Could a New Generation of Power Plants Turn Nuclear Waste Into Clean Fuel?

By Eliza Strickland | June 3, 2009 11:19 am

LIFELast week’s official dedication of the National Ignition Facility, the massive experiment in nuclear fusion, has set some physicists to plotting ways in which nuclear fusion could be put to work in a new generation of nuclear power plants. Although doubters say that NIF may not even be able to produce a controlled fusion reaction, the same reaction that occurs in the heart of the sun and in thermonuclear weapons, boosters such as U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu are already discussing how fusion energy could best be harnessed.

Chu notes that the Obama administration’s decision to halt construction of the Yucca Mountain repository for nuclear waste has renewed interest in reactors that could actually reduce the nuclear waste produced by traditional nuclear power plants. There are “a resurgence of hybrid solutions of fusion fission where the fusion would impart not only energy, but again creates high-energy neutrons that can burn down the long-lived actinides” [Technology Review], says Chu. Actinides are a group of radioactive chemical elements, including plutonium and uranium, which compose some of the radioactive waste from traditional fission reactors.

Fusion is the process of forcing the nuclei of atoms so close together that they fuse into a nucleus of a new element. (Fission, of course, is the opposite: energy produced by splitting nuclei.) The new, fused nucleus weighs less than the original two. With a bow to Einstein’s famous law, the lost mass is transformed into energy, mostly in the form of a torrent of energetic neutrons [Forbes]. In a fusion-fission hybrid reactor proposal suggested by NIF researchers, a fusion chamber would be surrounded by a blanket of fissionable material, like nuclear waste, that would serve as an additional fuel source…. It would work by using the neutrons from fusion to help turn nuclear waste into nuclear fuel and then burn it until almost none is left [Forbes].

Such a system could overcome the serious drawback of typical fission power plants–their generation of long-lived radioactive waste–as well as the downside of hypothetical fusion plants, which researchers believe would have problems with efficiently producing energy. Back in November, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger visited NIF and praised their hybrid concept, called the Laser Inertial Fusion Engine, or LIFE. “If successful, this new endeavor could generate thousands of megawatts of carbon-free nuclear power but without the drawbacks of conventional nuclear plants” [Photons & Fusion], he said.

Related Content:
80beats: At the National Ignition Facilty, Let the Nuclear Fusion Begin! Hopefully.
80beats: Countdown to Nuclear Fusion: National Ignition Facility Warms Up
DISCOVER: Countdown to Fusion: National Ignition Facility in Pictures (photo gallery)

Image: NIF

  • James Aach

    As a long-time worker in the fission nuclear world, I’m skeptical as to efficacy of fusion – since it seems like we’ve been hearing about it for decades. On the other hand, if they ever can get sustained controlled fusion, the use of fission waste could represent a way to get a higher efficiency from the process.

    Power generation on a large scale can be complex – it takes 600 – 1000 people to run one nuclear unit in the US today and we’ve been at it 40 years. I think we’ll make better decisions about our energy future if we first understand our energy present – and we’re not in good shape there.

    Based on my two decades in nuclear I’ve written an insider account for the lay person – a novel – that’s available free to readers at . Reviews at the homepage have been very positive, and “Rad Decision” has also been endorsed by Stewart Brand, noted futurist and founder of “The Whole Earth Catalog”. (Sorry for the plug, but it seemed appropriate.)

  • Nick

    Considering how expensive and wasteful it is to build these plants right now, are they *really* all that green? What exactly was the carbon/pollution footprint of building the new laser fusion reactor?

    Which won’t even be turned on for a year, so really, having these discussions now, before we even know that this technology is capable of working, is kinda silly.

    If I’ve learned one thing growing up in this society, it’s that you get over-promised on the sale and under-delivered after you’ve found out you have to pay more than intended on the original sale. 😀

  • Richard

    We must keep in mind that there are substantial technological challenges that must be overcome before pure fusion reactors become a reality. Fission-fusion hybrids are much more complicated in their engineering and associated handling of radioactive materials. The danger here is that fission-fusion hybrids will be oversold. Let’s first see if NIF can do what it’s leaders claim in the realm of pure fusion, and let’s not forget that there is the alternative to the laser fusion (inertial confinement) approach — magnetic confinement fusion — which may turn out to be a somewhat simpler way to attain pure fusion.

  • YouRang

    Sh_t. I had this idea when I first heard about the laser powered ignition. I just hadn’t been hired by the right people to implement it.

  • Jan

    What is clean or green about radioactive waste?

  • chris

    The concept is environmentally conservative because the nuclear waste is recycled and reburned until nothing is left.

  • Adam

    All energy processes produce a waste stream, even wind and PVs. Correctly implemented nuclear fuel cycles have one of the lowest total waste outputs for the amount of kilowatt.hours produced over the system lifetime. High-burnup fission fuel cycles produce only a small amount of relatively short-lived fission products – the total thermal energy from one ton of uranium is about 90 trillion BTUs and you’re left with one ton of radioactives to store for ~300-500 years before they return to near background radioactivity levels. The highly lethal radioactives are very short-lived and don’t even need storage for more than a few years before they’re safe. And some of those products are actually useful sources of energy for radioisotopic batteries, for example.

    Other material components of the reactors do become radioactive, but not as strongly as the waste. It’s a manageable issue. Here in Australia, for example, more people die of cancer from natural radiation – the Sun’s UV light – each year than from artificial radioactivity the world over. We live in a naturally radioactive environment – potassium-40 is in our bodies and food, muons continually shower down on us from cosmic rays, UV-light, Uranium and thorium in granite, radon leaking out of the ground… all of these subject our bodies to continual exposure. We’re adapted to the presence of at least some radiation.

    What matters is the quantity and the ‘quality’ – some sorts are more damaging than others. Alpha particles are only a hazard if their source material is ingested. Beta particles can be stopped by clothing. Neutrons, x-rays and gamma-rays are the worst, but also the hardest to produce. Lightning is known to produce gamma-rays, for example, but not many (we hope.) Various artificial radioactives emit gamma-rays – but they’re hard to produce and handle. As a rule the nastiest radioactives are also the easiest to detect and to keep out of harm’s way.

  • Mary

    I used to be pretty gung-ho about the whole “Nuclear, oil, coal…it’s ALL got to go in favor of wind and water power!” but as I learn more, I am advocating nuclear power more and more over coal, wind, and water–not to mention solar, since unless you carpet the country with panels, it’s not going to generate a lot of power.

    I’m somewhat glad that they are thinking about this, but I worry about the cost to the American people. Obama’s constant spending means that he said, and I quote, “We don’t have the money,” and then goes on to applaud his(?) idea about a very expensive healthcare plan.
    Which seems to me like saying, “Hey, guess what…you taxpayer people are nearly broke, which means that I have less to spend. We’re going to shake you down for more, mmk?”

    In light of the USA being pretty close to broke, this might not be the best time to pour money into nuclear fusion studies. For one thing, it’s doubtful that the scientists would deliver–and for another, I don’t have an issue with the good old normal nuclear power. If it’s good enough for our military, it’s good enough for me–especially since in the case of nuclear subs, those guys are practically living on top of nukey goodness.
    If I were in charge, I would start checking to see if we could switch the whole country over to it in the least expensive way possible.

    Since I am not an expert on nuclear topics, people will probably point out a lot of holes in my theory, but I hope my meaning comes through.

  • Jeff

    Thank God you’re not in charge Mary. After reading your idiotic approach on which type of energy we should be using I slowly felt my I.Q. dropping dramatically. Please do us all a favor and get back in the kitchen where you belong.

  • Brian Too

    Why is it that nuclear is always sold with the tag line “someone proposes a brand-new, totally untested reactor type, which may solve all the old problems!”

    Sodium cooled reactors, Helium cooled reactors, high temperature reactors, graphite reactors, fusion reactors. Why, all we have to do is invent them, engineer them, approve them, fund them and build them! It’s all so simple!

    If there’s one thing you can count on, it will take 10X the original cost estimate to complete any one of these. Another likely outcome is that the design will underperform the original specification and it might badly underperform. Then you’ll be asked to fund a version 2 which might fulfill the original promise.

    That’s simply reality when you go start engineering entirely new technologies that are complex. Now given the political background of nuclear energy having a tainted history in North America, do you think that the version 2 design will ever get built?

    No, I’d suggest that it will become a political football and be held up in every way imaginable. By the time the version 2 can be built someone else will have come up with yet another advanced, innovative reactor design. You’ll then want to start over with the promise of the shiny new technology, inventing everything from scratch again.

    What you want is a healthy nuclear industry that is building conventional reactors all the time. Successfully. Build a history of success and build political support. Get the financiers comfortable enough that if they spend X dollars, they can get their money back plus a comfortable profit margin. Then you can start innovating on the reactor designs as you build new plants. The public will be a lot more supportive if they see a credible industry working away and generating good things for society.

    Right now the domestic nuclear industry hasn’t built a commercial reactor in 30+ years and we get these far-out proposals for lithium fusion reactors and the like. Talk about unreal.

  • Cathy

    Does anyone have any idea what will happen if (when) there is an accident or, as NRC would call it an “event” at one of these facilities?

    Let’s just say I would not want to be in the country. Um, considering Chernobyl’s fallout throughout the world? I would not want to be anywhere in the world, either.

  • Nick

    even if this reactor isnt energy efficent, it still does one important thing; gets rid of nuclear waste. So even for the time being, this reactor could be built to get rid of nuclear waste. And the building and using of such a reactor could conceivably lead us to producing efficent controlled fusion reactors, more quickly.

    And to the above comment, the United Nations Scientific Committee of the Effects of Atomic Radiation concluded that “There is no scientific evidence of increases in overall cancer incidence or mortality rates or in rates of non-malignant disorders that could be related to radiation exposure”, refering to the people around chernobyl. I would laugh at how misinformed people are but it has created a serious problem for the implementation of nuclear power.


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