By Dorothy Davis
The earthquake and tsunami that caused the subsequent meltdowns and radiation leaks at Japan’s Fukushima power station has pushed nuclear power into the global spotlight. As nations re-examine the role of nuclear power in their future energy mix, British researchers are marching ahead with innovative developments that may hold the key to truly clean, safe and efficient nuclear energy generation.
EMMA (Electron Model of Many Applications) is the first non- scaling, fixed-field, alternating-gradient (NS-FFAG) particle accelerator prototype of a new generation of nuclear energy solutions that will be significantly smaller and cheaper than its predecessors.
Recently, British newspaper Mail on Sunday toured the Daresbury science park in which the technology is being developed for a closer look at EMMA and to meet the team of researchers behind this incredible new technology.
As the name indicates, the potential uses for the EMMA compact particle accelerator are broad. One of the most exciting applications being proposed by British scientists is the development of small nuclear reactors fueled by thorium.
Thorium is a naturally occurring radioactive chemical element that is not only more abundant than traditional sources of nuclear power, but also more efficient. One ton of Thorium holds the potential to produce as much energy as nearly 200 tons of uranium, and it produces energy without an output of carbon dioxide.
Further, this type of thorium power plant would not only be immune to the kind of meltdowns that occurred at Fukushima and Chernobyl, but would not produce materials that could be used for nuclear weapons.
In fact, left to its own devices, nothing would happen spontaneously in a thorium reactor at all, researchers explained to the Mail on Sunday. Thorium atoms only start to undergo fissile nuclear reactions and thus to release their energy when they are bombarded with neutrons, which would have to be supplied by an external source like a compact accelerator.
Professor Bob Cywinski of Huddersfield University told the newspaper, “This means the margin of safety is far greater than with a conventional plant.” Cywinski continued, “If the accelerator fails, all that will happen is that the reaction will subside. To stop the reactor, all you would have to do is switch off the accelerator.”
Another way EMMA is unique is that it only operates at around 20 million electron volts (MeV) and utilizes an alternating magnetic field gradient. Other particle accelerators, such as the Tevatron, accelerate particles to 1 tera electron volts and use alternating electric fields, which require special safety measures to guard against microwave exposure.
Smaller-scale also means smaller costs, and affordable particle accelerators are the key to utilizing thorium for energy generation. Last year, the Thorium Energy Amplifier Association (ThorEA), published the report, Towards An Alternative Nuclear Future, which concluded it should be possible to build the first 600-megawatts thorium-fueled power plant with three attached ‘pocket-sized’ NS-FFAG accelerators within 15 years, at a cost of about £2 billion (US $3.24 billion) – making it highly competitive in relation to fossil-fuel or conventional nuclear alternatives.
Read the ThorEA report here: Towards An Alternative Nuclear Future
How EMMA will change nuclear energy as we know it
By Dorothy Davis