While wind turbine and solar power platforms are beginning to take to the sea, another, more established form of power might also avoid hiking real estate costs.
A Copenhagen-based startup just raised funding to the sum of eight figures in Euros to begin construction of a new kind of cheap, flexible, portable, and unyieldingly safe nuclear reactor, according to a press release shared by the company, Seaborg Technologies.
And, crucially, the timeline for global deployment will shatter conventional paradigms in the energy industry.
Floating nuclear reactors have four thresholds of redundancy for safety
Called Compact Molten Salt Reactors, the new reactors are roughly the size of a shipping container, and are slated for mass production on the scale of thousands. Once completed, they’ll be lifted onto floating barges to be deployed throughout the world, and then see deployment at unprecedented speeds. Similar to other molten salt reactors, which have been active since the 1950s, these new reactors were built to minimize the potential risks from accidents, with two passive safety measures in place that might transform the meaning of safety when it comes to nuclear power investment.
One of the reasons for this is the company’s use of nuclear fuel mixed into fluoride salts. This mixture forms a liquid above 932 °F (500 °C). This allows it to flow in and out of the reactor, which functions at pressures comparable to the external atmosphere. The liquid salt works as a coolant on nuclear fuel, supplanting the conventional high-pressure water cooling system used in older reactors. But, unlike high-pressure water, which explodes into steam when exposed to ordinary air, liquid salt reacts like hot lava, and turns into solid rock.
Of course, you don’t want to touch this rock. It’s radioactive, which is bad. But a contained solid is easier to avoid than an ambient cloud of radioactive gas that can plume its destructive way across a continent, à la Chernobyl. Rocks can be safely removed with safety teams using Geiger counters, and, since it has low solubility in water, there’s far less danger posed should it sink into the sea. And, if the floating nuclear reactor’s temperature starts shooting too high, a “frozen salt” plug at the reactor’s bottom would melt before anything else, and if it does, the reactor core would completely drain into a labyrinth of drainage tanks below.
Floating nuclear reactors fundamentally change the business model
Combined, these straightforward measures substantially shift the focus of nuclear safety away from wholesale accident prevention, since there are four layers of redundancy at each threshold of failure, according to Troels Schönefeldt, Seaborg’s CEO and co-founder. And these four backup plans are much easier to mitigate, in addition to radically lowering the cost of implementing nuclear power. “We take a different approach,” said Schönefeldt to Radio Spectrum. “We’re not reducing the likelihood of an accident to zero, there will be accidents. We should avoid them as much as we can, but there will be accidents.”
Surprisingly, Schönefeldt wants accidents to happen. “Hopefully, there will be a lot of accidents because we will have a lot of these reactors,” he added. “What we do, instead of reducing the likelihood, is reduce the consequence of even the worst disasters. Or even acts of war where you actually bomb the reactor. The consequence there is that this fluoride salt will flow out of the reactor, or explode out of the reactor, and lie on the field. It’ll solidify. And now you shouldn’t go onto that field. You should actually keep 10 or 20 feet of distance. But you can go there with a Geiger counter and clean it up. It’s wildly expensive, but you can do it. And that changes the fundamental safety profile of the technology.”
“And in doing so, we change the cost, which again, in turn changes the business model.” Of course, the most ostensibly novel feature of Seaborg’s design is the installation of these reactors on barges, with aims to power land-based devices with offshore power, instead of investing in purchasing a section of land and building out entire plants. And with other forms of sustainable energy taking flight at sea, like offshore wind and solar power platforms, it seems nuclear power might become a common sight on barges floated out to major metropolitan areas.