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» Sodium is a key to new type of nuclear reactor

For sodium, the sixth-most abundant element on the planet, is being held up as the key to one of several new types of nuclear reactor being developed as governments grapple with the problem of making atomic energy more environmentally friendly, safe and financially viable.

The 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan effectively brought a global nuclear boom to a halt, but a decade-old research program into new reactors has regained relevance of late.

Quite apart from Germany’s decision to phase out a large slice of its nuclear capacity in the wake of Fukushima, Britain and Belgium have recently switched off several aging reactors over safety concerns while a number of U.S. plants have closed because they can no longer compete with cheap shale gas.

Launched by the United States in 2000, the Generation IV International Forum has 13 member countries including China, Russia, France, Japan and Britain, which have whittled down nearly 100 proffered concepts to focus research on six nuclear reactor models.

By far the most advanced of the six is the sodium-cooled fast reactor, developed by France, Russia and China from a concept pioneered in the United States in the 1950s.

The reactor’s main advantage is that it can burn spent uranium and plutonium. These unwanted byproducts from water-cooled reactors have been piling up for years and the World Nuclear Association estimates stocks at about 1.5 million tons.

Liquid sodium is better than water at evacuating heat from the reactor core and its high boiling point of about 900 degrees Celsius allows reactors to operate close to atmospheric pressure, negating the need for the thick, steel containment vessels at pressurized water reactors.

But sodium has significant disadvantages, too. On contact with air, it burns; plunged into water, it explodes.

Early sodium-cooled fast reactors built by France, Russia and Japan have suffered corrosion and sodium leaks. But these were not built to GIF standards and the CEA research facility amid the pine trees in Cadarache, southeast France, is working on how to tame sodium as the agency seeks to convince lawmakers to allow construction of its new Astrid reactor, a 600 megawatt sodium-cooled model.

<Media Report>
Is sodium the future of nuclear or an element of doubt? (Japan Times)


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