A new metal could make nuclear reactors about 100 times more resistant to radiation and solve numerous technical problems.
Normal metals tend to swell up enormously when bombarded with radiation at high temperatures, which is a serious problem for nuclear engineers. New alloys don’t have as many breaks in the crystal structure of their atoms, so they take about 100 times less radiation damage.
Researchers at the University of Michigan developed the alloy and tested it at the University of Tennessee.
“First, it may interfere with other parts in the structure, but also when it swells, the strength of the material changes. The material density drops,” Dr. Lumin Wang, a professor of nuclear engineering at Michigan who co-authored the research, said in a press statement. “It may become soft at high temperatures or harden at low temperatures.”
Wang concluded that the most successful alloys at resisting radiation were concentrated solid crystal solutions made of equal parts nickel, cobalt and iron — or nickel, cobalt, iron, chromium and manganese.
“Based on this study, we now understand how to develop a radiation-tolerant matrix of an alloy,” Wang continued. “In simplified terms, if there are a lot of atoms of different sizes, you can consider them bumps or potholes. So this defect won’t travel so smoothly. It will bounce around and slow down.”
The research has been further confirmed by another set of experiments at the University of Wisconsin.
There are 61 commercially operating nuclear power plants with 99 nuclear reactors in the U.S. Combined, these reactors generate about 20 percent of all electricity used last year, according to the government Energy Information Administration (EIA).
Nuclear power, even accounting for high-profile nuclear accidents, is already statistically the safest way of generating electricity. Coal power kills 280,000 people for every trillion kilowatt hours it produces. Rooftop solar kills 440 for the same amount of electricity. Nuclear energy only kills 90, by this measure, including deaths from disasters.
Deaths from nuclear power are very rare relative to deaths from industrial accidents, mining accidents or pollution.