Monday, December 7, 2009

The Oak Ridge Paradigm and the Thorium Cornucopia

I had the good fortune to grow up in Oak Ridge. Oak Ridge was one of few places in the world where people held a comprehensive view of the future. Oak Ridge scientists, including my father, were warning in the 1970's of the long term climate consequences of burning coal for energy. During the 1970's environmental activists like Amory Lovins touted the use of Coal in preference to carbon free nuclear power. Not only were Oak Ridge scientists extraordinarily far sighted in their understanding the environmental consequences of burning fossil fuels, they were equally far sighted in their understanding of the importance of cO2 emissions for global climate stability. ORNL scientists were aware of the work of Jay Forrester, Dennis Meadows, and the Club of Rome, and rejected their pessimistic conclusions about the future availability of resources to support human society.

During the 1960's Oak Ridge National Laboratory researchers had commissioned an independent study by Rice University geologists, found that a huge deposit of thorium in Vermont. The report's findings, backed by famed Geologist M. King Hubbert, were that
Thus the importance of the present work on the Conway granite lies in the indication that tens of millions of tons of thorium are available when the need for vast amounts of higher-cost nuclear fuel becomes pressing. . . . the long-term future of nuclear power is not limited by the supply or by a prohibitively high cost of fuel. Furthermore, the Conway granite may become even more important considering the likelihood that improved extraction techniques may make the thorium available at costs well below the $100/pound estimated in preliminary laboratory experiments. It is also possible that larger amounts of lower-cost thorium might be realized by locating high-grade ore reserves such as the Lemhi Pass, Idaho, area may prove to be or by finding a large granitic batholith more economic than the Conway.
The probability of a very large, and previously unidentified world thorium reserves, with previously worthless land, suddenly being identified as containing very large thorium deposits.
During the 1950's and 1960's ORNL researchers focused on the Molten Salt Reactor, a radical new approach to reactor design to as a means of efficiently converting thorium into nuclear fuel. This approach was first suggested to ORNL Director Alvin Weinberg by Chemist Raymond C. Briant. Oak Ridge scientists remained confident that the thorium fuel cycle Molten Salt Breeder Reactor could serve as a source of enormous amounts of future energy, despite the hostility of ARC officials who were in conflict with ORNL Director Alvin Weinberg over a number of Issues including nuclear safety (see the story here, here, and here). By the mid-1970's ORNL researchers knew that if the development of thorium breeding Molten Salt Reactors could be continued long enough, the project could be brought to a successful conclusion. A 1974 ORNL report stated
Tke objective of developing breeder reactors is to obtain a reliable and abundant source of energy through efficient use of our uranium and thorium resources. Molten-salt breeder reactors have attributes of fuel utilization, economics, and safety that make them well suited to this objective. . . . Because they differ in many aspects from solid-fuel fast breeder reactors, MBRs provide good insurance for the nation's energy supply in case major obstacles are encountered by the other concepts. In addition, the ability of the molten-salt reactor to be started up as a breeder or operated economically as a converter on plutonium, 235U, or 233U makes it particularly suitable as a companion for other types of reactors in a balanced fuel economy. It is believed that a strongly motivated and adequately funded program can lead to molten-salt breeder reactors that can play a major role in providing for our future energy needs.
It should be noted that that ORNL was not the only institution which believed thorium to be a long term energy solution. Indian atomic energy researchers, noting that India had far more Thorium than Uranium resources, decided to launch a research and development program with the use of its local thorium. The Indian plan was nothing if not complex, with a requirement for three separate types of reactors and several different types of fuel reprocessing plants. In contrast, ORNL's plans only required one basic reactor type, which had its own fuel processing technology embedded into the basic reactor design. Despite this added complexity, the ORNL reactor turned out to be simpler than any of the three Indian reactors.

The use of the low cost, thorium breeding molten salt reactor. the LFTR, as a source of large amounts of virtually inexhaustible supply of energy, was the Oak Ridge paradigm, but hidden within the paradigm was the secret of the thorium cornucopia. The LFTR was designed to be a fission engine that was far more efficient than previous reactors. That efficiency gave rise to a stream of materials, that was a byproduct of the nuclear fission process. Critics of Nuclear power would describe that stream as nuclear waste. But many of the stable fission byproducts that leave a reactor are not dangerous, and in fact are valuable minerals like Neodymium, an rare but essential material that will be much in demand in a post carbon economy, and Palladium a rare and valuable mineral which is often used as a chemical catalyst, but also has uses in jewelry and electronics. These an many other valuable materials can be extracted from the stream of stable fission byproducts that are produced from reactors. Even radioactive fission products have their uses in an industrial economy.

Thus the LFTR will provide a virtually inexhaustible stream of exactly the sort of minerals which the Club of Rome insists will be in such short supply that civilization will collapse due to their absence. But fission products are not the only minerals that the thorium economy will produce. Numerous minerals including rare earths and phosphate are found in association with thorium ore. So called low grade thorium ore, can be recovered with a favorable energy return is used as a LFTR fuel source. Thorium in concentrations as low as 10 parts per million an be mined with attractive energy returned on energy invested. Associated minerals can be recovered along with the thorium. Thus low concentration rare earths and phosphate ores can be recovered as part of thorium mining while maintaining as positive energy rate of return. The Club of Rome particularly points to phosphate shortages as a future threat to civilization and indeed to human life. Thus an assured source of phosphate will be of great future importance. Because the recovery of thorium will basically pay for the mining operation, the other recovered materials, including phosphate will simply add to the thorium related product stream.

Finally a third materials stream can be developed from nuclear desalinization. The desalinization process leaves a mineral rich brine as a by product. Many minerals, like lithium dissolved in the sea water, that might not be economically recoverable directly from the sea, would be recoverable from the brine. Thus minerals that might not be economically recoverable from the sea, could be recovered at market competitive prices.

Thus the world created by a thorium based economy will be one of relative material abundance, with minerals produced as byproducts of thorium recovery and use, playing an important role in maintaining the material basis of human civilization and human life.


Frank Kandrnal said...

The world created by Amory Lovins and his anti nuclear comrades is documented by NOOR photo agency photographers.
Ahead of the global climate talks in December 2009, nine photographers from the photo agency NOOR photographed climate stories from around the world. Their goal: to document some of the causes and consequences, from deforestation to changing sea levels, as well as the people whose lives and jobs are part of that carbon culture.
You can see the results from indiscriminate fossil fuel burning in this link;

Lovins and all anti nuclear propaganda machine will blame the environmental damage on everything except themselves.

The true environmentalists, humanists and future visionaries were the ORNL scientists working on molten salt reactor in preparation for thorium fuel utilization.
Had the program continued, we would not see so much environmental devastation today.

If the greenies have their way, the world will have every other color except green.

John Morgan said...

Charles, what is the elemental composition of the ultimate used fuel?

Robert Hargraves said...


The Conway granite formation is here, in New Hampshire, not in Vermont.

Charles Barton said...

Robert is there a difference between Vermont and New Hampshire?

Anonymous said...

i'm a little surprised there's no recovery of minerals from desal yet...quite a few plants operating now so somebody must be studying it...

LarryD said...

The Japanese have one way of recovering uranium from seawater, but it's still more expensive than the mined ore.

I expect that recovery of salt from the brine effluent of desalinization plants might be the only currently economic process.


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