During the 1940s and early 1950s, when atomic energy was new, it was common to hear reactors described as nuclear “furnaces.” They “burned” their nuclear fuel and left behind nuclear “ash.” Technically, of course, none of these terms made sense, since burning is a chemical process and a reactor gets its energy from fission, but journalists liked the terminology because it was easy and quick. One loaded fuel into the reactor, flipped a switch, and things got very hot. If that wasn’t exactly a furnace, it was close enough. And actually, the metaphor was pretty good—up to a point. The basement furnace burns one of several different fuels: natural gas or fuel oil or even, in some ancient models, coal. Nuclear reactors can be built to use plutonium, natural uranium, or uranium that has been enriched to varying degrees. Home furnaces have a “coolant”—the air that is circulated through the furnace and out through the rest of the house, carrying heat away from the fire. Reactors have a coolant, too—the liquid or gas that carries heat away from the reactor core to another part of the plant, where heat energy is transformed into electrical energy. There, however, the metaphor sputters out. In a nuclear reactor, the coolant not only transfers heat to a steam generator or a turbine, but it also keeps the fuel from overheating. The coolant in a furnace does nothing of the sort. And most reactors use a moderator to speed up the fission reaction. The basement burner has nothing similar. But the most importance weakness of the furnace metaphor is that it obscured just how many varieties of reactors were possible—and, consequently, obscured the difficult choice facing the early nuclear industry: Which reactor type should become the basis for commercial nuclear power? The possibilities were practically unlimited. The fuel selection was wide. The coolant could be nearly anything that has good heat-transfer properties: air, carbon dioxide, helium, water, liquid metals, organic liquids, and so on.
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