Nuclear Power from Uranium Waste

Brian Hicks

Written By Brian Hicks

Posted February 20, 2013

Bill Gates, of Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) fame, has a storied history of philanthropy and socially conscious endeavors. Now, he is backing (and chairing) Washington-based TerraPower, a startup that aims to do no less than transform nuclear waste into nuclear fuel, generating clean electricity.

Depleted uranium is a standard by-product of conventional water-cooled nuclear reactors. TerraPower hopes to use what it calls the traveling wave reactor (TWR) to achieve this transformation of nuclear waste into energy.

As the company’s website explains, a TWR reactor can run for long periods solely on depleted uranium, or U-238. U-238 is normally produced when enriched uranium, U-235, separates from natural uranium during the nuclear power generation process.

Presently, U-235 is the fuel of choice for most light water nuclear reactors, while the U-238 generated during the process is discarded. Since conventional reactors cannot make much use of U-238—it’s too weak—TerraPower can step in to utilize this for its own energy generation, thus cutting down radically on the amount of nuclear waste.

The upshot of all this is that a TWR reactor can effectively harvest nearly 50 times more energy per pound of mined uranium compared to standard light water reactors.

The implications are obvious and vast. Such a reactor, because it works slowly and burns more efficiently, can go for 40 years without refueling (bear in mind that today’s nuclear reactors require refueling every two years or so).

The Financial Times reports:

“The goal was to build a system that dealt with some of the common issues of nuclear power, proliferation and waste,” says Roger Reynolds, senior technical adviser at TerraPower.

Presently, TerraPower is aiming to showcase a prototype by 2023, with the first commercial reactors online sometime near the end of that decade. While initial capital costs are likely to be on par with today’s reactors, it’s the fuel savings that present the biggest attraction. Such early plants of the TWR design are expected to generate roughly 600 megawatts.

Of course, the major problem that always faces such innovation is market inertia. Put simply, few will invest in a new, “unproven” concept unless others have already done so. It’s a vicious cycle that all entrepreneurs are familiar with.

The situation holds doubly true for utility companies, given the higher risks and costs involved. TerraPower has already had preliminary talks with the governments of China and South Korea in hopes that it may attract a large-scale government investment in what the company has to offer and thus build up a reputation.

A new way to generate cleaner energy could not come at a better time. Developing nations are increasing their appetite for energy. According to ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM), the world’s energy needs could rise by as much as 30 percent between 2010 and 2040.

The demonstration reactor that TerraPower is presently working on will be known as the TWR-P, and it relies on the best features of some of the fastest reactors presently built in France, Germany, China, the U.S., and other countries.

The team is working to produce innovations in the core technologies, higher efficiencies via a closed-loop fuel cycle, and increased safety protocols, as the website states. The major attractions of the TWR system—carbon-free power production, at least seven times less nuclear waste than in conventional processes, and long periods between refueling—are sure to be compelling arguments for large-scale adoption. However, TerraPower has some way to go before it reaches mass acceptance.

Interestingly, the idea for a nuclear reactor that runs off natural or depleted uranium—a “breed and burn” reactor—has been around since 1958, when Savelli Feinburg first dreamed up the concept.

However, despite sporadic advances made by various nations and researchers, no really cohesive effort was made to realize this dream until TerraPower began to study the concept in 2008. In 2011, the company developed the first practicable engineering blueprints for the TWR, and by 2012, the initial designs for the core and the entire facility were complete.

The presence of prominent names like Bill Gates and Nathan Myhrvold—another Microsoft chief officer—on TerraPower’s board is likely going to boost the company’s visibility and public profile, especially as its activities begin to attract more and more attention from investors and governments.

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