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GE Hitachi Receives Federal Funds To Assess New Nuclear Technology

By Jenny Callison, posted Nov 6, 2014
GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH) will perform a comprehensive safety assessment of its PRISM sodium-cooled fast nuclear reactor, thanks to a multi-million-dollar federal investment from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the company announced Thursday.
 
GEH officials are not sure yet of the exact amount of federal funds allocated to the project, company spokesman Jon Allen said Thursday.
 
This research investment by the DOE will enable Castle Hayne-based GEH to partner with the Argonne National Laboratory in developing up-to-date risk assessment methodologies for PRISM and then to perform the assessment, according to a news release from the company.
 
“It’s a regulatory requirement that we run a series of analyses that will demonstrate how PRISM’s safety systems are going to operate and interact in several different scenarios,” Allen said.
 
The technology on which PRISM is based was developed in the 1980s and, unlike other nuclear reactors, it can use spent nuclear fuel and surplus plutonium to generate electricity. Since the early 1990s, however, no risk assessments have been done on the technology.
 
“The new assessments will take advantage of advances in engineering knowledge and computer power,” Allen said.
 
PRISM is an “exciting technology” that has great promise because it can use other reactors’ waste, Jay Wileman, GEH senior vice president of nuclear plant products, said in the release. He added, “Updating the safety assessment of PRISM will be important in supporting licensing efforts worldwide.”
 
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission will not grant a license to build a PRISM reactor plant without a positive outcome from the risk assessment, Allen said.
 
Meanwhile, GEH officials see immediate potential for PRISM technology in the UK, which currently has the world’s greatest civilian stockpile of plutonium, Allen said. Development of PRISM reactors could use that plutonium, reducing the risk and the cost of storing such dangerous material, while at the same time generating electricity for general use.

Plutonium has a half-life period of 300,000 years, Allen said, while use of that plutonium as fuel for the PRISM reactor cuts that half-life period to 300 years. A half-life period is the time required for half of the unstable, radioactive atoms in an element to undergo radioactive decay.
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