Molten salt reactor poised to change nuclear energy as we know it

A new wave of scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs say they’ve discovered a more sustainable way to produce nuclear power. The key ingredient of their revolutionary reactor? Molten salt.

To understand why molten salt is a potential game-changer for the energy industry, it first helps to understand how the standard nuclear reactor works.

A traditional reactor works by submerging nuclear fuel in a water bath. Uranium atoms split (known as “fission”) and produce heat. This heat turns the water to steam, which powers turbine generators to create electricity. This is how it’s been done for generations.

According to the nuclear engineers at Transatomic Power, however, this water-based method only extracts 4 percent of potential energy and leaves behind large amounts of radioactive waste in the process. Their solution is to replace water with liquid chemical salt that’s been infused with radioactive fuel.

The result, it turns out, isn’t marginally more efficient. It’s enormously more efficient. The team at Transatomic Power recently told the Boston Globe that their molten salt reactor generates 96 percent of available energy. They also say their method could use existing nuclear waste as fuel, reducing environmental hazards and tapping into a massive amount of potential power.

The MSR renaissance

The idea of molten salt reactors has been around since the 1960s, with research efforts led by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). However, a lack of political and economic interest in the technology stopped the design from gaining much traction.

Now, several decades later, the molten salt reactor has gained renewed interest within the industry. Transatomic Power is just one of several entrepreneurial companies determined to transform energy production with molten salt.

The trend isn’t isolated to the U.S. either. Companies dedicated to molten salt nuclear technology include Terrestrial Energy in Ontario, Moltex Energy in London and Seaborg Technologies out of Copenhagen—to name just a few. 

Path to mainstream acceptance

Despite what many see as clear benefits of molten salt reactors over traditional nuclear technology, the path to mainstream integration hinges on the MSR’s economic viability.

As Dr. Leslie Dewan of Transatomic Power told the Boston Globe, “Advanced reactors will only matter if you can make them cheaper than coal, cheaper than fossil fuel sources. You want to make sure people have an economic incentive as well as an environmental incentive to build this carbon-free fuel source.”

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