As the push to rid the world of environmentally harmful coal power plants grows, the nuclear power industry is beginning to ramp up production in hopes that it can pick up some of the slack. However, Nuclear power plants can often be costly to set up with many governmental regulations to comply with. Most of the time, when the public hears about nuclear power plants, it is after a meltdown or some kind of disaster, which can leave the public with a bad connotation of the industry. Lightbridge, a company based in Virginia, has made a new metallic fuel rod that can be used to make reactors much safer as well as much more efficient.
— Nuclear Energy Inst. (@NEI) March 17, 2016
The new fuel rod is a completely metallic system that Lightbridge hopes will be implemented throughout the nuclear energy industry as a direct replacement for the current rods. Fuel cells are currently made from a ceramic oxide based in uranium, where as the new cells use a zirconium based alloy. Besides the base material, the rod is one continuous piece of metal decreasing the risk of failure, as seen above.
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As the new metallic fuel is one piece, it allows for better heat transfer to the cooling solution. Better heat transfer means good things for power density and cooling needs inside the plant's daily operation. These rods operate initially at 360 ˚C which is nearly 1000 degrees cooler than the current fuel rods in use. They are also not limited by size of power plant or application, bringing economic versatility to the industry.
Unfortunately, these new fuel rods won't be available starting right away, but Lightbridge has started working with the French nuclear company Areva to hopefully bring the technology into the mainstream by 2020. The company says that replacing current rods in a 1,100 MW plant would yield US$60 million in additional annual revenue, according to Technology Review. One negative of these rods poses an additional safety problem, their melting point is much lower than current fuel cells, meaning it wouldn't take as much to cause a total meltdown of a reactor, much like the Fukushima disaster.
[Image Source: Lightbridge]
The cry of the nuclear industry at the moment has been to increase production in order to lessen the dependence on fossil fuels, until wind and solar energy can be achieved on a larger scale. While advances in these sustainable industries are occurring, in order to completely replace all energy needs with wind and solar would take many years, and this is exactly what the nuclear energy field is banking off of. Hopefully, this new fuel rod will mean good things for the energy industry and create more sustainable and safe nuclear energy production facilities.