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U.S. energy secretary: Use nuclear reactors for clean industrial heat

Posting in Energy
IRVINE, CALIF. - Regular readers will have seen this from me before: Alternative nuclear reactors that safely operate at much higher temperatures than today's models could provide heat to drive intense industrial processes such as steel and cement making and the production of oil, petrochemicals and even hydrogen. 

These reactors, typically small in size and often referred to as “advanced nuclear reactors” or “fourth generation,” could thus replace the polluting and CO2-emitting fossil fuel furnaces that today blast those red hot operations.They would be emissions free, as nuclear is in general. The reactor types include "molten salt," "pebble bed," and others. 

Now, another voice has strongly endorsed the notion of nuclear heat: U.S. Energy secretary Ernest Moniz. He backed the idea while speaking via video link to a high level nuclear power and medicine conference which I attended here earlier this month. 

“Small modular reactors, especially high temperature ones, may have a particular role there essentially as heat sources,” Moniz told delegates at the Future of Advanced Nuclear Technologies gathering organized by the National Academy of Sciences and the Keck Futures Initiative. He outlined a number of possible applications, including “process heat, water desalination, hydrogen production, petroleum production and refining.” (Water desalination has attracted attention by potential users in parched areas like the Middle East). 

As I noted when I first reported on Moniz's remarks on my Weinberg blog, the U.S. lags behind China and possibly other countries in developing these reactors, which are designed to operate at between 600 degrees C and 900 degrees C, considerably higher than the reactor types that have defined the nuclear landscape for half a century. 

 They also leave less nuclear waste, make it more difficult to fashion weapons from the waste, and offer superior safety features including operating at normal pressure rather than in potentially explosive pressurized environments. 

At higher temperatures, the reactors generate electricity – nuclear power's traditional role – much more efficiently than do conventional reactors. 

With so many advantages to offer, I asked Moniz what the Department of Energy might do to ratchet up the U.S. commitment and match countries like China. 

“I can’t say too much specifically,” he replied. “But let’s just say we are trying to marshall some resources to increase our focus in that area.” 

When I pressed for more information, Moniz repeated himself, noting, tongue-in-cheek, “We are trying to marshall some resources.” 

As a proponent of these alternative reactors, I look forward to meeting Marshall. 

Cover thumbnail photo by Lynn Freeny, U.S. Government, via Flickr 

Recent alternative nuclear stories on SmartPlanet:

— By on November 27, 2013, 5:19 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