Remember Occam’s Razor? ( The simplest alternative is the best answer!!) It is agonizing to watch the President and his minions try to blame hijacking and school and street murder on guns. The obvious answer to their dilemma was solved long ago by our founding fathers … the 2nd Amendment. Those great men knew the obvious … you are ultimately responsible for yourself … when the government disarms you, you are the mercy of those who would harm you. The “greenies” always are talking about the environment, something that most of them know very little about. In a modern society, particularly for the modern urbanite, electricity is indispensable. Almost all of our electricity is generated by utilizing coal or hydrocarbons either oil or gas. The greenies, rightly or wrongly, perceive that burning these carbon sources are a threat to the Earth because of the CO2 generated. The idea that this problem can be solved by wind or solar is ridiculous from an engineering or economic point of view … supplemental, yes … solution, no! The only solution possible from a non-polluting point of view is nuclear energy. But wait … isn’t nuclear power super dangerous?
Read the essay that I wrote about a “green” nuclear plant that could and should make everybody happy … a SIMPLE SOLUTION !!!!
The Future Nuclear Power Plant
The United States has reached an energy crisis. The traditional sources of energy are either fully developed like water power, or deemed dangerous like nuclear, or inadequate like wind and solar, or polluting like coal and the hydrocarbons, oil or natural gas. Coal, the most important source of energy, produces vast amounts of gases like CO2 and CO, nitrogen (NOx), sulfur (SOx) and particulate contaminants like fly ash and heavy metal residues. Solar and wind are green non-polluting sources, but intermittent and unreliable and are therefore only supplemental sources. Geothermal is promising and green, but presently it is an apparently minor resource. Deep well systems that tap the Earth’s heat show promise, but are at present totally experimental.
The environmental movement has raised the specter, whether true or not, of the CO2 produced by burning fossil fuels as the cause of global warming or “climate change.” This view has been backed by the agencies of the Federal government. The President has issued an “executive order,” that has the force of law, that the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere must be reduced by 30% in the next 16 years. Since burning coal, on a molecular basis, is the greatest producer of CO2, this is a direct attack on the use of coal as a source of electrical energy, implying that a new source of energy must be found to supply essentially 30% of our electrical power. The only viable place that this new energy can come from is oil and gas, both of which produce vast amounts of CO2 or from nuclear energy. Nuclear energy is the obvious choice from a green energy point of view, as nuclear plants produce no atmospheric pollution whatsoever, but nuclear energy, as is well known, has its own unique environmental problems.
The nuclear industry in the US produces unusable by-products (radioactive actinides) that pose a potential lethal radioactive danger to human beings for as long as scores, even hundreds of centuries, and therefore must be stored out of harm’s way, basically forever. Additionally, just as millions of Americans were being propagandized about the supposed dangers of nuclear energy by the motion picture, “The China Syndrome,” there was a dramatic nuclear accident at Three Mile Island. Subsequently, highly publicized accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima have occurred re-enforcing the plot of the movie which, although an unrealistic and untrue scenario, have negatively prejudiced the general public’s attitude toward nuclear power.
What is the answer?
Doctors Alvin Weinberg and Walter Zinn, genius nuclear physicists from the Manhattan Project, were enlisted in the late 1940’s by then naval Captain Hyman Rickover to design the nuclear power plant for a submarine. The first experimental project, supervised by Dr. Zinn, was conducted at the INL (AEC) on the high desert in Idaho. The research produced the plant designated the “Experimental Breeder Reactor #1” (EBR-1) which produced the first electrical energy from nuclear fission on Earth to light a small town, Arco, Idaho. EBR-1 provided electricity for the first time on December 20, 1951. This plant was the prototype plant for the nuclear submarine. It produced a nuclear chain reaction by enclosing a fissioning isotope of Uranium, Uranium-235 (235U) in a crucible of natural Uranium-238 (238U). The heat from the process was carried away by a liquid metal … a eutectic of sodium and potassium (NaK). The NaK in turn was cooled by water in a heat exchanger, which in its turn changed into the steam used to power the turbine which drove a generator to produce electricity. After this plant had run for approximately 18 months, it was disassembled and it was found that some of the 238U had been transmuted into Plutonium (239Pu); so much 239Pu in fact that the plant had more energy than when it was started. The EBR-1 had “bred” energy.
Dr. Weinberg, who was working at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), and Nobel laureate Eugene Wigner had patented another process that advocated using water as a coolant (and moderator) which resulted in the light water reactors (LWR) that include the pressure water (PWR) and boiling water (BWR) reactors. Variants of these reactors were subsequently adapted to power not only our nuclear submarines, but all the nuclear ships in the navy. Because of the design effort involved, all the commercial reactors in the US and most of the international ones are of this design. LWR’s produce high pressure steam that turns the turbines that turn the generators that produce electricity. These reactors vary in power from about 10 megawatts (10 Mw) in the early atomic submarines to more than 1.4 gigawatts (1.4 Gw) in the largest commercial power stations.
LWR’s are undoubtedly the workhorses of the nuclear power grid, but they do have some disadvantages. For the most part they are huge and immensely expensive, and subject to monumental regulation. The larger ones employ parts that cannot be fabricated in the US. They can and have had accidents. The two most spectacular cases are Three Mile Island and Fukushima. The Russian Chernobyl plant was not a LWR. Much of the cost of nuclear power plants results from a construction profile that makes them as safe as possible. For instance, all the critical controls and systems are backed up by redundant systems. The original engineering provided that in event of a coolant failure (the worst case scenario) that there could be no catastrophic meltdown. The plant itself is cocooned within a containment dome designed to contain all the steam in the pressure vessel should a meltdown scenario occur. It is interesting that this worst possible scenario occurred at Three Mile Island and the safety systems contained the entire accident … no dangerous radioactivity escaped. The other giant drawback to LWR’s is that, although they are not breeder reactors in the sense that they produce more energy than they consume, they do breed Plutonium isotopes. One Plutonium isotope, specifically Pu-239, being fissile can be used to fuel other reactors or be made into bombs. Other isotopes (daughters) transmutate into what we call “high level” nuclear waste, which causes the huge and as yet unresolved problem of what to do with them.
After the Navy produced the nuclear submarine, Air Force planners began searching for some way to produce a nuclear airplane that could essentially fly forever. Dr. Weinberg, by then the director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), was asked to produce the reactor for the airplane. He opted for a system that could operate at essentially atmospheric pressure. To understand his choice, first we must consider his choices for a nuclear reaction. There are two viable sources of “fissionable” materials, the elements Uranium and Thorium. “Fissile” means that the material expels neutrons naturally; “fissionable” means that the material can be made into fissile isotopes if it is exposed to the fissions of a fissile material. Natural Uranium is 99.3% “fissionable” U-238 and is 0.7% U-235, a natural “fissile” isotope. Thorium has no “fissile” isotope; it is 100% Thorium-232 which is all fissionable. When U-238 is irradiated it produces a number of complex nuclear reactions resulting in a number of fissile isotopes, but eventually producing relatively stable, but fissile Plutonium (Pu-239) which is the preferred material for atomic bombs. Irradiated Thorium produces fissile U-233 and a short lived daughter, U-232. U-233 is considered physically unsuitable for bomb making because the daughter it contains, U-232, radiates intense gamma rays that are lethal to humans and electronic devices. Dr. Weinberg opted to use Thorium for reasons that we shall see. He and his associates decided to expose metallic Thorium to Fluorine, which produced a chemically neutral salt similar to table salt. They then melted the salt into a liquid at approximately 450 °F. U-235, in oxide form, was then introduced into the molten salt until the chain reaction began. The chain reaction ultimately bred fissile U-233 which in its turn sustained the reaction. Obviously, the reaction is not as simple as I have portrayed it, but it is essentially as explained; the aircraft molten salt reactor was a breeder reactor. After the nuclear aircraft project was cancelled by President Kennedy in 1962, Dr. Weinberg continued the research by designing and operating a molten salt test reactor (MSTR) at ORNL which ran almost continually, some 13,000 hours from 1965 until 1969. He became so convinced that the MSR was the key to the production of commercial electrical power that he staked his career on its attributes and ultimately lost his job as head of ORNL over it. The leaders of the AEC rejected it because it did not make the Plutonium that they needed for bombs.
What are the attributes of the molten salt reactor?
- Inherently safe – As the reactor heats up, the molten salt expands the volume of the solution, therefore reducing the density, so that reactivity goes down … this provides self regulation
- Stable coolant – The molten salt does not burn, is impervious to radiation, doesn’t react chemically, does not boil until it reaches ~3,000 °C (far above the melting point of steel) and exhibits virtually no vapor pressure
- Low pressure operation – It operates at or just above atmospheric pressure
- Leak resistant – Because of the low pressure operation, there is no pressure strain to compromise the reactor vessel; if a leak should develop, it would be self healing, as the salt freezes far above ambient temperatures and would be solid outside the reactor
- Slow heat up – The liquid salt can absorb large amounts of heat
- Passive decay heat cooling- In emergencies the fluid drains into a safe cooling container where the volume is much greater than in the reactor so that the reaction cannot continue
- Fail safe core – In emergencies there is a failsafe plug that opens automatically to drain reactants. This plug is a refrigerated plug in the piping leading from the reactor to the cooling container that holds the molten salt in the reactor. Should the reactor fail, the refrigerator would stop and the plug would melt allowing the molten salt to drain, all without human intervention
- Less activated waste – Very little ancillary irradiated machinery. There are very few pipes, pumps and ancillary equipment to be contended with upon decommissioning.
- Less long lived waste – Burns almost all its fuel (an estimated 1000 times less waste than present units). Any fissile material introduced or produced will be consumed in operation
- Destruction of existing long lived wastes – Will burn up present nuclear waste
- Proliferation resistance – The Uranium produced cannot be stolen because it is too radioactive to handle. U-233 decays by Beta and Gamma emission unlike U-235 and Pu-239 which are Alpha emitters making it too radioactive to be handled directly by humans. The only experimental U-233 bomb was a dud
- Thorium abundance – 4 times as abundant as Uranium … enough for thousands of years and the greatest deposit in the western hemisphere is at Tendoy, Idaho
- And … many other advantages and few unresolved problems (almost all the technical and engineering problems were solved during the 4 year test run.)
The thrust of Generation IV reactors, of which the MSR is one, is to make them portable. For instance, the US Army would like to have access to field portable nuclear reactors for electrical power and process heat. Obviously, there are myriad applications from small electrical stations from remote mines, to electric railroads, to de-salinization, to remote urban areas, to space heat in arctic areas, to third world applications and many other applications.
Truck-able or rail-able reliable reactors would have to be no more than 10 feet in diameter and less than 100 feet in length in order to pass under overpasses or through bridges and tunnels. Preliminary calculations show that reactors of this size would be on the order of 50 Megawatts electrical (~ 62,500 horsepower.) If the anticipated load was greater than this, the reactors could be sited in clusters for any power configuration. If the primary reactors are of this physical size, they can be easily hauled away for de-commissioning or overhaul. To visualize the power of these reactors, it may be noted that the most powerful of railroad locomotives is ~ 3,000 Hp. The largest container ship on the ocean is powered by an 114,000 Hp diesel engine. Two of these reactors would run that ship and one reactor would run far in excess of 20 electric locomotives because they are seldom at full power. 50 Mw would power a half million 100 watt light bulbs. At the average national use of 1400 watts continuous per person it would produce enough electricity for ~ 35,000 people. It is interesting to think of such a self powered power plant that could be trucked to any site.
These plants could be run at any temperature that modern machinery could utilize. Thermodynamically, the hotter that a heat engine can be run, the more efficiently it can be designed to operate. The LWR’s generally run at temperatures less than 300 °C because at temperatures higher than this the pressure in the system becomes too great. The MSR could easily be run in excess of 800 °C; it was in fact tested at this temperature during the ORNL experiment. Of course, the MSR could be designed to power the efficient Rankine cycle steam turbine utilized in the LWR system, but this would require auxiliary heat exchangers to condense the return feed water with its fresh water requirements. Operated at the much higher temperature, it has been proposed that either a CO2 or a helium cycle gas turbine be used that would run much more efficiently than the Rankine cycle and require little or no cooling water.
All in all the MSR is a prayer for green energy come true. The reactor cannot explode. If the reactor vessel should be somehow breached the reactant, the salt, would instantly solidify thereby containing the accident. The specter of long term, high grade radiation from nuclear waste would be finally solved, as the reactor would “burn up” the actinides from the LWR’s and the Plutonium from decommissioned bombs as fuel. The use of reactor clusters would negate the need for massive high voltage transmission grids. The threat of nuclear bomb proliferation would diminish to the point of disappearance. No high level nuclear waste would be produced or have to be stored at or transported from the plant site. After all the high level wastes from other plants have been burnt up, the MSR, being a breeder, could run on into the setting sun basically forever, fueled by its own reaction. The only fuel needed being the inert Thorium fluoride “table salt.”
There is little doubt that a model of the MSR should be built: the most popular current design is the “Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor” designated the LFTR (“lifter”). This design is well beyond the conception stage. Engineering and designs are far along the path for realization. The basic design problems were solved long ago by the working model at ORNL. The “lifter’s” foremost and most articulate proponent is Kirk Sorensen of the Flibe Corporation from Alabama. His (this) design has wide support in the metallurgical academic community of the inter-mountain northwest and is gaining political support in the state and national governments. Professors and administrators of the Universities of Idaho, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming support it. The Governors of Idaho and Utah are on board. US Senators Orrin Hatch and Harry Reid have introduced legislation to promote it. Many scientists, present and past, from INL and ORNL are in support of it.
As to finding the Thorium necessary for the reactor, it should be noted that Idaho has the largest deposits in the western hemisphere. The mining of Thorium collaterally produces most of the “rare earths.” Rare earths are indispensable to the modern computer industry and China presently has a monopoly on them. When rare earths are mined, Thorium is a highly undesirable by- product as it is very difficult to separate out. When Thorium is mined, the rare earths are a lucrative by-product. US Senator Blunt from Missouri has introduced a bill to promote Thorium mining in order to promote the recovery of rare earths.
How do we build the LFTR?
First, the MSR called for in the list of Gen IV reactors is the modular, transportable one. This means that the cost of the unit will be orders of magnitude lower than that of the present LWR’s. Even in small states the building of the LFTR could be totally accomplished by local fabricators. In many small states, there is a population that tolerates nuclear energy and if the people are properly informed of the beneficial attributes of the LFTR and the economic boon that manufacturing it would bring, they can be reasonably expected to ardently support the industry.
What is the down side of this project?
- Large manufacturers of LWR’s will surely oppose the lifter. Companies like General Electric, Westinghouse and Babcock and Wilcox who in the past manufactured the LWR’s now in use and intend to design and manufacture Gen IV LWR’s and who now have multi-billion dollar contracts to refuel their proprietary designs will not be happy.
- The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) will drag its feet for years to make sure that this “new and radical” technology is “safe.” Experts postulate that licensing and building the lifter would cost around a billion dollars and take up to 30 years if licensed through the NRC. It is interesting to muse about the costs of modern nuclear plants in comparison to the cost of unregulated early plants … the brochures at the INL brag that EBR-1 cost a little over 3 million dollars and that EBR-2 cost less than 24 million.
- The Environmental Community like the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth and others will oppose the lifter because much of their fundraising is predicated upon being “anti-nuke” regardless of the technology.
- It can be assumed that the coal and oil and gas industries will oppose the project because of the competition that it presents.
- The LFTR is a far more green and viable source of continuous energy than the wind and solar industries, so it can be assumed that they will also oppose it.
- Individuals and groups of “environmentalists” can be depended upon to march and demonstrate.
- Minions of the transmission grid will oppose the lifter because of the threat of local power stations tailored to local loads.
- Power companies will not support it because there is no commercial experience with the technology and no working plants. This disregards the fact that India, China and Japan are all presently building MSR’s and will soon be ahead of us in this technology.
What are the pluses?
- The LFTR will convert well over 92% of the Thorium fuel to energy whereas only 0.7% of the fuel is used in Uranium reactors.
- The LFTR will eventually consume almost all the “nuclear waste” now in storage that presently so plagues the nuclear industry, and will be the final destroyer of the waste made in the future by the continued operation of LWR’s .
- The LFTR does not make bomb material; it is not a vector for “nuclear proliferation.”
- The LFTR runs at near atmospheric pressure and there is no water in the process to make hydrogen so there will be no possibility of an explosion as occurred at Fukushima.
- In any imaginable accident, the lifter cannot cause wide spread nuclear contamination; the Thorium salt is a solid at all possible ambient temperatures and is insoluble in water.
- The lifter, depending upon its design, requires little or no cooling water.
- The US Army wants a field portable electric source and the lifter fits the bill.
- Remote locations and third world populations can have a reasonably cost efficient electric source designed to their needs.
How do we do it?
The problems that must considered are economic, logistical, technical, public relations and political. The greatest hurdle is to avoid a bureaucratic veto. It is obvious that if the LFTR is subjected to NRC scrutiny that it will not be built in our lifetimes, so we must go around that obstruction. In the first place no private company would have the resources or patience to see the LFTR through the NRC. Since there is no working molten salt plant in the US and no operating Thorium mine in the country, it makes sense to construct a working prototype to prove the design and to allow the time needed for Thorium resources to become viable working mines. Time is also needed to construct the metallurgical refining system for the Thorium. The prototype would also give local fabricators time to come to speed. Additionally, if the LFTR is built as an experimental project, it can be done through an act of Congress by the Department of Energy, thus circumventing the NRC. Once a much publicized experimental reactor is proved, the NRC would be under immense pressure to certify it commercially and electrical power companies could proceed with confidence.
What are the resources now available to the project?
- The Energy Department has been storing a 3500 ton stockpile of previously mined Thorium in the Nevada desert; this material would preclude the necessity of mining the material for this project.
- The Energy Department recently budgeted $434 million to destroy its approximately 1 ton stockpile of excess U-233 left over from the early nuclear age by “diluting” it in spent U-238 …. this material could be used to fuel the startup of the lifter. (The material is supposedly stored at INL or ORNL.)
- Kirk Sorensen’s design of the LFTR should be evaluated for viability; the metallurgical departments of the universities of the intermountain states, plus the INL and CAES should be brought into the picture to solve metallurgical and technical problems.
- The research data on the MSR at ORNL from 1965 to 1969 and experiments beyond are available.
- China, India and Japan are all doing extensive research on MSR’s and will soon hold international patents. They should be consulted.
- The US Army and the Department of Defense want the field portable reactor and should therefore be a technical and financial partner.
- The nation is facing an ecologically manufactured energy crisis that only nuclear energy can solve and the present LWR’s are still producing the high level nuclear waste … the lifter is the solution.
- For the President to realize his goal a 30% reduction of CO2 emissions by electrical power plants, he should enthusiastically endorse the lifter.
- US Senators Orrin Hatch and Harry Reid have introduced legislation to build the lifter.
- There many groups and consortiums promoting the lifter and there are proponents associated with the INL and ORNL all of whom should be an asset.
How do we proceed?
The LFTR is not the only small Gen IV nuclear reactor that can be built. The NuScale plant scheduled to be built at the INL is a “small modular reactor” of 50 Mwe size that can be deployed in as much as a 12 reactor cluster unit that would deliver as much as ~600 Mw of electricity. And while it is true that it can be shipped, railed or trucked to its destination it is not portable as we would view portable. A single unit weighs 650 tons and being a LWR reactor it produces Plutonium and actinides which carries a much greater proliferation risk than the lifter. It would be very difficult for small state industries to participate in the manufacturing of these machines. Also, we must assume that the hierarchy of the INL will be prejudiced toward this reactor, as the LWR was invented in Idaho at the INL. Conversely, the lifter is truck-able and rail-able … portable in the sense that we understand it … it can be moved anywhere and then picked up and moved again.
It is apparent from the analysis of this report that the only possible way to get the lifter into production is to get the Departments of Energy and Defense (Army) behind the project either voluntarily or by Congressional coercion. These two entities have a vested interest in building a green nuclear reactor like the LFTR and the funds to solve their problem; they only lack the project to back. Safety and portability for the Army and safety and greenness for the DOE.
The lifter, because of its simplicity and actinide eating attributes is the key to revitalizing the nuclear power industry. If nuclear waste can be done away with and reactors made super safe, then no one can deny that nuclear energy is the way to go. The MSR is undoubtedly the superior technology for the future of commercial power production, but at the same time is totally complimentary to the present LWR industry. Thorium is the nuclear fuel of the future, small modular plants are the reactors of the future.