Nuclear power is one of the safest methods of power generation, in theory. In the real world it however looks different, especially when the structures aren’t maintained or natural disasters hit, or both at once like in Japan. A more immediate problem is the waste generated by these power reactors and the thousands of years it takes to break down and stop being hazardous.
As it is now we bury our nuclear waste under ground, in mountains and deep under the sea, which isn’t very smart. This isn’t a solution that is bearable in the long run, in any way. On a personal level I’d really like to see them all shut down once and for all. We also hear one report after another about leaks in the storage facilities and radioactive material leaking into our water and and food supplies.
To make this situation a bit more manageable, Hitachi, in partnership with MIT, the University of Michigan, and the University of California, Berkeley, is working on new reactor designs that use transuranic nuclear waste for fuel; leaving behind only short-lived radioactive elements.
Most people believe radioactive waste to be some green glowing goo, but that is far from reality. The real problem isn’t the “hot” stuff as that will burn out in a matter of minutes, or even seconds. It’s the mildly radioactive elements with an atomic number greater than 92. These elements, such as plutonium, have half lives measured in tens of thousands or even millions of years. That makes storing them a very long-term problem, and is a particular difficulty in countries like the United States that don’t recycle transuranium elements by fuel reprocessing or fast-breeder reactors.
What Hitachi and its partners are trying to do is to find ways to design next-generation reactors that can use the low-level transuranium elements as fuel, only leaving the high-level elements to quickly (relatively speaking) burn themselves out in no more than a century or so. The idea in itself isn’t new and some modular nuclear reactors already use nuclear waste as fuel. But what sets Hitachi apart is that it’s looking into designs based on current boiling-water reactors that are known as Resource-renewable Boiling Water Reactors (RBWR) and are being developed by Hitachi and Hitachi GE Nuclear Energy Ltd.
The idea is to develop a new fuel element design using refined nuclear waste products along with uranium that can be installed in a standard boiling water reactor. This would not only make such reactors more economical to build, but would also use decades of safety and operations experience to achieve efficient nuclear fission in transuranium elements. Hitachi says that it’s already carried out joint research with its partners starting in 2007 and is now concentrating on the next phase, which deals with more accurate analysis methods, as well as reactor safety and performance, with an eye toward practical application of what’s been learned.
Thank you Hitachi for providing us with this information
Images courtesy of Hitachi.