Friday, April 17, 2009

‘‘Why wasn't the LFTR developed a long time ago?”

Two years ago I identified Molten Salt Reactor technology as a critical key to the world's energy future. My knowledge of the MSR goes back to my childhood when my father was a pioneer researcher on MSR chemistry. ORNL where my father worked, built two MSR prototypes in the 1950's and 60's. Both were successful and meet all of their research goals. ORNL scientists and engineers were making steady progress toward developing a large MSR to produce electric power when Washington shut down the project. Scientist involved in the project continued to believe in the MSR concept. In his memoirs Alvin Weinberg asked, "Why was MSR research terminated?" His answer was
"the fast breeder arrived first and was therefore able to consolidate its political position within the AEC. But there was another, more technical reason. The molten-salt technology is entirely different from the technology of any other reactor. To the inexperienced, molten-salt technology is daunting. This certainly seemed to be Milton Shaw's attitude toward molten salts—and he after all was director of reactor development at the AEC during the molten-salt development. Perhaps 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 that they should adopt the new path. This, the molten-salt system could not do. It was a successful technology that was dropped because it was too different from the main lines of reactor development.
There were lots of reasons why this was a mistake. The particular form of Molten Salt Reactor which I saw as promising for the near energy future was a form which used fluoride salts as coolants and fuel carriers and which operated on a thorium fuel cycle. That sort of reactor is called the Thorium Molten Salt Reactor in Europe, and the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) in the United States. There were as I said a lot of reasons why I thought that the LFTR was the solution to the World;s energy problem in 2007. The were as follows:
1. The LFTR would provide sustainable energy. There is enough recoverable thorium in the earths crust to provide the human population of the world its energy needs for millions of years.
2, The LFTR is safe.
3. The LFTR is produces a tiny fraction of the nuclear waste produced by ordinary reactors.
4, The LFTR produces either little or no plutonium.
5. Plutonium produced by the LFTR would not be explosive.
6. TheLFTR can be used to dispose of nuclear weapons grade fissionable material.
7. The LFTR can be used to dispose of nuclear waste.
9. LFTRs can be built at very low cost. Perhaps as little as $1.00 a watt of generating capacity, a cost far less than competing renewables.
10. The LFTR can be mass produced. Enough to supply the world's energy needs can be built in 30 years.. Carbon energy sources can be replaced by LFTRs by 2050 given a concerted effort.
11. LFTRs can produce industrial process heat
12. LFTRs can be operated as co-generators.
13 LFTR's can supply district heat.
14 LFTR waste heat can be used to desalinate sea water.
15, LFTR can provide mid load and peak load electrical generation capacity.
16. Instead of producing nuclear waste, the LFTR will produce rare and valuable minerals.

I realize that the above list sounds as if I was formerly employed as an Indian River Snake Oil salesman. But these claims can sustained by in a variety of ways as has been argued on Nuclear Green and Energy from Thorium. As for the Snake Oil let me assure you that I never sold it, but I drink it every day, and that explains that I am hale and hardy even though I looked forward to celebrating my hundred and thirty-eighth birthday in July. I guess the joke means that I am not going to write about my intended topic this morning. I really do want to compare the modular two fluid reactor of ORNL-4528, with ORNL single fluid small reactors designed in the 1970's. That will have to wait for another day.


mdf said...

16. Instead of producing nuclear waste, the LFTR will produce rare and valuable minerals.I was recently in discussion with a gold bug: people who are fanatically attached to the idea that 'money' must be ultimately connected to blocks of gold, that fractional reserve currencies are the spawn of the devil, and so on.

I was thinking about this ... when I had an epiphany.

Why not base a currency on technetium-99?

It's rare, fairly useless, and -- best of all -- you can literally make money by operating a nuclear reactor, as it is a principle, long-lived component of the waste stream. What an incentive!

Further, if the stuff had "intrinsic value", then it would also solve a long-term storage problem, in that people will take care of the stuff, instead of just putting it into drums and throwing them into pits with fingers crossed.

Anonymous said...


Another good sales pitch for the LFTR. I will meet later this morning with a chemistry prof to plan guest lectures in two of his courses. They are majors and non-majors chemistry classes. Your comments and list will be very useful in making a brief introduction of LFTR. I recall making a similar list for LFTR advantages. The hope of producing energy for less than dirty coal with a low proliferation risk in order to afford developing countries access to cheap clean energy is a dream worth pursuing. Here in Iowa a lot of concern is about affordable fertilizer. High temperature nuclear reactors may produce hydrogen from water at 50% efficiency. This is good for the Iowa economy and a necessity for sustaining our world population.

John Tjostem

Charles Barton said...

mdf technetium-99 is as I recall about 6% of the byproduct of throium fission. It has medical uses but little else at present. If we powered 80% of theAmerican economy with thorium we would end up with about 60 tons a year of technetium-99. To do something with. There would be several options. Long term disposal in old Uranium mines might be an option.


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