Friday, May 15, 2015

The Nuclear Future:

Looking Beyond the Horizon

I was a bit startled a week or so ago to get a question from someone asking me to take a really long view on the future of nuclear power.  I'm not sure my answers really addressed the entire picture, but it was interesting to think about the subject, and I thought others might want to consider the issue as well.

The first question was not all that surprising.  It asked about the prospects for the Gen IV nuclear reactor technologies.  The answer, of course, depends on so many things that I found it a difficult question.  To be honest, I didn't come up with specifics, like which technology might be most likely to succeed, or how many Gen IV reactors might be built, or where they might be built.  Rather, I tried to identify factors that might play into that decision, and how--the economy, R&D funding, other energy technologies, environmental requirements, market factors, financing options, etc.  But all of these points were points that I'd seen discussed many times.

It was the next questions that really got my attention.  What future nuclear technologies, they asked, might lie beyond Gen IV?  I must admit that the Gen IV technologies cover such a broad spectrum that it is difficult for me to think of much that Gen IV doesn't cover, at least partly.  And given that most of the Gen IV technologies are based on concepts that were first conceived in the early days of nuclear power development--and yet still have a long road ahead of them to achieve a practical role as a source of energy--it is difficult to think when we might envision a next generation beyond Gen IV starting.

Yes, I limited my thinking mainly to fission technologies.  In part, I thought I was the wrong person to answer a question about the prospects for fusion, and in part, I assumed that any breakthrough in fusion would so clearly be a new generation technology that they didn't need me to tell them that.  Perhaps concepts like accelerator-driven fission reactors might fit the "beyond Gen IV" description, but I really wasn't sure.

The last question, in a way, proved the hardest.  They asked what novel applications I envisioned for nuclear power beyond the ones presently in use or being considered.  Again, so many possibilities are on the table that I wasn't sure what would be truly novel.  We are already talking about direct use of thermal energy from high-temperature reactors for industrial processes, including hydrogen generation.  We are also already talking about small reactors for remote applications, such as small communities in the Arctic, or mines.   

One can envision space colonies--or cities under the ocean--powered by nuclear reactors.  That would be a new application, but might not necessarily entail significant developments for the nuclear technology needed.  I once worked briefly on the concept of a nuclear-powered aircraft, but I don't see that as being a likely future application.  Perhaps the most futuristic thing I could think of might be some sort of advanced nuclear technology for long-range space propulsion.  But again, not only were we getting to the farther edges of time and space, we were also getting to the limits of my knowledge about how such a technology might work.

So, I was left a little frustrated that I hadn't done an adequate job of answering the questions, but intrigued by the opportunity to look beyond what I already had thought was the future for nuclear power.  It made me think that others might want to engage in the same exercise.


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