Monday, September 15, 2008

Three Technologies That Can Save Civilization

I am setting aside, for the moment, my history of the Molten Salt Reactor to focus on a question raised by Robert Hargraves on "Energy From Thorium". Dr. Hargraves asked:

If we were to try to convince the US to pursue MSR technology, what would we propose? to whom? Who would carry out the work? How much would it cost? How long would it take? Can we argue for long-term funding, by treaty, as supplied to the CERN supercollider? What university professors and research laboratory scientists would support such a proposal and also have credibility and influence?

I've met with my congressman and senator on the subject of energy in the past, but I don't know what I would ask for on the subject of the thorium MSR.

This question poses a dilemma for the sort of innovative project that can reasonably expected to contribute to our post carbon energy future. If no funding is available, and past attempts to secure funding have been discouraged, then there is no incentive to to continue to develop projects, even on a conceptual level. Thus we get caught in a vicious circle, that no funding leads to a lack of interest, and the lack of interest then becomes the excuse for no funding.

Dr. Hargraves has been a brilliant advocate for Pebble Bed Reactor technology, and the dilemma effects PBR development in the United States no less than it does MSR/LFTR technology.

I would contend that PBR technology, MSR/LFTR technology can play critical roles in future resolutions of our energy crisis. Both reactor types are very safe and highly efficient, and can be manufactured at much lower costs than traditional reactor designs, they have great potential for reducing the cost of nuclear generated electricity. Because of their low cost, both LFTRs and PBRs can serve as peak electrical generators as well as well as base load generators. In addition MSRs have excellent load following characteristics. Indeed load following can extend the core life of graphite cored LFTRs, by lessening the intensity of neutron radiation the core is exposed too. The load following ability of LFTRs also makes them candidates to support wind electrical generating systems, since the ability of LFTRs to quickly respond to rapidly changing electrical currents from wind generators.

Renewables advocates often suggest the use of fossil fuel plants for load following and generation back up, but this option is not sustainable, is expensive, generates CO2, and outs European nations at risk for energy blackmail by natural gas suppliers. Therefore the flexibility of the LFTR makes it an ideal candidate to be paired with wind generation systems, and thus a prime candidate to replace coal and gas burning electrical plants. The rub is that a system of LFTRs would be a low cost alternative to a system of unreliable windmills with LFRT backup. This no doubt rests at the heart of the opposition to nuclear power, by renewables advocates.

At any rate either with or without renewables, the

There are several advantages of LFTRs over PBRs. However PBR's may have some advantageous in the area of proliferation resistance. Thus it is possible to sell PBR's to countries that are a considered a proliferation risk with MSRs. PBRs can be produced cheaply, do not require containment structures, do not require elaborate and expensive containment structures, can replace coal, natural gas, and oil fired generators, are extremely safe, can be operated by simple low cost computers, can provide industrial process heat, heat for space heating, and heat for desalinization in addition to electricity. There low cost makes them attractive options for peak load generators. There are several disadvantages of PBRs vis-à-vis LFTRs. PBRs don't breed or convert their own nuclear fuel. While LFTRs can burn up to 98% of the thorium in their system, PBRs can only burn a tiny fraction of their potential nuclear fuel. As a consequence PBRs produce several orders of magnitude more nuclear waste than LFRTs. The difficulty and expense of reprocessing PBR fuel is a key to their proliferation resistance.

A second disadvantage of PBRM's is that they are not good load followers. In order to follow loads, PBR operators would have to be dumped heat rather than running it through the generating system. This is not efficient use of nuclear power.

Despite these disadvantageous PBR's are destined to play a significant role in the replacement of fossil fuel power plants with nuclear reactors. Like LFTRs, PBRs can be quickly and inexpensively built in very large numbers in factories. Thus, for example, the Chinese, who are developing their own PBR technology, could build thousands of PBRs between 2020 and 2050. Reportedly the Chinese have already offered Canada PBRs to be used in processing Alberta tar sands into crude oil. The rub would be that the oil would then go to China.

South Africa is developing its own PBR which is a little more technologically advanced than the Chinese concept. The South Africans probably can project a very large market for the sale of these reactors. Both the under developed countries of Africa, and Latin America, as well as the more advanced nations of Europe, North America and Asia, would be included in the South African target markets. Thus it can be foreseen that PBRs will play a major role in the replacement of carbon based electrical and energy sources between 2020 and 2050.

LFTRs, because of their superior fuel efficiency, the major reduction of the problem of nuclear wast that LFTR technology brings, their safety, their ability to serve as base load generators, peak load generators, and effect load followers, and there low manufacturing cost, would be the preferred power generation technology for nuclear capable nations. A nuclear capable country is a nation which posses the capacity to produce nuclear weapons, without new technological transfers from external sources. An illustration of nuclear capacity would be South Africa, which developed its own centrifuge Uranium enrichment technology in the 1970's and 80's and managed to produce 6 nuclear weapons. Other nations which are nuclear capable include Argentina, Australia, Canada, the Ukraine, Japan, Taiwan, Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Brazil, Poland, the Czech Republic, Germany, Spain and other European nations. All of these countries could produce nuclear weapons if they chose too.

The low cost of LFRT factory manufacture, plus their many attractive features, and the abundance of recoverable thorium, will mean that in many situations LFTRs will be preferred to PBRs for both power and heat, in many situations. Like PBRs, relatively small (100 MWe to 300 MWe) LFTRs can be built in factories and transported to their long term sites. While LFTR technology is not being developed at the same pace as as PBR technology is proceeding, a large knowledge base was developed in Oak Ridge between 1960 and 1976. In addition other recent technological breakthroughs, for example the development of high temperature gas turbine technology, have technological problems that were unresolved when ORNL stopped working on MSR development in 1976.

Given the current state of LFTR development, a Manhattan Project style development program commenced by 2012, could have LFTRs moving out factory doors by 2020. There are no insurmountable barriers to large scale production.

With their potential for easy, quick and low cost manufacture, PBRs and LFTRs will play a major role in the future of energy, and will be by 2050 the predominant source of electricity world wide.

If reactors are to be the major form by which future energy is produced, more attention needs to be paid to how energy gets stored for transportation. At present Lithium-ion batteries represent the preferred technology for the electrification of transportation in the near future, however, lithium Ion technology brings with it a number of draw backs. First is safety related issues, that are caused by battery heating due to rapid discharge. The second serious problem is Lithium-ion batteries costs which are anticipate to run in the neighborhood of $30,000 for the first Lithium-ion powered EVs. For that price Lithium Ion Batteries offer uninspiring performance. The trip range of the GM Volt is expected to be about 30 miles with our backup from internal combustion engine. That is good for drives to work, and errands, but not for trips out of town.

It is highly desirable then, if carbon based technology is to be replaced in transportation that better electrical storage technology must emerge. Lithium-Sulfur batteries appear to have potential as one such technology. According to a recent Insyncworld report,
in theory, Lithium-Sulfur potentially offers over 50% more Watt-hours/liter than Lithium-Ion batteries, and over four times the Watt-hours/Kg. That allows for smaller, lighter, or longer lasting (pick two) portable devices. Those are theoretical maximums that have not yet been reached, but current Li_S batteries already have a better power/weight ratio than conventional Lithium Ion.
The potential of Li_S technology is illustrared by this recent BBC story.

Li_S technology is newly emerging, but appears to hold great potential including greatly extended battery powered driving ranges, and lower costs. Although personal transportation would seem to be a lower priority on the energy problems list, in fact it is very important, because the physical structure of civilization in countries like the United States is highly dependent on personal mobility. Without personal transportation, the ability of workers to travel from home to work would be significantly compromised in spread out cities. Were workers to be foprced to move closer to their jobs, enormous values would be lost in home, infrastructure and commercial suburban investments. The loss of value in these investments would produce significant investment losses, that could not be easily recovered from.

Thus two reactor technologies, the LFTR and the PBR hold enormous promise as sources of low cost electrical energy and industrial heat. In addition a recently emerging battery technology, the Lithium-Sulfur battery, holds promise to improve the post-carbon transportation picture.

The development of these technologies must be given the highest priorities by our society, during the next few years, if your civilization is not to be seriously wounded. We must not allow Dr. Hargraves dilemma to inhibit that development.


Anonymous said...

For many years I developed proposals for a preeminent government and corporate contractor. These proposals were successfully awarded more often then not, but more importantly they were successfully completed to the satisfaction of the customer.

Through these jobs, my company gained an entre into a number of market segments and eventually became dominant in them.

The LFTR as well as other small nuclear reactors would greatly benefit from this tried and true government contractor marketing methodology.

The process for doing this is as follows:

First, identify a need

The market analysts scans the lists of government and corporate Requests for Proposal (RFP) from government and business to see if there is a job whose requirements can be met by the set of core competences that the contractor’s organization can supply.

Second, analyze the competition

Look at the ability of the competition to meet the requirements of the RFP. If your area of competency is unique for a given RFP, then concentrate on that one.

Third, team with a partner if required.

If you have say only 70% of the technology base needed to do the job, then do an industry survey of the companies throughout the related industries that can fill in the holes in your proposal.

Fourth, write the proposal

An organization usually has “boiler plate:” piles of documentation from past projects and proposals that provide the description of the organization’s technology base. Select the subset of that documentation to support how your organization can uniquely fulfill the requirements of the RFP.

Most RFPs define an outline that the proposal must follow. The proposal documentation subset must be tailored to meet the RFP outline.

Fifth, answer customer questions.

No proposal is perfect. The customer will ask for clarification of your proposal. Answer the questions on technology, costs, risks, phases, and schedule to the satisfaction of the customer.

Six, receive and sign the contract.

Now your problems begin. You must now meet in reality what you have written in your proposal.

And example is now appropriate to explicate the proposal process as follows:

First, identify a need

Coal to liquid (CTL) technology now requires a process that produces synthetic oil without the release of CO2 because of the coming carbon tax, political pressure, and failure of CO2 sequestration (CCS).

An associated RFP is as follows:

Second, analyze the competition

No other technology but nuclear process heat and hydrogen generation can meet this requirement. This is a lock for nuclear power.

Third, team with a partner if required.

Contact Hyperion Power Generation, Inc., (HPG). They have a small inexpensive ($25 million) nuclear process heat reactor that may meet the heat and hydrogen requirement of CTL, and it is on the market now. The Bergius hydrogenation process for CTL runs at 480 to 500C which is in the heat range of the Hyperion reactor.

Select a vendor that can supply a turboelectric steam generator connected to the reactor and that can power hydrogen production by electrolysis.

Team with a coal to liquid vender that has experience in the Bergius process.

Fourth, write the proposal

Request boiler plate from all team members, cost estimates, and schedules and write the proposal.

Fifth, answer customer questions.

Define your vision of how this approach will progress to more efficient CTL technology through the higher process heat temperatures of the LFTR.

Receive the contract. Simple.

You will receive up to $4,000,000 in R&D money to develop a detailed development plan for the project.

Two other projects require this technology as follow: the Arckaringa coal to liquid (CTL) Project in South Australia and Crow Nation CTL Project in Montana. A sales contact based on the same basic boiler plate that you have developed can be used with these two organizations.

Ray Lightning said...

Hi Charles

I don't know if you have looked at the science debate. Obama's mention of nuclear energy is intriguing :

A new generation of nuclear electric technologies that address cost, safety, waste disposal, and proliferation risks.

How to reduce cost : By mass production of reactors in a robotized assembly unit. Currently nuclear reactors are built like massive infrastructure such as bridges and ports. This has to be replaced by automatic production - such as what is the case for automobiles, aeroplanes, computers etc.. This will slash down costs enormously. But to do this, the nuclear industry has to come up with a standardized design, such as what we have for aeroplanes.

How to address safety : Make the reactors inherently safe instead of engineered safe. Technologies such as pebble-bed reactors are inherently designed so as to overrule any accidental breakdown. We should prefer such technologies over the current designs. Also, we should look at the LFTR model (liquid flouride thorium reactor) which is also inherently safe.

How to dispose waste : Nuclear waste is just more nuclear fuel in hiding. It is a blasphemy to throw it away in dumps and Yucca mountain is a really terrible idea. We should construct breeder reactors which maximize the use of fuel (60 to 100 times more efficient) and the longevity of their waste is much less (300 years instead of 10000 years)

How to address proliferation risks : Nuclear power is a red herring when it comes to nuclear proliferation. But there are still some valid concerns. Particularly, the enrichment of Uranium should be supervised so that no one can enrich
Uranium to extremely high quality for the use in a nuclear bomb, all under the guise of a power plant. A solution lies in preferring reactors from which no theft of fissile material is ever possible, and from which the fissile material is always contaminated with impurities which rule out use in nuclear bombs. LFTR holds significant promise in this aspect.

Another aspect on proliferation is due to nuclear fuel reprocessing, this produces high grade Plutonium. This technology is very risky and also inefficient in the utilization of Uranium. Instead of this, we should prefer breeder reactors which do in-house reprocessing.

Automatic chemical reprocessing such as via liquid flouride salts (of LFTR) is much preferable to external reprocessing. Plutonium will never be produced in a LFTR.

Obama is clearly for a new generation of nuclear power

McCain is for the same old wine.

Charles Barton said...


Thanks for the excellent guidelines for successfully obtaining federal funding for worthwhile projects. I wish that the problem could be solved my a competent approach. Selling unusual technologies like PBRs and LFTRs is more complicated. Ralph Moir estimates that it would take somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 Billion for the MSR/LFTR to reach them commercial launching point. Given what this country spends every week to import oil, that is not a lot of money, but it is a lot of money for a technology for a technology that key decision makers have never heard of. Levels of awareness must be raised before federal support will be possible.

ray lightning, I am aware of this Obama position. The LFTR would closely track what Obama is looking for in reactor technology. You have produced an excellent summery of the technological advantages of the LFTR and demonstrate how well that technology fits into Mr Obama's stated goals for nuclear power.

My contention though is that Mr. Obama needs to pay careful attention to the contradictory nature of his goals. We cannot solve the problem of nuclear waste without some form of fuel reprocessing, and fuel reprocessing, at least in theory opens up the possibility of nuclear proliferation. The answers to the problems of nuclear proliferation lie in the political spear, not in technology. The notion that civilian power reactors are proliferation tools should be outdated, because if fails to take into account how nuclear proliferation is known to actually take place.

Even if the sale and use of all reactors were outlawed in the United States, this would do nothing to stop rogue states like North Korea from obtaining nuclear weapons if they so desired. Thus limiting civilian power technology is not the key to preventing nuclear proliferation.

donb said...

ray lightning said:
I don't know if you have looked at the science debate. Obama's mention of nuclear energy is intriguing :
A new generation of nuclear electric technologies that address cost, safety, waste disposal, and proliferation risks.

Words like these without specifics cause my skeptical light to start flashing. I have seen politicians say similar things that in reality were proposals to raise the bar so high on cost, safety, waste disposal, and proliferation risk that nothing gets done. The politician then can say that he made proposals to solve the energy problem, but the scientist and engineers just couldn't deliver (blame someone else). And he can still satisfy the anti-nuke crowd.

What I want to see is a politician who will say that it is time to roll up our sleeves and start the hard work on nuclear energy development, that X dollars per year will be budgeted for Y years, that certain technologies will be targeted for development with a goal of commercialization, tax incentives for early adopters of the technology (especially including those who mainly need the energy for process heat), and even that some funds will go for untargeted research in the area. I want the hard words said that nuclear energy is already safe, safer than the alternatives, and that new technologies will be even safer (but without raising the bar unreasonably high).

I will really know such a politician is serious if he says that Yucca Mountain as presently conceived is a boondoggle, and that much of the future funds for it should go to (at a minimum) fuel reprocessing, or better yet to developing reactors that can burn the U238 and the transuranics, so that the facility can be used for fission product storage (for a few hundred years) rather than partially used fuel storage.

Ray Lightning said...

Hi Charles.. DonB

I share a part of your scepticism over Obama. But I think Obama is better of the two alternatives.

1) The republican party is more a friend of fossil fuel industry than nuclear power. And trust me, as long as fossil fuel guys have their voice, they will not allow new nuclear power to germinate.

2) Even for nuclear power, McCain supports existing nuclear industry designs, and has no word on the new 4th generation reactors.

3) Obama specifically said that he will invest a lot of money for the development of new technologies (something of the order of 150 billion dollars) Surely, a part of this will go towards PBMR and hopefully LFTR.

4) McCain has no word on federal support for R&D. He says he will offer a prize for anyone who discovers a magic battery (what a joke, why would anyone need a prize after the discovery is made, the transport market is worth trillions of dollars).

5) Both Obama and Joe Biden have openly supported nuclear power, even amongst the generally antinuke democratic crowd. Biden has even publicly favored reprocessing.

His exact words "I'd be spending a whole hell of a lot of money trying to figure out how to reconfigure the spent fuel into reusable fuel. I would not invest in [growing our nuclear power capacity in its current form], but I would invest in sorting out the storage and waste problems."

The Obama-Biden pair is a slam dunk for 4th generation nuclear power advocates.

Marcel F. Williams said...

"A new generation of nuclear electric technologies that address cost, safety, waste disposal, and proliferation risks."

I like that statement from Obama.

The cheapest way to build nuclear reactors is in large centralized nuclear parks (10 to 40 reactors).

The cheapest and safest way to secure nuclear facilities is in a large nuclear park.

The best way to deal with nuclear waste is to locate reprocessing facilities on site at nuclear parks.

And the best way to store the residual radwaste for a few hundred years until final deposition is at a centralized and secured nuclear park.

The best way to discourage emerging nations from using nuclear power is to sell them cheap hydrocarbon synfuels manufactured at centralized nuclear parks.

Nuclear Parks (Nuplexes) are the answer to dramatically expanding nuclear power in this country, IMO.


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
Dr. Joe Bonometti speaking on thorium/LFTR technology at Georgia Tech David LeBlanc on LFTR/MSR technology Robert Hargraves on AIM High