Teenager’s nuclear reactor design could take us to the stars

Scott Sutherland

When Taylor Wilson was just 14 years old, he became the youngest person to ever build a working fusion reactor... in his garage. Now, 5 years later, he's gone beyond that to create a redesigned nuclear fission reactor that may help us reach the stars.

There are over 400 nuclear power plants operating around the world, supplying roughly 10 per cent of the world's electricity, and all of these plants operate on nuclear fission — smashing apart atoms and releasing large amounts of energy in the process, which heats large tanks of pressurized water into steam, and this steam drives turbines to create electricity. Efforts are still being made to make fusion power more feasible and economical, but in the mean time, fission is really our only option for nuclear power.

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Nuclear fission reactors are typically fairly safe, as they operate with strict safety standards, but examples like Three-Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima Daiichi in 2011 have been burned into the collective consciousness, branding nuclear power as dangerous and unwise. There's also the question of where we keep the nuclear waste — 'spent' fuel rods from the reactor cores that can remain radioactive for anywhere from decades to millennia — especially when some of those rods are changed out after only a year and a half.

Coming off of his success with building a nuclear fuser in 2008, Wilson approached the concept of a nuclear fission reactor, to see if it could be improved or maybe even completely redesigned. He spoke at the TED conference in February about his new design:

Wilson has come up with a design that is not only more powerful and more efficient than current reactors, but it's smaller, it's safer, it uses up the dangerous stockpiles of nuclear material left behind from dismantled weapons, and above all (for the investors and consumers) it's less expensive to build and to operate.

In addition to all of that (if anyone still needs convincing), the fuel for this reactor only needs to be replaced every 30 years, so the reactor can be buried underground, making it safer in the case of an accident.

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A more exciting application, though, is that these reactors — small, safe, powerful and requiring less fuel — would be perfect for powering spaceships.

"There's something really poetic about using nuclear power to propel us to the stars, because the stars are giant fusion reactors. They're giant nuclear cauldrons in the sky," Wilson said in his talk. "There's something poetic about, in my opinion, perfecting nuclear fission and using it as a future source of innovative energy."

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