Let a Thousand Reactors Bloom
Explosive growth has made the People's Republic of China the most power-hungry nation on Earth. Get ready for the mass-produced, meltdown-proof future of nuclear energy. By Spencer Reiss from Wired magazine.
...Instead of the white-hot fuel rods that fire the heart of a conventional reactor, HTR-10 is powered by 27,000 billiards-sized graphite balls packed with tiny flecks of uranium. Instead of superhot water - intensely corrosive and highly radioactive - the core is bathed in inert helium. The gas can reach much higher temperatures without bursting pipes, which means a third more energy pushing the turbine. No water means no nasty steam, and no billion-dollar pressure dome to contain it in the event of a leak...
...Suppose a coolant pipe blows, a pressure valve sticks, terrorists knock the top off the reactor vessel, an operator goes postal and yanks the control rods that regulate the nuclear chain reaction - no radioactive nightmare. This reactor is meltdown-proof...
[Via Wired News]
This brought back some memories. I was on the USNA debate team from 1988 - 1990 (mostly to skip out of marching and hang around normal college kids at debate tournaments). The 1990 topic was "That the federal government should adopt an energy policy that substantially reduces nonmilitary consumption of fossil fuels in the United States."
I put together a case for Modular High Temperature Gas Cooled Reactors (MHTGR). It seemed like a good idea at the time - these things are designed at the fundamental level so they can't melt down. That means that if all the pipes in the plant were stolen by pipe burglars and the crew were mesmerized by Bejeweled, the plant could not melt down. Teams of terrorists could take turns flying jetliners into them and they would not melt down. They just can't.
And yet, we couldn't win debates with that case. The debate judges just didn't buy it. We had much better luck with a case that mandated the US government seize all farmland and force farmers to grow cassava roots which would be turned into Gasahol. Seriously. I still have a two foot tall trophy from that stupid case. Why is it so hard to believe that there's such thing as safe nuclear power?
Granted, nuclear engineering is not a simple subject. I had a tough time in Navy Nuclear Power School, and that's after graduating from a good engineering school with a Physics major. So I understand when we as a society take a Cliff's Notes approach to the world and say Nuclear Bad, Bread Good.
But I stand by my 1990 reasoning - this MHTGR thing is a cool idea. Instead of a big reactor that wants to melt if you'll just let it, the MHTGR concept uses a bed of coated uranium beads (or larger pellets composed of the beads, in the Pebble Bed Reactor concept). The beads are designed so that if they lose their coolant and start to heat up, they expand enough that the nuclear reaction stops. It's a geometry based solution, rather than a system depending on backup systems and emergency pumps. You have to keep it cool for it to run, so it's always either cooled or shut down.
Also, it's cooled by helium, which is an inert gas. You can heat it up like crazy and it won't burn, corrode the metal components, etc. You could release it to the atmosphere and it won't react with other chemicals.
The M in MHTGR stands for Modular. That means that you have a group to these things, and you can take any of them offline for maintenance. Now, just because it's safe from meltdown doesn't mean that you can't get burned by hot helium escaping from a pipe leak, or that the plant could have troubles that keep it offline. The Fort St. Vrain Power Station (built in 1965) was the US's only HTGR, and while it never had any Nuclear safety problems, it was plagued by engineering difficulties. That kind of thing's a risk at any power plant, though. My point is that the design is safe, which puts it on equal footing with coal and oil power plants.
Except that coal and oil power plants aren't safe. They pump out air polution, cause acid rain, etc. They imbalance geopolitics through reliance on foreign oil. Other alternative power sources aren't ready to fill the gap - hydrogen, for instance, is an energy carrier, not a source. So talking about a clean, hydrogen burning car hides the problem - that hydrogen was produced with electricity that was generated by burning fossil fuels.
And yet, I know I haven't convinced anyone. Never mind, the Chinese will prove me right.