Movers and SHAKERS
image credit: TerraPower.com
The Bill Gates, Warren Buffett Natrium Reactor Risk, and Benefits
Small reimagined nuclear reactors, redesigned from the ground up, powered by radioactive materials using a different process from traditional reactors, will be built near the capital of Wyoming. This according to an announcement yesterday. Some regard the design of the first planned natrium reactor to be built by Bill Gates’ TerraPower and Warren Buffett’s PacifiCorp as the critical carbon-free technology for the future. The expectation is that nuclear will, at an accelerated pace, replace coal and other fossil fuels as the power source to fill the gaps left open when relying solely on wind and solar.
What is a Natrium Reactor?
Natrium technology uses what they call a “sodium-cooled fast reactor”(SFR) to produce heat. With this new technology, the heat can be used to generate electricity immediately or stored in thermal containers for long periods. This ability to store energy as heat, allows the reactor to operate at a steady rate without needing to inefficiently ramp up generating power or reduce it depending on demand.
The reactors use molten sodium as a coolant which allows them to run 24/7 at 100% power. When demand is low, heat is saved for later use; when demand is high, between the saved heat and immediate generating capacity, the plant output can produce 150% of the immediate generating capacity. This allows utilities to operate smaller plants because they more efficiently manage fluctuating needs. Electricity needs fluctuate based on time of day, time of year, and for a solar and wind-based grid, weather.
Risk/Reward Profile of Natrium Reactors
Natrium reactors or sodium-cooled fast reactors are a fairly new concept that are designed to address concerns over atmospheric carbon emitted by conventional power plants. Sodium is the sixth-most abundant element on the planet. Hot molten sodium allows nuclear fuel to be fully consumed which virtually eliminates the need for storing spent fuel. It also creates a situation where uranium/plutonium reactors could power the world's needs for thousands of years.
While using less fuel and using it more completely lowering plant costs are major breakthroughs in the nuclear power industry, some onlookers have concerns over safety. The decade that passed since the raw-water cooled Fukushima disaster quickly halted plans for new uranium-powered plants across the globe. This caused a rush for a redesign. Wyoming will experience the benefits of this work seven years from now when the plant is operational.
Critics of sodium-cooled reactors have a big concern which anyone who remembers high school chemistry can comprehend. Pure sodium (Na) plus water H2O causes an exothermic reaction. It bursts into flames. Proponents fear that many of the current safety concerns over nuclear power are addressed with the SFR design, but this new element of danger is concerning and will require extreme safety measures.
The U.S. is entering a new nuclear age with redesigned, more efficient and lower waste reactors. The joint project by TerraPower founded by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett’s PacifiCorp is a 345 megawatt sodium-cooled fast reactor with molten salt-based energy storage designed to solve peak and trough energy demand.
The redesign is not without its proponents and risks. One key concern is the use of molten sodium which provides the design its key functionality, could, if not kept moisture free, be an extreme fire hazard.
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