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Introducing the nuclear reactor that creates its own fuel

18/06/2018
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A new nuclear power start-up, chaired by none other than Bill Gates, looks to be on the verge of creating a nuclear reactor that is able to produce its own fuel. TerraPower’s Travelling Wave Reactor (TWR) is a new form of breed-and-burn reactor that could have a transformative impact upon the energy generation industry.

TerraPower aims to solve many of the problems that currently plague conventional nuclear reactor designs. With the TWR TerraPower believes it has created a nuclear reactor that is safer and more efficient, that generates very little waste, and is less likely to suffer a disastrous breakdown- even if left unattended.
A visualisation of the Travelling Wave Reactor.
(A visualisation of the Travelling Wave Reactor. Image via TerraPower).

The TWR is based upon the breed-and-burn reactor type which was conceived over 60 years ago by Russian physicist, Saveli Feinberg. Feinberg’s design featured a slowly advancing wave of nuclear fission through a fuel source, creating and consuming its fuel as the reaction travels through the core. However, with Uranium being plentiful during the immediate-post war period, Feinberg’s design didn’t catch on, until now.

TerraPower has picked up from where Feinberg left breed-and-burn reactors. 

To help them develop their current TWR, TerraPower created an Advanced Reactor Modelling Interface (ARMI), which is effectively a digital toolbox which allows them to simulate various custom or novel reactor types. After extensive testing using this tool and others, TerraPower believe they have arrived at a practical and feasible version of Feinberg’s breed-and-burn reactor; what they call the Travelling Wave Reactor (TWR).

TerraPower’s version of the breed-and-burn reactor type will breed the fissile plutonium fuel it needs right before it burns it. To do this, it will utilise an overhead crane system that will maintain a reaction within a ringed portion of the core by moving pins into and out of the reaction zone. Electricity will be generated by using a looping stream of liquid sodium to absorb the heat from the reaction. The stream of heated sodium will then leave the reactor core and be used to boil water which will drive a steam turbine.
A visualisation of a future Travelling Wave Reactor plant.
(A visualisation of a future Travelling Wave Reactor plant. Image via TerraPower).

It is claimed that the TWR will generate less waste than traditional reactor types. TerraPower claims that because the TWR burns its fuel more efficiently, a 1,200MW reactor will only generate 5 metric megatons of waste per gigawatt-year, whereas a typical reactor of today’s standard designs will produce 21 metric megatons per gigawatt-year.

The reactor’s creators believe that such a reactor could operate for as much as 50 years without interference. To put such claims to the test, TerraPower plans to break ground on its first test TWR reactor next year in China, with reactor becoming operational by the mid-2020s.

Industry analysts predict that should the pilot prove to be successful, it will take at least twenty years before the technology can be scaled and widely deployed.

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Recent Comments
A machine which powers itself? At last, a perpetual motion machine?! No. Nuclear material which is fuel for reactors is described as being fissile. There is only one natural source (occurring in significant quantities); the isotope number 235 of Uranium makes up 0.72% of natural uranium. The rest is mainly isotope 238. This isotope is described as being fertile. That is; in the right environment, uranium 238 is transmuted into plutonium 239, which is fissile - fuel for a reactor. There are two naturally occurring fertile isotopes, the other being thorium 232 (which is transmuted into uranium 233 which is fissile). Natural thorium is almost all 232, Th232, and thorium is 4 to 6 times as abundant as uranium. To date, humanity has relied (almost entirely) on uranium 235 as fuel for it's reactors (depending on the reactor design. varying - but small - amounts of plutonium is created when a mixture of U235 and U238 is loaded into one of today's reactors). For the most part, thorium has been ignored - but that's changing. It's high time humanity fueled its reactors with the fertile material. There are huge advantages. In the first place, this material is essentially unlimited. It wont run out. In the second place, the "waste" from current reactors is mainly fertile material. The "fuel" for today's reactors is obtained from natural uranium - a mixture of U235 and U238. (For moste reactors, U238 must be removed to increase the percentage of U235.) Most of the U238 put into the reactor comes out again. Unused. "Wasted". Then there's the U238 taken out to make the material to put into reactors. It's called "depleted" uranium - obviously because the "useful" part, U235, is absent. The word "wasted" arises for the second time. U238 and Th232 are like firewood. U235 is the firelighter. These three naturally occurring isotopes need to be exploited to the full.
John Randall, 23 June 2018
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Introducing the nuclear reactor that creates its own fuel - Time to read 3 min
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