The world’s current generation of nuclear reactors are aging, and as countries like the U.S. and France balefully eye the massive new price tags sure to come with the maintenance of these older facilities and the installation of newer projects, a swathe of exciting new technologies promises to remake the industry. The FT reports:
Nuclear energy has received much more government funding over the years than other low-carbon sources but, [Bill Gates] says, it is still “failing on cost, safety, proliferation, waste and fuel shortage”. His favoured technology for the future, in which he has invested heavily, is the traveling wave reactor.
The TWR is a “fast reactor” loaded with depleted nuclear waste at the beginning of its life which then breeds and burns its own fuel over a period of decades. “The big advantage of the TWR is that you have a lifetime of fuel within the reactor,” says Paul Howarth, managing director of Britain’s National Nuclear Laboratory. “But it would be a big and expensive reactor.”
[A] prototype fusion reactor being shown in London next week is a miniature version of the doughnut-shaped “tokamak” design adopted for the ITER fusion megaproject in France, whose costs are rising towards $20bn. “Compact fusion power is no longer just a pipe dream,” says David Kingham, Tokamak chief executive. “We are aiming for that ‘Wright Brothers’ moment of take-off for fusion energy within 10 years.”
The next generation of nuclear reactors have myriad advantages over the world’s current fleet, on issues like safety, nuclear weapon proliferation, fuel, waste disposal, and—with modular prototypes already in the works—adaptability. There’s no shortage of developments in the nuclear industry to get excited about.
Bill Gates sees the potential this energy source has for a greener future, and while the self-styled eco-leader Germany has moved backwards on this front by shuttering its nuclear fleet in reaction to Fukushima, the environmental movement seems to slowly be coming around to nuclear’s advantages. Chief among those advantages: the fact that these reactors are effectively zero-emission baseload power sources, a crucial component of any future green energy mix.
The nuclear industry understandably moves slow—the capital investments for new plants are so huge, the potential risks of meltdown so serious, and the resultant regulations so extensive that we shouldn’t expect these newer technologies to disrupt the status quo with the same alacrity that a smart start-up in today’s information economy might. Still, there’s no denying: there’s a lot to look forward to for nuclear power.