A search for non-radioactive non proliferating nuclear power
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Can we design a nuclear power source that — like Robbie in Asimov’s classic tale “I, Robot” — is pre programed never to harm a human?
Can there be a nuclear process whose fuel will never be converted into nuclear weapons?
The recent report (1) of a special committee of the U.S. National Research Council implies that the world may be only one step away from being able to say “yes” to both of these questions. Conclusions of the First International Symposium on Feasibility of Aneutronic Power, held at the Institute for advanced Study in Princeton in the Fall of 1987, suggest that this last step may well be imminent.
What is aneutronic?
Energy-releasing nuclear reactions involving nonradioactive nuclei (both as the reactants and reaction products) and producing no neutrons have been known for half a century. We define a nuclear reaction as “aneutronic” if not more than 1% of the total energy released is carried by neutrons and if not more than 1% of the reactants (“fuel”) and reaction products (“waste”) are radionuclides. The definition is somewhat arbitrary and serves only as a guideline. Their product in all cases is predominantly helium, a nonradioactive inert gas.
Success of the Migma IV experiment
In an experiment carried out in 1982, referred to as Migma IV, AELabs demonstrated that a 1-Mev deuteron migma can be neutralized by oscillating electrons and exceed the space charge limit density without instability. Fuel density of migma was 1000 times lower than that of the best tokamak but migma’s temperature was 100 times higher than that of the best tokamak and its confinement 15 times longer, so that their product is 1,500 times higher than that in tokamak. The migma program had spent $23 million over 10 years. The Western world has spent $10 billion on the conventional plasma fusion program over the past 30 years.
Reflecting this development, the Senate’s Appropriations Committee stated in 1982:
“To date, basic research in the field of nuclear fission and fusion has largely overlooked the potential for aneutronic nuclear alternatives using light metals, such as lithium, that produce no radioactive side effects. The Committee recommends that the Department of Energy give higher priority to this non-radioactive and non proliferative nuclear potential.”
Strategic and commercial ramifications of aneutronic power.
A: Aerospace – low reactor weight because of no need for shielding as well as very large power-to-weight ratio; low fuel weight (100,000 X more concentrated fuel energy than non-nuclear fuels); 10% lower fuel cost than uranium (for dirty fission);reasonable fuel availability; lower plant capital cost; no heat pollution; modular – units as small as 1 megawatt may be economical.
B: Power supply for radar and telecommunications
The smallest aneutronic power plant (30 KWe), similar to the proposed Migma V, would have a wide application: this is the power needed to run a radar or CCC station.
C: Navel application
The advantage of lightweight aneutronic power production also applies to ship propulsion, where specific power is less critical than in aerospace case.
D: Terrestrial applications for utilities
First, an aneutronic reactor can be small, producing megawatts of electric (MWe), while the minimum economical size of a fission or (projected) fusion power plant is about 1000 MWe. Hence, the small nuclear power plant, impossible today, becomes feasible. A small power unit implies mass production, which results in lower capital cost per kilowatt of capacity than with large reactors that are built one or two at a time. (Initial capital cost is one of the major barriers to nuclear energy in developing countries and smaller communities of developed countries). Second, there are clear environmental advantages of nonradioactive fuel, nonradioactive waste, and the absence of waste heat (heat pollution).
Absence of neutrons means that the aneutronic reactor cannot breed plutonium for nuclear weapons. Since radioactive fuel, radioactive waste, heat pollution, and proliferation are the main current environmental and political issues for nuclear power, the implications of aneutronic nuclear energy for the environment are obvious: not only an acceptable but an attractive nuclear power technology.