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Could Ukraine crisis spur new forms of nuclear energy?

Posting in Energy
 
Alvin Weinberg 6000 hours ORNL Wiki.jpg
A classic novel: Most "novel" forms of nuclear power are not new. Above, Alvin Weinberg notes 6,000 hours of operations of his molten salt reactor at Oak Ridge, Tennessee in 1967. His liquid reactor lost to inferior solid fueled designs in part because his technology made it much more difficult to gather plutonium waste, which the U.S. desired in the Cold War.
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Vladimir Putin's takeover of Crimea from Ukraine has prompted the European Union to try to slash its huge reliance on Russian natural gas, a move that could now include a ramp up of nuclear power.

"Western players in the nuclear industry are hoping the conflict between Ukraine and Russia could help push countries in Eastern Europe that rely on Russian gas to turn to atomic energy," Reuters reported from a nuclear industry conference in Paris. The news agency wrote:

"I think it is wise for eastern Europe to be evaluating nuclear, because it forces them to be less dependent on external forces, external politics," Donald Hoffman, president of the American Nuclear Society (ANS), told Reuters on the sidelines of the SFEN nuclear industry conference in Paris.

Reuters added:

"It (nuclear power) can bring rethinking in terms of energy independence," said Christophe Behar, director of the French nuclear research centre CEA's nuclear energy division.

Nuclear power would not only reduce the need for Russian gas, but it would also help cut Europe's CO2 footprint, as nuclear generation is free of carbon emissions. 

But even some nuclear industry officials in the Reuters story were skeptical that the Ukraine crisis could spur more nuclear energy. They noted that a lot of Europe's Russian gas provides heat, not electricity. And they pointed to the EU's push for renewables like wind and solar.

There is, however, a third way (and I'm not talking about the growing clamor to ship U.S. liquefied natural gas to Ukraine): Alternative nuclear reactor technologies that are safer, cheaper and more efficient than conventional reactors. These novel reactor types produce much less long lived waste, can burn nuclear "waste" as fuel and make it much more difficult to build bombs from the waste. 

They also operate safely at much higher temperatures, which makes them useful as a source of clean, CO2-free industrial heat for industries like cement, steel making, petrochemical (they can even help produce other clean fuel like hydrogen and methanol) and others that today rely on environmentally damaging fossil fuels as a heat source. U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz himself has advocated this.

These reactors have names like "molten salt," "pebble bed," and "prismatic block." They include "fast reactors," which the Russians themselves are developing as they step up domestic use of nuclear while emphasizing gas exports. In fact, the United States in September signed a cooperative agreement with Russia for fast reactor development

Breakthroughs in nuclear fusion - long considered the Holy Grail of energy -  are also in the mix, at a multitude of small, private companies around the world. These include Tri-Alpha Energy, an Irvine, Calif. company with funding from, among other sources, Russia.

Alternative nuclear could also include the use of thorium fuel instead of uranium. Thorium is far more plentiful, and when burned in the right reactor provides many advantages in efficiencies and waste reduction. China recently accelerated development of thorium-fueled molten salt reactor (MSR).

These superior, non-conforming reactor types are not new. Development goes back to the early days of nuclear power. The United States, for example, operated an experimental MSR in the 1960s at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, until President Richard Nixon shut it down, in part because the reactor would not provide plutonium - desirable in the height of the Cold War (okay, so we could be entering another Cold War era, but let's be broader minded than that).

But for these reactors to take hold, countries, industry and other investors will have to back them.  With Russia's march into Crimea re-exciting the world's "energy independence" call, now is the time for billionaires and mere mortal financiers to dig deep for alternative nuclear. Some, like Bill Gates and Amazon's Jeff Bezos, already have. The world needs more, and should get more.

After all, if a 29-year-old rich kid named Mark Zuckerberg can find $19 billion for a "chat app" company, couldn't he spare a billion or two for an energy source that could really help severe the fossil fuel cord? Especially when he and his data centers are going to need more and more clean electricity.

Photo is from Oak Ridge National Laboratory via Wikimedia

A starter kit of alternative nuclear stories. Follow their links for more, or click on archive below:

— By on March 28, 2014, 5:53 AM 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