Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Mini Thorium Grand Plan

There are two major weakness of all of the national energy plans that I have seen to date. One is that to some extent they are dependent on continued use of some fossil fuels. This is is not satisfactory if our goal is to control global warming. The other major flaw is a complete failure to explore the potential of Alternative Nuclear Power. By Alternative Nuclear Power I mean alternatives to building ever larger and more expensive Uranium Fuel Cycle Light Water Reactors. Alternative Nuclear power can include Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors, other Thorium Fuel Cycle reactors, and Pebble Bed Reactors. It would include small factory built reactors, that can be built cheaply and quickly through mass production assembly lines. Alternative Nuclear would include innovative siting approaches. Under ground and underwater sites, for example, would provide high degrees of accident related safety, plus protection against terrorist attacks.

The Pebble Bed Reactor is currently being developed in both South Africa and China, small PBR can be mass produced. Small PBRs can can be grouped to produce as much power as desired, with plants producing powers within months of the first unit order. Cost per unit of power would be smaller than for Light Water Reactors. The PBR is highly safe, and it can be air cooled, With mass production thousands and even tens of thousands of PBRs can be factory built in the next 40 years, Large scale factory production will dramatically lower unit costs.

Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors have more advanced features than the PBR. Because LFTRs are closed fuel cycle reactors they use a tiny fraction of the fuel used by Conventional reactors. The do not produce nuclear waste. Fission products after a nuclear cool down period can be us in Industry, medicine, food preservation, or sanitation. Most thorium cycle byproducts will be safe within a generation or two. Thus the long term problem of nuclear waste will be largely eliminated.

Like the PBR, the LFTR is highly safe, safer than conventional reactors. It can be placed in unconventional sites. The LFTR can be mass produced on assembly lines at costs that should be lower than conventional reactors. Like the PBR is can be set up in groups of units. The LFTR can follow the load of electrical demand. Given high volume production, LFTRs prices may be lowered enough to use LFTRs as peak power producers.

There is enough assured thorium reserve in the United States to power the entire economy for at least 400 years, the probable thorium reserve is huge will power the United States for as long as we need energy. Except for solar water heating, and some solar space heating, virtually all energy requirement can be meet through LFTR produced electricity. LFTR’s are proliferation resistant, but not proliferation proof, and therefor should not be sold to rogue states.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi,

The 3rd paragraph needs a serious revision :)

kon

donb said...

Charles Barton said:
There are two major weakness of all of the national energy plans that I have seen to date. One is that to some extent they are dependent on continued use of some fossil fuels. This is is not satisfactory if our goal is to control global warming.

I think there is room for a limited continued use of fossil fuels. I have a hard time seeing a practical replacement for them in aviation. They are also convenient to use for small amounts of heat and power in remote locations. On the other hand, we could make a major reduction in CO2 emissions (more than half) by switching electricity generation away from fossil fuels to nuclear, even if we did nothing else

The other major flaw is a complete failure to explore the potential of Alternative Nuclear Power. By Alternative Nuclear Power I mean alternatives to building ever larger and more expensive Uranium Fuel Cycle Light Water Reactors.

This indeed is short-sighted. The crying shame is that (unlike fusion) such reactors have already been demonstrated. Work is needed to commercialize them.

I have read at least one report on the Yucca Mountain spent fuel repository stating that tens of billions more need to be spent on research and development before it is ready for use. Such amounts of money would be better spent on development of (for example) an "omnivorous" molten salt reactor so that the spent fuel could be used for energy production, the hazardous life of the "waste" greatly reduced, and a new source of rare-earth elements developed.

Charles Barton said...

donb, aviation in the future may be confined to long distance travel. Short trips can be made quickly on high spped electric trains. I have also made similar observations about spending on Yucca Mountain.

Robw said...

Charles

If pebble-bed and thorium reactors are that much better than typical light water reactors, with as many benefits as stated here, why aren't they being built? Is there some technological hurdle that you're not mentioning here?...seems like a no-brainer to me, but then again I'm no engineer/scientist, so explain in layman's terms please...

Charles Barton said...

robw, I have done some research on the subject. First United States Government support for most reactor research dropped dramatically during the late 1960's. After that little support was given to innovative research projects. The Molten Salt Reactor Experiment wasshut down in 1969, and many of the supporting scientists were transferred to unrelated assignments or discharged. After a prolong struggle to continue MSR/LFTR research in Oak Ridge, the last research effort was shut down in 1975. Reactor research in the United States was basically gutted after 1970, and from being a major reactor research center. ORNL had been the only center of LFTR in the world, and ORNL lost most of its reactor research capacity by the early 1970's. Indeed the Lab had stostruggle to survive.

H.G, MacPherson who headed MSR research in Oak Ridge believed that the reasons for the shut down of ORNL research on the MSR were:

"1. The political and technical support for the program in the United States was too thin geographically. Within the United States, only in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was the technology really understood and appreciated.

2. The MSR program was in competition with the fast breeder program, which got an early start and had copious government development funds being spent in many parts of the United States. When the MSR development program had progressed far enough to justify a greatly expanded program leading to
commercial development, the AEC could not justify the diversion of substantial funds from the LMFBR to a competing program".

In fact the LMFBR program eventually failed as well.

I critically examined a major government document in the MSR shutdown WASH-1222.
http://nucleargreen.blogspot.com/2008/02/wash-1222-with-comments-part-1.html (See also linked posts.)

My posts on Milton Shaw should also be noted, since Shaw was undoubtedly responsible for WASH-1222 and most likely played a role in initial stoppage of WASH-1222.

My assessment of the basic argument of WASH-1222 was that further research on the MSR should be discontinued because it required further research.

Robw said...

Charles

Thanks for the quick reply...So if I'm reading your reply correctly there are no 'major' technological hurdles to overcome (such as fusion) to bring this to market, just a concerted effort? It really does sound like it could be the answer to most of our power needs, now and in the future.

Interesting blog you have here, must say I stumbled upon it by seeing a couple of your posts on the EEstor blog, as I have been following that blog off and on for a couple of months now. I will admit that I never heard of Thorium use as a nuclear fuel, being that I'm a newbie to all this. I've been going through some of your old posts and have also checked out the Thorium energy blog...good stuff!

Quite interesting and keep up the good work

Charles Barton said...

Robwo, Ralph Moir Has a list of research topics "that could have a substantial improvement in the prospects for a commercially viable product (MSR)."
http://www.geocities.com/rmoir2003/2mlt_slt.htm

Moir estimates that about a billion more dollars to do this research. None of the problems are project killers. In addition that are some materials issues that requires further research.

There are a number of design options that should be explored. Finally, Alternative designs should receive computer modeling.

But since two prototype LFTRs were built in the 1950's and 60's and both were considered very successful, it would be quite posable to build a developmental prototype. In fact ORNL had an advanced Developmental reactor on the drawing boards during the early 1970's. Since a new LFTR R&D team must be assembled and get some hands on experience before a big reactor is developed, a developmental prototype should come first.

George Carty said...

One problem with the LFTR is that it doesn't use expensive fabricated fuel elements (just a bunch of liquid chemicals) meaning that the revenue for the builder is negligible once it is up and running.

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