I recently ran into an article reporting that a “nuclear startup called X-energy just scored a game-changing grant from the [US] government.” X-energy is run by a space contractor who is an Iranian-American – nice bit of irony there.
The article goes on to say the grant’s actually not that big or game-changing. But the technology could:
Commercialize a much needed energy source that doesn’t contribute to climate change and which could help revive a struggling nuclear industry.
When you think about nuclear energy you probably think of huge plants that divert enormous amounts of water for cooling, thereby damaging aquatic life. Massive transmission lines marching across the countryside to move the power to its users. Difficult concrete pours and high-tech welding. Complex safety systems and expensive refueling cycles.
Okay, maybe some of this only occurs to those of you interested in reactor construction.
Everyone thinks of Chernobyl and Fukushima.
(BTW – it’s not like coal and gas fired power plants are risk free. See this old book– the numbers are out of date but the concepts still apply.)
But people need energy
and even some long-time opponents of nuclear energy are willing to look at better plant designs to stave off global warming. The threats of global warming over the course of the 21st century are extensive enough that listing them sounds hyperbolic. If you’re not familiar with the issue, check out wunderground.com.
X-energy is working on a design I read about some time ago – pebble bed reactors – which I find very exciting.
The pebbles are tennis-ball sized spheres of graphite and ceramic fuel (various radioactive elements can be used). Gas (helium is preferred though I like nitrogen – cheaper) is used to transfer heat from the core, rather than water that becomes radioactive and can lead to steam explosions. The reactor needn’t be shut down to refuel, and the spent fuel come out in the easily handled, shielded pebbles. You can learn more about the technology here.
This design makes the reactor inherently safer, and it gets even better:
A pebble-bed reactor thus can have all of its supporting machinery fail, and the reactor will not crack, melt, explode or spew hazardous wastes. It simply goes up to a designed ‘idle’ temperature, and stays there.
I once read that small reactors might be built inside railroad cars and hauled into place all over the country. Imagine a grid where one outage doesn’t black-out huge areas. Imagine avoiding the power loss suffered by long transmission lines that eat up land and view-scapes.
Imagine your brother-in-law running one of these things. It’s okay! They’re simple and inherently safe.
I have a nagging concern that, if they’re so wonderful, why aren’t we already using pebble bed reactors? Wikipedia says there’s only one in operation – in China.
The balance between global warming fears and nuclear fears may allow us to look at pebble-beds with a fresh eye. I hope we can make rational decisions based on facts. It may not matter too much for me, but posterity could enjoy cheaper, safer, cleaner, and abundant energy.
Thanks to fortune.com for their article