Nuclear Fission

The problem with nuclear fission isn’t the technology, it’s greed and lust for power.

It’s possible to build safe, efficient nuclear reactors that generate very little waste which has a much shorter lifetime and is infinitely more manageable than the waste created by todays generation of reactors.

What gets in the way of that is greed. Safe efficient nuclear power is more costly. Safe efficient nuclear power doesn’t produce weapons grade plutonium.

Safe efficient nuclear power would involve a combination of actinide burning breeder reactors and on-site pyrolytic recycling facilities placed at locations that are well underground but well above any water table providing environmental isolation in the event of an accident. The probabilities of an accident would be greatly reduced by using inherently self-limiting designs, designs which will not melt down even in the complete absence of coolant or controls.

Such designs use things like fast flux reactors in which Doppler thermal spectral broadening to reduce reaction rates, liquid fuels in which heat induced expansion reduces fuel density and results in lower reaction rates, etc.

Such designs exist today. Industry isn’t excited about building them because of the costs involved. The military isn’t excited about not having more plutonium available to make bombs.

Between those two interests we continue to operate one-pass pressurized or boiling water reactors. These reactors extract only approximately .7% of uraniums energy potential while leaving radioactive waste that has to be kept isolated from the environment for 50,000 years, an impossible task. That radioactive waste contains a high percentage of plutonium 239 which is used in nuclear weapons.

In an actinide burning reactor, a much higher percentage of other actinides and other isotopes of plutonium are generated which ruins the weapons potential of plutonium. It does this either by producing high background levels of neutrons causing a premature chain reaction ruining a weapons yield or by producing a large amount of penetrating gamma rays making it difficult for people to handle. This is not a bad thing at all, because the on-site pyrolytic processing will recycle these elements into new fuel without weapons potential.

The pyrolytic recycling / actinide burning reactor complex can extract as much as 96% of the uraniums energy potential, and because the actinides are consumed, only relatively short-lived fission products remain. The waste disposal problem is turned from a 50,000 year problem to a 300-year problem and the waste volume is reduced by a factor of a one hundred or so.

The waste from a conventional one-pass boiling water or pressurized water reactor is problematic specifically because it does retain so much energy potential. The short-lived fission products could even be used to provide industrial process heat or residential space heating. I’m not suggesting that fission products be kept in peoples homes, but they could be placed in a central location where the heat is extracted and then steam or hot-water piped to peoples homes.

Because this fuel cycle is so efficient, even uranium derived from seawater is cost-effective and there is sufficient uranium in seawater to provide energy via this fuel cycle for tens of millions of years.

Greed will result in industry being driven to do things as cheaply as possible. Lust for power will continue to pressure for the production of plutonium. On another planet that hosts an intelligent species this might be a safe, reliable energy source for tens of millions of years. On Earth with it’s primitive, greedy, power hungry human species, it is not possible.

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