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China Power Science

Bill Gates To Help China Build Traveling Wave Nuclear Reactor 467

Posted by samzenpus
from the power-to-a-billion-people dept.
First time accepted submitter BabaChazz writes "Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates says he is in discussions with China to jointly develop a new kind of nuclear reactor. During a talk at China's Ministry of Science & Technology Wednesday, the billionaire said: 'The idea is to be very low cost, very safe and generate very little waste.' Gates backs Washington-based TerraPower, which is developing a nuclear reactor that can run on depleted uranium."
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Bill Gates To Help China Build Traveling Wave Nuclear Reactor

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  • by ColdWetDog (752185) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @02:12AM (#38300042) Homepage

    China is one of the largest CO2 polluters in the world. Traveling wave reactors are known to be incredibly clean and safe. If you give the Chinese abundant safe and clean energy, this is going to really help the global warming problem.

     

    Traveling wave reactors aren't known to be anything. No one has built one.

    Don't count your little Godzillas until they've hatched.

  • Re:Too bad (Score:4, Informative)

    by exomondo (1725132) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @02:28AM (#38300102)

    Ill-rational? Oh dear. Leave science ( and written communication ) to those capable of said tasks.

    Substitute 'Irrational' - which you've clearly already resolved anyway - and it's fine.

    There is nothing irrational about being against the most dangerous, polluting and expensive method of boiling water ever conceived.

    FTFA:
    the billionaire said: 'The idea is to be very low cost, very safe and generate very little waste.'

  • by stooo (2202012) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @03:16AM (#38300286)

    >> There is no problem with Thorium

    Wrong. There are many, many problems with thorium.
    To begin with, this substance is more chemically and radiologically toxic than Pu. So having it molten 24/365 inside corroding tubes is pure suicide for a whole land.

  • by unkiereamus (1061340) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @03:24AM (#38300302)

    China's government got the brilliant idea that overpopulation would be a great economic boon.

    I'm sorry, what?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One-child_policy [wikipedia.org]

    [Citation needed]

  • by Beryllium Sphere(tm) (193358) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @04:03AM (#38300456) Homepage Journal

    Plutonium production for weapons is better done in a special-purpose reactor than in a power plant. Power plants need to keep fuel in place for long periods for economic reasons, which eventually produces plutonium isotopes that are undesirable for bombs.

    In fact, I can't think of a single example of someone building a bomb with plutonium from a power plant.

  • Re:Too bad (Score:5, Informative)

    by Patch86 (1465427) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @04:06AM (#38300464)

    There's lots of figures out there, but this article (from some anonymous blog, so buyer beware) was particularly interesting:
    http://nextbigfuture.com/2008/03/deaths-per-twh-for-all-energy-sources.html [nextbigfuture.com]

  • Re:Too bad (Score:4, Informative)

    by Chrontius (654879) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @04:48AM (#38300600)
    Point of this particular design, is that you don't have to enrich its fuel.

    And you can feed it dangerous, long-lived "waste" which will be magically transmuted to fuel, then turned into dangerous, short-lived waste
  • Re:Too bad (Score:5, Informative)

    by inasity_rules (1110095) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @04:48AM (#38300602) Journal

    Unless you were as thick as two short planks(and many sadly are), you would never ever ever ever run a nuclear plant on windows. Or even linux. Or even siemens hardware in general. You would use a robust PLC from someone like Omron and some dedicated HMIs to backup your SCADA, which will sadly run windows. The PLC program should be properly interlocked and fail safe. The plant runs on the PLC not the SCADA.

  • by wvmarle (1070040) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @05:01AM (#38300644)

    The design appears safe, but the same accounts for the pebble bed reactor. The trial reactor built in Germany left them with very serious radioactive pollution.

    The idea of a TWR is seriously interesting of course, as it uses so much of the fuel, and leaves relatively little waste. And I think it definitely warrants more research. I understand that small-scale experiments have been done with this tech, so it seems time to try to scale it up a bit. If successful it could go a long way in solving our energy problems.

    I am a strong believer in nuclear technology, but the main issue I have with it is the waste, which is so hard to handle and at the moment is basically useless, as in we don't have a way to continue using it.

    Actually about the waste issue: the spent rods are known to produce a lot of heat, and need active cooling. That's at least part of the problem faced in Japan. Can't all that energy be used, one way or another?

  • by a_hanso (1891616) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @05:34AM (#38300796) Journal
    See technology review article [technologyreview.com]. They are "only discussions". There is no partnership and no plans to build anything. Yet. Plus the type of reactor mentioned is still just a design [technologyreview.com].

    In the new design, the reactions all take place near the reactor's center instead of starting at one end and moving to the other. To start, uranium 235 fuel rods are arranged in the center of the reactor. Surrounding these rods are ones made up of uranium 238. As the nuclear reactions proceed, the uranium 238 rods closest to the core are the first to be converted into plutonium, which is then used up in fission reactions that produce yet more plutonium in nearby fuel rods. As the innermost fuel rods are used up, they're taken out of the center using a remote-controlled mechanical device and moved to the periphery of the reactor. The remaining uranium 238 rods—including those that were close enough to the center that some of the uranium has been converted to plutonium—are then shuffled toward the center to take the place of the spent fuel.

    Currently there is no known material that could be used to encase the fuel rods in -- they need to survive radiation exposure for decades without expanding.

  • by thegarbz (1787294) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @05:39AM (#38300818)

    Partially false. It's true that using a nuclear reactor to create weapons grade plutonium is not the most economic way to do it, but you're ignoring the other niceties such as the power they generate when they are not being used to create it.

    The fact is any type of reactor where the fuel is easily removable can and HAS been used to create weapons grade plutonium. The only difference between weapons grade plutonium and the left over crap when the reactor runs out of fuel is the length the fuel has been in place inside the reactor. Most heavy water reactors and breeder reactors make it trivial to swap out the fuel at any point including the critical period where weapons grade plutonium is being made.

    This is the reason why the world is taking such interest in Tehran's heavy water reactors.

    And there were Specific [wikipedia.org] reactors [wikipedia.org] designed to create weapons grade plutonium by making extra easy to swap out fuel online, the most famous being Sellafield [wikipedia.org]. Some of these designs are still in service [wikipedia.org], though I'm unsure if those specific plants were ever used for production of weapons grade plutonium.

  • Re:Too bad (Score:5, Informative)

    by BlueParrot (965239) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @06:05AM (#38300918)

    Unless you were as thick as two short planks(and many sadly are), you would never ever ever ever run a nuclear plant on windows. Or even linux. Or even siemens hardware in general. You would use a robust PLC from someone like Omron and some dedicated HMIs to backup your SCADA, which will sadly run windows. The PLC program should be properly interlocked and fail safe. The plant runs on the PLC not the SCADA.

    There are many different systems at a huge power plant. Some of them are more critical than others.

    Hence for something like the control-rods or other safety shut-down mechanisms, yea you probably want them to work even without computers. Heck, many modern plants suspend the control rods from electromagnets, meaning they will drop into the core if the power is cut.

    On the other hand, the computers you use to e-mail the kitchen staff, to tell them you're out of plastic cups in the cafeteria, can probably be run on any old desktop OS.

  • by BlueParrot (965239) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @06:33AM (#38301024)

    Thorium itself is not a nuclear fuel, it's what is called a fertile material. When bombarded with neutrons it produces Uranium-233 , which is an excellent nuclear fuel, and most certainly usable in a nuclear weapon. The process is very similar to how Plutonium-239 can be made by bombarding Uranium-238 with neutrons.

    The main reason people don't use Thorium and U-233 for making bombs is that the U-233 tends to become contaminated with highly radioactive isotopes, making it difficult to handle. In principle you can avoid this by using a more elaborate irradiation and separation technique, but it's just easier to use Uranium-bred Plutonium instead.

    To summarise:
    Thorium-232 and Uranium-238 are not on their own useful for nuclear fuel or weapons. However, they can be turned into fissile material by bombarding them with neutrons.

    In this way Th-232 can be turned into U-233
    Whereas U-238 can be turned into Pu-239.

    Both U-233 and Pu-239 can be used for weapons, but it is easier to keep the radioactivity of the Pu-239 low.
    Hence it is easier ( and cheaper ), to use Uranium fuelled reactors to make a bomb than to use Thorium.

  • by BlueParrot (965239) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @06:51AM (#38301122)

    The travelling wave reactor concept appears to be basically a sodium cooled reactor that has a lot of extra U-238 , allowing it to go very long without refuelling as the enriched portion of the core "travels" along the U-238 ( this image explains the concept: http://evworld.com/press/IV_twr_concept.jpg [evworld.com] ).

    I have to say I am sceptical. The main economic issue with sodium cooled fast breeders is that they are very capital intensive due to the challenges of handling flammable sodium. Thus trading even more capital investment ( in the form of a larger core ) for less frequent refuelling seems like a bad idea. Furthermore, any design that is to see widespread deployment should make use of economics of scale. Fuel fabrication, reprocessing and so on can be centralised, with a few facilities potentially serving many reactors, or even multiple nations. It thus makes little sense to move capital costs towards the power plant and reactor, away from facilities that can be centralised. This is why I doubt all the talk about "Integral" facilities or on-line reprocessing ( as suggested for molten salt reactors ).

    It's not very hard to build a breeder with a 2-3 year core lifetime anyway, and you probably don't want to run it much longer than that without shutting it down for servicing, repairs, inspection and so on.

    Don't get me wrong. It's a cool idea technologically. I just don't think it will be economically competitive with other Gen-IV designs. The focus for breeders today should be on reducing capital up-front investment, improved safety and reliability. No utility is going to invest billions up-front in an experimental design that is unlikely to be economically competitive with other alternatives.

  • Re:Too bad (Score:3, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 08, 2011 @08:11AM (#38301506)

    Fukushima:
    1. had its operating license extended to 2021 5 weeks before [wsj.com].
    2. had ignored earthquake warnings [bloomberg.com].
    3. had ignored historical precedent and repeated warnings [bloomberg.com] of the risk of tsunamis.

    It was and extremely avoidable sequence of events that the reactors should have been designed to withstand.

    During the incident, the poor operators on the ground did the best they could, while their bosses ordered them not to [asahi.com].

  • Re:Too bad (Score:3, Informative)

    by Magada (741361) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @08:15AM (#38301526) Journal

    Your post is a collection of lies.

    Fukushima Dai-ichi unit 1 was granted a 10 year license extension just prior to the incident
    http://www.bellona.org/articles/articles_2011/fukushima_reactorext [bellona.org]
    The earthquake did not damage the plant
    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-12-02/tepco-says-earthquake-didn-t-damage-critical-units-at-fukushima-reactor.html [bloomberg.com]
    Fuel rods were not removed, they could not have been. They are still in there, molten down.
    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-05-24/tepco-confirms-meltdown-of-no-2-3-reactors-at-fukushima-1-.html [bloomberg.com]
    The tsunami was not unprecedented, bigger tsunami wave run-ups have occurred on Japan's eastern seaboard in the past 100 years.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1933_Sanriku_earthquake [wikipedia.org]
    During the incident, the people at the plant did not work selflessly and continually to help prevent the incident from escalating further, but rather evacuated on multiple occasions.
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/latest-nuclear-plant-explosion-in-japan-raises-radiation-fears/2011/03/15/ABwTmha_story.html?wpisrc=nl_natlalert [washingtonpost.com]

  • Re:Too bad (Score:5, Informative)

    by Creepy (93888) on Thursday December 08, 2011 @12:58PM (#38304456) Journal

    The design Bill Gates is proposing isn't inherently safe - it is similar to IFRs (Integral Fast Reactors) that use liquid sodium as a coolant. Liquid sodium is highly flammable when exposed to the atmosphere, and one prototype IFR reactor in Japan was shut down indefinitely due to such a leak.

      Incidentally, IFRs fully burn their fuel, TWRs don't and leave some trans-uranics like another reactor variant called LFTR (liquid fluoride thorium reactor) which is self-cooled by molten salt and doesn't need another coolant, making it inherently safer. The main advantage of TWR over IFR is that it is bigger and designed to recycle its fuel and run for an extended period. One advantage of TWRs is that they can burn any actinide fuel (thorium up), including non-fissile U238, which is probably why they are favored over LFTRs - Thorium, while 4x more abundant than Uranium, is also 5000x as expensive right now because there is no market for it (incidentally, LFTRs can also be fueled by U235 and I've heard they can burn nuclear waste, but I guess that would make them LFURs...). In any case, IFRs and TWRs, unlike LFTRs, still run a risk of meltdown, so I wouldn't call them safe.

    Incidentally the US nuclear regulatory commission (NRC) seems to be the stick in the cog blocking the development of IFRs and LFTRs - they both need reprocessing facilities and they fear creating a reprocessing facility on US soil will create a so-called "plutonium economy" and risk proliferation, even if the facility was built next to the plant and the materials never leave. When John Kerry (for the most part) forced the shutdown of the IFR, proliferation was the key reason, and the reality is the plutonium in the IFR would never be purified or need to leave the plant (sometimes I just want to take a baseball bat to some Senator's heads, and no, I don't pick them by party). By making a long burning IFR, they are working around the regulatory loophole holding up a potential implementation, but they still have to build the test reactors elsewhere because the NRC makes it nearly impossible (and thus China's involvement).

    Between pro-business Republicans in the back pockets of the power industry that want no other reactors other than Light Water Reactors (because fuel enrichment is extremely profitable, especially when you sell the service to yourself and pass the cost on to consumers) and uninformed anti-nuclear Democrats that oppose nuclear energy entirely without even listening to any arguments for it, politically it is a dead end to try and get any design built in the US.

[Crash programs] fail because they are based on the theory that, with nine women pregnant, you can get a baby a month. -- Wernher von Braun

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