A new dawn for nuclear power?

I grew up in Oak Ridge TN, the “atomic city.” It was where the uranium was enriched for the Hiroshima bomb. After the war, uranium enrichment found peaceful application in nuclear power plants. Many of the kids I knew growing up had dads who worked at one of the plants–X-10, Y-12, K-25–that researched and developed uranium enrichment and power plant design.

After initial enthusiasm for power that would be “too cheap to meter,” nuclear power plants eventually fell on hard times. The plants were expensive and perceived as terrorist magnets. In the wake of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, they fell out of fashion.

With growing concerns about global warming and decarbonization, nuclear power is again finding favor. Bill Gates is crowing about a next-gen nuclear power plant being built in Wyoming. I’m not a nuclear engineer, but apparently one modification to the Natrium reactor design is the use of molten salt instead of water as a reactor coolant. Molten sodium does have some advantages over water, but as research in the thorium reactors has shown, it is also challenging; it is highly corrosive, and reacts violently when exposed to water or air. As the father of the nuclear navy, Hyman Rickover, once observed, a sodium-cooled reactor might work if you were designing a submarine to operate in a sodium ocean.

Nuclear power solves the intermittency problem that dogs solar and wind. And once the plant is built, no CO2 is emitted during normal operation. One criticism is that the Natrium reactor still has the problem of nuclear waste storage. Coal-fired plants don’t have this problem, since their wastes are either emitted into the atmosphere or accumulate in ash ponds that leach into the water table. Once you factor in the environmental costs on both ends, there is no such thing as “clean energy” that is environmentally cost-free.

Is Gen IV nuclear power the revival of the nuclear power dream? If sodium-cooled uranium reactors can be made safely, will thorium reactors also be revived? One thing is for sure: world-wide demand for power isn’t going to slacken any time soon, so the only realistic hope for change is to move to less carbon-intensive power.

Bill Gates hawks Gen IV nuclear power