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Nuclear power: The USA wants to build a different type of reactor

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Nuclear power: The USA wants to build a different type of reactor

Molten salts are used as a coolant at the CEA Cadarache nuclear research center in France. Nicolas Tucat/AFP via Getty Images

Molten salt reactors were first built in the 1950s but have not been used in the United States since the 1970s.

Recently, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a permit for the construction of a molten salt reactor.

Kairos Power is leading the project, which is scheduled to be completed by 2027.

This is a machine translation of an article from our US colleagues at Business Insider. It was automatically translated and checked by an editor.

The US has given permission to build a different type of nuclear reactor. The so-called molten salt reactor could lead to smaller, easier-to-build nuclear power plants in the future. These could then supply ships and other off-grid locations with electricity. What’s special about this reactor is the way it cools its core, using molten salt instead of water.

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Nuclear power: water versus salt

Purdue University Reactor Number One is the first nuclear reactor in the United States with fully digital controls. Purdue University

Almost all nuclear reactors in operation today use water for cooling. Their cores can reach temperatures of up to 572 degrees Fahrenheit (the equivalent of 300 degrees Celsius), which is far above the boiling point of water. To prevent the water from evaporating and to keep it liquid at such high temperatures, high pressure is required, which in turn costs technology, space and money.

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Some salts, on the other hand, have a much higher boiling point, so they don’t require the same expensive, high-pressure environments. “You can use them at these high temperatures and they don’t boil,” Nicholas V. Smith, project manager of the molten chloride reactor experiment at Idaho National Laboratory, told Business Insider (BI). “You don’t need big, thick pressure vessels to hold the coolant.”

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For example, the first molten salt reactor tested in the 1950s was small enough to fit on an airplane. In comparison: The part of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in California that produces energy is loud Berkeley Engineering 12 hectares of land. This and other benefits are why the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission just granted the first permit to build a non-water-cooled nuclear power plant.

It will be the first since 1968, Mike Laufer, managing director of Kairos Power, told “Bloomberg“. The company Kairos Power plans to build a test facility called Hermes that will be cooled with molten fluoride salt in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, starting in 2027. The first version of the plant will not provide electricity, but the company hopes that its successor – Hermes 2 – will do so from 2028.

Why is it worth researching molten salts again?

Nuclear reactors could become smaller in the future. XH4D/Getty Images

Molten salt reactors have been around since the 1950s. But the U.S. largely abandoned them in the 1970s in favor of water-cooled reactors, many of which it had already built. Recently, however, companies including Kairos and laboratories are again looking at salt-cooled reactors.

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“Salt as a coolant is simply superior to water once you work out the technical details,” Smith told BI. Molten salt reactors do not require thick pressure vessels to keep water liquid at high temperatures. That’s why, according to Smith, they are more flexible in construction. The reactors can be smaller than water-cooled variants and built at a larger number of locations. “Melted salts open up a range of design possibilities that you can’t achieve without them,” Smith said. “When you move into that low-pressure paradigm, manufacturing becomes much easier.”

“I think molten salt reactors will be used in everything from remote sites to ships to large power plants,” he adds.

How will Hermes work?

Hermes will operate at temperatures of up to 650 degrees Celsius. But the molten salt coolant — a mixture of lithium fluoride and beryllium fluoride known as FLiBe — boils at about 1,430 degrees Celsius, well above the temperature of the reactor core.

Manhattan Project chemist Glenn Seaborg sits at the control panel of the molten salt reactor experiment in Oak Ridge in 1968. Frank Hoffman/Oak Ridge National Laboratory; Flickr (public domain)

Therefore, the FLiBe remains liquid at these high temperatures without additional pressure. That should make building the reactors easier and cheaper, Smith said. Kairos Power’s proposed fuel is also different from that of a typical nuclear reactor. The company plans to use TRISO (TRistructural-ISOtropic).

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This nuclear fuel can withstand extreme temperatures better than current fuels. Therefore, it is less likely to release radioactive fission products, they said US Nuclear Energy Agency.

Challenges remain

Challenges include limiting corrosion. “Oxygen is kind of the driving force for corrosion in molten salt,” Smith explains. The difficulty lies in limiting the exposure of the salt to oxygen. It’s not exactly the same processes, but it’s the same principles as any other coolant,” he says. “You have to control the chemistry.”

Molten salt reactors also have disadvantages. For example, they would generate “several different waste streams, all of which require extensive processing and would pose problems for disposal,” wrote physicist MV Ramana in 2022.

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One Study According to the report, the reactors could produce more nuclear waste than current systems. They will also use “highly corrosive and pyrophoric fuels and coolants that become highly radioactive after irradiation.”

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