Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Paradigm Shift: The Liquid Thorium Bullet

I am returning at least briefly to the paradigm shift theme that I developed last year. My posting are again touching on the theme, and I want to remind my readers, and in some cases inform my readers of my earlier statements on paradigm change. I originally posted this post originally on December 29, 2008.
Probably no more than a thousand people in the entire world fully understands the paradigm, although thousands more understand bits and pieces of it. Much of the paradigm was shaped by Eugene Wigner, a authentic genius and a man of singular vision. Wigner foresaw the need for extracting the enormous energy potential from thorium and using it to sustain human civilization. Wigner's vision included a heavy-water fluid-core reactor as the instrument through which thorium was to be transformed into nuclear fuel. Alvin Weinberg, Wigner's former student and another genius, later realized that the Molten Salt Reactor was a far superior tool for realizing the full energy potential of the thorium fuel cycle, and the potential to increase energy efficiency to increase its energy potential even further by coupling it with massive desalinization projects in desert countries.

Later Oak Ridge scientists pointed out the potential of Molten Salt Reactors to destroy nuclear weapons materials, the very real safety potential molten salt reactors and the potential to use closed-cycle gas turbines rather than steam turbines to enhance energy conversion efficiency. Lars Jorgensen, following the lead of researchers in several countries has proposed that a type of molten-Salt Reactor, the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor, can destroy nuclear waste while producing vast amounts of energy. The Chinese and the South Africans plan to build large numbers of small, low cost Pebble-Bed Reactors in factories and to set up clusters of small reactors to duplicate the power output of large nuclear plants. Kirk Sorensen and I have pointed out that the model of factory-built small reactors clusters as a flexible low cost alternative to large and expensive Light Water Reactors works even better with LFTRs than with PBRs. Kirk Sorensen has proposed underwater siting for LFTRs, while Ralph Moir and Edward Teller have proposed underground siting.

During the last year I have worked on a conceptual level to explore the LFTR paradigm and its limitations on a conceptual level. That is I have attempted to explore the Paradigm as it presently stands. My findings are that the LFTR paradigm answers all of the traditional objections to nuclear power. It is very safe, it is proliferation resistant and the paradigm works best if the LFTR is used to destroy nuclear waste as well as nuclear weapons material. Because the LFTR is safe, unconventional siting approaches are possible. I have pointed out the environmental advantages of the LFTR. It would occupy a very small foot print. The LFTR would produce little tp no nuclear waste. It could be used to destroy transuranium reactor products rather than produce them. Fission products have uses in the economy, and in an era of increasing resource scarcity, LFTRs will become an important source of rare and valuable materials. Design concepts for the LFTR conforms to the standards of Green Engineering, and its input output matrix is consistent with the goals of Green Chemistry.

The LFTR is capable of providing base power at a very attractive price, but because of its potential for load following and rapid power output buildup from a standby condition, and its potential for low cost manufacture, the LFTR holds potential use as a peak power generating source.

There is enough Thorium in the United States that is above ground in the form of mine tailings to provide the United States with all of its energy needs for thousands of years. AEC sponsored research, during the 1960's showed that the total recoverable thorium reserve in the United States was large enough to provide all of the United States' energy needs for millions of years.

Research conducted in Oak Ridge from 1948 onwards solved many of the technological problems Molten Salt Reactors. Other researchers have solved other potential problems of the LFTRs indirectly. If a crash LFTR development program that would be similar in scope to the World War II Manhattan Project were to be undertaken by 2012, large scale factory production of LFTRs could be undertaken by 2020.

Given a crash program of LFTR development in the next decade, and the potential for rapid deployment through factory production, most American electrical production could be coming from post carbon sources by 2030, and at a lower cost than from either conventional nuclear or renewable energy sources.

The LFTR paradigm offers a comprehensive low cost solution to the problem of switching the generation of electricity to post carbon sources. Because of its potential for rapid expansion, LFTR technology could also provide the generating capacity to support the electrification of ground transportation. Mini-LFTRs could be used to power ships. Stand alone small and mini LFTRs could provide electrical energy and heat to isolated communities. LFTRs can be cooled by either water or air. Waste heat from sea side LFTRs can be used to desalinate sea water.

The LFTR paradigm then suggests that the technology for a low cost transformation of American electrical generation already exists, and is capable of rapid development and deployment in little more than a decade provided Manhattan project type resource commitments are made to realizing the paradigm. Like all new paradigms, the LFTR paradigm is poorly understood, and its potential is only seen by a limited number of people. However the LFTR paradigm is being discussed on the internet, and knowledge of the paradigm could spread rapidly. Skeptics might argue that there is no such thing as a silver bullet to solve the energy problem, yet the paradigm suggests that there is a liquid thorium bullet.

Update: Early phases of paradigm shifts are often periods of confusion. There is now a great deal of confusion about the LFTR. People, who fail to understand how radically different the LFTR is from better understood Light Water Reactors still wonder how the LFTR could not have all of the flaws of LWRs. In fact the LFTR paradigm offers solutions to all of the major problems of LWRs without difficult and expensive fixes and workarounds. Until people adjust their thinking to include the new paradigm, the confusion will continue to be common


donb said...

Charles Barton wrote:
Skeptics might argue that there is no such thing as a silver bullet to solve the energy problem, yet the paradigm suggests that there is a liquid thorium bullet.

Skeptics look at the proposed silver bullet, find that it is somewhat copper colored, or the point is blunt rather than sharp, and thus argue that it cannot be a bullet at all.

I repeatedly hear arguments and see articles about how we are "running out of energy", when in reality we are AWASH in energy!

The skeptics lack imagination. They look at nuclear energy as something extremely complex. They compare it to liquid fuels such as gasoline and think these fuels to be simple things because you can easily light them with a match and get heat. What they conveniently skip are all the steps of getting the liquid fuel end product. The steps of exploration, drilling, pumping, transport, and refining necessary to get the simple end product make up a complex system, easily as complex as or more so than a nuclear reactor.

I am a religious believer who sees that God has been very generous to us with regard to energy, but that we access that energy only through the "sweat of our brows." The skeptics would have us reject that generosity (and thus its giver!), mostly because uncomfortable (mental) sweat is needed.

DV8 2XL said...

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, as long as only a thousand of us know the advantages of this fuel, (and frankly I think a thousand is an over estimate) this idae goes nowhere.

Unless this is turned into a larger movement we will be crying into each others beer forever. Somehow this has to start moving out of the inner circle and out into world.

There have been very few times I wish I was an American, but this is one of them. The States is really the only place that there is any hope of getting this technology on line, but it won't happen if we keep preaching to the choir. A Movement is needed here to get things happening and I sorely wish I could get it going myself. It would be a waste of time up here because we have more than enough uranium for our own needs for the foreseeable future.

Robw said...


Great post, as usual...

By the way, I was wondering if you have read 'Prescription for the Planet' by Tom Blees, and if you had, what are your thoughts?


Charles Barton said...

Robw, I have not read Blees book, and I am I am not likely too, because of the sad condition of my vision.

DV8 2XL, I gave some thought to the number, and a lower number is likely, however this is a number that is impossible to know. I also posted this on Daily Kos, and got a number of positive responses which pleased me.

Anonymous said...

This is the sort of statement that gives several persuasive arguments which we can use in promoting LFTRs. Thanks.

David Walters said...

Quality not quantity for now. The hundred or so interested Children of Thor (us) are of high value because we can evangelize the LFTR. We have gained important converts (Hansen) and others will becoming on board. Have faith my son.

On the dailykos...indeed...we have been winning formally anti-nuclear types to our side. It is an interesting process.



DV8 2XL said...

There are more people out there that think that a nuclear power reactor can explode like an atomic bomb than have ever heard of the LFTR.

There are more people that think vaccinations are inherently dangerous, and do more harm than good, than there are people that know about the LFTR.

Look how fast the latter has grown in the few years its been on the radar. That's the sort of awareness that is needed to even approach the minimum numbers of people needed to give an idea real life. You can chase and curry the favor of all the intellectuals you want and go nowhere - convince some playmates or a rock star or a stand-up comic, and you've got a movement.

Time to get your hands dirty.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps serious work could start by proofreading the above post and fixing the numerous spelling and language errors to enhance its credibility.


Charles Barton said...

Andreas, as a blogger i can hardly expect to be taken seriously by most of my readers. i keep telling people that i have serious vision and health difficulties, and i am doing the best that i can, considering my circumstances. There are those who consider my spelling to be a matter of much greater importance han my concepts. if you are one of them, I wish you well.

Soylent said...

"What they conveniently skip are all the steps of getting the liquid fuel end product."

That's not even half of it. A modern internal combustion engine is a fairly sophisticated piece of kit in its own right and unlike TRU waste, fossil fuel combustion gives true waste that has shown itself rather intractable to manage. It has been only slightly solved(e.g. catalytic conversion to minimize NOx, CO and unburnt fuel; proper fuel-air mix to maximize fuel efficiency while minimizing CO, NOx and particulates; substituting away from tetra ethyl lead as an anti-knock agent).

LarryD said...

Well, there is at least one member of Congress who thinks we need nuclear power.


He needs to hear about 4th Gen raectors ability to burn up SNL, though.

After the speech, Alexander was asked by a Brazilian in the audience what can be done about toxic nuclear waste. Alexander said he would endorse a plan to store waste on reactor sites until a “new Manhattan project,” which might take up to 20 years, figures out how to recycle it.

The Friends of the Earth flogged an old myth is response:

The environmental group Friends of the Earth responded to Alexander’s speech, saying the nuclear power industry won’t build reactors without “taxpayer-backed loan guarantees.” Friends of the Earth President Erich Pica said Alexander’s call for more nuclear construction “is really a call for U.S. taxpayers to foot the bill so that some of the world’s largest multi-national corporations can make huge profits.”

Anonymous said...

I have tried, over the last few days, speaking my mind on TheOilDrum website. I have been very concerned, not just about climate change but about peak fossil fuels and the likely effect of energy scarcity upon, basically, peace. Here, with the LFTR, is what appears to me to be a solution that is fairly obviously workable with tremendous output and yet safe as can be. There are a few at TOD who perhaps are interested, but not enough to back me up. I am a humble outsider, not a physicist (although I know one, who agrees the LFTR looks good). I am surprised that on TOD, where I would have thought they'd be interested in what appears to be a great solution to our (the world's) energy problems, they are terribly skeptical. I am not smart enough to argue with the clever people, and so I am not sure what more I could do. It is amazing to see that even Greenpeace think the LFTR (MSR) could be developed to production for just 1B, yet no-one can see the benefit of this.
"Of all six reactor systems, MSR requires the highest costs for development ($1bn/€761m)."

Charles Barton said...

If you could develop the LFTR for $1 billion it would be a tremendous bargain. As for your oil drum adventure, be warned that the site is crawling with misanthropic types, who want to see humanity fail. They enjoy thinking of humanity living in misery and poverty.


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