What's so dangerous about nuclear power?
The Abilene Reporter-News reports when you ask the question on the street, a number of different answers come up. But the two most common ones are that there's concern about the waste products and safety.
What if there's a way to mitigate those two major concerns using one simple solution? Would it be valuable?
Those are the questions being addressed by the team at Abilene Christian University's Nuclear Energy eXperimental Testing lab. Director Rusty Towell, professor of engineering and physics at the school, is hoping to start providing some answers in the next five years.
And he's getting salty about the process.
Towell and his team of about 30 have begun studying molten salt reactors by creating a molten salt test loop on the second floor of Bennett Gymnasium. It's a lab space dedicated to changing the way nuclear power is perceived in the future.
"We've been trying to understand how to work with salt," Towell said. But not table salt. They've got bigger and hotter batteries to fill.
Instead, they're using a nitrate salt mixture of lithium, potassium and sodium -- table salt is sodium chloride -- commonly found in solar panels. It has a high melting point (260 degrees Celsius) that the team needs for its studies and remains liquid to about 550 degrees Celsius.
Here's the start of how this technology, while expensive, could change nuclear power, Towell said.
Water turns to steam at about 100 degrees Celsius under normal atmospheric pressure, meaning to keep the water (used for cooling) from instantly evaporating in a nuclear fission reactor, it must be kept at massive pressure. It's a lot hotter than 100 degrees Celsius inside those reactors.
Pressure is dangerous and can lead to disaster, not something to be taken lightly when working with radioactive materials. It's partly to blame for both the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011 and the 1986 meltdown at Chernobyl. Among others in recent media, a video by science YouTube video producer Hank Green showed exactly how the Chernobyl meltdown, probably the most famous nuclear reactor incident in history, occurred.
Using the molten salt to cool the process eliminates the need for the water and the pressure it's under. Because it operates as a liquid in a higher temperature range, Towell said, there's less risk for meltdown.
As for the other concern usually expressed, the molten salt-cooled reactors also possess a feature that will address nuclear waste. Tim Head, associate professor of engineering and physics at ACU, said the materials deemed waste can, in theory, be used in the reactor again, allowing the dangerous radioactivity to be broken down again.
It's less wasteful, too.
There are reasons it hasn't been this way since nuclear power's advent. Cost is just one; availability of resources is another. A research university was studying these salts in the 60s, but the funding was coming from the Navy, which wanted the technology for its submarines, Towell said.
Once they realized a nuclear-powered submarine surrounded by water wasn't in need of salt-cooled reactors, the funding dried up and so did the research, he said.
ACU's looking to get it back going again and has applied through the Department of Energy to build and run a reactor cooled by these salts, a process they hope can get off the ground in the next five years.
If approved, ACU would be the only operating research reactor cooled by molten salt. Right now, they're working with colleagues from Georgia Tech University, Texas A&M University and the University of Texas on developing these plans.
Towell and Head and the rest of ACU's NEXT Lab are confident they'll be able to change the game.
"This is exciting for the Abilene community," Towell said. "When this technology is developed, it's going to bless the whole world. There will be a local economic impact, too."