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TR10: Traveling-Wave Reactor

(Page 2 of 3)

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The trick is that the reactor itself will convert the uranium-238 into a usable fuel, plutonium-239. Conventional reactors also produce P-239, but using it requires removing the spent fuel, chopping it up, and chemically extracting the plutonium--a dirty, expensive process that is also a major step toward building an atomic bomb. The traveling-wave reactor produces plutonium and uses it at once, eliminating the possibility of its being diverted for weapons. An active region less than a meter thick moves along the reactor core, breeding new plutonium in front of it.

The traveling-wave idea dates to the early 1990s. However, Gilleland's team is the first to develop a practical design. Intellectual Ventures has patented the technology; the company says it is in licensing discussions with reactor manufacturers but won't name them. Although there are still some basic design issues to be worked out--for instance, precise models of how the reactor would behave under accident conditions--Gilleland thinks a commercial unit could be running by the early 2020s.

While Intellectual Ventures has caught the attention of academics, the commercial industry--hoping to stimulate interest in an energy source that doesn't contribute to global warming--is focused on selling its first reactors in the U.S. in 30 years. The designs it's proposing, however, are essentially updates on the models operating today. Intellectual Ventures thinks that the traveling-wave design will have more appeal a bit further down the road, when a nuclear renaissance is fully under way and fuel supplies look tight.

"We need a little excitement in the nuclear field," says Forsber­g. "We have too many people working on 1/10th of 1 percent change."

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