Skip to main content

To Jupiter and Beyond with Nuclear Energy

Sometimes, irony abounds:

When it comes to space travel, plutonium-238 is the perfect fuel: long-lasting and, as I'll explain later, relatively safe. Without it, we have no hope of going much further than Mars, after which it simply becomes too dark to rely on solar panels, the most common alternative power source in space. But the world is rapidly running out of plutonium-238.

Where’s the irony? Plutonium-238 is a byproduct of producing plutonium-239, which was used in nuclear weaponry. With the end of the cold war, and the dismantling of much of the nuclear arsenal, there’s no call for plutonium-239. It a case of undoubted progress blocking further progress.

Happily, that’s not the end of the story. The government is looking into another way of making plutonium-238. Sarah Zhang at Gizmodo explains the process:

The production plan, for now, involves hopping between no fewer than three DOE labs all over the country.

  • Idaho National Laboratory: The precursor material, neptunium-237, is extracted from nuclear reactor fuel.
  • Oak Ridge in Tennessee: A reactor irradiates neptunium-237 to make plutonium-238. The plutonium-238 and any remaining neptunium-237 are extracted to be used as fuel and recycled, respectively.
  • Los Alamos in New Mexico: Plutonium-238 is pressed into pellets and stored.

This is rather pleasing – no plutonium-239, so no undue proliferation concerns, further work in nuclear technology, another step en route to dilithium crystals for future starship usage. Sometimes, progress just can’t be stopped. Good story.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Making Clouds for a Living

Donell Banks works at Southern Nuclear’s Plant Vogtle units 3 and 4 as a shift supervisor in Operations, but is in the process of transitioning to his newly appointed role as the daily work controls manager. He has been in the nuclear energy industry for about 11 years.

I love what I do because I have the unique opportunity to help shape the direction and influence the culture for the future of nuclear power in the United States. Every single day presents a new challenge, but I wouldn't have it any other way. As a shift supervisor, I was primarily responsible for managing the development of procedures and programs to support operation of the first new nuclear units in the United States in more than 30 years. As the daily work controls manager, I will be responsible for oversight of the execution and scheduling of daily work to ensure organizational readiness to operate the new units.

I envision a nuclear energy industry that leverages the technology of today to improve efficiency…

Why America Needs the MOX Facility

If Isaiah had been a nuclear engineer, he’d have loved this project. And the Trump Administration should too, despite the proposal to eliminate it in the FY 2018 budget.

The project is a massive factory near Aiken, S.C., that will take plutonium from the government’s arsenal and turn it into fuel for civilian power reactors. The plutonium, made by the United States during the Cold War in a competition with the Soviet Union, is now surplus, and the United States and the Russian Federation jointly agreed to reduce their stocks, to reduce the chance of its use in weapons. Over two thousand construction workers, technicians and engineers are at work to enable the transformation.

Carrying Isaiah’s “swords into plowshares” vision into the nuclear field did not originate with plutonium. In 1993, the United States and Russia began a 20-year program to take weapons-grade uranium out of the Russian inventory, dilute it to levels appropriate for civilian power plants, and then use it to produce…

Nuclear: Energy for All Political Seasons

The electoral college will soon confirm a surprise election result, Donald Trump. However, in the electricity world, there are fewer surprises – physics and economics will continue to apply, and Republicans and Democrats are going to find a lot to like about nuclear energy over the next four years.

In a Trump administration, the carbon conversation is going to be less prominent. But the nuclear value proposition is still there. We bring steady jobs to rural areas, including in the Rust Belt, which put Donald Trump in office. Nuclear plants keep the surrounding communities vibrant.

We hold down electricity costs for the whole economy. We provide energy diversity, reducing the risk of disruption. We are a critical part of America’s industrial infrastructure, and the importance of infrastructure is something that President-Elect Trump has stressed.

One of our infrastructure challenges is natural gas pipelines, which have gotten more congested as extremely low gas prices have pulled m…