The Fukushima crisis was a brutal wake-up call about the risks of nuclear power, and it's really got us all down. But that doesn't mean we should all panic and disregard the amazing possibilities of nuclear technology.
Nuclear innovation is like the ocean: Respect it and take precaution, but don't avoid it out of fear. There have been some awesome breakthroughs thanks to cutting-edge research, which not only includes the next generation of nuclear reactors, but also things like space travel, medicine, and objects you use in your daily life.
When will we see these emerging technologies? Some we could see in a few years. Others may be decades away. But they they all share the common traits of promise and potential. Here's a look at our 10 favourite nuclear technologies of the future.
Thorium While thorium isn't a reactor (it's an element) many see it as the future of nuclear power. Four times more abundant than naturally occurring Uranium, Thorium can either be converted into the proper isotope of the aforementioned element (U-233), or be directly used as fuel in a reactor. The KAMINI reactor in India currently runs on Thorium-based fuel. [Source]
Pebble Bed Reactors (Very High Temperature Reactors) Pebble Bed reactors are part of a Generation IV class of reactors called Very High Temperature Reactors. What makes the Pebble Bed reactor special is that the uranium fuel is compressed into tennis-ball-sized spheres that wont melt until it hits 4000C (well above the 1600C peak theoretical temperature of any reactor incident). Because of this high temperature capacity and lack of any moving machinery in the reactor, if an emergency occurred, plant operators could shut off the reactor and vacate. The reactor would passively cool on its own. [Source]
RKA Nuclear Spaceship The Russians have big plans for a spaceship which uses nuclear propulsion designed for missions into deep space. In theory, the craft would have an onboard nuclear fission reactor, which would in turn heat the liquid hydrogen fuel. If successful, journeys to Mars would become much more feasible due to the significant efficiency increases. Russia claims that once they finish their design in 2012, it will take nine years and $US600 million to construct the ship (it should be noted that some are skeptical about the time and money such an endeavor would consume). [Source, Image]
Supercritical Water Reactors Supercritical water reactors are lusted after because they are considerably more efficient and give off less heat than current water-cooled reactors. The secret sauce is called supercritical water - an ambiguous state of matter that can move through solids like gas and dissolve matter like liquids - running through the system. In the case of a reactor, it means that supercritical water won't boil and doesn't require pressurisation, two good things for safe nuclear reactors. The problem is, supercritical water is at a higher risk of exploding while reaching the supercritical state, and overall, is less stable than a pressurised water reactor (but more stable than the boiling water reactors used at Fukushima). [Source]
Radionuclide Cancer Therapy Radionuclide Therapy is quickly becoming a popular new idea for cancer treatment, because of the precise method in which doctors can internally deliver cancer-killing radiation to targeted parts of the body. By selecting the proper radionuclides, and pairing them with the proper cells, such as antibodies, the radiation carrying organisms will only go after abnormal cells. That means it not only kills the tumor, but also any stray cancer cells in the vicinity of the tumor, while leaving unaffected organs and tissue alone. [Source, Image]
Gas-Cooled Fast Reactor Fast reactors are different from water-cooled reactors in that they don't require moderating rods (usually made of graphite) in order to slow down neutrons and sustain a nuclear chain reaction. The gas variant also uses the mostly non-reactive helium to regulate core, which can withstand high temperatures at very low pressures. But what makes a gas-cooled fast reactor especially appealing is that it is a breeder reactor: meaning it not only generates electricity, it also has the ability to generate nuclear fuel from uranium/plutonium/thorium. [Source]
Nuclear Powered Cars Uranium nitride is a newly-discovered compound that currently has scientists excited because of its ability to break carbon-hydrogen bonds and increase the energy output of gasoline. However, the compound destroys itself in the process, which is a current roadblock to future implementation. [Source, Image]
Energy Amplifier (Subcritical Reactor) The idea behind an energy amplifier is that a beam from a particle accelerator would blast the thorium atoms with outside neutrons, and would not require the element to reach a high temperature at which it hovers between a gas and a liquid. Not only would the reaction generate enough power to run the particle accelerator and have surplus energy, but would leave significantly less nuclear waste (such as plutonium, which some fear can be repurposed into nuclear weapons). [Source, Image]
Small Modular Reactor Many Small Modular Reactors use (or would use), many of the technologies used in current nuclear reactor designs. However, what makes small modular reactors appealing to forward-thinking nuclear power advocates, is their (wait for it...) smaller size, which means that a crisis at a single power plant would have less of an effect on the surrounding area. Of course there's the challenge of scaling out those power plants to support the same number of people as a larger station. One promising company, the Oregon-Based NuScale, uses a pressurised water reactor for their stations, which is considered safer than the boiling water reactors used in Fukushima. [Source]
Nuclear Batteries Betavoltaic batteries are coveted by innovation freaks because they promise to power personal devices for up to 30 years. One company, Widetronix, is designing a tritium-powered battery - for use in military sensors and medical implant devices - that captures electrons produced during tritium's natural nuclear decay and converts that to energy. No scary reaction necessary. [Source]