Operate Your Own Nuclear Reactor, Virtually

If you’ve ever wanted to operate your own nuclear reactor, you probably aren’t going to get one in your backyard shop. However, thanks to the University of Manchester, you can get a simulated one in your browser. The pressurized water reactor looks realistic and gives you controls that — we are fairly sure — are greatly simplified compared to the real thing.

We suggest you start with the tour before you start unless, you know, you’ve operated a reactor before. You have to balance the control rods, the coolant pumping, and the steam output to produce as much power as possible without melting the core.

If the reactor were real, the pressure vessel would weigh as much as two 747 jets! Despite the high-tech, the business end is a conventional steam generator. The only difference is that the steam is made by the heat of the nuclear reaction instead of by burning coal or gas.

To operate the reactor, you’ll turn on the coolant pumps and wait for the high-pressure liquid to reach 290 C. In real life, this takes about 8 hours, but lucky for us, the simulation is sped up. Once you reach the right temperature, you can lift the control rods to start generating heat. This will let you adjust the steam output to try to match the demand at any given time. But if you go out of bounds, the reactor will helpfully shut down. Of course, that doesn’t help your score.

We don’t know how realistic it is, but we do know Homer Simpson probably has fewer shutdowns than we do. There are different types of reactors, of course. Operating them may be difficult, but creating fuel for them is no simple task, either. Just maybe put out your candles before you start playing.

The Robots Of Fukushima: Going Where No Human Has Gone Before (And Lived)

The idea of sending robots into conditions that humans would not survive is a very old concept. Robots don’t heed oxygen, food, or any other myriad of human requirements. They can also be treated as disposable, and they can also be radiation hardened, and they can physically fit into small spaces. And if you just happen to be the owner of a nuclear power plant that’s had multiple meltdowns, you need robots. A lot of them. And [Asianometry] has provided an excellent synopsis of the Robots of Fukushima in the video below the break.

Starting with robots developed for the Three Mile Island incident and then Chernobyl, [Asianometry] goes into the technology and even the politics behind getting robots on the scene, and the crossover between robots destined for space and war, and those destined for cleaning up after a meltdown.

The video goes further into the challenges of putting a robot into a high radiation environment. Also interesting is the state of readiness, or rather the lack thereof, that prompted further domestic innovation.

Obviously, cleaning up a melted down reactor requires highly specialized robots. What’s more, robots that worked on one reactor didn’t work on others, creating the need for yet more custom built machines. The video discusses each, and even touches on future robots that will be needed to fully decommission the Fukushima facility.

For another look at some of the early robots put to work, check out the post “The Fukushima Robot Diaries” which we published over a decade ago.

Continue reading “The Robots Of Fukushima: Going Where No Human Has Gone Before (And Lived)”

The Nuclear Powered Car From Ford

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”

Nuclear Reactors Get Small

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”

No-Melt Nuclear ‘Power Balls’ Might Win A Few Hearts And Minds

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”

The Oldest Nuclear Reactor? Nature’s 2 Billion Year Old Experiment

When was the first nuclear reactor created? You probably think it was Enrico Fermi’s CP-1 pile built under the bleachers at the University of Chicago in 1942. However, you’d be off by — oh — about 2 billion years.

The first reactors formed naturally about 2 billion years ago in what is now Gabon in West Africa. This required several things coming together: natural uranium deposits, just the right geology in the area, and a certain time in the life of the uranium. This happened 17 different times, and the average output of these natural reactors is estimated at about 100 kilowatts — a far cry from a modern human-created reactor that can reach hundreds or thousands of megawatts.

The reactors operated for about a million years before they spent their fuel. Nuclear waste? Yep, but it is safely contained underground and has been for 2 billion years.

Continue reading “The Oldest Nuclear Reactor? Nature’s 2 Billion Year Old Experiment”

Kilopower: NASA’s Offworld Nuclear Reactor

Here on Earth, the ability to generate electricity is something we take for granted. We can count on the sun to illuminate solar panels, and the movement of air and water to spin turbines. Fossil fuels, for all their downsides, have provided cheap and reliable power for centuries. No matter where you may find yourself on this planet, there’s a way to convert its many natural resources into electrical power.

But what happens when humans first land on Mars, a world that doesn’t offer these incredible gifts? Solar panels will work for a time, but the sunlight that reaches the surface is only a fraction of what the Earth receives, and the constant accumulation of dust makes them a liability. In the wispy atmosphere, the only time the wind could potentially be harnessed would be during one of the planet’s intense storms. Put simply, Mars can’t provide the energy required for a human settlement of any appreciable size.

The situation on the Moon isn’t much better. Sunlight during the lunar day is just as plentiful as it is on Earth, but night on the Moon stretches for two dark and cold weeks. An outpost at the Moon’s South Pole would receive more light than if it were built in the equatorial areas explored during the Apollo missions, but some periods of darkness are unavoidable. With the lunar surface temperature plummeting to -173 °C (-280 °F) when the Sun goes down, a constant supply of energy is an absolute necessity for long-duration human missions to the Moon.

Since 2015, NASA and the United States Department of Energy have been working on the Kilopower project, which aims to develop a small, lightweight, and extremely reliable nuclear reactor that they believe will fulfill this critical role in future off-world exploration. Following a series of highly successful test runs on the prototype hardware in 2017 and 2018, the team believes the miniaturized power plant could be ready for a test flight as early as 2022. Once fully operational, this nearly complete re-imagining of the classic thermal reactor could usher in a whole new era of space exploration.

Continue reading “Kilopower: NASA’s Offworld Nuclear Reactor”