When I first heard about this, it sounded like one of these miracle cancer cures you read about on the Internet. In this case, the cancer is climate change, and the miracle pill is something called the integral fast reactor, a different way of producing nuclear power. It seems too good to be true, but it looks like it is … true.

In current U.S. nuclear reactors, only 5 percent of the uranium in a fuel rod is “burned” during the fission process. The other 95 percent is a mix of uranium, plutonium and a mishmash of other radioactive elements that refused to be split by the neutron hatchets flying around inside the reactor core. It’s the splitting of uranium atoms by neutrons that releases heat into the water that surrounds the fuel rods. That energy is then used either directly or indirectly to convert water into steam, which drives electric turbines.

This dependence on water is why today’s nuclear reactors are called “light water reactors.” And although the design has some conveniences (water is cheap and plentiful), water tends to slow down neutrons enough that they have a harder time splitting atoms.

By Craig Bowron

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