Tweet Dylan Jones Evans drew attention last week to an article in the Economist which suggested that a series of small "travelling wave" nuclear reactors would be a preferable alternative to a number of the larger 'traditional' nuclear stations. At first sight it looks like an attractrive option, with Bill Gates claiming that it would solve all the usual problems with nuclear energy.
I'm not so sure though. My biggest objection has long been over the issue of long-lived nuclear waste; it's a problem to which there is, as yet, no solution. Gates claims that the travelling wave reactor solves even that problem, although the detail is light, to say the least. I'd need a lot more explanation, rather than a simple bland statement, before I'd be convinced.
The other big problem is the one of timescales. As this site indicates, the 'travelling wave' reactor is at this stage a design concept. No-one has yet built one, and it looks like being another ten years before anyone does - and five years after that before there's any commercial application. As is so often the case with the big technological fix to our energy problems, it's some time in the future, even by the optimistic projections of its backers.
That isn't an argument for not continuing research and debate; but it's a very strong argument for not depending on it. We need answers sooner than that, and those answers, realistically, will come from existing renewable technologies and from those renewable technologies whch can be rapidly developed. Assuming that new untried technologies will be our salvation is a recipe for continuing to ignore the need to act now.
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