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Is This The Key To Wider Nuclear Adoption?

Haley Zaremba

Around the world, a debate about nuclear energy is coming to a boiling point. Nuclear has dominated headlines, from Russia’s recent controversial launch of a floating nuclear plant and mysterious nuclear explosion, to the never-ending debate about nuclear development in Iran. at the same time, nuclear has become a hot topic in both scientific and political spheres. 

The scientific community has largely backed the expansion of nuclear energy in the worldwide energy mix as an extremely effective and efficient way to combat climate change, as nuclear energy production results in zero carbon emissions. It is, however, far from a zero-waste process, and nuclear waste and radioactive byproduct (not to mention nuclear meltdown) is the crux of the other side of the nuclear energy debate.

Nations like Australia embody this divide, where nuclear has become the topic of serious political debate in the past months after being outright banned for years (on Australian soil, that is--the country is a major exporter of the uranium that fuels the nuclear energy sectors in a number of other countries). But even in a country as pro-coal and anti-nuclear as Australia has historically been, nuclear’s promise of cheap, powerful, and relatively clean energy (at least as compared to coal) can no longer be ignored. 

As the international nuclear energy sector is currently composed, however, there are some major barriers to considerable expansion. In the United States, for example, the nuclear industry is in serious decline and a number of nuclear plants have even had to turn to government subsidies to stay afloat, while the taxpayers are bearing the very serious financial burden of managing nuclear waste

A big part of what’s keeping the U.S. nuclear energy sector from flourishing economically is the fact that there is no standardization in the industry, making construction and expansion of plants a very cost-prohibitive exercise requiring a team of high-paid experts. It makes sense, then, that there is now a push toward smaller-scale nuclear reactors that can be constructed off-site and standardized for greater efficiency and economy. 

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One of the most promising is the new Scalable Liquid Metal–cooled small Modular reactor--known as the SLIMM--developed by the University of New Mexico’s Institute for Space and Nuclear Power Studies in Albuquerque’s Mohamed S. El-Genk, Luis Palomino and Timothy Schriener. The development team explains the potential of its new, portable reactors as “fully passive operation with no single point failure, cooled by natural circulation of sodium during operation and after shutdown, high negative temperature reactivity feedback and redundant control and safety shutdown, walk-away safe, long life without refueling, factory fabricated, assembled and sealed, shipped to the construction site by rail, truck, or barge, installed below ground to avoid direct impact by missiles or aircraft, and mounted on seismic oscillation bearings to resist earthquakes.”

Now, in layman’s terms, as explained by Forbes: “This is a fast reactor that uses liquid sodium (Na) to cool and exchange heat, and that generates 10 to 100 MW for many years, even decades, without refueling, depending on what power level is desired. It’s very smaller version, the VSLIMM, generates 1 to 10 MW.” What’s more, making the SLIMM especially attractive for standardization and expansion of the nuclear sector is the fact that it is designed to be portable by road.

One of the most promising aspects of the SLIMM is that it is engineered so that it cannot melt down, thereby alleviating some of the strongest fears that lead to public and political distrust of nuclear power. “The reactor has redundant and passive decay heat removal by heat pipes and natural circulation of ambient air,” reports Forbes. “In other words, it can’t melt down, is cheap to construct and only needs ordinary outside air to cool off if it does shut down quickly for any reason. With Na’s very low vapor pressure, the reactor operates below atmospheric pressure so there is no pressure vessel to worry about.”

The SLIMM is just one of a number of viable models for small, safe, and efficient nuclear plants. The technology is there. The next challenge will be overcoming the myriad social and political roadblocks intent on keeping fossil fuels at the center of industry and changing the public perception of nuclear energy as inherently hazardous (and even as something sinister). Nuclear energy isn’t perfect--no form of energy production is--but if smaller reactors like the SLIMM are widely adopted it will go a long way toward combating climate change and reducing the global carbon footprint.

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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