Nuclear power has one drawback: what to do with the spent fuel once it’s done its job. Nuclear power is safe, otherwise, and it has the lowest carbon footprint, so we need to continue to figure out how to maximize nuclear power. If we can solve this one dilemma, we have a perfect power source.
General Electric and Hitachi teamed up recently to pool their nuclear power resources. Their goal? To find a solution to the spent fuel problem and to support advanced reactor technology development. They are in the midst of a new project called PRISM, which is a sodium-cooled fast reactor. It is not in development as of now, but this proposed reactor can consume spent fuel and unused plutonium to produce low-carbon, clean power. GE and Hitachi claim that initial testing shows that PRISM could lower the volume of used nuclear fuel by a whopping 96 percent while simultaneously supplying 10 percent of the electricity needed by the United States.
Getting the Risks Assessed
To boost this project to the top of the priority pile, the United States Department of Energy has invested heavily. The biggest plus of the DOE’s involvement, beyond the multimillion-dollar investment, is the fact that the project will be used to update PRISM’s safety assessment with Argonne National Laboratory. This is important because the last safety assessment occurred in the 1990s, after the Three Mile Island incident in 1979 and the meltdown in Chernobyl in 1986.
Also, the PRISM project is a brand new methodology, so there are no existing risk assessment strategies that can properly predict how the systems will work together. With a new safety assessment in hand, researchers and engineers will have the tools they need to ensure the safety of the project moving forward.
When working with a new reactor design, the review process can take upward of 15 years, possibly longer. Since the main focus for nuclear projects is safety, having a working assessment method is essential. The remaining factors—environmental impact, efficiency and economics—all have their place, but safety is the chief concern.
Since its developers believe that PRISM has the capability to completely change the face of nuclear power in the future, the DOE teaming up with General Electric and Hitachi is an important step. Outside investors have proof from the DOE investment that the project is being taken very seriously as a reliable, safe method for producing power. Since the reactor has the added benefit of consuming used nuclear waste, this is something that could change how the world reacts to and treats nuclear power.
The reactor will take at least another decade before it becomes available for commercial use, so investors should not regard the project as a “get rich quick” addition to their portfolio. It can be, however, a viable investment that can grow by leaps and bounds once it is in use.