Today’s water-cooled reactors generate large amounts of depleted uranium. This “waste” is then contained and stored in various parts of the country. There is about 700,000 metric tons of nuclear waste throughout the United States. If there could be a way to convert that waste into energy, our energy problems would be effectively solved.
TerraPower believes that they have just done that. Their Travelling Wave Reactor (TWR) “directly converts depleted uranium to usable fuel as it operates.” The technology works by initially burning a small amount of enriched uranium (U-235) that would shoot neutrons into depleted uranium (U-238), which then converts to plutonium-239. This initial reaction jumpstarts a slow moving wave of neutrons that travel through U-238 and produces heat through the nuclear reactions. The video link below further illustrates the process. If the core of a TWR is an 8 metric ton container of depleted uranium, this heat producing nuclear reaction can produce 25 million MW-hours of electricity, enough to power 2.5 million houses in the United States for one year. The TWR can run 40-60 years without needing to refuel. This technology also increases proliferation resistance because it greatly reduces the need to enrich and reprocess uranium.
Currently, there have been no countries interested in having a test facility on their soil. They have pitched their ideas to France, Japan, Russia, China, and India with no success. It would take more than a decade to build one in the U.S. partly because they have not expressed any interest in the technology either. Also, the U.S. currently has no certification process for a travelling wave reactor.
I think this is a fascinating technology that I hope will reach the testing phase soon. If the TWR performs as predicted, global energy use will experience a paradigm shift in favor of nuclear and clean energy.