The WSJ has a new article about TerraPower, a start-up that plans to expand nuclear energy with a new reactor design. They claim their traveling wave reactor (TWR) could run for up to 100 years without needing to be refueled, making it safer and more efficient than conventional reactors.
The secret to the TWR's endurance is in the core. Conventional reactors sustain nuclear fission more or less uniformly throughout the entire fuel supply. In a TWR's core, only a small region of the fuel is undergoing fission at any given time. Because this limits the core's rate of fission, much more fuel can be built into the core without increasing the power output of the reactor. If conventional reactors are sprinters, then TWRs are marathon runners.
TerraPower hopes that the relatively maintenance-free TWR will gain a foothold in developing nations, where technical knowledge and specialized equipment are in short supply. The article points out that prospects for TWRs in the United States are bleak. Despite their advantages, regulatory restrictions make licensing any new reactor design in the US a very lengthy task.
Unfortunately, no amount of clever engineering can help to improve the public perception of nuclear power. In my experience, there are many people who dismiss nuclear power out of hand, without even trying to balance risks and benefits. Even a perfectly safe, perfectly efficient reactor will do nothing to change the minds of some folk.
Maybe a name change is in order. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) used to be called nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR). The name was changed for clinical applications to soothe patient fears over harmful radiation. Current generation nuclear power plants are so much safer than older style plants (like Chernobyl) that it seems a shame for them to share the same name.
How about "Neutron Cascade Power Plants"?