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The U.S. Department of Energy has awarded a $40 million grant to Southern Co., which co-owns and operates six nuclear reactors facilities in Alabama and Georgia, to develop Molten Salt Reactors (MSRs). The full $40 million is not guaranteed but rather will be paid out over time if DOE is satisfied with the project’s progress at various stages. In an MSR, the nuclear fuel is immediately dissolved in salt and continuously circulated, creating non-stop fission. In contrast to conventional nuclear reactors, which use only about 3 percent of the nuclear fuel, MSRs use almost all of the nuclear material, producing far less spent nuclear fuel. The spent material left over from an MSR is substantially less radioactive than conventional spent nuclear fuel, requiring safe storage for only a few hundred rather than 10,000 years. MSRs have an additional characteristic that promises to prevent Fukushima-style incidents, since the salt in which the fuel is mixed keeps it cool even if the reactor shuts down.
Erich Schneider, an associate professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers with whom he collaborates, say the safety characteristics of MSRs make them considerably less expensive to build than conventional reactors, resulting in electric power produced at lower costs than even natural gas- fired power. Schneider foresees a day when MSRs would replace natural gas as the dominant partner of variable, intermittent, renewable sources of electricity like wind and solar power, cutting carbon dioxide emissions to near zero from electric power operations.