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New, safe nuclear reactors can halt climate change, but they are afraid to build
Material posted: Publication date: 24-03-2019
In 2018, scientists reported harsh news: despite concerns about global warming due to coal it produced 38% of world's electricity in 2017 — that is, exactly the same as when the first alarming warnings about the climate 20 years ago. Worse, greenhouse gas emissions increased by 2.7% last year — the largest increase in seven years. This stagnation has led to the fact that even politicians and environmentalists began to think about the fact that we need more nuclear energy.

Even scientists from the UN have not been enthusiastic in the past, they say today that any plan to retain growth temperature of the planet below 1.5 degrees will rely on a significant jump in the use of nuclear energy. But we are moving in the other direction. Germany plans to close all nuclear reactors by 2022; Italy voted to block any future projects in 2011. And even if nuclear energy would have found support for the General public (and not happened), to get it expensive: some nuclear stations in the United States has recently closed because it could not compete with cheap shale gas.

Nuclear reactors of a new type

"If the present situation remains the same, more nuclear power plants likely to close and will be replaced primarily with natural gas, which will lead to increased emissions", said the Union of concerned scientists — who have always been skeptics on the part of nuclear power in 2018. According to scientists, if all the stations are closed, carbon emissions will increase by 6%.

At the moment the question of whether to maintain the existing system, not worth it, says Edwin Lyman, acting Director, nuclear safety project, UCS. "The more important question is whether it would be realistic to deploy new nuclear power plants over the next several decades in the required pace."

In the beginning of 2018 in North America had 75 separate projects of nuclear fission, which tried to answer this question. These projects involve the same type of reaction as conventional nuclear reactors that have been used for decades — fission, or the splitting of atoms.

One of the leading technologies is a small modular reactor (SMR): a smaller version of the traditional systems of nuclear fission, which promises to be cheaper and safer. NuScale Power, based in Portland, Oregon, has a 60-megawatt design that needs to be deployed. (The usual costly setup can produce about 1,000 MW of electricity).

NuScale have to set 12 small reactors to maintain the energy requirements of 46 sites throughout the Western United States, however, the project will be implemented only if group members agree to Fund up to the end of the year. History shows that it will not be easy. In 2011, Generation mPower, another SMR developer, received the contract to build up to six reactors like NuScale. He was supported by the corporate owners of Babcock & Wilcox, the world's largest producers of energy, but the contract was broken less than three years, since no new clients. No customers, so the price will not be reduced, and therefore the project will not develop.

While the NuScale approach uses traditional nuclear reactors with water cooling, reducing them, the so-called generation IV system using alternative refrigerants. China is building a large-scale reactor with sodium cooling in Fujian province, which will come into operation in 2023, and TerraPower of Washington have developed a system of sodium-cooled, which can run on spent fuel, depleted uranium or the uranium out of the ground. TerraPower which has invested bill gates has signed an agreement with Beijing for the construction of a demonstration station in 2022.

Another version of the generation IV reactor with molten salt, it is safer than earlier designs because it can camouflages, even if the system loses power. Canadian company Terrestrial Energy plans to build a power plant 190 MW in Ontario, and the first reactors will produce energy until 2030 at a price that can be associated with natural gas.

One of the reactors of IV generation may soon become operational. The reactors are helium cooled, very high temperature, can work at temperatures up to 1000 degrees. The state-owned China national nuclear Corporation has a prototype with a capacity of 210 MW in the Eastern province of Shandong it will be connected to the network this year.


Many, however, cherish the hope for fusion. Reactors of thermonuclear synthesis of mimic of the nuclear process inside the Sun, colliding lighter atoms together and transforming them into heavier, and releasing huge amounts of energy along the way. In the Sun, this process is driven by gravity. On the Ground engineers are trying to recreate the conditions of fusion by using extremely high temperatures — about 150 million degrees — but it is difficult to hold the plasma needed for the synthesis of atoms.

One of the solutions presented ITER, formerly known as the international thermonuclear experimental reactor, being built in 2010, in Pencil, France. His system of magnetic confinement has global support, but the cost increased to $ 22 billion because of delays and political disputes. The first experiments, originally scheduled for 2018, has been postponed to 2025.

Vancouver's General Fusion uses a combination of physical pressure and magnetic fields to generate pulses of plasma that lasts millionths of a second. This approach is less complex than ITER, making the system much cheaper, but there remain technical problems associated with fabrication of titanium components capable of handling the workload. However, General Fusion expects its reactors will be deployed in 10-15 years.

California company TAE Technologies, meanwhile, has spent 20 years developing a fusion reactor that converts heat energy directly into electricity. This company, which received $ 500 million from investors in January, predicted that will be released on a commercial payback within five years.

Which of these technologies will succeed? Advanced nuclear fission reduces nuclear waste — even using them as fuel and dramatically reduces the chance of tragedy as in Fukushima or Chernobyl. But such reactors are not yet licensed anywhere, except China and Russia. Many people simply don't believe companies when they promise that a new technology will be able to avoid old mistakes.

However, it is not only in politics: the cost should also be taken into account. Advanced nuclear fission, promises to knock off an incredibly expensive initial costs of nuclear energy through the creation of reactors that will be built at the factory, and not under the order. This should reduce the cost, as happened with wind and solar energy. But private companies have rarely been successful, completing such projects: the biggest successes have been achieved through a highly centralized, government managed schemes that are easier to absorb risks.

General Fusion CEO Chris Maury agrees that nuclear fission is faced with too large a number of barriers to success. He has experience: he has established mPower, a company producing small nuclear modules, which were mothballed in 2014. The synthesis reactors will be more difficult to build, but they are easier to take society. That's where will start the infusion of capital — investors are sure that the one who get the synthesis to work first, become fabulously rich.

But whether the synthesis of more space? What is low-level and short-lived radioactive waste of tritium pose no serious threat, it is true, as that melting is impossible. But the costs are high and time is very remote — ITER came out much more expensive than originally planned, and will not be ready for at least another 15 years. Meanwhile, many want close to ITER, and people don't see the difference between fission and fusion.

Ilya Hel


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