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14 April, 2005

Hot pebbles

There's a fascinating article in Wired (Sept. '04) about the potential for a revolutionary revival in nuclear power generation.

It involves a technological approach as old as conventional 'big nuke' reactors, but which was sidelined by political/military concerns in the 1940s and 50s.
Pebble bed reactors, based on silicon carbide-encased graphite balls containing tiny flecks of uranium, cooled by helium rather than water, are (apparently) inherently safer than water-cooled reactors using fuel and moderator rods. Switch off the cooling system of a pebble bed reactor, and activity will cease when the temperature reaches a point well below that dangerous to the components. If a conventional reactor's cooling system fails, problems are somewhat greater.

There's even a beneficial by-product: such reactors can readily be used to generate hydrogen, for use in non-polluting fuel-cell vehicle engines.

A final bonus, in a sense, is that China seems to be leading research into implementation; namely under a political system which won't be derailed by misguided tree-huggers.

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