OSU with partners Texas A&M University and the University of Michigan are to build a one-quarter scale reactor and test design, to see what works best, simulate accidents, and provide safety data to regulatory agencies. The facility itself will cost $3.6 million of a five-year, $6 million grant from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, with $2.4 million available for experiments and simulations. The project may herald another major step forward for the nuclear power industry.

The design of the facility, to be based at the OSU Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics, is being done now with actual construction expected to begin within a year. The reactor will not actually use any nuclear materials; instead the heat in the test facility core will be simulated using electric heaters.

Brian Woods, an OSU assistant professor of nuclear engineering said, “OSU was selected for this project in part because of its experience in the 1990s and later when the university built and operated test facilities that led to creation of the “passively safe,” next generation nuclear reactors now being constructed around the world.”

Very High Temperature Reactor. Click for more.

Very High Temperature Reactor. Click for more.

The new high-temperature, gas-cooled reactors designs are quite different from their water-cooled counterparts now providing a significant portion of the world’s electricity. They operate at temperatures that may exceed 2,000 degrees – about three times as hot as existing reactors – but are also about 35 to 50 percent more energy-efficient, cost less to build and create 50 percent less radioactive waste. Because fuel is dispersed, they won’t melt down.

Along with producing electricity, the high temperatures of this type of reactor could alternatively be used to directly separate water into its hydrogen and oxygen components at much less cost than traditional approaches such as electrolysis. The hydrogen, in turn, could be used in hydrogen fuel cells to power automobiles – an attractive technology since its only by-product is simple water, not toxic exhausts and greenhouse gases.

Woods also says, “The concept of high-temperature reactors has been known for some time, but it’s only become more practical with the material science advances of recent years, like the development of special steel alloys that will be able to resist the very high temperatures. We know we can build this type of reactor, but just how hot we’ll be able to operate it still remains a question to be answered. Many of the questions relate not so much to the technology as to the materials, such as the fuel, reactor vessel and fuel support structures. Some material in existing reactors would literally melt at these temperatures, but new materials currently being developed should be able to take it.”

Although such extraordinary levels of heat sound somewhat ominous, reactors of this type should actually be even safer than their water-based counterparts, Woods said.

“With water you’re always concerned about a leak and loss of coolant, and those are issues our new passively-safe reactors have been designed to address,” he said. “These high-temperature gas reactors are designed to remove heat during an accident without the addition of any additional coolant. These types of accidents are exactly what we plan on examining at Oregon State in the near future.”

Meanwhile, two different designs for these types of reactors are already under way in at least three consortiums in Japan, China, South Africa and the United States, and license applications could be on their way to the NRC within five to seven years, Woods said, if not sooner. Competition is afoot.

Gas cooled reactors are technology that for uranium is finally possible with the latest materials as Woods noted. Temperatures in the 2000-degree F. range are very hot. With a total grant of $6 million from the NRC the remaining funds will be used for experiments and simulations, a likely good investment spread over the three universities. With no fuel used the risks are nominal. But knowing what the exposures to such temperatures do to the materials is critical for long-term reactor safety and value.

The flip side is that the fuel projected s again uranium vs. thorium. It’s well worth extending the total fuel burn at higher temperatures to achieve more output from a unit of fuel.

Perhaps the most encouraging thing is that a grant was made in the turmoil of Washington D.C. last week.

Now if the granting for thorium can get underway, our confidence in the electrical sources of energy can get much more solid.


1 Comment so far

  1. emt training on November 8, 2010 9:47 AM

    Thanks for some quality points there. I am kind of new to online , so I printed this off to put in my file, any better way to go about keeping track of it then printing?

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