With nuclear energy in the spotlight at the industry’s Nuclear Security Conference 2010, our story last Friday focused on GE Hitachi’s technology to recycle fuel from nuclear power plants and use it to generate additional power. In Part 2 of the story, we’re taking a look at how that project involves reenergizing decades of research already undertaken at GE.
The recycling technology would use sodium rather than water in the cooling process — which gives the neutrons born from fission higher energies in the reactor. This fact makes it possible for a sodium-cooled reactor to “burn” the remaining energy reserves that would normally go unused in fuel removed from a traditional water-cooled reactor. While it sounds like a radical idea, the concept has been around since small tests were undertaken in the 1950s. After a demonstration project in the 1960s, it gained momentum in 1971 with the Clinch River Breeder Reactor Project – which gathered thousands of government and industry scientists together to come up with a commercial prototype.
As Esquire magazine noted in its in-depth look at the technology: “Then GE started rethinking things. They [Clinch River teams] were trying to power huge turbines that put out 1,000 megawatts. So [GE] sat down and said, ‘You know what, we’re pretty good at making washing machines and jet engines in a factory and replicating them. Why don’t we make a sodium-cooled reactor that’s factory-built, modular, with passive safety and replicate that, instead of trying to scale up?’”
“Passive safety meant that it would shut itself off automatically instead of melting down. Replicability meant the reactor vessel couldn’t be more than twenty feet in diameter, because that’s the biggest you can ship down a rail line. So they would gang reactor modules together to power a single turbine. They named it the Power Reactor, Innovative Small Module, or PRISM. At the time, it was a renegade idea. So what if PRISM could be mass-produced, plopped right next to every coal plant in the world, and hooked straight to their existing electric turbines…”
GE proved the passive safety concept in 1986 and was ready to build a prototype in 1992. Although government interest in the technology waned in the 1990s, it gained renewed momentum in 2006 and is currently an option being considered.
Meanwhile during this week’s Nuclear Security Conference 2010, Jack Fuller, president and CEO of GEH, focused on another new technology – using lasers to enrich uranium rather than centrifuges. Most enrichment today is accomplished when uranium is separated by centrifugal force in rotating cylinders. With the new technology – being developed by Global Laser Enrichment, a business venture of GE, Hitachi and Cameco — lasers selectively excite the uranium so that the needed isotopes can be separated.
Jack told the panel that the early testing phase has been completed and the team is now beginning to “design the first commercial production facility for GLE.” With regulatory approvals, commercial deployment could be initiated in 2012. Click here to read Jack’s full comments at the panel.
* Read “GE Hitachi’s Fuller to Seek Nuclear Recycling” from Bloomberg News
* Read “Game-changing tech and the Nuclear Security Summit” on GE Reports
* Read Esquire’s story about nuclear recycling and see their video
* Read “GE’s Nuclear Waste Plan” in Forbes
* Learn more about the Nuclear Security Conference
* Watch a video recapping the Conference
* Read the Global Laser Enerichment announcement
* Learn more about Global Laser Enrichment
* Read FAQ’s about the laser enrichment technology