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Nuclear power – the road ahead

By Louise Mayor


Until recently, the phrase “nuclear power” conjured for me a hazy and somewhat ignorant vision, comprising images of cooling towers, diagrams of fission and a sense of subdued controversy, in which proponents from neither the pro- nor anti-nuclear lobbies seem to know more about the subject that I do from high-school days.

But for the past few months I have been immersed in the landscape of modern nuclear power in preparation for a special issue of Physics World, which should land on readers’ doorsteps any day now. It is also available as a free PDF download.

Something I really wanted to get to grips with, when it comes to nuclear power, is who has what, and where? Well, if you do too, check out our colour-coded nuclear power world map, based on data from the International Atomic Energy Agency. It’s on pages 38 and 39 of the “special issue”.

But where do we go from here? In the long term, newly built reactors could be based on the six designs that the Generation-IV International Forum – consisting of 13 Members including the Russian Federation, the US, China and the UK – identified to meet its goals. Physics World’s Rome correspondent Edwin Cartlidge writes about these in the feature “Nuclear’s new generation”.

We also review four concepts for radically different reactor designs, including the travelling-wave reactor endorsed by Bill Gates; and accelerator-driven sub-critical reactors, which we quiz Nobel-prize-winning physicist Carlo Rubbia about in a Q&A.

Not only are there new designs, but new fuel. Elsewhere in the special issue, award-winning science writer Matthew Chalmers looks at how India is seeking to exploit its vast reserves of thorium as an alternative to uranium.

As well as fission, nuclear power also covers the realm of fusion. In the feature “Hot fusion”, Steve Cowley, chief executive of the UK’s Atomic Energy Authority, looks at the challenges facing the ITER facility being built in southern France. He says that with predictions of net power gain at ITER, we should act now to reduce the time to commercial fusion.

Attitudes are key in an energy future with nuclear power in the mix – a future that is only feasible if it has support. With that in mind, check out the debate between climate scientists who go head to head on the merits of nuclear power. You’ll find this, and much more, in the October issue of Physics World.

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  1. Ashwin

    I believe that nuclear reactors could be a quick way out of our current energy crisis. I am more in favor of creating fusion reactors over fission. One is that fusion provides more energy. Another reason is that fusion is far more more clean than fission. Fission, if operated on a grand scale would make way too much nuclear waste which would harm the environment and potentially devastate an ecosystem if not properly handled. It could cause unfavorable mutations in creatures if there is a mistake in handling, which will be inevitable. Fusion does not have this drawback. I recently read an article on how people are trying to make an artificial star using lasers. This would be a great idea on a large scale because it could easily solve our energy problems if successful.

  2. Jeffh

    I agree, fusion is easily the more desirable direction, theoretically. And that’s the issue, its not yet proven. Some day soon I hope fusion can be practically harnessed. It has the best waste profile (just containment system isotopes generated from the extremely high neutron flux mostly). But there will have to be a path to get there. That most assuredly will have to include more fission reactors. Perhaps including some of the newer designs that provide for some degree of transmutation of long life fission byproducts through high flux neutron bombardment within the reactor itself will minimize long half-life byproducts by converting most of these to elements with much shorter half-lives. In any event, nuclear will be essential I believe for the environment and to preserve fossil fuels for more useful causes, like producing essential chemicals for products.

  3. I found your issue on nuclear power deeply unsatisfactory. The essence of my argument is in the little word “MRI”. Nuclear irrationality works both ways. Robert Crease speaks of “nuclear hysteresis”, but his interesting piece looks for unreason only in nuclear opponents. Fair enough, a columnist even of Crease’s quality cannot cover everything, but PW has devoted 30 pages to this topic, including its usual high quality technical expositions. Only one token page was given to a dissenting voice. I don’t believe you!
    MRI? It’s nuclear magnetic resonance of course, and in the same way only the token Ian Lowe mentioned nuclear proliferation. The nuclear power programme of both Britain and France was originally a civilian cover for the military nuclear programme, and you can search the whole PW issue in vain for mention of the force de frappe. Probably now the two aims are fairly well separated, but I am afraid that deep suspicion remains. The trouble with nuclear power is that it is, especially in Britain, thoroughly contaminated with military overtones. AWE gets massive new funding, nuclear power rises like a phoenix; the materials science is all very closely related! And British industrial policy (such as it is) has also always been massively distorted by military procurement.
    In my opinion, the physics community should at last shout the rational (and ethical) thing, that Son of Trident is irrational and immoral : being useless and presupposing murderous intent – and vastly expensive into the bargain. And Son of Trident positively damages our security, in that it explicitly flouts the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Clear away SoT, then we can discuss nuclear power rationally.


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