TEDx New England – Nuclear entrepreneurs aiming to use waste for fuel
Two young graduate students describe their plans to develop something called the Waste Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor (WAMSR). The biggest applause line in the talk was the following:
Right now in the world there are about 270,000 metric tons of high level waste that exists. We can take that waste, put it into our reactors and produce enough electricity to power the entire world for 72 years. And that is even taking into account increasing demand.
Isn’t the internet wonderful?
United States Patent 3,981,960 Reprocessing method of caramic nuclear fuels in low-melting nitrate molten salts Giovanni Brambilla et al
Ceramic nuclear fuel is reprocessed through a method…
Transatomic Power (the startup formed by the young MIT nuclear engineers in the TEDx presentation featured) are definitely someone to watch. Here is some additional information gleaned from early documents (but not included on their current website – http://transatomicpower.com/) that may provide a few additional details about their reactor and their company:
Transatomic Power is a nuclear reactor design company. WAMSR, our flagship reactor, is a 200 MW molten salt reactor that converts high-level nuclear waste into electric power.
Leslie Dewan Chief Executive Officer Ph.D. candidate, Massachusetts Institute of Technology DOE Computational Science Graduate Fellow MIT Presidential Fellow
Mark Massie Chief Technology Officer Ph.D. candidate, Massachusetts Institute of Technology DOE Nuclear Engineering University Program Fellow DOE Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative Fellow
Dr. Richard Lester Head of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Co-chair and founding director of the MIT Industrial Performance Center
Dr. Jess Gehin Senior Nuclear R&D Manager, Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Dr. Benoit Forget Professor of Nuclear Science and Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Transatomic Power’s WAMSR reactors turns high-level nuclear waste into electric power. What makes WAMSR so innovative?
Power from nuclear waste. Our reactor can convert the high-level nuclear waste produced by conventional nuclear reactors each year into $7.1 trillion of electricity. At full deployment, our reactors can use existing stockpiles of nuclear waste to satisfy the world’s electricity needs through 2073.
Greatly reduced radioactivity. Conventional reactor waste is radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. Our reactor reduces the majority of the waste’s radioactive lifetime to hundreds of years, thereby decreasing the need for permanent repositories such as Yucca Mountain.
Inherently Safe. Unlike conventional reactors, which must rely on operator action, external electric power and active safety systems to prevent damage in accident scenarios, the physics of our design ensures our reactor is always passively safe.
Efficient modular design. Our compact 200 MWe molten salt reactor can be manufactured economically at a central location and transported by rail to the reactor site. Utilities can use the profits from the first reactor installed to fund construction of additional units.
Why it works
Our SHIVA reactor can be powered by nuclear waste because it uses radically different technology from conventional plants. Instead of using solid fuel pins, we dissolve the nuclear waste into a molten salt. Suspending the fuel in a liquid allows us to keep it in the reactor longer, and therefore capture more of its energy. Conventional nuclear reactors can utilize only about 3% of the potential fission energy in a given amount of uranium before it has to be removed from the reactor. Our design captures 98% of this remaining energy.
I would call Transatomic Power a credible small nuclear startup (more than just a website pushing fantasy technology – like perhaps a Thorium Laser powered car).
Mark Massie has already done work at ORNL under Dr. Jess Gehin as a Research intern in the Reactor Analysis Group and also recently worked for TERRAPOWER as a Neutronics Modeling Intern in 2010 “Effects of Transmutation on Fission Product Yields in High-Burnup Reactors”.
Large established nuclear energy companies (GE Energy, Westinghouse, etc) have huge investments in current nuclear technology and it is unlikely that after such an enormous effort to produce their existing designs that they would be motivated to create competition for their existing designs which have direct engineering lineage back to the 1950s. To innovate new nuclear technology will probably require new nuclear companies (and possibly new agencies with new operating structure and a redefined balanced mission for nuclear regulation – not just safety at any cost and oblivious to the economic needs of the nation for safe affordable power).
While Transatomic is not yet doing Thorium MSR reactors (sad), they are certainly a bright young star to carefully watch and wish good things for. It is early but these young nuclear engineers have some great ideas – Go Trans! Go Flibe Energy!!!
(We really can make better nuclear.)
It would seem that the WAMSR and LFTR designs might be quite complimentary, rather than being competing technologies.
Joel – I think you are right. WAMSR and LFTR would share many common technologies and development interests and could mutually aid each other. (Perhaps we will see a future alliance between Transatomic Power and Flibe Energy.)
I suspect that they have extened/flesh out a proposal by David LeBlanc of Carlton University. The big “problem” is that with the plutonium cycle is that you don’t breed the reactor only makes about 80% of its fuel needs (If I remember correctly). But hey anything that gets more reactors built at this point is a good idea.
As a University of Tennessee graduate, I am almost surprised I had not heard of Mark Massie before (despite him being about 2 years my junior). Based on him being a UT undergrad and former ORNL intern, this WAMSR is quite obviously a follow-up of the MSRE, just like the LFTR being proposed by Flibe.
Details of the WAMSR have not really been made public. Chis L. is correct that in a thermal neutron spectrum, the plutonium cycle is not capable of breeding as much fissile fuel as it uses to operate. The situation changes, however, when you use Plutonium fuel with fast neutrons where breeding is very possible. The WAMSR may use fast neutrons while burning up SNF. The WAMSR appears to use Light Water Reactor SNF (containing U-235 and Pu-239 left in together with the Minor Actinides and unburned U-238) directly as its fuel. It is most likely that the WAMSR is really designed to destroy SNF and burn it down to fission products (consuming the “waste”).
Other approaches to solving the “problem” of nuclear waste are certainly possible. If waste segregation technology (back end fuel cycle laser isotope separation) was permitted to be developed by NNSA, then schemes that separate Pu-239 and U-235 from SNF would be possible and this fissile fuel could be used to start new Thorium LFTRs which, once started, would be self sustaining and produce as much U-233 as they burn up on a sustainable basis as long as you were willing to supply a small stream of ultra cheap non-enriched Thorium to the LFTR breeding blanket.
Using the WAMSR ultimately gets rid of the “waste” problem and produces some energy in a one time use.
Segregating the “waste”, extracting the fissile, and then using the fissile to startup a fleet of thousands of Thorium LFTRs creates a long term sustainable chain of energy beneficence where you produce huge amounts of power for hundreds of years in your Thorium reactors and never run out of fuel.
I wonder if it’s against university regulations for grad students to wear formal clothing. 😀
They looked pretty young; probably outgrew the last set of formal clothes their parents bought them.
Never mind. The future belongs to kids like this and I don’t care if they want to dress in rags. Anyway, I miss the days when I had the body to be seen in public in tight clothing…
DV82XL – I never had a body to be seen in public in tight clothing.
I personally participated in the fuel-cycle issue for the Czech research that has now been for some 10 years been focused on the actinide burner molten salt transmutation reactor SPHINX. I would be very happy if some other countries actively joined the MSR research efforts (especially institutionally and commercially).
Therefore, I agree generally with the ideas of the young entrepreneurs, but I thought that their presentation had many omissions and inaccuracies, which could significantly mislead uninformed people.
0) The description of what is the actual fuel in the reactor and why we can use it only for so long is extremely vague and misleading. The breeding of U-238 in LWRs into fissile plutonium cannot match the burning of U235.
1) It is agreed that the long-term radiotoxicity issue of used fuel comes primarily from (TRU) transuranics = plutonium + minor actinides (Np, Am, Cm), these represent around 1% of total waste mass. U-238 is so long-lived that it is not even considered radioactive by some people, besides, it already comes radioactive out of the ground.
2)The presenters omitted that used fuel is reprocessed by all major nuclear countries and US is just a big exception. A large part (approximately a third) of all accumulated mass of used nuclear fuel has already been reprocessed, plutonium converted to MOX fuel and the “waste” concentrated into glass logs. There is not much fissile energy left in the minor actinides they contain, so it is highly unlikely that anyone will attempt to separate those out of the glass in future for power purposes.
3) It seems that Transatomic Power is trying to build a MSR breeder or converter. If it is going to run only on spent UOx fuel, as they seemingly claim, then they will need to achieve a sufficiently fast spectrum in their reactor, which is going to be hard with “current” fluoride technology. A switch to chlorides would be necessary.
The total minor actinide content in such a reactor would also actually increase as a result of multiple neutron capture in the “heavy actinide” uranium, even though in a steady state net burning of the MA material would eventually take place. If the primary task is to get rid of nuclear waste, separating of the “heavy” uranium and then burning of TRU alone without breeding, or burning them in a thorium (“light actinide”) fueled converter is a much more sensible idea.
I am curious how they plan on consuming the actinides if the spectrum for the reactor is thermal. Also the choice of salt that they use depends greatly on the temperature that they are planning. It might very well be that they are basing the technology for reducing the oxide fuel on the patent that was listed earlier here. If they are using nitrate salts the coolant begins to undergo chemical thermal decomposition around 565 C. I do not know of there being much qualification of nitrate salts as coolants. It does have a relatively large non-nuclear commercial experience base and is well understood from a thermophysical standpoint.
The amount of light nuclei (oxygen and nitrogen if used) will soften the spectrum a good deal, but is not insurmountable. Using Li as a coolant if they are going the FLiBe route is problematic and expensive (we don’t have much lithium and it requires enrichment).
I wonder if it’d be nice and efficient having this group purchase/cost share/take over a plant undergoing decommission to perform their magic on a plant site instead of being entwined the whole waste transport bit to processing facilities that might not have to be built if they performed this process directly on a plant site. 2nd, is it possible to manipulate hot fuel elements from a decommissioning plant directly into their process (i.e. not have to wait decades for a “cool down”)?
Off topic from a WWII doc on notes from Nazi Germany’s fizzled atomic pile program; anyone know of any studies on direct conversion of radiation into a “electron spiking/’pushing'” medium that promotes electricity? Not talking about thermocouple effects but literature on actual wrangling of radioactive emissions directly into electricity. Thanks.
James – Direct Conversion schemes of producing electricity from nuclear energy (most commonly fusion) have been proposed. Certain types of fusion produce a large portion of the energy output as charged particles. One technique (yet to be practically demonstrated) called Aneutronic fusion produce the overwhelming bulk of their energy in the form of charged particles instead of neutrons. This means that energy could be converted directly into electricity by various techniques. Direct conversion techniques can either be inductive, based on changes in magnetic fields, or electrostatic, based on making charged particles work against an electric field. If the fusion reactor worked in a pulsed mode (like LLNL’s Laser Fusion NIF or LIFE Engine), inductive techniques could be used.
The more common form of fusion where the conditions to support and initiate fusion (Lawson’s criteria) are lower are easier to achieve (called D-T Fusion) produce a large proportion of the fusion energy as neutrons and heat, and so most of these D-T fusion approaches still require traditional turbine-generators to transform heat into electricity.
Thanks for that info!
One nice reference (from my kind and beneficent Physics management)
“Direct conversion of plasma energy to electricity for mirror fusion reactors” – Dr. Ralph Moir
(Where Kings build
carters of bricks have work –
LLNL Engineering to LLNL Physics)
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