ORNL reactor’s past tied to nation’s energy future

IMG_4823John Kotek, the Department of Energy’s acting assistant secretary for nuclear energy, was at Thursday’s workshop on Molten Salt Reactor Technologies at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

“I think the spirit of Alvin Weinberg is here,” Alan Icenhour, an associate lab director at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, said Thursday morning.

No, Icenhour wasn’t holding a seance, hoping to connect with the late Dr. Weinberg — a nuclear pioneer, science ambassador and longtime director of ORNL. He was speaking at the opening session of a workshop celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment, of which Weinberg was its champion.

An innovative reactor concept that Weinberg thought was important in the 1960s is now coming back into vogue, and that’s why about 150 heavyweights in the nuclear industry came to Oak Ridge for the two-day event to make a fuss about the past and to talk about possibilities for the future.

moltensaltThe Molten Salt Reactor was designed and operated at ORNL in the 1960s, testing a reactor concept and the use of molten salts — a mixture of lithium, beryllium and zirconium fluorides — that served as the reactor’s coolant and also contained the dissolved fission fuel (initially U-235 and later U-233).

The Oak Ridge experiment was shut down in 1969, reportedly because of limited federal funds for the many reactor concepts that were being evaluated at labs during the nation’s nuclear heyday. But the results of the experiment were promising, and the reactor continues to draw interest as an efficient power source with some advantages over the light water reactors that currently meet a sizable chunk of U.S. power needs.

ORNL Director Thom Mason said there are multiple variations of what a molten salt reactor could look like, with some models featuring a solid fuel core, but generally they can operate at higher temperatures, which offers higher energy production, and lower pressures, which provides some passive safety features.

Proponents also cite the promise of reduced amounts of highly radioactive waste.

Some of the pioneers who worked on the Oak Ridge reactor in the 1960s were on hand, and they were to be recognized at a dinner Thursday evening.

John Kotek, the Department of Energy’s acting assistant secretary for nuclear energy, was a keynote speaker at the workshop.

Kotek said DOE sees nuclear playing a large role in the nation’s low-carbon-emissions future and wants to support that effort. Molten salt is one of the nuclear possibilities, but it’s not the only one, he said.

“We’re in the process of examining our program and how we make our research program more impactful,” Kotek said.

‘‘What’s important at the end of the day is that we get one or more reactor designs that can be deployed,” he said. “What’s the point of doing this if it’s not being used?”

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About Frank Munger

Senior Writer Frank Munger covers the Dept. of Energy's Oak Ridge facilities and many related topics — nuclear weapons, nuclear waste and other things nuclear, environmental cleanup and science of all sorts. Atomic City Underground is, first and foremost, a news blog, but there's room for analysis, opinion and random thoughts that have no place else to go.