Of nuclear reactors and supercomputers

What do a nuclear reactor of the fourth generation and a supercomputer capable of doing 1015 (one quadrillion) calculations in one second have in common? Not much, except that they both have been unveiled at the end of October in…China.

With Tianhe, or Milky Way, China becomes the second country, after the United States, to build a petaflop computer. The supercomputer is a part of the 863 program – a national initiative launched in the second half of the 1980s to do high-tech R&D. The machine is currently housed in Changsha – the city which saw Mao’s conversion to communism.

If that wasn’t enough, there was the announcement that construction of the first fourth generation nuclear reactor with “home-developed” technology would start in 2012-13. Going local on the technology side makes full sense for a country that plans to deploy 100 nuclear reactors over the next 20 years.

The catch? China is already running short on uranium. For sure, Tianhe will allow to compute even faster how much of the “stuff” they need – each new 1,000-MW reactor needs 360 metric tons of uranium a year when it first starts operations – and how soon they run out of uranium. But then an abacus would have been enough.