Thursday, December 24, 2009

Wired features Kirk Sorensen, Thorium and the LFTR

Kirk Sorensen, a young NASA engineer, is an important figure in the internet discussion of energy issues. He may lead a revolution that will change the lives of every person on Earth. Kirk's principal contribution is to revive interest in the thorium fuel cycles, and in the use of the liquid salt reactor concept that Oak Ridge scientists developed two generations ago. Last summer Kirk traveled to Manchester, England where he spoke before a blue-ribbon panel preparing a report on AGW mitigation technology for world leaders attending the Copenhagen 15 Conference. The Manchester Report panel was extremely impressed with Kirk. They stated,
Although the panel are not in a position to assess the feasibility of liquid-fluoride thorium reactors, Sorensen’s articulate and knowledgeable advocacy made a persuasive case that this electricity generation technology deserves renewed investigation. Other ways of extracting energy from thorium should also be explored – both to reduce emissions and to help limit the production of the most dangerous nuclear waste.
Wired magazine has just published an article written by Richard Martin, titled Uranium Is So Last Century — Enter Thorium, the New Green Nuke. Martin briefly interviewed me some time ago while investigating the background for the study, and a few of my observations appear to have made their way from his notes into the Wired article. Kirk deservedly is featured in the article. Martin describes Kirk's epiphany moment in 2000 when as
(a) rookie NASA engineer at the Marshall Space Flight Center, Sorensen was researching nuclear-powered propulsion, and the book’s title — Fluid Fuel Reactors — jumped out at him
from a colleague's book shelf. Kirk's investigation of the book led to his discovery of Molten Salt Reactor technology, and of the Thorium fuel cycle. Martin briefly lays out the story of Molten Salt Reactor research in Oak Ridge, and places the AEC's decision to fire Oak Ridge National Laboratory Director Alvin Weinberg and to terminate Molten Salt Reactor research into its political context, and identifies Admiral Hyman Rickover's role in the affair.

Highly-regarded ORNL chemist, Raymond C. Briant, suggested the idea of using the thorium fuel cycle in a Molten Salt Reactor to Alvin Weinberg, and Weinberg took the ball and ran with it. As a consequence the development of a thorium-breeding liquid-salt reactor as a solution to world energy needs became Weinberg's passion for the rest of his ORNL career.

By 2000 when Kirk Sorensen rediscovered liquid-salt reactor technology, the MSR was regarded as dead. Sorensen, however, saw the potential and the need. As Richard Martin notes
Sorensen spearheads a cadre of outsiders dedicated to sparking a thorium revival. When he’s not at his day job as an aerospace engineer at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama — or wrapping up the master’s in nuclear engineering he is soon to earn from the University of Tennessee — he runs a popular blog called Energy From Thorium. A community of engineers, amateur nuclear power geeks, and researchers has gathered around the site’s forum, ardently discussing the future of thorium. The site even links to PDFs of the Oak Ridge archives, which Sorensen helped get scanned. Energy From Thorium has become a sort of open source project aimed at resurrecting long-lost energy technology using modern techniques.
Kirk coined the term Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) for the type of Molten Salt Reactor that uses the Thorium fuel cycle. In Europe the same type of reactor is called the Thorium Molten Salt Reactor. Kirk's term is a more accurate one because a MSR using chloride salts is possible, and potentially has some very desirable desirable features.

"Why thorium," you ask. For example, Russian scientists B.D. Kuz’minov, and V.N. Manokhin have stated,
Adoption of the thorium fuel cycle would offer the following advantages:
- Increased nuclear fuel resources thanks to the production of 233U from 232Th;
- Significant reduction in demand for the enriched isotope 235U;
- Very low (compared with the uranium-plutonium fuel cycle) production of long-lived radiotoxic wastes, including transuraniums, plutonium and transplutoniums;
- Possibility of accelerating the burnup of plutonium without the need for recycling, i.e. rapid reduction of existing plutonium stocks;
- Higher fuel burnup than in the uranium-plutonium cycle;
- Low excess reactivity of the core with thorium-based fuel, and more favourable temperature and void reactivity coefficients;
- High radiation and corrosion resistance of thorium-based fuel;
- Considerably higher melting point and the better thermal conductivity of thorium-based fuel;
- Good conditions for ensuring the non-proliferation of nuclear materials.
Martin points out that other advanced reactor
technologies are still based on uranium, however, and will be beset by the same problems that have dogged the nuclear industry since the 1960s. It is only thorium, Sorensen and his band of revolutionaries argue, that can move the country toward a new era of safe, clean, affordable energy.
Yes the LFTR is at the core of a revolutionary energy paradigm. The revolutionary implications of the thorium paradigm can be fully realized only when one becomes aware that as the result of very limited geological surveys in the late 1960's the USAEC determined that there was enough thorium available in the United States for all of its energy for at least the next two million years. World thorium resources appear to be huge and largely unexplored. Indeed there appears to be enough recoverable thorium in the earths crust to last us for as long as the Earth is a habitable planet.

"But why the LFTR," you ask. Scientists from all over the world have looked at LFTR-type MSR technology. Most have concluded that it represents a major breakthrough in nuclear technology. Yet, as Richard Martin points out,
LFTRs face more than engineering problems; they’ve also got serious perception problems. To some nuclear engineers, a LFTR is a little … unsettling. It’s a chaotic system without any of the closely monitored control rods and cooling towers on which the nuclear industry stakes its claim to safety. A conventional reactor, on the other hand, is as tightly engineered as a jet fighter.
But it is the simplicity of the LFTR is its major advantage. The LFTR core may require specially designed and carefully manufactured metal alloys to withstand its harsh environment of heat, neutron bombardment, and potentially corrosive salts, but it would be far easier to manufacture than a conventional reactor core. Canadian Physicist David LeBlanc argues that all you need for a LFTR core is two tubes, one inside the other. The LFTR core could be manufactured in in a few minutes in a factory. Other LFTR parts would take longer, but the whole thing is not nearly as complex as a conventional reactor.

Martin, tells the thorium-LFTR story, but like any brief telling it is incomplete. Still it is a breakthrough. One day the geeks will rule the Earth, and the geeks read Wired. The LFTR movement has been from the start a grass-roots movement. The LFTR may not be talked about in the halls of Congress, or even at Idaho National Laboratory, but on the Internet there is a growing buzz. If the LFTR will create a revolution it will be because there will be a popular demand for it, not because our leaders see its potential. Kirk shows us that a revolution can begin when a young man gets curious about a book.


Anonymous said...

Congrats to Kirk and Charles for getting the attention of Wired Magazine. In 2003 Wired ran Let a 1000 reactors bloom. That article did much to launch the renewed interest in nuclear power. This may help to launch LFTR rebirth. Keep up the good work. John Tjostem

Alex Brown said...

There are several reasons why a reactor of this type is unlikely to be built in our lifetimes. The most important one is the fact that every single part of the plant has to be re-designed with completely different materials and design philosophy. We are talking at least 50 billion just to get a design and manufacturing ability in place before you can build a single reactor. And then you have to add to that the fact that each subsequent reactor will still need these much more advanced parts which means they will end up costing much more than light water reactors. Its nice a nice concept in THEORY, but the reality is all against it. Its hard for someone who hasn't actually worked at a reactor to understand just how much work it takes to do even the smallest little change. For example changing a fuse out with one that weighs .2 pounds more takes at least 50,000$ worth of engineering to replace the 5$ part. Also, I think people need to see the condition of a nuclear reactor and understand all the millions of things that have to go right for it to stay online. With an untested system it would take decades to get up to the reliability levels we have now. Florine is the most corrosive element there is. The though of trying to contain it in a reactor for 60 years is quite difficult. There is always some amount of reactor coolant leaking out, when it is slightly radioactive water its not the end of the world. But when it is extremely corrosive florine and extremely radioactive isotopes then you have a nightmare scenario.

Charles Barton said...

Alex, nonsense, You obviously are ignorant of what was accomplished at ORNL in the 50s and 60's, and how fast a project can move is it is not operating on a business as usual basis. Go look at the accomplishments of the Manhattan project and compare them to what needs to be done to build a viable LFTR. The Manhattan project accomplished far, far more in three and a half years, than what would be required to put the LFTR on the market in five years. The LFTR is not a huge technological challenge, I doubt that it is even as big a challenge as the Airbus 380. But of course those who are little in mind and spirit will be daunted by any challenge. Even if developing the LFTR cost 50 billion dollars, as you claim, it would still be a worthwhile investment, that would pay for itself a many times over.

Finrod said...

Florine is the most corrosive element there is. The though of trying to contain it in a reactor for 60 years is quite difficult.

Except that LFTR uses fluoride in a highly stable salt compound, not fluorine. This is a point which would be obvious to you had you done the minimum reading to understand the concept which you are attempting to criticise. Perhaps if you go back and read through the material here and on Kirk's website, you will be less likely to make such a fool of yourself.

Soylent said...

Fluorine so desperately wants another electron to complete it's out shell that it will even bind to noble gases.

This is exactly what makes fluoride salts so stable, the fluoride ion is content just clinging for dear life to that extra electron.

Contrast the difference between chlorine gas and table salt.

Alex Brown said...

Its nice to talk about the Manhattan project in terms of developing new technology, but that was a TRILLION dollar project. For that cost you could build 200 light water reactors. Now I doubt it would actually cost that much to completely design, but like the Manhattan project, only the government is large enough to fund such research. Its easy to talk on a blog about what can and cannot be done based on some stuff you read on the internet, but that doesn't make someone an expert. Now, I'm not claiming to be an expert either, but I do work as a design engineer on the only nuclear plant under construction in this country which is more than most people here can probably say. As for technology developed in the 50s and 60s, no I am not familiar with it, but the standards have changed so much since then that it would likely all have to be re-designed. Most of the equipment being put into new power pants has decades of operating experience in coal or natural gas plants which all sue the same sort of steam turbine design. Take a temperature element for example. If I want to measure the to leg temperature of a reactor I can take the same sort of RTD that a coal plant would use. However if we are going to put it in a fluoride salt we are going to have to develop a new piece of equipment that is designed for the different physical characteristics of the salt (thermal conductivity, chemical properties etc.) Or take the reactor protection system. The NRC is completely paranoid about the logic used. For a new lightwater reactor you have thousands of reactor years of experience to determine the set-points and logic. For a radicaly different design though you have nothing. It isn't good enough that you can do alot of calculations showing how it SHOULD work, you are going to have to build demonstration plants and the whole nine yards. This process takes decades and billions of dollars and would be required for pretty much everything on the primary side of the plant. Like I was saying before, if you haven't actually worked around this industry it is impossible to understand just how much paperwork it takes to do anything or how paranoid the industry and the NRC are about anything even remotely new.

Charles Barton said...

Alex, a full scale Manhattan project approach would not be needed to develop the LFTR because it simply does not pose such a great challenge. What the Manhattan project demonstrated was that developmental processes that might take a long period of time can be speeded up by committing more resources. The Molten Salt Reactor has already been through the prototype phase, developmental problems were identified during the 1970's, and detailed programs to overcome those problems were laid out. The great advantages of the Molten Salt approach is that a reactor can be very simple. Another advantage is that it poses much fewer inherent safety problems than Light Water Reactors do. The LFTR basically operates under one atmospheric pressure, and coolant leaks are self sealing! You don't have to worry about core melt down, and there is no water in the core. In the event of a core containment failure, the core would simply drain into storage tanks from which core salts can be be recovered. Materials research has continued because the same fluoride liquid salts are proposed for use with fusion energy recovery schemes. Many of the same materials that would be used in fusion power reactors could also be used in LFTRs. Pumps designed to move liquid salts have been developed for the Solar Industry. There would of course redesign to meet nuclear safety and reliability standards.

The LFTR core is amazingly simple and can manufactured in much less than a day. It does not require extensive design, and it can be built out of low cost materials like stainless steel.

Your have a significant problem because you lack information about MSR/LFTR technology. You are thinking with Light Water Reactor analogies, and the LFTR is a radically different reactor concept. Unless you have a better understanding of the technology, you simply cannot say intelligent things about LFTR development problems or time scale.

Frank Kandrnal said...

Alex, you are apparently one of those pathetic modern day whiners or you are anti nuclear brain dead activist. It is hard to believe you are nuclear engineer when you confuse fluorine with fluoride salts.
The last "engineer" I listened to told me the air is composed of Oxygen and Hydrogen, hence we can run cars on hydrogen extracted from air.
You obviously need $10,000 to change a light bulb. $5,000 for engineering how to change the bulb, $4,998 for safety inspectors to make sure the bulb is screwed in properly and $2 for the person who will actually screw the light bulb into the socket.
No wonder nothing can get done these days because people with low level education are infecting every segment of the society. We are descending into the age of idiocracy.
Nevertheless, despite screwed up society thanks to too many uneducated individuals, there are still very competent engineers in private sector who are very confident that building Molten Salt Reactor is a piece of cake due to incredible simplicity of the reactor.
As a matter of fact it can be done in an average equipped fabrication shop since there is nothing too difficult to work with modified Hastelloy-N material. Common fabrication and welding techniques is all that is necessary to produce a reactor that operate in nearly atmospheric pressure.
Cost can be very low if all parasites feeding on the project are removed.
I agree that NRC and other paranoid BS is a serious obstacle but it does't mean ve have to quit because of it or to stick with some technology only since some think it cannot be changed because of cost.
We have to depart from standard reactors sooner or later and get on with work on something that can power the future for extended time.
The only thing standing in the way of progress is very sick attitude of anti nuclear fanatics who are mentally challenged and insane political leadership.

Rick Maltese said...

Congratulations Charles and Kirk.

Wired magazine has close to 3 million readers. This is a major accomplishment for you two strong LFTR advocates.

About 11 months ago I started following Charles and Kirks posts and became a loyal follower. I am not a scientist but I still managed to grasp the importance of the LFTR reactor. It is radically different from solid fueled reactors. It is cooled differently and it is contained differently and it uses up far more of the fuel to create more energy than solid fueled reactors. So, new people, do yourself a favor and teach yourself the basics as I did. You will be a convert. By becoming a convert you will be joining a growing number of converts that have decided to end the false claims against the single most important scientific discovery ever IMHO and realize that nuclear power is good. You have come to the right place to learn. Charles Barton and Kirk Sorensen have a number of followers who have shared ideas and resources. Read


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