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Molten salt reactors: A new beginning for an old idea

December 18, 2009
By David LeBlanc

A 2009 report examining molten salt reactors.

Molten salt reactors have seen a marked resurgence of interest over the past decade, highlighted by their inclusion as one of six Generation IV reactor types. The most active development period however was between the mid 1950s and early 1970s at Oak Ridge National Laboratories (ORNL) and any new re-examination of this concept must bear in mind the far different priorities then in place. High breeding ratios and short doubling times were paramount and this guided the evolution of the Molten Salt Breeder Reactor (MSBR) program. As the inherent advantages of the molten salt concept have become apparent to an increasing number of researchers worldwide it is important to not simply look to continue where ORNL left off but to return to basics in order to offer the best design using updated goals and abilities.

A major potential change to the traditional Single Fluid, MSBR design and a subject of this presentation is a return to the mode of operation that ORNL proposed for the majority of its MSR program. That being the Two Fluid design in which separate salts are used for fissile 233UF4 and fertile ThF4. Oak Ridge abandoned this promising route due to what was known as the “plumbing problem”. It will be shown that a simple yet crucial modification to core geometry can solve this problem and enable the many advantages of the Two Fluid design. In addition, another very promising route laid out by ORNL was simplified Single Fluid converter reactors that could obtain far superior lifetime uranium utilization than LWR or CANDU without the need for any fuel processing beyond simple chemistry control. Updates and potential improvements to this very attractive concept will also be explored.

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