Friday, July 24, 2009

Confessions of a Nuclear Blogger: Part I

Confessions of a Nuclear Blogger

I have no technical training in nuclear science or engineering, although I do have an unusually broad education in the social sciences and humanities. My father was a reactor chemist who worked briefly for Y-12 and for a much longer period of time at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He made a significant development to the Light Water Reactor, and numerous contributions to the development of Molten Salt Reactor chemistry. He also made contributions to nuclear safety and the study of radioisotopes from natural gas in the home. I grew up nuclear literate, and had a proto-internship in environmental studies in the ORNL-NSF Environmental Studies Program in 1970-71.

My nuclear literacy has several sources. The Oak Ridge School system stressed science education, and nuclear literacy played a role in the science focus. In addition, as a child I paid numerous visits to the American Museum of Atomic Energy (now called he American Museum of Science and Energy) in Oak Ridge. In addition, Long time “Oak Ridge,” editor and publisher Dick Smyser made notable contribution to Nuclear Literacy in Oak Ridge. Smyser was the brother-in-law of Three Mile Island Commission Member Thomas Pigford who was a Professor of Nuclear Engineering and Chairman of the Department of Nuclear Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. Smyser, who lived in my childhood neighborhood, was exceptionally well informed on nuclear technology. He was able to translate complex scientific concepts into a language that the wives and children of Oak Ridge scientists could understand. Smyser was known nationally for asking Richard Nixon a question at a news conference that lead to Nixon’s famous statement, “I am not a crook.”

In 2007 my analysis of the problem of global warming mitigation lead me to the conclusion that the factory based manufacture of a large number of MSR/Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors offered the only practical means of replacing carbon based energy sources with a post carbon energy technology by 2050. My views have not altered during the last two years.

During the second half of 2007 I blogged increasingly on nuclear issues, but I felt that I needed a dedicated nuclear blog. In December 2007 I launched Nuclear Green a blog, which focuses on the LFTR as the post carbon energy solution.

Many of my best early ideas turned out to not be original. My unoriginal ideas include factory production of reactors, factory produced small reactors, and reactor clustering. Clustering of small reactors was thought of at ORNL in the 1960’s. IFR researchers had proposed factory production of relatively small IFRs. The IFR researchers also noted the potential for low cost which I regarded as a great virtue of a factory produced LFTR. About my only original idea from my from the original “grand LFTR plan” was the notion that the LFTR was rapidly scalable – that a very large number of LFTRs could be built and started in a relatively short period of time. Nothing seem to prevent setting very ambitious goals, for example producing up to 80% of the world’s energy from the LFTR by 2050. This was potentially a very important contribution, because – contrary to the prevailing wisdom – the scalability of the LFTR suggested that the world energy problem was solvable, and solvable with a single technology.

Another original contribution was an analysis of the LFTR from the perspective of “Green Engineering”. As it turns out all potential LFTR designs – 1 or 2 fluids moderated, 1 or 2 fluids epithermal - conform to the principles of Green Engineering.

Finally, what is clearly my most original concepts have to do with the use of the LFTR a reserve - intermediate and a peak load - generator. This concept began with my observation that the LFTR could be a technically superior, low cost back up for renewable. An intermittent back up role would be perfectly compatible with the LFTR’s capabilities. In fact the LFTR would perform so well in the backup role, and would be so less expensive than the renewables that the real question would be why would you need renewable generating capacity at all.

But if the LFTR could back up solar and wind, it could also serve as part time – intermediate or peak load – generating capacity. In fact part time operations would tend to extend LFTR life. David LeBlanc observed that using lower heat tolerant, but also lower cost materials in LFTR construction could lower LFTR cost. Lowering LFTR costs would also make the LFTR more cost competitive with natural gas part time generators. I thought this was especially important because Light Water Reactors are too expensive to compete with natural gas powered generators in part time roles. And no natural gas technology replacement had emerged despite an obvious need for such a technology on the post carbon grid.

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