Electrification of transportation, heating, and various industrial processes is crucial to fighting the climate crisis. Of course that’s only true if we wind up generating that electricity without carbon emissions. Renewable energy, including wind, hydro and solar will play a big role in this. Yet there are many reasons why those alone are unlikely to get us there, which is why we urgently need to build out other alternatives as well, such as geothermal and nuclear energy. In nuclear it makes sense for us to fund fusion, to see if we can make that work, but a possible commercial fusion reactor appears too far off to mitigate the worst of climate change. We should be building fission reactors to provide zero carbon electricity, because we understand the technology and have the industrial capability to do it in time to reach net zero by 2050.
Why then are we not building nuclear reactors (China and Russia being notable exceptions)? Because of concerns about two aspects of existing designs: the risk of a meltdown accident and the problem of storing nuclear waste that remains radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. Both of these are legitimate concerns and attempts to address these to date have fallen short or even backfired. Adding ever more complex safety systems has made building new reactors extremely costly and time consuming. Proposed long term storage options have turned out to be insufficient as there is simply too much nuclear waste already and it lasts for time periods that defy human planning horizons.
But what if it turns out that there is an approach that addresses both of these problems? A reactor design that is guaranteed to be safe and that can reduce existing waste instead of making new one? This is exactly what the team at Transmutex in Geneva is developing, based on technology first demonstrated at CERN in the 1990s.
Existing nuclear reactors are critical, meaning they can have a run-away chain reaction, and need to be down-modulated to avoid a meltdown. The Transmutex reactor is subcritical and needs to be up-modulated to achieve a chain reaction. How can that be done? By adding a particle accelerator to provide an external source of neutrons (accelerated protons are used to knock neutrons out of a piece of metal inside the reactor). Turn off the cyclotron and the chain reaction stops in less than 2ms. There can never be a meltdown accident. Because some electricity is needed to power the accelerator (which after spin-up comes from the reactor itself), this design is also known as an energy amplifier.
The external supply of extra “fast” neutrons and the kind of chain reaction that can be produced from it also permits the burning down of existing nuclear waste. This waste can be mixed into the fuel for the reactor, allowing it to be transmuted, i.e.changed into different elements, which take up significantly less space (roughly 100x less) and are radioactive for much shorter times (roughly 1000x shorter). It should be noted that there are some other reactor designs that could also accomplish this feat, but only Transmutex can do so while guaranteeing meltdown safety.