Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Chinese cut the energy Gordian knot

Chinese LFTR Development: Workforce and Cost
The Chinese have recently anounced plans to begin building Thorium Breeding Molten Salt Reactors in 10 years.  The reason for this decision is the need to replace smog belching coal fired power plants that emit air pollutants that kill hundreds of thousands of Chinese, and emit huge amounts of climate 

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Liquid Fluoride Thorium Paradigm

The Liquid Fluoride Thorium Paradigm
My origional Oil Drum post, and its 456 comments can be found here:

Many of the Oil Drum comments, did not raise the usual objections to nuclear power. Rather it was the consequences of a successful Thorium paradigm that bothered the commenters:
Antius on January 20, 2009
An excellent article and probably about the most promising alternative energy source that exists today. Failing the development of controlled nuclear fusion, thorium breeder reactors would appear to be almost as good in terms of fuel security and environmental impact. Unfortunately, the more useful an energy source is, the more that it permits the exploitation of other resources and thus damage to the environment. That is after all, exactly what harnessed energy sources are intended to do.

This discussion brings us back to the problem that we live within perpetual growth machine, on a finite land space, with finite material and biological resources. We therefore face the problem that giving human beings a fantastic new energy source, would allow growth based economic systems to reap even more damage on the planet. This is a fundamental problem with any living system that grows within a finite environment. It can either choose to reach a stable state, or it can continue to grow until every resource is consumed and die off like bacteria in petri dish. Unfortunately, a cooperative Power Down or species-wide self-limitation would appear to be impossible in the present global political environment. The only way out of this paradox is for humanity to collectively agree to reduce population size (as China has taken steps towards achieving) and allow continued per capita economic growth. This would allow individual living standards to expand even as total GDP remained static. Gradual progression of technology, the development of compact agricultural systems, car-free cities, integrated waste management, etc, would allow environmental impact to gradually decline. Such a development would require the leadership of a body like the UN.

Ultimately, growth would appear to be an endemic characteristic of all living species and is only held at bay by physical restraint. This does not bode well for a species that is limited to the surface of only one planet. For this reason I think that anyone within post-oil community that still clings to the idea of economic growth or even technological growth for humanity in the future, either hasn't thought the problem through and is relying upon blind hope, or must be a space travel enthusiast.

Jeppon responded:

[Antius stated:]Unfortunately, the more useful an energy source is, the more that it permits the exploitation of other resources and thus damage to the environment.

The thorium electricity is clean for all practical purposes. A clean, abundant power source will enable us to do more with less resources and less pollution.

[Antius stated]Unfortunately, a cooperative Power Down or species-wide self-limitation would appear to be impossible in the present global political environment. The only way out of this paradox is for humanity to collectively agree to reduce population size

False. If you study some demographics you'll realize that urbanization and industrialization leads to much reduced nativity. In much of Europe, the population pyramid is inverted. Also, rich countries have all implemented stricter environmental standards, which poorer countries can't afford.

[Antius stated]For this reason I think that anyone within post-oil community that still clings to the idea of economic growth or even technological growth for humanity in the future, either hasn't thought the problem through and is relying upon blind hope, or must be a space travel enthusiast.

We can argue about the distant future, but for now, growth and tech is the only hope for humanity and the Earth. Without growth and tech, the population increase won't stop at the projected 9-10 billion, environmental standards won't continue to improve, and all available resources will be utilized by increasingly desperate peoples until collapse. The only way to go is forward, and I'm saddened that you and others strive in the opposite direction, putting your hope in authoritarianism and socialism, which have always proved counterproductive in the real world.
Jeppon's comment was an important contribution to my essay.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The LFTR/Thorium Paradigm

This post was written for the lamented Oil Drum, a blog that focused on resources, or the lack there of.  This essay should be considered an homage to Kirk Sorensen.  At the time I was working closely with Kirk.  I felt it important to make his ideas known.  TheLiquid Floride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) is Kirks Brand.  It is the name kirk chose for the Molten Salt thorium breeder, known in Oak Ridge as the MSBR, and elsewhere as the TMSR.  Kirk asked me to make the brand name better known, and while I was being supportive of him, I wrote mainly about the LFTR/thorium paradigm.

The LFTR/Thorium paradigm stood in sharp contrast to the mainstream of The Oil Drum which forsaw a future of energy and materials shortages.

My viewpoint has shifted since I wrote this essay, not so much in terms of technology as time frame.  Uranium and hybred uranium-thorium MSRs present fewer technical challenges than LFTRs, while costing less than Light Water Reactors, and LFTRs.  They can be brought on quickly and in very large numbers.  We should not wait till the LFTR is ready, but start building cheap, safe MSRs now.  (I have noticed one error, and there are undoubtedly others.  Hundred of thousands rather than millions.) Here is my Oil Drum essay from January 2009:

The Liquid Fluoride Thorium Paradigm

This is a guest post by Charles Barton. Charles is a retired counselor who writes theEnergy from Thorium blog. His father Dr. Charles Barton, Senior, worked at Oak Ridge National Laboratory for 28 years. He was a reactor chemist, who worked on the Liquid-Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) concept for about 2/3 of his ORNL career. Charles Barton, Junior gained his knowledge of the LFTR concept from his familiarity with his father's work. Neither his father nor Mr. Barton will gain financially from the advancement of this idea.

The Liquid Fluoride Thorium Paradigm

Excitement has recently been rising about the possibility of using thorium as a low-carbon way of generating vast amounts of electricity. The use of thorium as a nuclear fuel was extensively studied by Oak Ridge National Laboratory between 1950 and 1976, but was dropped, because unlike uranium-fueled Light Water Reactors (LWRs), it could not generate weapons' grade plutonium. Research on the possible use of thorium as a nuclear fuel has continued around the world since then. Famed Climate Scientist James Hanson, recently spoke of thorium's great promise in material that he submitted to President Elect Obama:

The Liquid-Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) is a thorium reactor concept that uses a chemically-stable fluoride salt for the medium in which nuclear reactions take place. This fuel form yields flexibility of operation and eliminates the need to fabricate fuel elements. This feature solves most concerns that have prevented thorium from being used in solid-fueled reactors. The fluid fuel in LFTR is also easy to process and to separate useful fission products, both stable and radioactive. LFTR also has the potential to destroy existing nuclear waste.
(The) LFTR(s) operate at low pressure and high temperatures, unlike today’s LWRs. Operation at low pressures alleviates much of the accident risk with LWR. Higher temperatures enable more of the reactor heat to be converted to electricity (50% in LFTR vs 35% in LWR). (The) LFTR (has) the potential to be air-cooled and to use waste heat for desalinating water.
LFTR(s) are 100-300 times more fuel efficient than LWRs. In addition to solving the nuclear waste problem, they can operate for several centuries using only uranium and thorium that has already been mined. Thus they eliminate the criticism that mining for nuclear fuel will use fossil fuels and add to the greenhouse effect.
The Obama campaign, properly in my opinion, opposed the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository. Indeed, there is a far more effective way to use the $25 billion collected from utilities over the past 40 years to deal with waste disposal. This fund should be used to develop fast reactors that consume nuclear waste, and thorium reactors to prevent the creation of new long-lived nuclear waste. By law the federal government must take responsibility for existing spent nuclear fuel, so inaction is not an option. Accelerated development of fast and thorium reactors will allow the US to fulfill its obligations to dispose of the nuclear waste, and open up a source of carbon-free energy that can last centuries, even millennia.
It is commonly assumed that 4th generation nuclear power will not be ready before 2030. That is a safe assumption under "business-as-usual”. However, given high priority it is likely that it could be available sooner. It is specious to argue that R&D on 4th generation nuclear power does not deserve support because energy efficiency and renewable energies may be able to satisfy all United States electrical energy needs. Who stands ready to ensure that energy needs of China and India will be entirely met by efficiency and renewables?
Development of the first large 4 generation nuclear plants may proceed most rapidly if carried out in China or India (or South Korea, which has a significant R&D program), with the full technical cooperation of the United States and/or Europe. Such cooperation would make it much easier to achieve agreements for reducing greenhouse gases.
Uranium-235 is the only fissionable material that is observed in usable amounts in nature. Thus pioneering nuclear physicist like Enrico Fermi and Eugene Wigner had no other choice of but to use U-235 to create their first chain reaction under the bleachers of the University of Chicago’s unused football field.
But Fermi and Wigner knew early on that once a reactor was built, it was possible to create other fissionable substances with the excess neutrons produced by a U-235 chain reaction. Thus if U-238 absorbed a neutron, it became the unstable U-239, which through a two stage nuclear process was transformed into plutonium-239. Plutonium-239 is very fissionable. The physicists also calculated that if thorium-232 was placed inside a reactor and bombarded with neutrons, it would be transformed into U-233. Their calculations also revealed that U-233 was not only fissionable, but had properties that made it in some respects a superior reactor fuel to U-235 and Pu-239.
During World War II, Fermi and Wigner, who were geniuses with active and far ranging minds, collected around themselves a group of brilliant scientists. Fermi, Wigner and their associates began to think about the potential uses of the new energy they were discovering--uses that would improve society rather than destroy it.
The capture of nuclear energy and its transformation into electrical energy became a central focus of discussions among early atomic scientists. They were not sure how long the uranium supply would last, so Fermi proposed that reactors be built that would breed plutonium from U-238. Wigner counted that thorium was several times as plentiful as uranium, and that it could produce an even better nuclear fuel than Pu-239.
The first nuclear era was dominated by uranium technology, a technology that was derived from military applications, and carried with it, rightly or wrongly, the taint of association with nuclear weapons. As it turned out, there was far more uranium available than Fermi or Wigner had originally feared, but other rationales propelled scientific interest in developing thorium fuel cycle reactors. First, Pu-239 was not a good fuel for most reactors. It failed to fission 1/3 of the time when it absorbed a neutron in a conventional Light Water Reactor (LWR). This led to the most difficult part of the problem of nuclear waste. Plutonium made excellent fuel for fast neutron reactors, but the fast neutron reactor that Fermi liked used dangerous liquid sodium as its coolant, and would pose a developmental challenge of enormous proportions.
Advocates of the thorium fuel cycle point to its numerous advantages over the uranium-plutonium fuel cycle. B.D. Kuz’minov, and V.N. Manokhin, of the Russian Federation State Science Centre, Institute of Physics and Power Engineering at Obninsk, write:
Adoption of the thorium fuel cycle would offer the following advantages:
- Increased nuclear fuel resources thanks to the production of 233U from 232Th;
- Significant reduction in demand for the enriched isotope 235U;
- Very low (compared with the uranium-plutonium fuel cycle) production of long-lived radiotoxic wastes, including transuraniums, plutonium and transplutoniums;
- Possibility of accelerating the burnup of plutonium without the need for recycling, i.e. rapid reduction of existing plutonium stocks;
- Higher fuel burnup than in the uranium-plutonium cycle;
- Low excess reactivity of the core with thorium-based fuel, and more favourable temperature and void reactivity coefficients; . . .
Thorium could replace U-238 in conventional LWRs, and could be used to breed new nuclear fuel in specially modified LWRs. This technology was successfully tested in the Shippingport reactor during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.
WASH-1097 remains a good source of information on the thorium fuel cycle. In fact,some major recent studies of the thorium fuel cycle rely heavily on WASH-1097. A recentIAEA report on Thorium appears to have been prepared without overt reliance on WASH-1097.
One of the first things physicists discovered about chain reactions was that slowing the neutrons involved in the process down, promoted the chain reaction. Kirk Sorensen discusses slow or thermal neutrons in one of his early posts.
Under low energy neutron conditions, Th232 can be efficiently converted to U233. The conversion process works like this. Th232 absorbs a neutron and emits a beta ray. A neutron switches to being a proton and the atom is transformed into Protactinium 233. After a period averaging a little less than a month, Pa 233 emits a second beta ray and is transformed into U233. U233 is fissionable, and is a very good reactor fuel. When a U233 atom encounters a low energy neutron, chances are 9 out of 10 that it will fission.
Since U233 produces an average of 2.4 neutrons every time it fissions, this means that each neutron that strikes U233 produces an average of 2.16 new neutrons. If you carefully control those neutrons, one neutron will continue the chain reaction. That leaves an average of 1.16 neutrons to generate new fuel.
Unfortunately the fuel generation process cannot work with 100% efficiency. The leftover U-234 that was produced when U-233 absorbed a neutron and did not fission will sometimes absorb another neutron and become U-235. Xenon-135, an isotope that that is often produced after U-233 splits, is far more likely to capture neutrons than U233 or Th232. This makes Xenon-135 a fission poison. Because Xenon in a reactor builds up during a chain reaction, it tends to slow the nuclear process as the chain reaction continues. The presence of Xenon creates a control problem inside a reactor. Xenon also steals neutrons needed for the generation of new fuel.
In conventional reactors that use solid fuel, Xenon is trapped inside the fuel, but in a fluid fuel Xenon is easy to remove because it is what is called a noble gas. A noble gas does not bond chemically with other substances, and can be bubbled out of fluids where it has been trapped. Getting Xenon 135 out of a reactor core makes generating new U233 from Th232 a whole lot easier.
It is possible to bring about 1.08 neutrons into the thorium change process for every U-233 atom that splits. This means that reactors that use a thorium fuel cycle are not going to produce an excess of U-233, but if carefully designed, they can produce enough U233 that burnt U233 can be easily replaced. Thus a well designed thorium cycle reactor will generate its own fuel indefinitely.
Research continues on a thorium cycle LWR fuel that would allow for the breeding of thorium in LWRs. There is however a problem which makes the LWR a less than ideal breeding environment for thorium. Elisabeth Huffer, Hervé Nifenecker, and Sylvain David note:
Fission products are much more efficient in poisoning slow neutron reactors than fast neutron reactors. Thus, to maintain a low doubling time, neutron capture in the fission products and other elements of the structure and coolant have to be minimized.

India has only a small uranium supply, but an enormous thorium reserve. Millions of tons of thorium ore lie on the surface of Indian beaches, waiting to be scooped up by front loaders and hauled away to potential thorium reactors for a song. (For those of you who are interested in the EROEI concept, the EROEI for the recovery of thorium from Indian beaches would be almost unbelievably high, and the energy extracted could power the Indian economy for thousands of years, potentially making India the richest nation in the world.)
India has for 50 years been following a plan togradually switch from uranium to thorium cycle reactors. That plan is expected to finally come to fruition by the end of the next decade. At that point India will begin the rapid construction of a fleet of thorium fuel cycle reactors.
A commercial business, Thorium Power, Limited, continues research based on the Shippingport Reactor experiment. Thorium Power plans to offer a thorium cycle based nuclear fuel with a starting charge of enriched U-235 for modified LWRs. Thorium Power has sponsored Throium fuel research at the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow, and a Russian VVER has been used to conduct thorium cycle fuel experiments.
Research on thorium cycle liquid fuel reactors is ongoing world-wide. The best-known effort is being performed in Grenoble, France at theLaboratoire de Physique Subatomique et de Cosmologie. The Reactor Physics Group there is the only one in the world that has the resources and backing needed to actually develop a fluid core thorium cycle reactor that can be commercialized. In terms of organization size, the Thorium Molten Salt Reactor research group is much smaller than would be required to sustain a full-scale rapid development of thorium cycle reactor technology. The LPSC group thus is working in a business as usual time frame, and has no urgent motivation to do otherwise. After all, 80% of French electricity already comes from nuclear power plants.
Thorium fuel cycle research is also being carried on in the Netherlands, Japan, the Czech Republic. There is also presently a small-scale effort in the United States.
Thorium is extremely abundant in the earth's crust, which appears to contain somewhere around 120 trillion tons of it. In addition to 12% thorium monazite sands, found on Indian beaches and in other places, economically recoverable thorium is found virtually everywhere. For example, large-scale recovery of thorium from granite rocks is economically feasible with a very favorable EROEI. Significant recoverable amounts of thorium are present in mine tailings. These include the tailings of ancient tin mines, rare earth mine tailings, phosphate mine tailings and uranium mine tailings. In addition to the thorium present in mine tailings and in surface monazite sands, burning coal at the average 1000 MWe power plant produces about 13 tons of thorium per year. That thorium is recoverable from the power plant’s waste ash pile.
One ton of thorium will produce nearly 1 GW of electricity for a year in an efficient thorium cycle reactor. Thus current coal energy technology throws away over 10 times the energy it produces as electricity. This is not the result of poor thermodynamic efficiency; it is the result of a failure to recognize and use the energy value of thorium. The amount of thorium present in surface mining coal waste is enormous and would provide all the power human society needs for thousands of years, without resorting to any special mining for thorium, or the use of any other form or energy recovery.
Little attention is paid to the presence of thorium in mine tailings. In fact it would largely be passed over in silence except that radioactive gases from thorium are a health hazard for miners and ore processing workers.
Thorium is present in phosphate fertilizers because fertilizer manufactures do not wish to pay the recovery price prior to distribution. Gypsum present in phosphate tailings is unusable in construction because of the presence of radioactive gasses associated with the thorium that is also present in the gypsum. Finally organic farmers use phosphate tailings to enrich their soil. This has the unfortunate side effect of releasing thorium into surface and subsurface waters, as well as leading to the potential contamination of organic crops with thorium and its various radioactive daughter products. Thus the waste of thorium present in phosphate tailings has environmental consequences.
The world’s real thorium reserve is enormous, but also hugely underestimated. For example the USGS reports that the United States has a thorium reserve of 160,000 tons, with another 300,000 tons of possible thorium reserve. But Alex Gabbard estimates a reserve of over 300,000 tons of recoverable thorium in coal ash associated with power production in the United States alone.
In 1969, WASH-1097 noted a report that had presented to President Johnson that estimated the United States thorium reserve at 3 billion tons that could be recovered for the price of $500 a pound – perhaps $3000 today. Lest this sound like an enormous amount of money to pay for thorium, consider that one pound of thorium contains the energy equivalent of 20 tons of coal, which would sell on the spot market for in mid-January for around $1500. The price of coal has been somewhat depressed by the economic down turn. Last year coal sold on the spot market for as much as $300 a ton, yielding a price for 20 tons of coal of $6000. How long would 3 billion tons last the United States? If all of the energy used in the United States were derived from thorium for the next two million years, there would be still several hundred thousand years of thorium left that could be recovered for the equivalent of $3000 a pound in January 2009 dollars.
Nor would exhausting the USAEC’s 1969 estimated thorium reserve exhaust the American thorium supply. Even at average concentrations in the earth’s rocks, thorium can be recovered with a good EROEI, without making the cost of electricity impossibly expensive.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Scientific American Beyond the Pale

This is the second of two reposts, which I wish to refer to in defense of my work as a pro-nuclear, pro Molten Salt Reactor blogger.  I have taken an extended vacation from my blogging in Nuclear Green, although I continue to use my face book page as a blog.  The topic of the post is my sorrow because one of my teenage loves, Scientific American had betrayed my love, but selling out the the anti-scientific enemies of nuclear power.

As a teenager I use to walk to the Oak Ridge Public Library to read the magazines. Scientific American was always one of my favorites. I regarded SA as more reliable than the Bible. That was long ago. Some time ago Scientific American fell under the editorial control of people holding anti-nuclear views. Let me say first that I am a critic of conventional nuclear technology. I take the view that nuclear power can be inherently safe, and indeed that natural reactors operated at Oklo in Gabon, Africa for hundreds of thousands years without anything catastrophic happening.Scientific American told the story. Not only did more than a dozen reactors operate with out human control for many thousands of years, but their fission products, the infamous nuclear waste, was contained to a remarkable extent, suggesting that the so called nuclear waste problem has been greatly exaggerated by the anti-nuclear crowd. Alex P. Meshik, in the resent SA account of Oklo, tells us
After my colleagues and I had worked out in a general way how the observed set of xenon isotopes was created inside the aluminum phosphate grains, we attempted to model the process mathematically. This exercise revealed much about the timing of reactor operation, with all xenon isotopes providing pretty much the same answer. The Oklo reactor we studied had switched “on” for 30 minutes and “off” for at least 2.5 hours. The pattern is not unlike what one sees in some geysers, which slowly heat up, boil off their supply of groundwater in a spectacular display, refill, and repeat the cycle, day in and day out, year after year. This similarity supports the notion not only that groundwater passing through the Oklo deposit was a neutron moderator but also that its boiling away at times accounted for the self-regulation that protected these natural reactors from destruction. In this regard, it was extremely effective, allowing not a single meltdown or explosion during hundreds of thousands of years.

One would imagine that engineers working in the nuclear power industry could learn a thing or two from Oklo. And they certainly can, though not necessarily about reactor design. The more important lessons may be about how to handle nuclear waste. Oklo, after all, serves as a good analogue for a long-term geologic repository, which is why scientists have examined in great detail how the various products of fission have migrated away from these natural reactors over time. They have also scrutinized a similar zone of ancient nuclear fission found in exploratory boreholes drilled at a site called Bangombe, located some 35 kilometers away. The Bangombe reactor is of special interest because it was more shallowly buried than those unearthed at the Oklo and Okelobondo mines and thus has had more water moving through it in recent times. In all, the observations boost confidence that many kinds of dangerous nuclear waste can be successfully sequestered underground.
There is a safety lesson here for reactor designers, contrary to Meshik. Conventional reactors operate at high pressure, the Oklo reactors operated at low pressure, unconfined steam simply boiled off. It is certainly possible to operate reactors at low pressure, and in fact to do so with greater thermal efficiency than is possible with conventional reactors. This can be accomplished with liquid metals, for example sodium and lead, or it can be accomplished with liquid fluoride salts.

Conventional reactors are reasonably safe especially when compairedd with other energy technologies, including solar and wind. You will not see such comparisons offered by Scientific American, however.

At any rate that anti-nuclear crowd, that controls Scientific American has once again is telling us that nuclear power is unsafe. The anti-nuclear crowd has few facts to base their objections to nuclear power on. In two of the three worse case nuclear accidents, there were no casualties, while people rew killed all the time by following off the tops of wind generator towers, following off the rooves of houses with PV cells, in coal mine and natural gss pipeline explosions, and in oil refinery accidents. The anti-nuclear crowd, however, seems to believe that if someone were to be killed in a nuclear power related accident, they would be far more dead that people killed by accidents related to other energy technologies.

In their imagination he anti-nuclear crowd believes that a nuclear power related accident that will kill millions of people is just waiting to happen. And those people will of course be very dead, unlike the people who fall off their rooves attempting to service PV cells and are killed. Scientific American does worry because,
fossil-fueled power plants shortens the life span of as many as 30,000 Americans a year. Coal companies lop off mountaintops, hydraulic fracturing for natural gas threatens water supplies, and oil dependence undermines the nation’s energy security. Then there is the small matter of greenhouse gas emissions.
However, SA tells us
the public worries about safety—and no wonder. The industry and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) claim that nuclear power is safe, but their lack of transparency does not inspire confidence. For example, an Associated Press investigation in March revealed 24 cases from December 2009 to September 2010 in which plant operators did not report equipment defects to the NRC. The industry and regulators must regain the public’s trust.
So the NRC is the only thing that stands between us and the nuclear accident that will kill millions of people far more than pollution from coal fired power plants kills them now. And according to the anti-nuclear crowd at SA, the NRC is falling down on the job. Yet SA's accout of the AP's supposed investigation of the NRC is itself questionable as "Blubba" points out in a comment,
The Associated Press didn't investigate the industry's failure to report defects, it simply reported on the investigation conducted by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Office of Inspector General. The OIG report put the blame on the NRC for creating confusing and conflicting guidance for what is supposed to be reported by the industry.
The AP story spacifically stated,
The inspector general blames the failures on uncertainty about when to report defects. Operators said they thought they needed to report only when an “event” took place and backup systems did not prevent a breakdown — or in bureaucratic lingo, an “actual loss of safety function.” In fact, the rules require them to report any defect, even if backup systems kicked in.

The inspector general said there was confusion about the rule among at least 28 percent of the nation’s 104 nuclear reactors, based on interviews done from mid-2009 to mid-2010.
Thus the problem was not with the operators at all, it was entirely due to confusing regulations, and can be resolved by clarifying them. Yet SA uses the AP story to imply that regulatory and the failure to report was due to misconduct by operators and regulators.

Fortunately there are a group pf sensible people who support nuclear power and who do not accept everything that Scientific American says about nuclear power without questioning. Freethinker wrote,
We have a potential for nearly unlimited clean power. We can power ships, hospitals and pump water into the desert to make it bloom. We can transport ourselves on the wings of electricity. But, according to the fine editors here, we must be careful, cautious, tread lightly. They tell us that danger awaits in the wings and that a current record of safety is no assurance we will not all die quickly in the future. Is this science? Are the recommendations here forwarded really science? Or is this a knee jerk reaction that preserves the status quo and prevents any real movement forward?

1. How many have died from the amazing disaster at Fukushima?
2. Why did they die and why have more not died?
3. When compared to the safety of any other thing affected by the Tsunami were these reactors safer or more dangerous in terms of people actually killed?
4. If 40 year old designs can withstand the most amazing earthquake and Tsunami known to humanity up to this point, why are we so afraid?

To put it bluntly, I call your bluff. You have not given any reasons, evidence or backing for your call for increased regulatory oversight, but a mish-mash of fear

The nuclear story is that in 50 years nuclear power has proven safer than oil, proven safer than natural gas, proven safer than coal, proven safer than wind, proven safer than hydroelectric, and proven safer than solar photovoltaics. Still Scientific American complains of public mistrust of the nuclear industry because the wording of some of the NRC's regulations are not clear enough for reactor owners to be sure if they are following them. What gives here?

We need to talk about an anti-nuclear propaganda machine, one which distorts facts in order to put nuclear power in the worst possible light. That propaganda machine, of which Scientific American has been a part for he last few years, goes far beyond factual reality. The anti-nuclear propaganda machine tells numerous lies. Scientific American has told numerous lies. For example Scientific American has elevated anti-nuclear propagandist, Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen, to the level of credible scientific source,

Storm van Leeuwen does not have the credentials to be regarded as a credible source. His work on the nuclear energy payback and the sustainability of nuclear power has never passed a peer review process, for a scientific journal, and has been bombarded with criticism by the scientific community. Yet Scientific American describes Storm van Leeuwen as an "expert" on the Uranium supply who
advises European governments on nuclear issues, . . .
Scientific American uses Storm van Leeuwen as the source of an outrageous lie, that
by 2070, Storm van Leeuwen found, the amount of energy it takes to mine, mill, enrich and fabricate one metric ton of uranium fuel may be larger than 160 terajoules—the amount of energy one can generate from it.
Scientific American disgraced itself by hyping a shoddy, unprofessional hit peice against nuclear power. Mark Cooper, a professional lobbyist who specialized for many years in communication issues, wrote an essay on nuclear costs. Scientific American described Cooper as an economist, he is not. Nor has his so called research on nuclear costs been published by a peer reviewed journal. Scientific American readers did offer a reasonable approximation of a peer review process, however. They unloaded on Scientific American:

Duncan M noted
renewables at 6 cents per kilowatt hour. That's pretty funny, since they require direct production subsidies of 15 cents per kilowatt hour for wind to 35 cents per kilowatt hour for solar, with no reasonable hope those costs will fall significantly

Meanwhile, nuclear is cost-competitive with hydro in Europe.

This magazine doesn't deserve to keep the word Scientific in its name if it's publishing political jeremiads like this.
Rogeregon responded
LOL! Duncan M, I've noticed, more and more, how Scientific American has been taken over by a bunch of ultra-left wingers who seem to be mostly pushing political agendas, rather than actual science!
uvdiv was blunt
This article is criminally dishonest. It brings up a "12c-20c/kWh" cost range for nuclear, and then also cites an MIT study as calling nuclear power "uncompetitive". Which is interesting because I've READ that MIT study, and it concludes the levelized cost for new nuclear power is 8.4 c/kWh - well outside the other range the author quotes. Does the author point out this discrepancy? No; he ignores the inconvenient parts of his own sources, selectively cherry-picking the quotes and datapoints that support his position.

The report is available for free here:


And further when the MIT report calls nuclear power "uncompetitive", it is referring ONLY in comparison with coal and natural gas power, and ONLY when completely ignoring the costs of carbon emissions. In fact, by the studies' numbers, just a very small carbon price would make nuclear as cheap as coal. (2009 update, Table 1)

The cited MIT report also directly conflicts with the "$1.9-4.1 trillion" figure for 100 new reactors. It estimates a capital cost figure of $4/W for new reactors (based on real-world figures from recent reactors in Japan and South Korea, which fell in the range of $2-3/W*, and extrapolating from that with commodity price increases). At the this cost, 100x new 1 GWe reactors would carry a pricetag of $400 billion, which is majorly conflicts with his other (presumably fradulent) numbers. Since when did commercial power reactors reach $41/W???

*These are discussed in a supplementary paper to that report, which is here under "Update on the Cost of Nuclear Power":


Again, it is despicable that a self-proclaimed "journalist" would so blatantly misrepresent his sources, twist them to support his political ideals.

To append one thing to my comment - I want to preempt any argument that lifetime operation or decommissioning costs explain away the huge discrepancy with that $1.9-$4.1 trillion figure. Construction costs are by far the largest component of nuclear power costs, and other lifetime costs are comparatively trivial. Again citing the same MIT study (the supplement paper): Table 6C compares these. A full 72% of total costs are the initial construction costs (which would be $400 billion for one hundred 1 GWe reactors under this MIT study). A tiny 11% are operation and maintenance costs, 10% are fuel costs, and 7% decommissioning.

Again that paper is available here for free:

Patrice2 commented
Contrary to the study’s finding that “nuclear power cannot stand on its own two feet in the marketplace” nuclear energy is expected to be among the most economic sources of electricity. To cite one example, an independent comparative study published in January 2008 by the Brattle Group for the state of Connecticut estimated that nuclear energy (at $4,038/kW) may have the highest capital cost, but still produces the least expensive electricity, except for combined cycle natural gas with no carbon controls.

New nuclear reactors have been affirmed as the least cost option for new generation by the Public Service Commission (PSC) in South Carolina, Florida, and Georgia. The analyses supporting the PSC reviews found nuclear to be cost competitive with other forms of baseload generation in addition to helping to address climate change.

Various recently-released academic studies have also found the cost of nuclear energy to be competitive.

It’s useful to think of it like this:

• The cost of building advanced reactors is about the same as advanced coal plants with carbon storage, but nuclear energy has the lowest fuel cost over decades of electricity production.

• By comparison, natural gas plants are relatively cheap to build, but the supply and price volatility is a major drawback. The fuel cost for natural gas plants makes up 90 percent of the power cost. The cost of power from coal and gas-fueled power plants would rise in a carbon-constrained world, further increasing their electricity costs.

A new licensing process, coupled with construction and project management experience from nuclear energy projects globally, will provide useful experience with new reactor designs in the United States.

Put simply, credible estimates of the total cost of new nuclear energy facilities show that electricity from nuclear energy will be competitive with other forms of base load generation.
JimHolf made a point familiar to Nuclear Green readers
It must be noted that while nuclear opponents often claim that renewables are cheaper than nuclear, they are NEVER willing to put that assertion to any kind of market test. Just the opposite. They say they're cheaper, but then insist on policies that prevent any fair market competition between renewables and other means of reducing emissions, including nuclear. Under current/recent policies, renewables are massively more subsidised than nuclear, and there are also outright mandates for their use (regardless of cost or practicality), just in case even those subsidies are not enough. If the relative cost of renewables was anything like this article's study, none of these policies would be even remotely necessary."
"dbakerpe" noted,
The assertion that nuclear will have high long term costs is based on cost overruns on the first generation plants. It false on its face, because those same first generation plants are now the lowest cost power sources on the grid except hydro. Large power projects are built with borrowed money, so the power is always expensive to begin with to pay back the loans. A new nuclear plant will likely last 60-100 years. After the loans are paid back the power will be cheap. If we are going to have a real economy that produces real products, they are the only environmentally acceptable solution.
Finally "sethdayal" offered the following criticisms,
The MIT 4000 a kw is just a (WAG) wild guess based on suspect figures.
1) It is based on a few Asian reactors with some rather dubious conversions to US Dollars.
2) In the middle of the worst depression in a century it assumes without proof that nuclear plant cost inflation is 15%.
3) It assumes 11% cost of money at a time when public power ie governments can borrow at 3%.
4) Ignored are Westinghouse's sale of four ap-1000 reactors for 5.5 billion to China a little over 1300 a kw and Hyperions sale of six of its 25 mw units for $25 million each again $1000 a kw with 45 mw of free heat leftover to warm the town.
5) Ignored also is Westinghouse's contention that with mass production techniques it can produce these reactors for around $1000 a kilowatt. With a World War Two hell bent for leather lets save the planet from global warning type effort ramping up quickly to hundreds of plants opening worldwide every year, costs for mass produced reactors would drop drastically.
6) It assumes every country is like the US where a large portion of costs are a result of an army of attorneys, bureaucrats and insurance companies lined up for and against any proposed private power company nuclear plants.

Renewables cheaper. What a joke.
Amazingly, despite such criticisms, the Editors of Scientific American did not retract their "Mark Cooper" piece.

Clearly then Scientific American cannot be trusted as a source on nuclear power.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Phoenix Rising

I originally wrote this post after attending a lecture by David LeBlanc at ORNL.  I wanted to capture some of the excitement David created with his lecture.  This reposting is dedicated to Rod Adams and the readers of his Blog, Atomic Insights.

I attended David LeBlanc's lecture at ORNL yesterday (May 18, 2010).

Jess Gehin, our host, took the opportunity to do a set of show-and-tell presentations about molten-salt-related programs at ORNL. It is safe to say, from what I saw yesterday, that the phoenix is rising at ORNL.

David's talk was exciting. David has been in contact with retired ORNL MSR researcher Dick Engel. Dick participated in the ORNL 1980 fling at getting backing for Molten Salt Reactor development, the DMSR. (For documentation of the DMSR concept, see hereherehere and here.) David notes in his Mechanical Engineering article,
The “D” stands for “denatured”—the uranium in the reactor contains too much U-238 to be useful in weapons. The concept also dispenses with processing the salt to remove fission products; the same salt is used throughout the 30-year life of the reactor with small amounts of low enriched uranium added each year to keep the fissile material constant. The amount of uranium fuel needed—about 35 metric tons per GWe year—is only one-sixth of what is used by a pressurized water reactor. . . .

The amount of fissile material needed to start new reactors is also very important, especially in terms of a rapid fleet expansion. The 1 GWe DMSR was designed for 3.5 metric tons of U-235 (in easy-to-obtain low-enriched uranium) which can be lowered if uranium costs go up. A new PWR, by contrast, needs about 5 metric tons, whereas a sodium-cooled fast breeder such as the PRISM design requires as much as 18 tons of either U-235 or spent fuel plutonium. Any liquid fluoride reactor can be started on plutonium as well, but this turns out to be an expensive option, since removing plutonium from spent fuel costs around $100,000 per kilogram.
Reviewing the DMSR from a 2010 perspective, LeBlanc finds many advantages.
The DMSR features a larger, lower power density graphite core than other MSR breeder concepts. So while the graphite would last a full 30 years, the DMSR would still be only a fraction of the size of gas-cooled graphite reactors and would not require a pressure vessel. In fact, the simple thin-walled DMSR containment vessel would be wider but much shorter than those of PWRs and BWRs. The construction of the reactor containment building offers savings as it does not need the huge volume and ability to deal with steam pressure buildup needed for LWRs or CANDU reactors.

The overall thermal efficiency of the plant would be quite high. With a salt outlet of 700 °C and using the latest ultra-supercritical steam cycles or gas Brayton cycles, efficiencies close to 50 percent would be possible.

While up-to-date cost estimates for a molten salt reactor are not available, it is quite simple to see the potential overall advantages. The DMSR needs no capital and O&M costs for fuel processing, and the superior nature of the salts as coolants results in far smaller heat exchangers and pumps. Building and fabrication costs should be lower than conventional nuclear plants, since the design doesn’t put the same sort of stresses on the system.
Among the advantages LeBlanc points out, the potential to lower nuclear costs is the most conspicuous.
It is not unreasonable, then, to assume that capital costs could be 25 to 50 percent less for a simple DMSR converter design than for modern light water reactors. Compared to fast breeders such as the integral fast reactor, which rarely try to claim low capital costs, the DMSR should be even better.
In his ORNL talk, LeBlanc noted the possibility of simply eliminating a Thorium blanket for the DMSR entirely, and running the DMSR as a pure uranium-fuel cycle reactor. While the Uranium fuel cycle DMSR would offer less sustainable technology than the LFTR, it would be a very strong competitor for the current generation of Light Water Reactors. It would offer a very high level of safety, proliferation resistance and nuclear waste control, at a lower cost that current light-water reactor technology. Actinides, the big problem in nuclear waste, could be separated from reactors salts, either periodically or when the reactor is decommissioned. The recovered actinides can be returned to the core of a DMSR where they will be burned as nuclear fuel. Other fission products will essentially disappear after 300 years, if reactor managers chose to treat them as waste, but this is unlikely. Fission products present in "spent nuclear fuel" represent a potential source of valuable materials and noble gases, and the DMSR concept opens the door for the recovery of these minerals.

LeBlanc concluded his Mechanical Engineering essay by declaring,
Molten salt or liquid fluoride reactors will also take a large effort, but every indication points to a power reactor that will excel in cost, safety, long-term waste reduction, resource utilization, and proliferation resistance. As we move deeper into a century that portends financial instability, political uncertainty, environmental catastrophe, and resource depletion, this technology is too valuable to once again place back on the shelf.
Nuclear Green concurs with this view. The DMSR represents a technology that is doable in the year 2010. The technology required to build it exists now, thus developers would not be saddled with huge R&D costs, and and the technological uncertainties that would confront LFTR development. The DMSR would represent a transition, between the traditional solid fuel reactors, and the sustainable LFTR technology. The Phoenix is beginning to rise from its ashes.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Alvin Weinberg: Integrity and Vision

This is a repost of another early Nuclear Green post.  It actually predates Nuclear Green, and was in fact written shortly after Weinberg's death.  Unlike Ralph Nader who was not a giant of integrity, Weinberg revealed great integrity.  Weinberg was fired as Director of ORNL because he stood up to the Washington AEC establishment over nuclear safety.  Weinberg had the backing of most of the nuclear scientists at National Laboratories, but the fact that he was fired was kept secrete for years.  Weinberg was a brilliant nuclear scientist, and a successful science administrator. 

My father, Dr. Charles Julian Barton, Sr., died in 2009. At the age of 97 he was one of the last of his generation of scientists in Oak Ridge. He was recruited in 1948 to do research at Oak Ridge, first at the Y-12 plant, but for most of his Oak Ridge career he worked for ORNL. For most of his Oak Ridge career, my father worked under Alvin Weinberg's direction. In particular, he worked on the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion and the Molten Salt Reactor Projects. The Lab was very hierarchical and Weinberg was the big boss.

Oak Ridge is a small place, Alvin Weinberg's son, David Weinberg, attended the same school I did, and we became friends. I visited the Weinberg home on a number of occasions. David was, like me, intelligent and sensitive. It is through my childhood friendship with David that I feel a personal bond with Alvin Weinberg and his work.

Science is based on integrity. Without integrity, there is no truth in science. My father was a man of exceptional integrity, and so was Alvin Weinberg. Weinberg was aware of both the promise and the dangers inherent in the reactor. During the 1960's, Weinberg directed a series of tests at ORNL designed to verify theoretical assumptions made about the safety of light water reactors which were being pushed by the AEC for the generation of electrical power. My father was one of the scientists who were conducting this research. The scientists came up with recommendations for further nuclear safety research which they gave to Alvin Weinberg. The results were disturbing to Weinberg and his staff. The standard design of light water reactors was shown to have serious safety flaws. Weinberg began to warn people within the industry about the problem.

For Weinberg, superior safety was one of the most important features of the Molten Salt Reactor design. Weinberg regarded the AEC's commitment to electrical power generation through light water reactors as irrational. Not only were they less safe than other designs, but also they could not be used to breed new fissionable materials. The Molten Salt Reactor potentially was an ideal atomic breeder that could produce more fuel than it consumed. A generation after the controversy, Weinberg's brilliance is fully appreciated, but at the time, Weinberg was a thorn in the side of the establishment. Powerful congressman Chet Holifield had it in for Weinberg because he saw Weinberg's reactor safety concerns as threatening the Atomic power industry. Holifield confronted Weinberg and said, "Alvin, if you are concerned about the safety of reactors, then I think it might be time for you to leave nuclear energy." Holifield was powerful enough to have Weinberg fired from his position as Director of ORNL.

Weinberg's reactor safety concerns were vindicated in 1979 when coolant loss in the Three Mile Island-2 power reactor lead to a partial core meltdown. Reading the details of the accident would not have comforted Weinberg, even though he had foreseen it. Yet the Three Mile Island accident did not cause the decline of the atomic power industry. Between the year of Weinberg's firing in 1973 and the year of the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, 40 planned nuclear power plants were canceled. As he believed, the First Nuclear Age ended with Weinberg's firing in 1973.

When I worked at the ORNL in 1970 - 1971, the scientists there spoke of Weinberg with great respect. Weinberg was a visionary who believed that cheap sustainable power could improve the lot of the worlds' poor. He envisioned technological complexes surrounding reactors transforming the lives of third world peoples. Weinberg was no mad scientist; he was an heir of the Enlightenment, whose vision was developed in a tradition. That tradition of vision was of a science based transformation of human life. That vision stretched back to Frances Bacon and Rene Descartes. Hopefully Weinberg was not the last of the technological optimists.

Alexander Zucker, a University of Tennessee Physics professor who knew Weinberg personally and professionally and teaches physics at UT said: “I would say that what made him unique was his profound concern for the welfare of man. He never stopped thinking about it.”

There was also a dark side to Weinberg's vision, the side that acknowledged the danger that technology posed for the Human Race. During the last years of his career, Weinberg focused on the danger posed by the carbon-based economy. I know this. Alvin Weinberg was one of the few great men who I have had the privilege to encounter. He was a truly gifted scientist, a giant in his generation. He saw both the promise and the dangers of technology. He did not flinch from what he saw, and his integrity was such that he willingly lost his career on the altar of truth. Time after time Weinberg's judgments and his visions have been vindicated. A generation ago Weinberg warned us of the dangers of anthropogenic CO2. I worked at ORNL during 1970-71. It was there for the first time I learned about the CO2/global warming problem. Weinberg's concern about the problem was beginning to spread to other ORNL scientists. In 1977 Weinberg penned a study of the future of the coal economy titled, "Some long-range speculations about coal." Its synopsis read:

Should the world demand for energy increase sixfold within the next 50 years, largely because the underdeveloped countries industrialize, and if half this demand is met by coal, then the estimated world recoverable resource of coal of 4 x 10/sup 12/ metric tons would last at this asymptotic level about 140 years. The carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere is then estimated to increase about threefold. These two eventualities may place limits on our ultimate use of coal. The risk of a CO/sub 2/ accumulation inherent in the widespread use of coal is in a sense analogous to the risk of nuclear proliferation: both problems are global, uncertain, and could pose profound challenges to man's future.

I know of the integrity and care of Weinberg and of the scientist who first accepted Weinberg's warning. Only fools and scoundrels would ignore it. I was a witness.
Alvin Weinberg and Eugene Wegner, Nobel Physics Prize winner


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