Sometimes, it’s a good idea to take a step back from the news of the day and think more about the larger implications of a subject that interests us. For Nuclear Notes readers, that means nuclear energy.
And for me, that means the chance a reactivated industry gives a lot of really smart people to work on making nuclear energy technology the best it can be. It’s a chance for America to rebuild some of its technological edge and enhance our global competiveness.
One of the centers of excellence in nuclear engineering has traditionally been the University of California at Berkeley. It produced some of the greatest breakthroughs and some of the top scientists in the field: Glenn Seaborg, Ernest Lawrence, and his brother, John Lawrence, to name just a few.
Seaborg, in particular, has the kind of life story that makes you question what you’ve been doing with your time: a Nobel prize before he was 40; section head on the Manhattan project; advisor to presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Reagan; the discoverer of “countless” atomic isotopes and ten (ten!) elements, including plutonium and, yes, seaborgium. You know you’ve made it, when you get an element in the periodic table named after you.
In the light of this legacy, it was nice to read the lead story on the UC Berkeley engineering news site last week about “Rethinking Nuclear Power,” and the nuclear fission research being done today at the university. They interviewed Brian Wirth, an engineer at UC Berkeley, who had some interesting things to say about the restart of the domestic nuclear energy industry.
“The 104 nuclear plants now in operation represent the largest source of carbon-free electricity in the country,” says Wirth, associate professor of nuclear engineering. “The nuclear pendulum is swinging back, but we have to work really hard because, in some cases, we’ve let the technology go dormant.”
One of the things that first struck me when I joined the nuclear industry was the public perception—which I shared at the time—that nuclear technology is stagnant or, at least, moves very slowly. And while new generations of reactors may not keep pace with new iterations of your iPod, Blackberry or Web browser—reactor technology is by no means stagnant. Right now most operating reactors worldwide are Gen II. The new reactors being currently deployed, like AREVA’s EPR and Westinghouse’s AP1000, are Gen III+. Gen IV is a bit further down the road with commercial introduction “between 2015 and 2030 or beyond,” according to the Generation IV International Forum.
When they approach a new generation of reactors, nuclear scientists, like all good scientists, think about ways to improve them. That means working to find ways to increase fuel efficiency (in this case, uranium), reduce waste (used nuclear fuel), conserve water and reduce the overall environmental impact of the technology—just like other researchers do with fossil fuels, biofuels and other renewables. Wirth discusses some of these future directions in Gen IV research:
“As opposed to the light-water design used in existing fission reactors, many of the proposed fourth-generation nuclear reactors will use a closed fuel cycle, which some say could increase uranium efficiency from a few percentage points to in excess of 90 percent, essentially destroying more radioactive waste than it produces.”
Earlier, DOE Secretary Steven Chu, former professor of physics at Berkeley, hinted at wringing greater fuel efficiency out of uranium in an interview with the WSJ:
“We are also accelerating our R&D efforts into other innovative reactor technologies. This includes … advanced reactor designs that will harness much more of the energy from uranium.”
In addition to Wirth, Per Peterson, Berkeley professor of nuclear physics and recent appointee to the blue ribbon commission, has been deeply involved in nuclear fission research at Berkeley. On the Berkeley nuclear physics department’s home page, Peterson talks about Gen IV’s potential for providing clean transportation fuels and drinking water.
“Work is underway to develop advanced fuel cycle and Generation IV reactor technologies that can consume nuclear wastes while providing economic and secure supplies of electricity, low-carbon transportation fuels, and desalinated water.”
Gen IV is still decades away, but it’s good to know that until then Berkeley, and other nuclear physicists at our national labs and universities across the country, will be taking up the work of driving this technology forward and working to make nuclear energy safer, cleaner and more efficient than ever. America, and the world, stand to benefit.
One way to get a parking space on campus at Berkeley? Win the Nobel Prize. Seriously.