Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Energy Black Swan at a Dollar a Watt

In some respects the LFTR does not qualify as a black swan. Certainly not by Nassim Nicholas Taleb's standards. Its emergence was far from random. There could scarcely be a better provenance for a reactor idea than to have been first proposed by Eugene Wigner, Alvin Weinberg and Gale Young in 1945. To this we have to add the contributions of Harold Urey. Raymond C. Briant, Ed Bettis, and many others. I would also add my father, C.J. Barton, Sr., to the list. An idea whose fathers included to Nobel-prize winning scientists and the patent holder for the light-water Reactor can hardly be considered highly improbable. It was however, daring, and once Alvin Weinberg's other invention, the light-water reactor, entered popular culture, along with the reactor dome and cooling tower, the liquid core reactor concept became something of an aberration in the folk concept. After all the worse thing could happen to a reactor was a core melt down, and now those crazy Oak Ridge scientists were trying to melt the reactor's core deliberately.

The Molten Salt reactor was a black swan in the since that it violated a common public perception of what constituted order. A liquid core reactor is inherently disorderly concept in a folk universe that desperately wants reactor core's to be solid and not melt.

"It came from Oak Ridge" could have been the title of a 1950's horror movie, in which a humble beast is accidentally radiated in Oak Ridge, and is transformed into a giant mutant monster that has it in for a large city. Late in my father's scientific career, he was asked to write a report for the National Academy of Science. Reviewers complained that my father had referenced too many ORNL researchers. My father's response was that the best research in the world for his topic - the environmental transport of radioisotopes - was being done in Oak Ridge. When I was a quasi intern at ORNL in 1971, the Laboratory was buzzing about CO2 and anthropogenic global warming. ORNL was the first scientific institution in the world to take the danger of AGW seriously. In the 1970's ORNL researchers were warning of about the environmental dangers of burning coal. So called "environmental experts" like Amory Lovins decided that they knew better than Oak Ridge Scientists who were in their estimation "shills for the nuclear industry." Thus, so called environmentalists ignored the problem of CO2 emissions and Anthropogenic Global Warming. After all, "it came from Oak Ridge."

The Molten Salt Reactor was brilliantly conceived by Oak Ridge scientists and engineers in the 1940's and 50's. By the end of the 1950's the AEC was beginning to recognize that the Oak Ridgers were on to something. But ORNL's MSR had a rival, the fair-haired boy from Chicago, favored by the Atomic Energy Commission, the Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactor. With its promise of almost unlimited Plutonium, the LMFBR was not the best candidate to provide American power reactors with a sustainable fuel supply, but it did assure the Atomic Energy Commission of a steady stream of nuclear weapons stretching into the distant future. That Plutonium was not a good nuclear fuel for Light Water Reactors was never a matter of concern.

The LMFBR had the potential to breed more fissionable material than the MSR, but plutonium could never break even as a nuclear fuel in a light water reactor. Thorium could, if the reactor used U-233 it could produce as much U-233 from thorium as it burned. But the Atomic Energy Commission did not think that U-233 was good for making bombs, so the LMFBR got most of the money. Argonne knew that no matter how dangerous sodium was, the Atomic Energy Commission wanted plutonium, and so its LMFBR always had the inside track. inevitably as the Vietnam war ate into the capacity of the the United States Government to to finance science research. Alvin Weinberg had made himself to a target of AEC wrath by being too out spoken about nuclear safety. So Weinberg had to go, and it was easy to get rid of the MSR at the same time. With Weinberg out of the way, the MSR became an impossible sell. It came from Oak Ridge, and was not useful in making nuclear weapons.

It is of course an improbable story that the solution to the global energy crisis was identified by Eugene Wigner and his associates during World War 2, and that the plans or solving the problem have existed in government archives since the 1970's and continues to be ignored. This is a far more bizarre story than Nassim Taleb's account of problems being solved by unexpected random mutations of ideas, Yet when I looked at the question of how much it would cost a few days ago, the answer that i found was perhaps as little as a dollar a watt. That was less than I had expected, a lot less. It was a exciting, but frightening too. None of us wants to look like a fool. The answer that it would cost as little as $1 a watt seemed almost too good to be true.

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