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Nuclear heat is on in Norway

Posting in Design

Good on paper. The Halden test reactor (above) provides steam to Norske Skog's neighboring paper mill.

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Nuclear reactors generate electricity. Everyone knows that. The general idea is simple: Start a chain reaction that creates a lot of heat and capture the heat to drive a turbine and make electricity, just as with coal- and gas-fired power plants,

But aren't there other uses for heat? Don't industries like steel, cement, petrochemicals, oil and many others require high temperature processes that manufacturers feed with C02-spewing fossil fuels? Wouldn't it make sense to use small reactors instead, and thereby shrivel the leviathan carbon footprint left by those mighty mills that are stamping out goods and materials without which modern society cannot live?

Yes it would. And one country - Norway - is showing the way.

Its small test reactor in the town of Halden is furnishing steam to a nearby paper mill, according to the "Material Testing Reactors" website published by France's Energy and Alternative Energies Commission (CEA).  Wikipedia identifies the user as the Saugbrugs paper mill, operated by Norske Skog Corp.

Halden by night. That's not a nuclear glow. Just the lit up fortress.

The Halden test reactor is jointly operated by the 34-nation Paris-based Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Countries like France and others use it to investigate new nuclear possibilities (it is the site of  thorium trials set to start next month in which privately held Thor Energy will run thorium as a potentially superior replacement for uranium fuel).

Those countries will be keeping an eye on the steamy business at the paper mill, which is potentially just a warm-up act, so to speak, to much higher temperature processes that alternative nuclear designs could provide.

The Halden reactor is essentially a small, conventional reactor that runs at about 240 degrees C - hot enough for steam, but not toasty enough for searing industrial processes, the World Nuclear Association explains.

But alternative designs like liquid molten salt reactors and pebble bed reactors operate at significantly higher temperatures, in some cases, around 700 degrees C. One design that uses lead bismuth as a coolant (coolants such as water in conventional reactors absorb heat from reactions and transfer that heat to the turbine) can exceed well over 1,000 degrees C.

Build these in compact versions that can easily fit into factories, and you're looking at a carbon light industrial future. Halden is taking one small step in that direction.

Photos: Reactor from Institute for Energy Technology (IFE) via Wikimedia. Halden at night from Bård Halvorsen First, via Wikimedia.

More hot and alternative nuclear, on SmartPlanet:

— By on December 20, 2012, 8:32 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