How Molten Salt Reactors Might Spell A Nuclear Energy Rebellion
Since former NASA engineer Kirk Sorensen revived forgotten molten salt reactor (MSR) technology in the 2000s, interest in MSR technology has been growing quickly.
Why this sudden interest in a nuclear technology that dates back to the 1950s?
The answer lies in both the phenomenal safety of MSRs and their potential to help solve so many of today’s energy related problems, from climate change to energy poverty to the intermittency of wind and solar power.
In fact, MSRs can operate so safely, they may alleviate public fears about nuclear energy.
Before looking at the potential of MSRs, though, it is useful to first take a high-level look at what they are and how they work.
What is a Molten Salt Reactor?
A molten salt reactor (MSR) is a type of nuclear reactor that uses liquid fuel instead of the solid fuel rods used in conventional nuclear reactors.
Using liquid fuel provides many advantages in safety and simplicity of design.
Unlike conventional reactors, the rate of fission in an MSR is inherently stable.
Nonetheless, should the fuel salt become too hot to operate safely, a freeze plug below the reactor will melt and the liquid content of the reactor will flow down into emergency dump tanks where it cannot continue to fission and can cool safely.
Why Molten Salt Reactors?
MSRs are a huge departure from the conventional reactors most people are familiar with. Key features include:
- Unparalleled safety – MSRs are walk-away safe. They cannot melt down as can conventional reactors because they are molten by design. An operator cannot even force an MSR to overheat.
- A solution to nuclear waste and stockpiles of plutonium – Conventional reactors use solid ceramic fuel rods containing enriched uranium. The fission of uranium in the fuel releases gases, such as xenon, which causes the fuel rods to crack.This cracking, in turn, makes it necessary to remove and replace the fuel rods well before most of the actinides such as uranium have fissioned.
- Abundant energy cheaper than energy from coal – MSRs can be made cheaply because they are simple compared to conventional reactors that have large pressurized containment domes and many engineered and redundant safety systems.
- Load following solar and wind power – Gas plants must ramp up quickly when power from wind and sun is scarce, and ramp down quickly when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing.
- Abundant energy for millions of years – Although it is sometimes claimed that nuclear power is not sustainable, the truth is that there is enough nuclear fuel on earth to provide humanity with abundant energy for millions of years.
- Replaces fossil fuels where wind and solar are problematic – MSR technology has potential far beyond generating electricity cheaply and without emitting CO2.
MSRs could also be used to power large container ships, which currently run on diesel.
The 15 largest of these ships produce as much air pollution every day as do all of the cars on the planet.
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