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Editor's Note: This story was originally printed in the December 2005 issue of Scientific American magazine.
Despite long-standing public concern about the safety of nuclear energy, more and more people are realizing that it may be the most environmentally friendly way to generate large amounts of electricity. Several nations, including Brazil, China, Egypt, Finland, India, Japan, Pakistan, Russia, South Korea and Vietnam, are building or planning nuclear plants. But this global trend has not as yet extended to the U.S., where work on the last such facility began some 30 years ago.
If developed sensibly, nuclear power could be truly sustainable and essentially inexhaustible and could operate without contributing to climate change. In particular, a relatively new form of nuclear technology could overcome the principal drawbacks of current methods—namely, worries about reactor accidents, the potential for diversion of nuclear fuel into highly destructive weapons, the management of dangerous, long-lived radioactive waste, and the depletion of global reserves of economically available uranium. This nuclear fuel cycle would combine two innovations: pyrometallurgical processing (a high-temperature method of recycling reactor waste into fuel) and advanced fast-neutron reactors capable of burning that fuel. With this approach, the radioactivity from the generated waste could drop to safe levels in a few hundred years, thereby eliminating the need to segregate waste for tens of thousands of years.
For neutrons to cause nuclear fission efficiently, they must be traveling either slowly or very quickly. Most existing nuclear power plants contain what are called thermal reactors, which are driven by neutrons of relatively low speed (or energy) ricocheting within their cores. Although thermal reactors generate heat and thus electricity quite efficiently, they cannot minimize the output of radioactive waste.
All reactors produce energy by splitting the nuclei of heavymetal (high-atomic-weight) atoms, mainly uranium or elements derived from uranium. In nature, uranium occurs as a mixture of two isotopes, the easily fissionable uranium 235 (which is said to be “fissile”) and the much more stable uranium 238. The uranium fire in an atomic reactor is both ignited and sustained by neutrons. When the nucleus of a fissile atom is hit by a neutron, especially a slow-moving one, it will most likely cleave (fission), releasing substantial amounts of energy and several other neutrons. Some of these emitted neutrons then strike other nearby fissile atoms, causing them to break apart, thus propagating a nuclear chain reaction. The resulting heat is conveyed out of the reactor, where it turns water into steam that is used to run a turbine that drives an electric generator.
Uranium 238 is not fissile; it is called “fissionable” because it sometimes splits when hit by a fast neutron. It is also said to be “fertile,” because when a uranium 238 atom absorbs a neutron without splitting, it transmutes into plutonium 239, which, like uranium 235, is fissile and can sustain a chain reaction. After about three years of service, when technicians typically remove used fuel from one of today’s reactors because of radiation-related degradation and the depletion of the uranium 235, plutonium is contributing more than half the power the plant generates.
In a thermal reactor, the neutrons, which are born fast, are slowed (or moderated) by interactions with nearby low-atomicweight atoms, such as the hydrogen in the water that flows through reactor cores. All but two of the 440 or so commercial nuclear reactors operating are thermal, and most of them—including the 103 U.S. power reactors— employ water both to slow neutrons and to carry fission-created heat to the associated electric generators. Most of these thermal systems are what engineers call light-water reactors.