t’s the night shift at a nuclear power plantin upstate New York,and a technicianchecks on the temperature ofthe reactorcore.It’s a searing 800
C — a temperaturethat today would spark a major panic andcould signal the start ofa partial reactormeltdown.Yet this reading doesn’t raise aneyebrow.It’s 2035,and this state-of-the-artreactor is designed to operate at this temp-erature,cooled not by the water that keepstoday’s reactors in check,but by a huge vatofmolten lead.And thanks to its high oper-ating temperature,the plant is generatinghydrogen fuel as well as electricity.This vision ofthe future comes fromthe Generation IV International Forum(GIF),a consortium often nations that isplanning the nuclear reactors oftomorrow.These new plants would all operate at hightemperatures,improving their efficiency.And they would include simplified safety features that do not rely on sophisticatedbackup systems or experienced operators— all are,in principle,‘meltdown proof’and can cool themselves down in the eventofan accident with minimal,ifany,humanintervention.This would also mean that any attempt totrigger an accident deliberately — by shut-ting offthe coolant or power supply —would be in vain.Nuclear reactors wouldbecome less ofa terrorist target.At least,that’s what the nuclear industry hopes.But given memories ofthe partial reactormeltdown in 1979 at Three Mile Island,Pennsylvania,and ofthe 1986 accident atChernobyl in Ukraine,during which thereactor core exploded,killing some 31 peo-ple immediately and spewing radioactivedebris across Europe,the public will takesome convincing.No new nuclear power plants have beenordered in the United States since the accidentat Three Mile Island.But in March this year,aconsortium ofUS energy companies said thatit intends to apply for a licence,the first steptowards building a plant.In April,Franceannounced that it would replace its elderly 59reactors with new ones.And Asian countriesare planning to build dozens ofreactors tocope with their booming energy demands.Isthis the beginning ofa nuclear revival?
Fuel for the future?
Nuclear power is not a source ofcarbondioxide,and with emissions ofthis green-house gas now soaring,and global energy demands predicted to double by 2050,thenuclear option is finding its way back ontothe table.At a 2002 gathering ofGIF repre-sentatives in Tokyo,Spencer Abraham,theUS energy secretary,used these argumentsto explain the Bush administration’s strongsupport for nuclear energy.Ifnuclear engi-neers can overcome the technical hurdlesinvolved in building the next generation of reactors,Abraham said,then we will haveenergy that is “safe,abundant,reliable,inex-pensive and proliferation resistant”.For nuclear power to undergo a renais-sance,experts agree that reactors will needto be a lot cheaper to run.And to sway anuclear-averse public,the next generation of reactors will need to produce much lessradioactive waste at terrorist-prooffacilities.Such technological challenges are toogreat for one country alone.In 2001,theeight founding nations ofGIF decided topool their research expertise,and laterpicked what they believe are the six bestprospects for the reactors ofthe future
(seeTable,opposite).No more than three ofthe six designs arelikely to survive the feasibility testing phaseand go on to become research prototypes,each costing about US$1 billion to build andtest,predicts William Magwood,director of the US Department ofEnergy’s Office of Nuclear Energy,Science,and Technology,and chairman ofGIF’s board.Unlike today’s water-cooled reactors,which tend to run at about 300
C,all six con-cepts are designed to run at temperaturesfrom 510
C to 1,000
C.This allows for moreefficient conversion ofheat to electricity —one leading design,the very-high-tempera-ture reactor (VHTR),could squeeze 50%more electricity from the same amount of fuel compared with conventional plants.But these higher operating temperaturesmean that the reactors will need newcoolants,as ordinary water can only be used,under typical pressurized conditions,up to330
C.Two GIF concepts use inert helium tokeep the reactor cool;others use molten lead,sodium or salt.One ofthe most popular generation IVconcepts,the supercritical-water-cooledreactor (SCWR),uses extreme pressures toprevent water from boiling at temperaturesup to 500
C.Because ofthe reactor’s effi-ciency and relatively simple design,it wouldpotentially be fairly cheap to build andrun,says Jacopo Buongiorno,integrationmanager for the SCWR system at theIdahoNational Engineering and EnvironmentalLaboratory in Idaho Falls.Indeed,ifit works,it will churn out electricity at prices that,onpaper,are competitive with coal and gas,andvastly cheaper than existing nuclear reactors.
In terms ofpractical experience,perhapsthe most advanced concept is the VHTR.Japan’s Atomic Energy Research Institutebased in Kashiwa already operates a similarhigh-temperature engineering test reactorat Oarai,near Tokyo.This reactor is cooledby helium gas,and it reached its operatinggoal of950
C for the first time in a test runlast month.At temperatures ofabout 700–900
C,reactors can be used to split hydrogen fromwater thermochemically.Many countriesthat largely depend on oil for their energy needs are betting on hydrogen as the fuel of the future,using fuel cells to convert the gasinto electricity for cars and homes.Without a switch to hydrogen,the energy
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Global warming and rising energy needs arerehabilitating the concept of nuclear power. But if it is to figure in the energy equation, it will need tobe cheaper, cleaner and safer, says Declan Butler.
Nuclear power’snew dawn