into a basket, which is placed in a pot of molten salt. The oxide fuel inside
the pins dissolves in the molten salt so that all of the remaining fuel -- along
with all of the transuranics -- is extracted into the molten salt. The
transuranics could then be destroyed through subcritical nuclear fission, which
is driven by a beam of energetic protons within the custom-built,
high-efficiency accelerator he envisions.
McIntyre's design builds on work at Argonne National Laboratory and Idaho National Laboratory as well as the PRIDE facility in South Korea which demonstrated the process for extracting the fuel and separating the transuranic elements and fission products in molten salt. Scientists from those teams are collaborating with McIntyre in the new development.
"In the same process by which we extract the transuranics from the spent fuel, we also extract the uranium so it can be re-used as an ongoing energy resource to provide nuclear energy for the next several thousand years," McIntyre said.
The idea isn't new. But earlier proposals for accelerator-driven subcritical fission faced the problem that there was no known way to deliver the necessary proton beam power to a core. The ADSMS design uses a novel invention of McIntyre's called the strong-focusing cyclotron. In the strong-focusing cyclotron, bunches of protons are accelerated through superconducting radio-frequency (RF) cavities and focused using superconducting beam transport channels. These proton bunches are continually re-focused to contain high-beam current within the accelerator aperture -- an approach that McIntyre says makes it possible to deliver 10 times more fission-driving beam power than previously achievable, and to do it with high-energy efficiency.
"We are preparing a proposal to the DOE to build and put into operation a first model of this strong-focusing cyclotron," McIntyre said. "It would be quite an advance in the field of accelerator physics unto itself. But most particularly, for the first time, it will make it feasible to drive a subcritical fission core capable of destroying transuranics at the same rate they are made in a power reactor."
McIntyre knows the hurdles ahead for his project, including convincing federal officials to make a major scientific investment during an age of cutbacks, and proposing a new and better way for nuclear power at a time when Fukushima is fresh in the public mind. (McIntyre notes that the Fukushima explosions in 2011 involved spent fuel storage pools, a problem his technology would eliminate.)
But the road the 65-year-old scientist treks has a familiarity to it. He zigzagged the state and nation in the 1980s -- also a time of fiscal restraint -- to make the scientific and political cases for another major project, the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), which would have accelerated particles to nearly the speed of light and maintained American supremacy in high-energy physics. Congress killed the SSC 20 years ago, and the prospect of big discoveries at the frontier of high-energy physics gravitated to CERN in Switzerland, which celebrated the discovery of the elusive Higgs boson on July 4 last year.
Physicists, including Stephen Hawking, have lamented the loss to American science represented by the failure of the SSC, but McIntyre sees a silver lining to that effort: It gave him invaluable experience at figuring out how to connect science with the political leaders who could bring it to fruition, skills the grayer and wiser McIntyre is using now. Back in the 1980s, he ended up making a presentation about the SSC in the West Wing of the White House to then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, who subsequently asked for a two-pager to carry to President Ronald Reagan.
"That moment was the birth of the SSC," McIntyre said. "That's how things can happen, and that's how they do happen in this world. It takes persistence and ingenuity in trying to find a way."
SOURCE Texas A&M University
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