How long can a nuclear battery last?

California-based startup NDB has unveiled a battery that uses nuclear waste and lasts up to 28,000 years. The company wants to further purify nuclear waste to make the battery even more powerful and use it to make computer chips and nanodevices. According to Iain MacDonald, also co-founder of ANPEG, “The nuclear battery is a fundamental energy advance both in form and function, changing the way nuclear energy is perceived by the public and stakeholders and the difference from all other energy sources in their ability to address adaptation to climate change, and the standard of living in a clean system. These nuclear batteries could be delivered to any urban, rural or even maritime location and put into service almost immediately to provide electricity, clean water and other important services for the community.

Like nuclear reactors, they generate electricity from nuclear energy, but they differ in that they don't use a chain reaction. Westinghouse has already started with its WEC EvinciTM nuclear battery (see figure above and video below). A product deliberately produced by neutron irradiation or in a particle accelerator is more difficult to obtain than a fission product that is easily extracted from spent nuclear fuel. It is expected that the 139 Numec NU-5 nuclear pacemakers implanted in the 1970s will never need to be replaced, an advantage over non-nuclear pacemakers, which require surgical replacement of their batteries every 5 to 10 years.

The nuclear battery has intrinsic safety features that ensure safe shutdown and prevent overheating without operator intervention, says Jacopo Buongiorno, professor of nuclear engineering at MIT and another of the co-founders of ANPEG. A California-based company, NDB, has manufactured a self-charging battery by trapping carbon 14 (C1) nuclear waste in an artificial diamond case. Nuclear batteries could also play an important role in addressing the plight of informal settlements and slums. Of course, larger nuclear plants on the order of 1000 MW are still being built in China, the Middle East, Russia and elsewhere, and five new large reactors were launched last year.

An atomic battery, nuclear battery, radioisotope battery, or radioisotope generator is a device that uses the energy of the decay of a radioactive isotope to generate electricity. A former Liberty ship equipped with a nuclear battery drove the construction of the 1968-75 Panama Canal (see figure). Another undesirable property of Cs-137 extracted from spent nuclear fuel is that it is contaminated with other caesium isotopes that further reduce power density. Strontium-90 is easily extracted from spent nuclear fuel, but must be converted to the strontium titanate perovskite form to reduce its chemical mobility, reducing power density by half.