As each of us strolls our own life path, we are forced to make choices, limited only by our mindsets and the barriers around us. However, in a society where “what’s oil doing today?” typically translates into “can I afford to keep my SUV?” or “how much more can the ozone withstand?” we often feel helplessly driven by our seemingly lack of choices and control. Not so, say the up-and-coming spearheads of nuclear science! With a few tweaks in our perceptions, fueled by some simple education, the power is all ours—hundreds of years of it!
Emerging from all corners of the globe, young grinning nuclear physicists, scientists, and engineers are popping up waving their dissertations to everyone who will listen. Their clarion call is rather unsophisticated: The world’s most viable energy solution is hinging on the way we view nuclear energy. These young’uns are rapidly altering our views on nuclear energy, and they are fueled by passion and old-fashioned science.
According to Lisa Dewar, an MIT nuclear science grad student, entrepreneur, and recent winner of Forbes’s 30 under 30 award in the category of energy and innovation, the plan is very simple: to produce nuclear power plants that emit significantly less waste, minimal emissions while utilizing existing above-ground nuclear waste to fuel these very reactors.
She, along with her colleague Mark Massie, has created the WAMSR (Waste Annihilated Molten Salt Reactor). In a recent symposium in New England, Dewar and Massie explained how they can easily take the existing 270,000 metric tons of (above-ground) global nuclear waste, reduce it by 93 percent and use this three-kilogram leftover waste ball to generate enough electricity to fuel the needs of a growing demand for 72 years.
According to their MIT mentor, Dr. Richard Lester, over the next 20 years, we can expect a 50 percent increase in energy usage, a deeper need for reduction in carbon emissions in order to avoid the advancing climate changes, such as those that cause natural disasters.
“In the United States alone, there are 103 nuclear power reactors, which provide about 19 percent of the nation’s electricity. Each nuclear power plant produces 20 metric tons of nuclear waste each year that equates to 9,000 metric tons globally of high-level nuclear waste annually” (Dewar).
The largest barrier to embracing nuclear energy has much to do with the age distribution in the industry. The term “nuclear” spoken in the presence of 50- to 80-year olds, froths with notions of Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986, and the 1957 incident in the Russian Ural Mountains where careless protocols and inferior construction killed dozens. The stats of these catastrophes, including Fukushima, have soured the incentives of this segment of the population, as well as existing nuclear generator sites.
In light of this relevant fear of nuclear, a former senior executive of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL) asserts a crucial point to endorsing nuclear advancement: “It’s crucial for society to realize how nuclear medicine plays a critical role in saving lives. It’s puzzling that most refuse all notions of endorsing its source, not realizing how vital and indispensable it is to health.”
According to the new minds of global energy, oil could easily take a back burner to nuclear energy if research and development continue to advance their visionary paths as the brighter, cleaner, reliable energy alternative. At the rate the world consumes oil with its burgeoning demand, (driven by our consumerist lust for all that is more), the world is clamoring to suck, pull, pump, and pimp petroleum from all and every available source.
Globally there are 104 commercial nuclear reactors. They operate using light water reactor technology, now known to be inferior and unreliable technology. The challenge for the incoming scientists is convincing all these existing companies to alter their designs and “take a chance on something new” (Dewar).
There is a global fear of nuclear energy, yet these new minds are looking beyond the United States with a focus on Europe and particularly China, where nuclear energy is making all the right sense.
14 operating commercial power plants
27 under construction
The call of these visionaries, who are mostly in their 20s and 30s, is simple: With “new designs and new people in the industry … to solve the world’s energy needs … [we will] solve nuclear safety and waste issues … and power the world for hundreds of years.”
Understanding Nuclear Energy
Unlike the stars, the nuclear reactors that we have today work on the principles of nuclear fission. Scientists are working like madmen to make fusion reactors, which have the potential of providing more energy with fewer disadvantages than fission reactors.
There are two types of nuclear energy: (1) Natural (such as that generated by the sun and stars), and (2) Man-made (that derived from nuclear reactors and power plants).
Nuclear energy is produced in two different ways: fission where the large nuclei are split to release energy, and fusion where the small nuclei are combined to release energy.
The nuclei of atoms are split (a process called fission), causing energy to be released in the form of heat. Because uranium fissions easily, it is commonly used to boil the water in the reactor to create the subsequent heat.
Many critics view this process analogous with “using a cannon to kill a fly.”
Once a uranium nucleus is split, multiple neutrons are released which are used to split other uranium nuclei, known as a chain reaction. These nuclear reactions create what is called nuclear (or atomic) energy.
Fission of uranium 235 nucleus. Adapted from Nuclear Energy. Nuclear Waste.
In nuclear fusion, the nuclei of atoms are joined together or fused. This happens only under very hot conditions and operates in the method similar to that of the Sun: Hydrogen nuclei fuse to form helium and in the process release huge amounts of energy, thus producing a huge explosion. Einstein’s famous equation teaches us the theory of relativity with E=MC2 where E is the energy equivalent of mass M, and C is the speed of light.
Recent advancements in energy technology gathering all this great science (and in effort to avoid confusion), let us extricate the essence of nuclear science’s potential impact on the world’s growing concerns and need for an endless supply of clean energy.
According to best-selling author, Jeff Rubin, in his book Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller, “[China] relies on coal for almost two-thirds of its total energy needs and approximate 80 percent of its electrical power … and 50 percent of the electricity in the U.S. … 12 percent in Canada, and the U.K., 25 percent.”
Enter General Fusion, a venture capitalist company from Burnaby, BC, which is impacting on the commercialization of thermal power plants advancing to gain footholds in the market to generate electricity for large consumption.
General Fusion’s founding technology reverts back 30 years to the U.S. Naval Labs, to the very same era from which the MIT students’ molten salt reactor technology was derived. Their subsequent advances have embraced the stale technology and addressed the major concerns, whereby sometimes these reactors were fueled by gas and even mercury.
According to their website, www.generalfusion.com, their patented science is a hybrid between magnetic fusion and inertial confinement fusion known as “magnetized target fusion”:
“Magnetic fusion involves using magnetic fields to hold relatively low-density plasma of deuterium and tritium for sufficient time such that a lot of nuclei collide and fuse.”
“Inertial confinement fusion involves imploding a small sphere of deuterium and tritium with such energy that the nuclei momentarily reach very high-density fusion conditions.”
The Pebble Bed Reactor, a form of nuclear technology that began in the 1960s in Germany, took a fairly recent advancement by a South African firm. This helium and graphite approach to burning at much higher temperatures than the light water reactor developed issues such as contaminated graphite dust and excess radioactive waste, making this project unlikely to succeed. China, however, is the only country that continues to work on Pebble Bed technology .
Dr. Richard Lester from MIT asserts: “the needs of today’s nuclear science must address the failures of the past if they are going to move pass the scrutiny of all those affected by these historical disasters.” He continues that what is needed most is (1) greater nuclear governance, which is in reference to “soft matters,” such as policies, people, regulations. The other need is for (2) technological innovation—with cost-efficient safeguards against terrorism and compatibility with the existing organization/plant and its limitations.
The 2010 Nuclear Security Summit, hosted by President Obama in Washington, D.C., brought together the leaders of 47 nations to discuss ways to prevent nuclear terrorism and secure loose nuclear material (www.nuclearfiles.org).
Dr. Lester affirms that these innovative, eager entrepreneurs are a “serious, idealistic, and practical group of people.”
Author Jeff Rubin shares on his blog how the Uranium Energy Corp. is using fraccing technology to pull uranium slurry out of shale plays in south Texas and selling the “yellowcake” as food for nuclear power plants.
Despite the fact that “nations of the world now have more than enough nuclear bombs to kill every person on Earth; the two most powerful nations—Russia and the United States—have about 50,000 nuclear weapons between them.”
Despite these mind-blowing notions of destruction, society must not ignore our living reality—a reality that the sustainability of our natural resources is very much reliant on upon our capacity to embrace technology and all alternative solutions.
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