Uranium Jell-O Increases Safety of Nuclear Power
The basic purpose of nuclear reactor safety programs is to protect the public and plant workers from harmful radiation exposure. In 2010, nuclear power plants supplied 13% of the world’s electricity and 22% in OECD countries. The International Atomic Energy Association forecasts global nuclear power capacity to grow from 370 GWe today to 501 GWe in 2030. Globally the Fukushima Daiichi accident is expected to slow the growth of nuclear power but not reverse it. But certainly it will stimulate research and development in new technologies for safer nuclear power. IBC Advanced Alloys Corp. (TSXV: IB | OTCQX: IAALF), a Canadian company headquartered in Vancouver has made a significant contribution to this field.
IBC has been researching a passive method to reduce the risk of nuclear meltdowns with a new nuclear fuel that cools faster than the traditional uranium oxide fuel. IBC is sponsoring the research, which is being conducted at Purdue University, Texas A&M and MIT focusing on changing the thermal properties of nuclear fuel granules by embedding them within a three dimensional radiator of beryllium oxide to dissipate the heat build-up of uranium pellets. By reducing the risk of reactor meltdown this new technology has potential to revolutionize the nuclear industry both for new projects and for existing installations.
Nuclear reactors have the terrible habit to keep producing heat, called decay heat, for some time after they have been shut down. You turn the switch and the things are still humming at 7% of their rated capacity. It is this very same decay heat that causes nuclear meltdowns when plants shut down unexpectedly and their cooling systems fail.
Decay heat is more than just an annoyance: it has stomped thousands of engineers, metallurgists and physicists since the 1950s when the Obninskaya reactor was built in the Soviet Union to provide 5 MWe to the city of Obninsk, some 80 km south of Moscow. Over time reactor designers, generally as clever as rocket scientists, have created complex cooling systems to dispose of decay heat. And engineers being engineers, they have backed up these systems with subsystems with their own redundant back sub-systems. Most times it works, but on those rare opportunities when things don’t work that have drawn bad press.
At 4:00 a.m. on March 28, 1979, a valve of the cooling system of the Three Mile Island power plant in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania stuck open and allowed large amounts of nuclear reactor coolant to escape, causing the worst accident in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant history.
On 1:23 a.m. on April 26, 1986, reactor four of the Chernobyl Power Plant suffered a catastrophic power increase, leading to explosions in its core. The accident occurred during an experiment scheduled to test a potential safety emergency core-cooling feature, which took place during a normal shutdown procedure. Chernobyl’s reactors had three backup diesel generators; these could start up in 15 seconds, but took 60–75 seconds to attain full speed and reach the 5.5 MWe output required to run one main pump. They failed to cool the reactor in time.
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At 3:46 p.m. on March 11, 2011 the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami conspired to shut down the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant of Japan after the tsunami waves filled the lower story of the power plant building. But because the backs up diesel generators were located in the over story of the building, they were underwater and could not generate power to activate the cooling pumps. The reactor overheated.
The nuclear industry is working toward designing ultra-safe nuclear power plants with passive safety mechanisms: in the case of an unplanned shutdown, the design features would cool the reactor by capturing and dissipating decay heat even without the actions of pumps that could fail like they did in Three Miles Island, Chernobyl, or Fukushima. Perfectly in line with the innovation agenda of the industry, IBC has developed a new type of passive technology by addressing the poor thermal conductivity of uranium oxide by taking advantage of beryllium oxide. Beryllium oxide has a high melting point and high thermal conductivity, which permits it to act as a heat radiator for the uranium oxide granules. For this they add molten beryllium oxide to uranium oxide granules to make fuel pellets that have the look of frozen Jell-O with grapes in it. The grapes are the uranium oxide, which is typically black, and embedded within a hard matrix of beryllium oxide of Jell-O.
What of the 437 existing nuclear power plants currently in operation worldwide? IBC has demonstrated the manufacturing of this new fuel type in the laboratory and further was able to show that this fuel type is compatible with reactor core physics under normal operating conditions, particularly in harmony with the design of the Generation-III Pressurized Water Reactor—the same reactor design as Japan’s Fukushima plant. When they compared standard uranium oxide fuel and the new fuel sintered with beryllium oxide they found similar reactivity coefficients, slightly longer cycle lengths while reaching higher burn-up rates.
Increasing the safety of nuclear plants is a critical goal, especially now as climate change is compelling us to manage our atmospheric fossil carbon.
Dr. Luc C. Duchesne is a Speaker and Author with a PhD in Biochemistry. With three decades of scientific and business experience, he has published ... <Read more about Dr. Luc Duchesne>