The Technology That Will Help Prevent Another Fukushima Nuclear Disaster
Well, it’s begun…
The long, painstaking and, ultimately, very dangerous work of decommissioning the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan.
Destroyed during the catastrophic tsunami in 2011, the nuclear reactors have remained in a highly precarious, radioactive state ever since.
The first step on the road is the nerve-wracking job of removing the 1,500 fragile fuel-rod assemblies. This alone will take a year to complete. But the full decommissioning project is expected to take decades and cost $50 billion.
In its wake, it will leave tons of radioactive waste, which will sit around in containment areas decaying for thousands of years.
Like Chernobyl before it, the Fukushima story has underlined the safety hazards and environmental fallout of nuclear disasters. Even Germany and Switzerland have halted their nuclear programs.
But what if there were a way to slash the risk of a nuclear meltdown and drastically reduce waste? Would the skeptics reconsider?
Meltdown-Proof Technology That Turns Nuclear Waste into Energy
Suppose there’s a company whose nuclear design not only avoids meltdowns, but also puts the spent fuel rods left over from conventional nuclear reactors to good use…
Well, there is. It’s called Transatomic Power.
The company uses a revolutionary molten salt process to convert nuclear waste into electricity.
If this sounds familiar, my colleague, Marty Biancuzzo, wrote about Transatomic last month after he heard Co-Founder and Chief Science Officer, Dr. Leslie Dewan’s presentation at MIT’s EmTech Conference.
As Marty pointed out, conventional reactors leave behind about 97% of their energy as unspent “waste.”
Waste, indeed. And incredibly inefficient.
In fact, these reactors generate about 9,000 metric tons of nuclear waste worldwide every year. But with the molten salt process able to turn that waste into energy, that rediscovered fuel could power the entire world for 72 years.
At the same time, over the course of a year, the reactor would only leave behind a lump of waste the size of a baseball. Waste that would decay over a few hundred years, rather than a few hundred thousand. As founder Dr. Leslie Dewan concedes, “That’s a long time, but it’s a solvable engineering problem.”
While the process of turning nuclear waste into electricity is compelling enough on the production side, Transatomic’s innovation also boasts a major safety benefit: It’s considered “walk-away safe.”
In other words, if a molten salt reactor loses power, it’s designed to coast to a gradual stop after a few days – even if the area has been evacuated. It can’t overheat and it can’t melt down.
So while Transatomic’s design would take care of the spent fuel rods lying around, what about the actual materials and equipment that come into contact with nuclear waste – things like the barrels, concrete encasements, used filters and protective gear?
Engineers at the University of Sheffield in England have devised a cheap, single-process disposal method that promises to reduce the volume of contaminated waste by 90%.
Combined with blast furnace slag – a common byproduct of steel manufacturing – the exposed equipment is heated until it forms an obsidian-like glass.
The glass locks in the radioactive material and renders it inert, which creates a safe end product. It’s also much harder and even more durable than concrete, the current storage method.
The Fukushima disaster catapulted the dangers of nuclear power back into the public eye. And now that the arduous and hazardous decommissioning process is underway, the fallout is front and center now, too.
But technology is coming to the fore here, as well. And brilliant innovations like this could help prevent future calamities, aid any cleanup, and even turn traditional waste into new energy.
Ahead of the tape,