Lecture Notes in Physics Volume 694, 2006, pp 169-189

Potential Role of Lasers for Sustainable Fission Energy Production and Transmutation of Nuclear Waste

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Abstract

While means for transmutation of nuclear waste using fast reactor technology and reprocessing have existed for many years, this technology has not been deployed primarily for economic reasons but also owing to safety and proliferation concerns. Geological storage also remains politically uncertain in some countries as a means for disposal of nuclear waste. We argue here that neutrons supplemental to fission neutrons first from accelerators and later from fusion combined with subcritical systems could displace the need for reprocessing at less cost than reprocessing. Nearly all of the actinide and long-lived fission products from today’s reactors could be burned away without reprocessing and the full uranium and thorium resource, which is a greater energy resource than lithium-based d–t fusion, could also be exploited with concurrent burning of the waste. It is shown that a laser–fusion system driving a subcritical fission system and operating at physics breakeven with the recirculation of 10% of the fission electric power would match today’s accelerator–spallation technology as a subcritical fission driver and that a fusion system operating at engineering breakeven for driving a subcritical fission system probably exceeds the potential best performance of any known accelerator technology. This chapter advocates an innovative reactor technology beyond those envisaged 50 years ago that still dominate the field. It also calls for a focus of fusion research on fusion neutron production in addition to fusion energy as it shows that fusion-neutron–driven fission should reach technical and economic practicality long before the smaller resource of pure d–t fusion energy becomes practical.