Small is bountiful

1 January 2003

Although Congress failed to enact a fiscal 2003 spending bill for the US Department of Energy (DoE), Senate appropriators had recommended earmarking $3 million for design work on small modular reactors.

It still could be funded, when Congress finishes consideration of the bills. The concept has the support of Senator Ted Stevens (Alaska), whose constituents in isolated parts of Alaska could benefit from the reactor technology, and of Senator Ellen Tauscher (California), whose district includes the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, one of the laboratories participating in the development of a very small, economical, proliferation-resistant reactor. Stevens takes over as chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee when the new Congress convenes. Tauscher is not on the House Appropriation Committee.

The reactor falls under a STAR project - small transportable autonomous reactor. Since the 11 September terrorist attacks, another S (secure) has been added to the project title.

The reactor will be liquid metal cooled, and run for up to 30 years without refuelling. At that point, the fuel would be cut out for burial or for reprocessing. The fuel feedstock could be natural or depleted uranium, or the reactor might run on excess weapons-grade plutonium.

The reactor would have a sealed core to make it more proliferation resistant. It would also have passive safety features.

The idea behind the design is to make it virtually autonomous. Such an application would have practical uses in remote areas such as Central Asia, China and sub-Saharan Africa. The reactor could be monitored via satellite and be equipped with various sensors that would go off if someone tried to tamper with it.



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