So I have a new found interest in nuclear power. I know this is a bit weird but the next generation of nuclear power is just cool. Two pieces of technology are really coming to a head now that could make all this renewable energy stuff moot, at the very least we could put a big dent in foreign oil dependence. The first one of these technologies is the thorium reactor. This is a somewhat standard fission reactor but instead of using uranium it uses thorium, which is still radioactive but a bit different. The problem here is that thorium doesn’t maintain chain reactions the way that uranium does but we are close to solving that problem (its actually only half a problem because it eliminates the problem of “meltdowns”). The advantages to getting a workable design are many. The first is that these thorium reactors could take in nuclear waste produced from the decommissioning of nuclear weapons and incinerate it. In the process, this fuel would be burned and converted to energy that could be used and the waste problem is eliminated or at least reduced. Here’s the deal, waste from a nuclear reactor needs to be dealt with on a time scale of hundreds of thousands of years to over a million years. This of course means that we need to plan into the future that far and being that most people have trouble figuring out what they are going to have for dinner…this is a bit too long for us to do feasibly. Thorium reactor waste would be quite different, waste products there would be around on the order of just a thousand years (still a long time but WAY better than a standard fission reactor). Furthermore, thorium reactor waste could not be reprocessed into weapons material which means that its safer from a security standpoint too. So why aren’t we already doing this…well, we are still waiting on some technology to efficiently maintain the thorium reactors in a fissile state. But it is in the works and companies are predicting that within a few years we might see some old reactors converted to a thorium fuel cycle. For those who are wondering, “where are we gonna get all the thorium?” Well, its actually almost 10 times more abundant than the uranium we use now. What could be better than that…actually there is something better…fusion.
Normal fission reactors split nuclei and release high energy neutrons that collide with other subatomic particles to produce heat. Fusion reactors seek to overcome the normal repulsive forces between nuclei and fuse them into one which also releases enormous amounts of energy (ya know…E=mc2). To get an idea…H Bombs and the Sun both work on fusion power. That’s a lot of energy. Just this week, a major step forward was completed. The United States has been the primary funder of the National Ignition Facility (NIF), a 2 billion dollar project to perform experiments with nuclear fusion and to achieve “ignition” of deuterium and tritium fuel. If successful this could pave the way for a revolutionary new power source that essentially creates a miniature sun on earth capable of producing extraordinarily abundant and clean electricity. The fuel for this would be naturally occurring isotopes of hydrogen that we get from sea water. That’s right…water. Now its not as simple as just filling a bucket but the ability to get fuel to most of the planet with little in the way of transport is key. Also, we are not going to run out any time soon and the waste factor is almost nill. Of course, now the technology is still in its infancy and the process is still very expensive but we are paving the way to a new century when electricity supply will be an afterthought and greenhouse gas emissions from power plants will be unheard of. Amazing stuff going on. Patrick OUT!!!