Monday, July 27, 2009

Confessions of a Nuclear Blogger: Part III

Why should anyone pay attention to my blogging? After all I am not a trained scientist, nor and I a trained engineer. Yet I write about advanced nuclear technology as if I have some authority on the subject. How can that be? The answer is quite simple. I have acquired a measure of nuclear literacy. That is I can read many documents that reports on nuclear technology, and even the working reports by nuclear researchers and acquire some basic understanding of what is said. This is not to claim that I have the same level of understanding that as a scientist or engineer. I do not. But it is not necessary to understand science as a scientist in order to understand the implications of scientific developments for society.

My acquaintance with LFTR technology is long standing. My father began to do research on Fluoride Salt coolant/fuels in 1950 and continued to conduct research until 1969. My parents' longtime neighbor, Oak Ridger Editor and publisher Dick Smizer wrote about fluid fuel reactors and vision that Incorporated the LFTR paradigm. The idea of nuclear powered desalination was closely related to the MSR project at ORNL. An even more daring project grew out of the desalination concept, the notion of nuclear powered agro-industrial complexes to be built in the Middle east, An ORNL display on the at the 1964 United Nations Conference on Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy in Geneva, represented the high point of the ORNL vision. During the conference President Lyndon Johnson and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev viewed the ORNL presentation and commented favorably on it.

During the 1960's Weinberg became increasingly concerned with technological fixes to social problems, especially in contrast to social engineering. But Molten Salt Reactorsof the LFTR type were very much on Weinberg's mind, and were in1966 already influencing his thinkingin another 1966 lecture which became the basis for a National Academy of Science essay that Weinberg wrote with his old Manhattan Project and ORNL associate Gale Young, they explored of the future which the LFTR type reactors would open up. Weinberg's thinking has moved beyond desalinization and middle eastern Agro-industrial complexes to the use of nuclear power in the production of hydrogen, ammonia and other industrial processes. Indeed, Weinberg foresaw
a qualitative change in the world's industrial economy. At this price for prime energy it seems plausible that we can desalt sea water economically, and it seems to us to be at least a plausible speculation that we can produce hydrogen, and thence ammonia, and possibly even fluid fuel from coal at prices that are not much higher than we now pay for these commodities. The great advantage of basing these processes upon nuclear energy is that when breeder reactors are developed, the energy will be available quite independently of the availability of raw materials. Once a breeder reactor is inventoried with its initial load of fuel and fertile material, it can run without requiring any new fuel or fertile material for many decades. Thus the energy economy of a country, and therefore the many parts of its industry that can be based ultimately on energy, becomes decoupled from the accident of local distribution of fuels.

One cannot help but be impressed with the vast change in relations between nations that would ensue from this ubiquity of cheap energy. It is one of the most exciting prospects the world can expect from the Nuclear Energy Revolution.
We have clearly arrived at the new LFTR paradigm. I was at the time still a young man who was still hanging around Oak Ridge, and very much unsettled on my life course. I was to go on in 1970-71 to work in a year a proto-internship in the ORNL-NSF Environmental Studies program. By that time both Weinberg and the Laboratory were in trouble, and thew pull back fromthe paradigm.

Weinberg's thinking about reactors was still somewhat conventional. In order for the paradigm to be realized, a low cost LFTR would be necessary, and the key to keeping LFTR costs low lay not in economies of scale as Weinberg believed, but in factory production of clusters of small modular reactors such as the design Ed Bettis reported on in ORNL-4528.

Thus in 2007, when I began to cast around for AGW solutions, the LFTR paradigm was already in the back of my mind. ready to be called to service.


The North Coast said...

I have been searching for more information regarding the nuclear technologies to be used in the plants now being planned for construction here in the U.S. in the near future, and can't find anything specific.

Is any U.S. utility right now planning to build LFTRs? Or to use any other type of reactor other than the light-water reactors they usually build?

Charles Barton said...

There are no plans to build LFTRs at present. There are a number ofsmall reactor designs being developed, and several large conventional reactors being offored.

Anonymous said...

Hi Charles, I have a few questions concerning the operation of the two fluid reactor:
What method is used to isolate protactinium from the thorium blanket? Would the reactor have to be shutdown before you can change the blanket? Since the blanket is part of the shielding.
Do you have to mechanically breakdown the blanket material before you can chemically or physically separate the Pa from the Th?

Charles Barton said...

Anonymous ORNL scientists and engineers, including my father. developed a chemical method for extracting protactinium from blanket salt. This was a continuous process, with salt flowing out of the blanket to a processor unit, andthen returned to the vlanket without protactinium.


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