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The sustainable fast nuclear reactor technology that gets it all right
on January 4, 2012
The subtitle of Till and Chang's book "Plentiful Energy" is "The complex history of a simple reactor technology, with emphasis on its scientific bases for non-specialists". The key here is that, akin to powered flight, the technology for fully and safely recycling nuclear fuel turns out to be rather simple and elegant, in hindsight, but it was hard to establish this fact - hence the complex history. Like with aviation, there have been many prototype `fast reactors' of various flavors, and all have had problems.
This wonderful book by fast-reactor pioneers Charles Till and Yoon Chang, two of the foundational developers of the IFR during the fabulously productive years of research and development at the Argonne National Laboratory from the 1980s to early 1990s, explains in lucid terms the historical, philosophical and technical basis for truly sustainable nuclear energy. It's quite a story.
Imagine a reactor that passively responds to critical stressors of the kind that befell Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima by shutting down without human operators even needing to intervene. Or one that includes a secure recycling and remote fabrication system that, almost Midas like, is able to turn uranium or even old `nuclear waste' from contemporary reactors into an inexhaustible (and zero-carbon) fuel, as well as simultaneously solving the socio-political problem of long-term disposal.
Reading this book will allow you to understand how this technological wizardry is performed and why other fast reactor options never quite worked out. Moreover, you'll have a much deeper appreciation of the true potential of fission energy in a low-carbon and energy-hungry world - and an insight into what has stopped it reaching its potential, to date. There is something here for the non-specialist scientist and engineer, but also for the historian, social scientist, and media commenter. It is wrapped up in a grand narrative and an inspiring vision that will appeal to people from all walks of life - indeed anyone who cares about humanity's future and wants to leave a bright legacy for future generations that is not darkened by the manifold problems associated with extracting and burning ever dwindling and environmentally damaging forms of fossil carbon, like coal, oil and gas.
For the sake of averting crises of energy scarcity, mitigating the ever mounting global problem of anthropogenic climate change, as well as drastically reducing the pressure on society to make huge swathes of productive landscapes hostage to biofuels and other diffuse forms of energy collection, we need to continue the historical impetus towards ever more energy-dense fuels. For this sustainable nuclear technology, the sky is the limit.
Barry W. Brook
Professor of Climate Science and Conservation Biology
The University of Adelaide