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MIT: Floating Nuclear Power Plants Could Prevent Another Catastrophe like Fukushima

Apr 17, 2014 11:31 AM EDT
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By anchoring a floating nuclear power station several miles out at sea, engineers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology offer an idea that may prevent future nuclear catastrophes such as the 2011 meltdown at Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station.

The Fukushima incident was triggered by a 9.0 submarine earthquake that spawned a monstrous tsunami which slammed into Japan's eastern coast, inundating the seaside Fukushima nuclear plant and causing three of its reactor cores to melt down. The tsunami and earthquake killed approximately 19,000 people, the nuclear disaster resulted in a swath of countryside becoming contaminated, and it will take generations before Japan can fully recover from the disaster.

Jacopo Buongiorno, an associate professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT, suggests that such nuclear disasters could be curbed by installing floating nuclear reactors miles at sea, where the impact of earthquakes is minimal and wave heights are not destructive.

"This affords some absolutely crucial advantages," Buongiorno said. "First of all, tsunamis and earthquakes are no longer a source of risk for the nuclear plant because essentially the ocean shields the seismic waves and the tsunami waves in relatively deep water, say 100 meters deep, are not big and so they don't really pose a hazard for the plant."

Buongiorno added that the ocean itself can be used as an "infinite heat sink" which would allow for decay heat produced by the nuclear reactor to be removed indefinitely, even after the reactor is shut down.

"This is a major advantage with respect to current terrestrial plants in which the ultimate heat sink is not ensured ... as demonstrated in Japan," Buongiorno said.

The floating reactors could be constructed at a centralized shipping yard and hauled out to sea when completed. The design makes use of existing deepwater oil rig technology and light water nuclear reactors. Underwater lines would carry the energy created by the plant to land.

Buongiorno touted the theoretical safety of the floating nuclear power plant, saying that even if an accident should occur, it would not prompt a mass evacuation like Fukushima.

The floating power station's impact on marine life and the sea ecosystem, however, was not mentioned in the report.

Toru Obara, a professor at the Research Laboratory for Nuclear Reactors at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, who was not involved in the MIT design, said the concept was "very attractive and promising."

"I think this is technically very feasible," he said in a statement from MIT. "Of course, further study is needed to realize the concept, but the authors have the answers to each question and the answers are realistic."

Buongiorno and his colleagues are presenting their idea this week at the American Society of Mechanical Engineers' Small Modular Reactors Symposium.

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