Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Hidden in a Dusty Government Warehouse

In my recent case study of EEStor, I pointed to the importance of a working “proof of concept” prototype as the most telling means of demonstrating the credibility of a technology. EEStor faces critics who argue that . Capacitor experts have repeatedly argued that EEStor technology claims contradict the postulates conventional science. From the viewpoint of philosophy of science, the postulates of conventional science become the null hypothesis, for the EEStor capacitor theory. A small working EESU prototype that performed would be all that would be required to quiet skeptics like me. Alas, to date no prototype has been produced, despite the claim of EEStor to have passed all of the technological milestones standing in the way of building the prototype.

Now let us consider another story. Let us suppose that there is a substance, which we can call “element T”. Now “element T” has so much energy locked into it, that a single mine located on the Idaho-Montana border could produce enough energy to sustain the American economy to over a thousand years. Suppose that the power of this “element T” was so great that simply by excavating rocks from the crust of the earth, and chemically extracting a few atoms from every ton would produce enough “element T” to generate far more power than the extraction of “element T” required. Now further suppose that the purity of “Element T” coming from the mine located on the Idaho-Montana border was of such purity that 4 guys with shovels and a pickup truck could dig up enough in a day, to power a huge electrical generating plant for a year.

Fantastic, you say, there is more.

Sixty years ago, some brilliant scientists discovered a simple but radical technology that could the energy from “element T”. Let’s call it the “T” machine. Scientists developed two proof of concept prototype “T” machine in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The “T” machines impressed the scientist with their success. The scientist research showed that the “T” machines could alter “element T” in to a form of matter from which the energy of “element T” could be extracted. The “T” machine was judged by scientist to be amazingly safe. Unlike coal fired power plants and conventional reactors, the “T” machine produced very little little waste, at most only a few hundred pounds a year.

And geologists found enough “element T” in Vermont to power the United States for tens of thousands of years.

Then when scientists proposed building a “T” power plant, A shadowy government bureaucrat named Milton Shaw, who fought against improving nuclear safety during the Nixon Administration, order the MSR research project shut down.

Thousands of pages of documents reporting the scientists research successes on the “T Machine” are now buried dusty government archives, like the Ark of the Covenant in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”.

“Where did you come up with such a fantastic story,” you say.

All of the story I just told is true. The promise of sustainable virtually unlimited power from thorium is laid out in dozens of research reports and proposals, and in the virtually reports of geologists.

I knew the story because my father, Dr. C.J. Barton, Sr., was one of the scientists who worked on the “T machine” between 1950, and 1969. My father, and the other scientists called the machine they were creating the Molten Salt Reactor (MSR). “Element T” is really called Thorium. The “T machine,” is now called the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR). The late Alvin Weinberg, the brilliant and charismatic Director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory described the MSR/LFTR as "elegant and so well thought-out".

Dr. Weinberg, who invented the Light Water Reactor design, that is now use world wide in nuclear power plants as well as in nuclear powered Navy ships. Weinberg said, "The molten-salt technology is entirely different from the technology of any other reactor. To the inexperienced, molten-salt technology is daunting. . . I hope that in a second nuclear era, the molten-salt technology will be resurrected.”

Kirk Sorensen and I have separately told the story. Kirk on “Energy from Thorium” and I on both “Nuclear Green” and Energy from Thorium. (For those who prefer to listen, Kirk tells the story to fellow nuclear blogger Rod Adams here.) /

Shortly before he died, Nobel Prize winning physicist, Dr. Edward Teller, began working on a paper on MSR/LFTRs. Teller died before the paper was finished, but the paper was finished by a colleague, Dr. Ralph Moir.

In their joint paper, Teller and Moir told of “advantages [ of the MSR/LFTR] that include utilization of ,an abundant fuel, inaccessibility of that fuel to terrorists or for diversion to weapons use, together with good economics and safety features . . .”

Dr. Moir told me, “[Teller] believed building a small molten salt reactor . . .was most urgent because our energy options are running out (especially natural gas).”

Dr. Moir said that the MSR/LFTR “holds the promise of being more economical than our present reactors while using less fuel. . . It can come in small sizes without as much of a penalty as is usually the case and can be in large sizes. It can burn thorium thereby getting away from so much buildup of plutonium and higher actinides.”

Other scientists, including world famous reactor scientist, Dr. Alvin Weinberg, who invented the Light Water Reactor design, that is now use world wide in nuclear power plants as well as in nuclear powered Navy ships. Weinberg said, The molten-salt technology is entirely different from the technology of any other reactor. To the inexperienced, molten-salt technology is daunting. . . I hope that in a second nuclear era, the molten-salt technology will be resurrected.”

Oak Ridge scientist, Uri Gat considered the MSR/LFTR to potentially be, the ultimately safe reactor. Gat notes that the MSR design features a high level of passive safety, that is safety features that operate automatically by taking advantage of the laws of nature. Gat, along with many other scientists, have pointed out that because the fuel in the MSR/LFTR is already suspended in a hot liquid, core meltdown is not a problem.

Scientist agree that Three Mile Island and Chernobyl type accidents would be impossible with MSR/LFTR type reactors.

Gat and two associates J. R. Engel of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and Dr. H. L. Dodds pf the University of Tennessee, have argued that the MSR is the good tool for disposing of uranium and plutonium from nuclear weapons. They also argue that MSR's can burn nuclear waste as fuel, meaning that the problem of nuclear waste can almost be eliminated. Other scientists agree with them.

Another Oak Ridge scientist, Dr. Herbert G. MacPerson , also pointed to the cost advantages of MSR/LFTRs. MacPerson said that the real reason that the MSR was not developed was a lack of political support.

Alvin Weinberg explained why research on the the MSR/LFTR was stopped by saying, “the moral to be drawn is that a technology that differs too much from an existing technology has not one hurdle to overcome—to demonstrate its feasibility—but another even greater one—to convince influential individuals and organizations who are intellectually and emotionally attached to a different technology."

And so the secret of the MSR/LFTR has remained hidden in dusty government warehouses for almost 40 years.

6 comments:

randal.leavitt said...

The attachment that prevents innovation and technical progress consists of more than intellectual and emotional factors. Money, power, politics, and even war also play a role. And I guess we should include ignorance too. Some elites have a lot to lose if technology switches too rapidly, so they prevent the dissemination of new ideas, and back this up with intimidation. It can be a rough game. I would like to see plans and proposals presented for dealing with all this in a peaceful and just manner. Managing technological change is a challenge.

donb said...

My fantasy is that someone of great wealth (e.g., Bill Gates) steps forward to support development and commercialization of MSR/LFTR. But then I wonder if government regulation (for the safety of the public, of course) would make progress all but impossible.

John Tjostem said...

Charles, this is a very convincing blog. It deserves widespread distribution. Your historical documentation is a big plus. Thanks.

Neurovore said...

Who was this "Milton Shaw" person, and what was his motivation for pulling funding from the MSR program? This sounded like a very ill-conceived move on his part.

Charles Barton said...

For Milton Shaw's career see the following links:
http://nucleargreen.blogspot.com/2008/02/milton-shaw-part-i.html
http://nucleargreen.blogspot.com/2008/02/milton-shaw-part-ii.html
http://nucleargreen.blogspot.com/2008/02/milton-shaw-part-ii_21.html

Neurovore said...

I see.

That was truly a dramatic story, and it is amazing how one person in a position of power at the AEC brought the whole program crashing down. I do hope that nothing like this will ever happen again in nuclear energy research.

Followers

Blog Archive

Some neat videos

Nuclear Advocacy Webring
Ring Owner: Nuclear is Our Future Site: Nuclear is Our Future
Free Site Ring from Bravenet Free Site Ring from Bravenet Free Site Ring from Bravenet Free Site Ring from Bravenet Free Site Ring from Bravenet
Get Your Free Web Ring
by Bravenet.com
Dr. Joe Bonometti speaking on thorium/LFTR technology at Georgia Tech David LeBlanc on LFTR/MSR technology Robert Hargraves on AIM High