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The fight to rethink (and reinvent) nuclear power

When you think of the word nuclear, what comes to mind? This is probably some kind of scary thought. I can’t blame anyone for being nervous. This is a technology that we have been using for decades, which can actually reduce global warming, but this is not something that environmentalists are so excited about. The first thing that many think about is nuclear war and mushroom clouds. You add to these major events, such as Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and now most recently Fukushima, and they have had incredibly profound implications for people’s immediate feelings, their images and associations with this technology. This is not what the public thinks is wrong. This is a technology with a reputation that has been earned. I mean, if an atomic power station was built in my city, I would be very nervous about this. However, as a conservationist, it makes me feel really conflicting because these power plants do not emit CO2, and this is the main polluter that causes climate change. When you look at technology and ask yourself: how are we going to solve this climate change problem? The lack of nuclear energy makes work much more difficult. Now for the most part, these stations work very well. They supply about 20 percent of the electricity in the US power grid. But almost all of them in the United States were built over 35 years ago. In fact, they look like something from an old movie. And historically they had two big problems: they produce radioactive nuclear waste, and they may be vulnerable to a disaster like a nuclear explosion. Nuclear accidents occur because water used to cool radioactive fuel rods cannot be pumped. Usually due to a backup power failure. This fuel heats up quickly, and since these reactors operate at high pressure, explosions from all this excess heat can occur. You can think of it as a balloon that bursts and blows air inside, but in this case it is radioactive air. Leslie Dewan is trying to fix it. She manages a startup company Transatomic Power. They are trying to build new power plants without this problem. Our reactors operate at atmospheric pressure, and you do not need this typical protective casing. You don’t need big stacks. You have much more flexibility in plant architecture. And this low pressure also means that there can be no ascent of nuclear balls. But the point is not only to stop disasters. The fuel itself is toxic and should be stored underground for thousands of years. And, unfortunately, we do not use it very effectively. Solid fuel can remain in the reactor only for a limited period of time before it starts to break down, and you have to physically remove it. You can extract only about 4 percent of the energy that you would supposedly get from uranium, and the rest remains as waste. It’s like opening a bottle of water, taking a sip, and then throwing it away. But this is actually how old reactors use nuclear fuel. Next generation reactors use fuel much more efficiently. The design of the Transatomic reactor will use fuel in liquid form so that it can remain in the reactor for a longer period of time. Many modern nuclear reactors can consume much more energy from uranium. You can get a lot more fuel use. This means that you leave significantly less waste. And this is a trend in this area. There is great interest in phasing out conventional fuel rods for various fuels for a number of reasons. Over the past 20 or 30 years, we have developed various types of fuels that cannot melt. And what really … What do you mean by that? Physically can not melt. This is Per Peterson, he is a nuclear engineer at the University of California at Berkeley, who is working on a next generation reactor design that uses a completely different kind of fuel. Many old plants still use conventional fuel rods. This new design, known as fuel pebbles, encloses uranium in a golf ball-sized sphere. It is made of a very durable ceramic material that can withstand much higher temperatures, so it cannot melt and is safer to use. Now this one was created to demonstrate that you can make it. So there is no uranium in it, but any other method is identical to the real one. Same weight and all that? And they are designed to be very safe. You can throw this item from 10 meters onto the steel plate and it will not break. Or, if I wanted, I could throw it right now. Essentially, fuel pebbles are designed as a separate system. If a power failure occurs, the pebbles are simply emptied into a storage tank, where they self-cool. No need for backup generators or water

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