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Not quite a two-seater hybrid electric, but ORNL's new nuclear fuel promises to boost efficiency by as much as 900%.

U.S. Nuclear reactors are not known for their fuel efficiency. At a mere three to four percent burn-up, much of the uranium fuel is wasted and current reactors produce large amounts of unsightly nuclear waste. Advanced gas reactors may offer a better choice for the aging U.S. nuclear power posse.

Working together with the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) and the Babcock & Wilcox Company, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), with funding from the Department of Energy's Office of Nuclear Science, has produced a new fuel for the high temperatures of advanced gas reactors. In tests conducted at the Advanced Test Reactor at INL, the fuel reached a nine percent burn-up, a near three-fold efficiency gain from traditional water-cooled nuclear plant fuel and halfway to the targeted 16 to 18 percent.

The fuel, produced in the ORNL Materials Science and Technology Division, is made up of thousands of tiny carbon and silicon carbide coated spheres of uranium, which are compressed into fuel sticks and loaded into a graphite form.

With growing concerns about nuclear reactor waste products, skeptical outlooks for the future of nuclear power and foreign companies selling mini-plants to U.S. customers, a new, more efficient fuel made in America is a ray of hope for U.S. nuclear power advocates. Though it will possibly never be without its own pollution problems, further refinement and research into fission reactors may yield a very efficient and comparatively clean energy generation model.

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RE: Nuclear waste is unneccessary
By bobbronco on 4/16/2008 1:02:33 AM , Rating: 4
it's only costly in comparison to the price of raw uranium

I suppose you have a different definition of "costly" that the rest of us, or for that matter the National Academy of Sciences. The NAS put out this little report in the mid 90s at the request of the DOE called Nuclear Wastes: Technologies for Separation and Transmutation. This panel of scientists and engineers involved with the industry concluded that recycling transuranics contained in spent fuel rods, that would otherwise have been stored in Yucca Mountain or elsewhere, would require "at least $50 billion [dollars] and easily could be over $100 billion."

On top of that, these numbers would likely have to be doubled to account for the amount of spent fuel that the existing U.S. reactor population is expected to expel during their lifetimes - let alone any new reactors that are built as part of the proposed "nuclear renaissance" in the power industry. For reprocessing to be ultimately viable and self sustaining, a significant percentage of those new reactors would need to be specially configured breeders which are much more expensive to build than their water-cooled counterparts and would require even larger government subsidies to construct and operate. That last point not withstanding, that's something like $500-$1000 dollars for every person in the U.S., a figure that throws a wrinkle in the arguably optimistic $0.02/kWh cost estimate for nuclear power generation moving forward.

Amortizing this cost out over say 30 or 40 or 50 years makes it easier to justify, but I say it's much easier and cheaper just to forgo reformation altogether and store spent fuel in dry casks or in geologic repositories. That way you don't have to worry about tons and tons of extra separated plutonium, something of which we have too much of already, lying around from bare reformation. Just throw everything in the ground, erect some universal warning monolith that future generations will understand, and be done with it.

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