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Monday, August 18, 2008

Elite idea factory’s biggest venture yet: safer and cheaper nuclear power plants

[Another venture firm interested in nuclear]


Puget Sound Business Journal (Seattle) - by Eric Engleman Staff Writer
With presidential candidate John McCain and others promoting nuclear power as a solution to the nation’s energy woes, a Bellevue invention factory is positioning itself to spark a revived nuclear industry.
Intellectual Ventures, founded by former Microsoft executive Nathan Myhrvold, has begun to reveal details of what Myhrvold calls the firm’s “most ambitious project” — a new type of safer and cheaper nuclear reactor.
The concept, which Intellectual Ventures presented this summer to the American Nuclear Society, would reduce the need for costly uranium enrichment and reprocessing, cutting the risk of weapons proliferation. The firm has a team of 30 engineers and scientists refining the concept, not to mention a big-name backer: Bill Gates.
Even so, experts caution that safety concerns about nuclear power mean a new reactor design would face enormous political hurdles and could take many decades to get built, if it’s accepted at all.
Intellectual Ventures LLC is best known as a collector of technology patents and for in-house brainstorming sessions — often featuring elite figures in science and business — to generate ideas for its own patent applications.
Usually reticent, the firm has lately been talking up its nuclear energy initiative.
“We’re having a very serious run at coming up with concepts that would allow you to implement nuclear power with no enrichment required,” said John Gilleland, manager of nuclear programs at Intellectual Ventures. “We have an unusual opportunity to steer things in a way that will do the world a lot of good.”
Gates has participated in brainstorming sessions on the topic and is providing an undisclosed amount of funding for the nuclear project. Gates is interested in the reactors as a cheap source of power for the world’s poor, which dovetails with the global health mission of his philanthropic foundation, the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Today, all commercial nuclear reactors are light-water reactors that run on enriched uranium. The uranium has been enriched to increase the concentration of a particular atom, U-235, that is easily split to produce energy.
Intellectual Ventures’ reactor model would need a small amount of enriched uranium at startup, but could then run on natural, unenriched uranium or depleted uranium, the waste product of enrichment, meaning it could draw on a much more abundant and potentially cheaper supply of fuel.
The firm is also investigating thorium as a reactor fuel source. Thorium, a radioactive metal, has the advantage of being more plentiful than uranium.
By reducing the need for uranium processing and transport, this reactor technology would, in theory, lower the risk of nuclear accidents and weapons proliferation. Enriched uranium for atomic weapons can be made in the very same kinds of facilities that produce enriched uranium for nuclear power plant fuel.
Intellectual Ventures’ foray into nuclear energy comes as the issue takes a central role in the national debate over energy policy.
McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has advocated expanding nuclear power to make the U.S. more independent of foreign oil. He wants to build 45 more nuclear power plants by 2030, augmenting the 104 commercial plants operating today. Those existing plants produce 19 percent of the country’s power.
Nuclear power plants, unlike coal and natural gas facilities, generate no carbon emissions, and advocates see them as a way to meet future power needs without contributing to global warming. But nuclear power is still a hot button topic, associated by many people with high-profile accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. No new reactor projects have been started in the U.S. in nearly 30 years, though the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is reviewing a number of applications now.
Jon Phillips, director of the sustainable nuclear power initiative at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, a Department of Energy facility in Richland, said nuclear power “is going to play a big role if carbon management is an issue in the future.”
But Phillips said introducing a new reactor design, particularly one that operates on different principles than existing reactors, is a daunting proposition.
“Any time someone starts out on a new idea in nuclear power design, they need to understand the inertia of that marketplace and the regulatory context of that market, which is vast,” Phillips said. Regulators are “trying to avoid nuclear accidents and that makes it in a very painstaking process.”
He said new reactor designs tend to be an evolutionary change of existing models. It could take many years to get certification and licensing from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, followed by more years to gather funding and do construction, he said.
“I wish them luck,” Phillips said. “It’s not like coming out with a software package.”
Intellectual Ventures’ reactor model is known as a “traveling-wave reactor,” a concept that originated in the 1990s with Edward Teller, an American physicist known as the “father of the hydrogen bomb.” (Lowell Wood, who is working on Intellectual Ventures’ nuclear initiative, worked with Teller at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.)
The traveling-wave reactor would contain a small, actively burning region that generates fast-moving neutrons. These neutrons would convert adjacent “fertile material,” such as unenriched uranium or thorium, into fissile material, in which the atoms can be split to release energy. This process would inch along the reactor core in a slow-moving wave. This traveling-wave model is part of a broader category of so-called “breeder” reactors, which create their own fissile fuel. Japan and France have been looking at breeder reactor technology.
The way Intellectual Ventures envisions it, the traveling-wave reactor could be filled with fuel at the construction phase and operate without refueling for up to 60 years.
Of the 30 people working on the nuclear energy initiative, about 12 are in-house staff and the rest contractors. Right now, they’re working with computer-aided design.
“We can now simulate things that people could not simulate 20 years ago,” said Gilleland, a nuclear industry veteran who worked for Bechtel Corp. and the U.S. government.
“Some things that were unthinkable in the last century when they developed light-water reactors are possible today,” he said.
eengleman@bizjournals.com 206.876.5430
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Anonymous said...

The concept is interesting, but its use of sodium coolant to produce the intermediate spectrum neutrons for breeding will most likely kill the concept. I worked for H. G. Rickover in the 1960's and 70's. The original design of the USS Seawolf plant was based on Liquid sodium. The plant was changed to a PWR because of unsolvable problems. To my knowledge these problems have yet to be resolved. Mostly, they have been wished away by time.

John D. Richardson

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