A few weeks ago I predicted that, from the tone of the SBS documentary series “Uranium: twisting the dragon’s tail” it would not cover the new generation of breeder reactors that can eat nuclear waste. But I was wrong! Physicist Dr Derek Muller started down the whole “nuclear waste has to be stored for 100,000 years” schtick, and even repeated that number slowly and dramatically. I was already shouting at the TV. But then a miracle!
But what if there was a way to use this waste? Dr Leslie Dewan is one of a new generation of nuclear engineers designing the next generation of nuclear reactor.
Leslie: “Most nuclear waste lasts for hundreds of thousands of years, and my reactor is able to take that long lived waste and break it down and extract almost all of its remaining energy. And if you take all of that waste and put it into these reactors, you could power the entire world for about 72 years, even taking into account increasing demand.”
Derek: “How is your reactor design different?”
Leslie: “It uses a liquid fluoride salt as fuel so if you have an accident it is able to shut itself down safely. Our reactor can run entirely on nuclear waste, it can’t melt down, and it’s cheaper than coal.”
Derek (later): “Leslie thinks that her reactor is less than a decade away.”
Sadly at 51 minutes into this last episode Derek walks down the abandoned streets of Fukushima, musing.
So what should we do with uranium? As a physicist I am tempted to say it’s such a great source of power, it has such incredible energy density and so many benefits that way, how can you ignore it? But after studying it, after searching the world and following the story of uranium, the feeling that I’m left with is that it is not ready to take over. And seeing how far renewable energy has come, that suggests to me there are alternatives these days and that we don’t need to go with uranium, we don’t need to risk another place like this,’ and he waved at the Fukushima wastelands.
And yet, every year uranium treats disease and every year, saves more lives than it has ever destroyed, even including the atomic bombs! And just imagine a world where next generation reactors could produce massive amounts of clean, safe energy. We live in an age where the nuclear dragon has been unleashed, and where that leaves us remains to be seen. But there is no such thing as a future without uranium!