The House voted yesterday to restore funding to Nevada’s Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage facility, the latest chapter in the decades-long debate over how to dispose of used fuel rods. But a couple of grad students at MIT may have a viable solution to getting rid of nuclear waste.
They started out by quantifying the magnitude of the problem:
- The U.S. produces 2,000 metric tons of nuclear waste annually.
- There’s something of an experience gap in the industry, caused by plummeting interest that occurred in the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl era.
- A mere 3 per cent of a fuel rod’s potential energy gets used — leaving 97 per cent as waste.
- Fuel rods can only stay within a reactor for an average of four years.
The WAMSR plants would knock out all three birds with a single blast.
Here’s how the surprisingly simple technology would work:
First, the WAMSR takes the “spent” fuel rods (which, again, are actually far from spent), strip out the unused uranium, and dissolve it in molten salt:
The molten salt serves as the agent for conducting the heat generated from a typical fission reaction.
For nearly all other operational nuclear reactors, a basic water compound is used in this process, which is far less efficient.
Here’s how the whole operation would look:
The molten salt reactor concept has actually been around since at least the 1950s, which the MIT crew admits.
What’s new is the idea of using nuclear “waste” to power the plant.
The process, they say, reduces the original waste volume by up to 98 per cent.
And the reactor reduces most of the waste’s radioactive lifetime to hundreds of years, thereby decreasing the need for permanent repositories such as Yucca Mountain.
The entire reactor would be far more compact, too.
In an email, Russ Wilcox, the CEO of the firm founded to develop the technology, said they are designing a reactor to be modular and rail-shippable, with a fast construction time.
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