. Nuclear fuel produces heat from fission while a moderator like water prevents it from melting down both by cooling the reactor and slowing down neutrons. Control rods further slow down the reaction or — if you pull them out — speed it up. Heat creates steam (either directly or indirectly) and the steam turns a conventional electric generator that is no more high tech than it ever has been.
Continue reading “Nuclear Reactors Get Small”
The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) recently announced that it had approved certification of NuScale’s SMR (small modular reactor) design, completing its Phase 6 review of NuScale’s Design Certification Application (DCA). What this means is that SMRs using NuScale’s reactor design can legally be constructed within the US as soon as the rulemaking process completes. An NRC certification would also mean that certification of the design in other countries should pose no significant hurdles.
A question that remains unanswered at this point for most is how this certification process at the NRC actually works. Are there departments full of engineers at the NRC who have been twiddling their thumbs for the past decades while the US nuclear industry has been languishing? What was in the literally millions of documents that NuScale had to send to the NRC as part of the certification process, and what exactly are these six phases?
Stay tuned for a crash course in nuclear reactor certification, after a bit of SMR history.
Continue reading “Certifying Nuclear Reactors: How The NRC Approved Its First Small Modular Reactor Design”
Do you remember in 1989 when two chemists announced they’d created a setup that created nuclear fusion at room temperature? Everyone was excited, but it eventually turned out to be very suspect. It wasn’t clear how they detected that fusion occurred and only a few of the many people who tried to replicate the experiment claimed success and they later retracted their reports. Since then, mentioning cold fusion is right up there with perpetual motion. Work does continue though, and NASA recently published several papers on lattice confinement fusion which is definitely not called cold fusion, although it sounds like it to us.
The idea of trapping atoms inside a metallic crystal lattice isn’t new, dating back to the 1920s. It sounds as though the NASA method uses erbium packed with deuterium. Photons cause some of the deuterium to fuse. Unlike earlier attempts, this method produces detectable neutron emissions characteristic of fusion.
Continue reading “NASA Claims Cold Fusion Without Naming It”
A nuclear power plant is large and complex, and one of the biggest reasons is safety. Splitting radioactive atoms is inherently dangerous, but the energy unleashed by the chain reaction that ensues is the entire point. It’s a delicate balance to stay in the sweet spot, and it requires constant attention to the core temperature, or else the reactor could go into meltdown.
Today, nuclear fission is largely produced with fuel rods, which are skinny zirconium tubes packed with uranium pellets. The fission rate is kept in check with control rods, which are made of various elements like boron and cadmium that can absorb a lot of excess neutrons. Control rods calm the furious fission boil down to a sensible simmer, and can be recycled until they either wear out mechanically or become saturated with neutrons.
Nuclear power plants tend to have large footprints because of all the safety measures that are designed to prevent meltdowns. If there was a fuel that could withstand enough heat to make meltdowns physically impossible, then there would be no need for reactors to be buffered by millions of dollars in containment equipment. Stripped of these redundant, space-hogging safety measures, the nuclear process could be shrunk down quite a bit. Continue reading “No-Melt Nuclear ‘Power Balls’ Might Win A Few Hearts And Minds”
Over the past decades, additive manufacturing (AM, also known as 3D printing) has become increasingly common in manufacturing processes. While immensely helpful in the prototyping of new products by allowing for rapid turn-around times between design and testing, these days additive manufacturing is used more and more often in the production of everything from small production runs of custom enclosures to hard to machine components for rocket engines.
The obvious advantage of additive manufacturing is that they use generic equipment and common materials as input, without requiring expensive molds as in the case of injection molding, or extensive, wasteful machining of raw materials on a lathe, mill, and similar equipment. All of the manufacturing gets reduced to a 3D model as input, one or more input materials, and the actual device that converts the 3D model into a physical component with very limited waste.
In the nuclear power industry, these benefits haven’t gone unnoticed, which has led to 3D printed parts being developed for everything from keeping existing plants running to streamlining spent fuel reprocessing and even the printing of entire nuclear reactors.
Continue reading “3D Printing Nuclear Reactors For Fun And Profit”