A Canadian company that hopes to develop the world’s first commercial Integral Molten Salt Reactor (IMSR) said it had commenced a feasibility study to explore siting a prototype reactor at the Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) at Chalk River, Ontario.
The race is on for the development of the first small modular reactors, making use of design theories, like the IMSR, that have no possibility of suffering a meltdown, such as the triple meltdown that struck three large reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Generating Station in Japan in March 2011.
Terrestrial Energy said it has plans for developing the first commercial IMSR models for the CNL site or the Idaho National Laboratories in the United States. Several other U.S. sites are also under consideration, some of the east of the Mississippi.
The plan is to have one or more IMSR models up and running by the early 2020s. The feasibility study in Canada is not only looking for a site for the power plant and an accompanying technology hub, but it is being done in conjunction with a Request for Expressions of Interest (RFEOI) that is exploring tie-ins with supply chains – a preliminary step for manufacturing.
In theory, the IMSR design is far safer than sizeable nuclear power plants in which the worst-case scenario involves loss of back up cooling systems, which leads to a nuclear core meltdown, which includes temperatures too hot for the reactor vessel to contain.
Fictionalized accounts of nuclear power plant meltdowns envisioned the large reactors overheating to the point that they not only melted the steel reactor vessels, but the concrete encasing those and continued to melt straight through to the earth’s surface, dropping into the Earth’s core.
While a few reactors have suffered partial meltdowns, the three full-blown events in Japan were terrible enough – suffering devastating hydrogen explosions and radioactivity releases – although no radioactive material melted through the planet.
The IMSR model has no ability to meltdown at all, according to proponents. Envisioned as small, factory-built reactors, these power plants “use fuel dissolved in molten fluoride or chloride salt which functions as both the fuel (producing heat) and the coolant (transporting the heat away and ultimately to the power plant),” explains the World Nuclear News.
Since the same material that produces the heat also serves as a coolant, there is no worry that an external cooling system might fail, leaving the plant vulnerable to a meltdown.
The reactors are also designed as “small modular reactors” that can be built at a factory and shipped to the site where they will be deployed. Proponents say that they could be used in tandem arrangements with several small reactors used to heat water so the steam can power turbines that create electricity. Others could be used individually or in pairs to provide power for remote villages or industries – such as mines.
They could also be used for heating purposes either industrial sites or residential heating. Such deployments, if realized, could not come at a better time for the nuclear power industry, which has not been able to make much headway in several important markets, despite the dangers of global warming that would seem to guarantee demand for abundant, stable, carbon-emissions-free sources of power.
Instead, a recent study said that 34 of 61 nuclear power plants in the United States were losing money with the erosion of wholesale electricity prices brought on by a glut on the market by a growing supply of cheap natural gas, compliments of the development of hydrofracking extraction.
While facing cheap competition on one flank, nuclear power plants are also up against the sudden popularity of renewable power sources, such as wind and solar energy.
Nuclear power industry leaders continually point out that wind and solar power sources don’t work if the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining. Nevertheless, the Fukushima Daiichi accident has shaken the industry to the core with governments in German, South Korea, and even France pledging to diminish their dependence on nuclear power or abandon their nuclear power options entirely.