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Alternative nuclear energy race heats up as Canadian company enters

Posting in Design

Back to the future. Terrestrial Energy's molten salt reactor draws on the MSR that Oak Ridge National Lab built over 40 years ago. Above, a welder puts the finishing touches on the 1960s model.

The pursuit of alternative nuclear power technologies that are safer, more efficient and less weapons prone than today's reactors is starting to look like a fledgling industry, as yet another company has joined the race.

Canadian startup Terrestrial Energy Inc. is developing a liquid fuel reactor that it hopes to commercialize by 2021. The reactor circulates molten salts that serve both as the fuel and as the coolant (in nuclear reactors coolants absorb heat from reactions and transfer that heat to drive a turbine).

Ottawa-based Terrestrial, founded late last year, is the latest company to announce plans for a molten salt reactor (MSR). Other groups known to be developing them include Transatomic Power and Flibe Energy in the U.S., Thorium Tech Solution in Japan, and the Chinese government, which is also collaborating with the U.S. Department of Energy and Westinghouse on a molten salt cooled reactor that uses solid fuel.

The MSRs all derive from work at DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the 1960s, where director Alvin Weinberg built an MSR that President Richard Nixon eventually scotched in favor of solid fuel reactors that left plutonium - desirable for bombs during the Cold War (and also for a type of planned plutonium-powered reactor that did not work out).

MSRs run at higher temperatures than do today's solid fuel, water-cooled reactors, which makes the power cycle more efficient. Developers say they are safer because they operate at normal atmospheric pressure rather than the high pressure of conventional reactors, and because they cannot melt down. In the event of a problem the liquid fuel drains safely into a tank. MSRs also leave less long-lived waste than do conventional reactors.

Terrestrial's IMSR ( "I" for integral) is designed to run on uranium or thorium - either fuel would mix into the molten salt. Terrestrial co-founder David LeBlanc says the company will focus initially on uranium and on small models that offer the myriad benefits of "modular" reactors.

Potential customers include Canadian oil sands companies that would use a small IMSR as a clean heat source.

You can read more about Terrestrial on my Weinberg blog.

Photo from Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Note: An earlier version of this story said that the IMSR runs on uranium that is less enriched than the uranium used in conventional reactors. That is not true. IMSR would run on "low enriched uranium", the same as conventional reactors. Corrected at around 10:50 a.m. PDT April 23.

Recent alternative nuclear stirrings on SmartPlanet:

You can find a rich archive of alternative nuclear stories here, including thorium, molten salt, pebble beds, fast reactors, modular reactors, fusion and more.

— By on April 22, 2013, 9:55 PM PST

Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure