Nuclear power proposed without the headaches

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By Roger Snodgrass

Somewhere, if only in a parallel universe, a start-up company is working on a dream technology that truly and conscientiously responds to real public concerns about nuclear power.

Wait a minute. It’s not a dream.  

ADNA Corp., a Los Alamos-based company, headed by Charlie Bowman, signed an agreement this month with Virginia Tech to develop an alternative nuclear technology that promises to deliver a safer, less costly supply of nuclear energy, while eliminating proliferation concerns about uranium enrichment and substantially reducing and postponing the burden of nuclear waste for hundreds of years.

Bowman called it a transformational technology, “not an extension of the existing, well-established program.”  

“It has been developed,” he said “by understanding and recognizing the serious problems that nuclear energy has and coming up with a better system that is possible now that wasn’t possible before.”

In a succinct technical description, Bowman and collaborators described the design as “a subcritical thermal spectrum reactor operating with molten salt fuel in a graphite matrix.”

The fact that the reactor fuel is subcritical and can’t create a chain reaction by itself but must be supplied with extra neutrons by a nuclear accelerator has significant implications.

It means the fission that creates the energy can simply be halted by turning off the accelerator if there should ever be a safety problem. It also means that enriched uranium and plutonium fuels that could fall into the hands of nuclear terrorists are not required or created by the workings of the reactor, although existing weapons-grade materials could be diluted and disposed of in the reactor’s liquid fuel stream.

Accelerator neutrons were not an affordable option when nuclear power generators were first built, but since then, Bowman said, the cost of supplying those extra neutrons has gone down by a factor of a million.

The company has identified a new form of graphite that absorbs about 30 percent fewer neutrons than earlier forms of graphite used in reactors, according to the company’s announcement, shaving the cost of neutrons even more.

Because it uses a liquid fuel, this reactor can use almost any kind of fuel from unenriched uranium to spent fuel that comes out of today’s light water reactors. Rather than contributing to the waste, the new design proposes to consume it.

 More than claims

“We don’t think there are significant questions,” Bowman said, who has made patent applications for the technology and published a set of related papers on technical aspects in “Nuclear Science and Engineering” and a description of the fully integrated design in a chapter requested for a new “International Handbook of Nuclear Engineering,” to be published by Springer-Verlag before the end of this year.

“There are no issues that are holding us up,” Bowman said.

In a series of recent interviews, Bowman and his partners at Virginia Tech, Bruce Vogelaar, professor of physics and Mark Pierson, an associate professor of nuclear engineering, spoke at length about the company, the concept and its potential to rebuild public confidence in nuclear power.

ADNA’s reactor is called GEM*STAR, which stands for Green Energy Multiplier*Subcritical Technology for Alternative Reactors.

“The major technologies of GEM*STAR have proven track-records in other contexts, including molten salt reactors, accelerator production neutrons and conversion of thermal to electrical energy,” Vogelaar said.

The molten salt technology had its start at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the 1960’s and was considered successful, but lost out in a competitive race with other technologies of the time.

It’s called “green” among other reasons, because it could be built in conjunction with a solar or wind power plant that could supply the five percent of the electricity that it takes to run the accelerator.

“The ‘green energy multiplier’ reactor, said Pierson, “puts out 30 times the energy, and it’s all green energy.”

GEM*STAR would have a 40-year fuel cycle, but the number of cycles could be extended by adding additional neutrons, to as much as 200 years, according to one conceptual scenario.

While Bowman has a house in Los Alamos, he has been spending quite a bit of time in southern Virginia these days.

He is married to Los Alamos County Councilor Nona Bowman.

He retired from Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1997, where he worked at the Los Alamos Neutron Science Center, culminating in a project on Accelerator Transmutation of (nuclear) Waste. In retirement, he formed the ADNA Corporation, which stands for Accelerator Driven Neutron Applications.

 Future plans

Pierson said the business plan calls for setting up a small demonstration plant, 16 MWe (Megawatts electric).

“If that’s successful, we’ll take that same plant and scale it up to 100 MWe, and after that go to a full-scale plant at 220MWe.”

Ultimately, as many as five of these reactors might be ganged together at the same location.”

Additional safety features include the fact that the reactors would be built underground.

Bowman credits Los Alamos National Laboratory for providing a beginning for the reactor through the transmutation of waste program in the 90s. He also conducted important graphite experiments at the laboratory.

“Following that,” he said, we made a considerable effort to launch the program within the lab, but it has a lot of things to worry about, so I’ve focused outside.”

Laboratory officials were asked repeatedly during a two-week period for comment about Bowman’s project and for an independent perspective on where the technology stands in the context of new nuclear developments, but a spokesman for the laboratory said Friday that he was still unable to provide the information.

“It doesn’t mean the technology doesn’t have a future in Northern New Mexico,” Bowman said. “There are other ways to move the technology ahead, possibly in the Los Alamos area, but not necessarily at the laboratory. I can see a way for the lab to be involved in a way that is good for them and the whole Northern New Mexico community.”

While a smattering of polls seem to find public approval of nuclear power in general inching upward, a substantial minority still oppose it and a substantial majority (63 percent) according to a 2005 Gallup poll say they oppose the construction of a nuclear energy plant in their areas.

In a poll released in March 2009, Gallup concluded, “There are clearly challenges to expanding nuclear energy use in the United States.

Although most Americans support the use of nuclear energy, the level is hardly an overwhelming majority. And there remain concerns among a substantial minority of Americans about the safety of nuclear power plants.

ADNA will be making a presentation of its concept at the 2009 Annual Meeting of the American Nuclear Society in Atlanta, June 14-18.