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Intellectual Ventures Nuclear Invention Touted as Safer and Cheaper

Intellectual Ventures is talking up a new type of breeder reactor of its own invention. The "traveling wave" reactor would run on a raw mineral (uranium, or possibly thorium) rather than on processed fuel.

Significance

Traveling wave reactors, if they work, could be fueled without making the same enriched radioactive materials used to make atomic bombs -- the very source of proliferation fears -- and could even use the waste byproducts of fuel processing for other, conventional reactors.

Downsides

This type of reactor would still produce tons of radioactive waste. (It would not run on nuclear plant waste.) Proven technologies are having a hard time getting approved almost anywhere in the Western world. A new technology will face hurdles that are orders of magnitude higher in countries that can afford the high initial costs of experimenting with it.

Target markets

Outside the US. -- Proponents say emerging countries could possibly fuel their economic growth with CO2-emissions-free nuclear energy, without worsening the nuclear weapons-proliferation problem.

The Big Question

Will now-nuclear nations help poorer ones dispose of the radioactive waste (and how), or will that be the developing country's problem?

Timeframe

Decades away.

Observation

Two months before an election is interesting timing for a publicity blitz by a company that is notoriously silent about its vast patent portfolio. The industries of nukes, oil, gas and coal are pumping out the ads and contributions to keep their images out of the toilet, while getting supportive politicians into office.

Background

The traveling wave reactor, or TWR, was first suggested in the 1990s by Manhattan Project member Edward Teller, a scientist credited with inventing the hydrogen bomb. The broader category of breeder reactors, an idea from the 1950s, all operate on the principle of using the atomic reaction to convert raw radioactive material into "fissile" material whose atoms are then more easily split in the reactor. In a TWR, the conversion process travels through a store of raw fuel, converting it and using it as it goes. TWRs have been modeled, but not built.

Intellectual Ventures is a collector of IP, founded in 2000 by former Microsoft executive Nathan Myhrvold. The company acquires patents and applies for patents on its own inventions.

Reporter Eric Engleman wrote about IV's nuke invention in "A brain reaction" in the Puget Sound Business Journal August 15, 2008. His story and a June 2008 presentation by IV provided much of the data for this post.


Comments

Nuclear is not an answer until the HUGE problem of waste disposal is solved. Loose nukes have been a fear since the Manhattan Project. The only deadly incidents so far have been accidents at power plants where many tons of waste are stored today.

Here's a blog discussion of the technology, in the context of recent news about the firm.

http://djysrv.blogspot.com/2008/09/microsoft-veteran-boots-up-nuclear.html

The concept of the traveling wave reactor (TWR) was first suggested in 1988 by the Soviet thermonuclear weapons designer Lev P. Feoktistov [Preprint IAE-4605/4, Moscow: IAE, 1988, 4 p.] and [L.P. Feoktistov. Neutron-fissioning wave. // Dokl. Akad. Nauk SSSR. 1989, v.309, p.864-867] and then again in the 1995 by Manhattan Project member Edward Teller, a scientist also credited with inventing the hydrogen bomb [E.Teller, M.Ishikawa, L.Wood, R.Hyde and J.Nuckolls. Completely automated nuclear reactors for long-term operation. // Int. Conf. on Emerging Nuclear Energy Systems, Obninsk, Russia, 24-28 June 1996. p.1-25.] and [E.Teller. Nuclear Energy for the Third Millennium: Preprint UCRL-JC-129547, LLNL, 1997, 10 p.]. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traveling_wave_reactor

I realize you said that Teller was "credited" with inventing the atomic bomb, not that he actually did, but there's a fascinating account of how he came jockeyed for such credit, even though his design didn't really work, in Charles Seife's excellent book about the history of fusion, "Sun in a Bottle":


http://www.amazon.com/Sun-Bottle-Strange-History-Thinking/dp/0670020338