Molten Salt Nuclear Reactors

In the previous post, I outlined two reasons why nuclear power is overlooked, if not shunned, despite the fact it will clearly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I discussed wastes as a problem, and while they are a problem, as I tried to show they are in principle reasonably easily dealt with. There is a need for more work and there are difficulties, but there is no reason this problem cannot be overcome. The other reason is the danger of the Chernobyl/Fukushima type explosion. In the case of Chernobyl, it needed a frightening number of totally stupid decisions to be made, and you might expect that since it was a training exercise there would be people there who knew what they were doing to supervise. But no, and worse, the operating instructions were unintelligible, having been amended with strike-outs and hand-written “corrections” that nobody could understand. You might have thought the supervisor would check to see everything was available and correct before starting, but as I noted, there has never been a shortage of stupidity.

The nuclear reaction, which generates the heat, is initiated by a fissile nucleus absorbing a neutron and splitting, and then keeping going by providing more neutrons. These neutrons either split further fissile nuclei, such as 235U, or they get absorbed by something else, such as 238U, which converts that nucleus to something else, in this case eventually 239Pu. The splitting of nuclei produces the heat, and to run at constant temperature, it is necessary to have a means of removing that amount of heat continuously. The rate of neutron absorption is determined by the “concentration” of fissile material and the amount of neutrons absorbed by something else, such as water, graphite and a number of other materials. The disaster happens when the reaction goes too quickly, and there is too much heat generated for the cooling medium. The metal melts and drips to the bottom of the reactor, where it flows together to form a large blob that is out of the cooling circuit. As the amount builds up it gets hotter and hotter, and we have a disaster.

The idea of the molten salt reactor is there are no metal rods. The material can be put in as a salt in solution, so the concentration automatically determines the operating temperature. The reactor can be moderated with graphite, beryllium oxide, or a number of others, or it can be run unmoderated. Temperatures can get up to 1400 degrees C, which, from basic thermodynamics, gives exceptional power efficiency, and finally, reactors can be relatively small. The initial design was apparently for aircraft propulsion, and you guessed it: bombers. The salts are usually fluorides because low-valence fluorides boil at very high temperatures, they are poor neutron absorbers, and their chemical bonds are exceptionally strong, which limits corrosion, and they are exceptionally inert chemically. In one sense they are extremely safe, although since beryllium fluoride is often used, its extreme toxicity requires careful handling. But the big main advantage of this sort of reactor, besides avoiding the meltdown, is it burns actinides and so if it makes plutonium, that is added to the fuel. More energy! It also burns some of the fission wastes, and such burning of wastes also releases energy. It can be powered by thorium (with some uranium to get the starting neutrons) which does not make anything suitable for making bombs. Further, the fission products in the thorium cycle have far shorter half-lives. Research on this started in the 1960s and essentially stopped. Guess why! There are other fourth generation reactors being designed, and some nuclear engineers may well disagree with my preference, but it is imperative, in my opinion, that we adopt some. We badly need some means of generating large amounts of electricity without burning fossil fuels. Whatever we decide to do, while the physics is well understood, the engineering may not be, and this must be solved if we are to avoid a planet-wide overheating. The politicians have to ensure this job gets done.