“Mines has always had a nuclear connection, historically,” stated Dr. Jeffrey King of the CSM Nuclear Science and Engineering Program. His appropriately titled seminar “Nuclear Power: Visions for the future and the Mines Connection” envisioned the nuclear power of ten, twenty five, and one hundred years in the future and explained the contributions Mines made to nuclear energy.
King offered impressive statistics on the power of nuclear fission. A fission event from one atom creates approximately 200 MeV of power, as opposed to 4 eV from an equivalent carbon reaction. “The energy density in a uranium atom is about fifty million times greater than that of a carbon atom.” Therefore, a piece of uranium the size of a fingertip creates as much energy as one ton of coal. “What that means is that when we use uranium as an energy source… we have a very small fuel volume,” he summarized.
Although much has been made of nuclear waste, King does not believe it is as bad as it is portrayed. He explained, “If you took all of the high level waste or all of the spent fuel of all of the United States’ electric power generation in the past forty or fifty years, you could put it in one football field approximately fifteen feet deep… From a pure volume standpoint, it’s tiny.” King also reminded the audience that waste from coal-fired power plants contains many dangerous chemicals and unpleasant substances. After establishing the current validity of nuclear power, he continued on to the future of nuclear power.
In ten years, King predicts, there will be an expansion of nuclear power usage, but much of the technology will be the same as today. Most current US reactors will still be in operation, with a few new ones coming online. Around the world, there will be many more reactors, possibly including small modular reactors. Small, modular reactors are miniature reactors constructed in factories. Although they offer much less power than full-size reactors, they are cheaper to purchase, and therefore have many advocates. Also, in ten years King expects that used fuel will continue to be stored on-site with some recycling efforts.
Twenty-five years from now, nuclear power will look substantially different than it does today according to King. The current US network of reactors will be shutting down and the now mostly theoretical Evolutionary design reactors will be taking their places. Most countries will have access to nuclear power as it takes its place with other renewable energies. Used fuel will be taken to a central storage facility, and much of it will be recycled. Innovation will continue to create better, more efficient processes.
One hundred years from now, much of the nuclear power world will be unrecognizable, though much will be the same. In the world of the future, “Nuclear power is ubiquitous alongside other renewable energies.” Though revolutionary new technologies will dominate nuclear energy, some familiar methods will still exist. The fuel cycle will be closed with total recycling, and breeder reactors will enable almost infinite power supply.
According to King, Mines has an important role to play in the future of nuclear energy. He recapped the path CSM has taken so far, “When they started thinking about nuclear, they looked around and realized they had everything but the nuclear fuel side of it. The only thing we didn’t have was the reactor expertise.” In response to this deficiency, CSM founded the Nuclear Science and Engineering Program four years ago.
As a continuation of this program, King shared information on a new laboratory facility known unofficially as the Active Materials Characterization Lab. “The ActMCL… will provide the capability to study structure and chemistry of radioactive materials,” said King. The facility is located with the USGS TRIGA reactor in the Denver Federal Center, but has its own equipment and space. That equipment includes a SEM, a TEM, a XRD, X-ray sources and Neutron Radiography. There is also a fuel chemistry lab to explore the synthesis of TRISO-type fuels.