There is no need to prove that the most promising energy source is presently the nuclear reactor. As the natural supplies of traditional fuels are exhausted nuclear power stations are rapidly acquiring a decisive role in the energy economy of a number of countries. These power plants, which employ the newest equipment, the best materials, and the most advanced technical solutions for their manifold components, certainly are among the most important achievements of engineering and physics. But (however paradoxical it may seem to the majority of physicists not directly involved in the development of reactors) it is necessary to begin this chapter with the statement that in all nuclear power stations a basically archaic, fundamentally backward method is used to obtain electrical energy. This is not only our personal opinion; the most prominent physicists and atomic scientists continually regret this fact. This view of nuclear reactors is not new, having arisen even before the development of the first such installations, and was reflected in the very names given, apparently by E. Fermi, to them — “atomic furnace” or “atomic boiler.” This somewhat abusive “steam engine” tint to the names for this remarkable modern device is due to the fact that in nuclear reactors the fission energy released is not initially converted directly into electrical energy but is first converted to heat. Yet the awareness that heat is the lowest grade of energy is already associated with S. Carnot. Heat can be converted only partially into electricity, in accordance with the comparatively low efficiency of a heat machine. Thus, even in the best nuclear power stations the efficiency (of conversion of the nuclear fission energy released in the reactor into electricity) only approaches a third. This chapter deals with a means for removing the energy from nuclear reactors which would radically improve their characteristics. From the following it will be clear that the bases of this new method are closely related to recent progress in several “nonnuclear” areas of physics; hence, the continued unproductive regret about the thermal utilization of nuclear energy is not so surprising.
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