Thursday, October 28, 2010

Dr. Furukawa's vision

Dr. Kazio Furukawa is 85 years old, and at an age when most people are content to enjoy a leisurely retirement, he is working hard to change the world. To that end, Dr. Furukawa participated in the founding of a new company, the "International Thorium Energy & Molten-Salt Technology Inc." (IThEMS), earlier this year. Dr. Furukawa is nothing, if not adamant in his views. According to David LeBlanc, at the Recent Thorium Alliance Conference in London, Dr. Furukawa said the same thing to everyone who was not working on a Molten Salt Reactor related project,
I know your heart is in the right place but you must know you are completely wrong so please stop wasting your time!
Dr. Furukawa's interest in Molten Salt Nuclear technology goes back some 30 years, to when he worked with a molten salt medium in an accelerator driven thorium breeding system. Accelorator driven thorium breeding remains a part of Dr. Furukawa's long range thinking. During the early 1980's Dr, Furukawa began to establish contacts with scientists in France andthe old Soviet Union who shared his interest in Molten Salt/thorium technology.

By 1983 scientists at the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow were interested in building a Molten Salt Reactor and invited Dr. Furukawa to participate in the project. By 1985 Dr. Furukawa had designed a small-self sustaining molten salt reactor the Fuji reactor concept. The beauty of Fuji was the extent to which it was based on technology already tested in the Oak Ridge National Laboratory Molten Salt Reactor Experiment. Thus Furukawa was able to demonstrate that self sustaining nuclear power was potentially possible without any further technological breakthroughs, or expensive prototype developments.

The full beauty of Dr. Furukawa's project can be grasped once its simplicity, reliability and economy are understood.

Dr. Furukawa must be viewed as a visionary who looks at the big picture. For Dr. Furukawa it is not enough to design nuclear power stations, the entire fuel cycle must be analyzed, and nuclear power systems designed and built to create better fuel cycle efficiency. In doing so, Dr. Furukawa would eliminate the problem of nuclear waste. As early as 1944, Eugene Wigner had favored fluid core homogenioues reactors because of their superior fuel processing potential. Initially homogenious reactors were designed to use heavy water as the carrier fluid, and uranium as either dissolved in the heavy water, or carried along by the flowing liquid in the form of a slurry. An outer liquid blanket in which heavy water carried thorium was used for breeding. However, there were numerous problems with the Aqueous Homogeneous Reactor, and a second fluid fueled reactor concept had emerged in Oak Ridge.

In 1947 Oak Ridge scientists and engineers were investigating the possibility of powering a jet bomber with a reactor. The first concept involved the use of a sodium cooled reactor, but Oak Ridge engineers including Ed Bettis thought that the sodium cooled reactor was dangerous, and suggested a reactor which used fluoride salts as a coolant and fuel carrier. During the next 30 years Oak Ridge produced 2 prototype reactors, and completed a great many molten Salt related research projects. All-in-all ORNL spent under $1 billion 2010 dollars, to develop Molten Salt Reactor technology. In contrast the United States Government has spent over $100 billion 2010 dollars on the development of Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactors. If anything development of the MSR is further advanced than development of the LMFBR. So much for throwing money at a problem.

Dr Furykawa argues that Th-232-U233 are superior to U-238-Pu-239 breeding systems because they produce little or no trans-nuclear waste,

Dr. Furukawa believes that Fuji costs would be as much as 30% less than the costs of Light Water reactors, and that electricity from the Fuji can be sold for as little as $0.06 per kWh. However, given what I call the full court method of MSR cost containment, it is likely that the cost of a Fuji like reactor can be lowered significantly below Dr. Furukawa's estimate,

Much of Dr. Furukawa's ORNL talk consisted in a recitation of things he had done to bring about the implementation of the Fuji MSR concept. From 1985 onward he kept trying to reach people who might be in position to do something to move MSR technology. This determination does not come from a monitary interest, but a vision, an idea about what the future of energy can and should be. If the thorium breeding MSR concept is thought through to its full implications, the thinker becomes aware that this is a new energy paradigm. A paradigm offers safe nuclear energy that can be free of long term waste, and proliferation dangers. It the same time the Thorium breeding molten salt reactor, the LFTR, offers abundant, low cost energy for the entire human popilation of the earth. Dr. Furukawa sees the Fuji as a boon to humanity, and as his guift to the human race. He is determined that that gift not be wasted.

Dr. Furukawa sees the thorium-MSR paradigm emerging in three stages. In the first stage the Mini-Fuji emerges, to provide a small but useful energy package that can be used to tackel a variety of present and future energy problems including motive power for commercial shipping in a post carbon era. In the second stage a much larger, but still relatively small 200 MWe Fuji emerges. This Fuji can either serve as a stand alone energy/electricity source, or can be clustered. In the third stage a spallation breeder emerges. The spallation approach harnesses neutrons created by a particle accelerator, to the thorium breeding cycle. Dr. Furukawa believes that the thorium can be contained by a molten fluoride salt target, thus the breeding process is directly tied to the Fuji carrier salt/fuel cycle technology.

Dr. Furukawa also offers a three stage vision of the development of the fuel cycle, with Plutonium from weapons stockpiles and from "nuclear waste" being used to start Fuji reactors. In the second stage, as the number of Fujis grow, accelerator driven breeders produce U-233 to start and power the Fujis. In the third phase 20 to 30 chemical processing centers around the world are created to "clean" the apent fuel salts from Fuji Reactors.

By making maximum use of technology first tested by ORNL beteen 1965 and 1969, Dr. Furukawa believes that research and development costs for the Fuji system can be kept extremely low. For example he estimated the cost of R&D for the Mini-Fuji prototype to be no more that $300 million.. He believes that the Mini-Fuji project can be wrapped up in 5 or 6 years. The next stage, which entails the development of the 200 MWe Fuji is expected to cost $1.5 billion, and can be complete by 2020. The development of the accelerator breeder will take 25 years, and Dr. Furukawa believes that it will cost $20 billion. I should note that younger MSR designer developers, such as Dr. LeBlanc and Kirk Sorensen now expect the emergence of MSR breeding technology to come more slowly than they had envisioned 18 months ago. Recent MIT estimates of the global Uranium supply suggest that no Uranium shortages will devlop duruing the next century. Thus even a very large number of MSRs can be operated with from U-235 and P:u-239, without quickly running out of fuel. Still realization of Dr. Furukawa's 10,000 GWe nuclear power starions make a rapid development of some thorium breeding technology very desirable.

The use of Spallation technology in the breeding process is one of the few places where others scientists who are researching MSR technology disagree with Dr. Furukawa. Canadian physicist, and highly regarded MSR designer, Dr. David LeBlanc observed,
I personally agree with 95% of the FUJI approach due to its great simplicity but I disagree with the approach of needing to produce an external makeup of U233, especially by accelerators. I believe though I am having success in convincing more of them that using Low Enriched Uranium with thorium is a more practical and politically acceptable route (the DMSR is basically a denatured FUJI approach).
Dr. Furukawa would argue that Dr. LeBlanc fails to close the fuel cycle, and because he, Dr. Furukawa does, he offers a better solution. The good thing about this disagreement, is that it insures that the Molten Salt reactor community is not going to put all of their eggs in one basket, and indeed one of the things that is most confusing to outsiders, is the large number of baskets
competing for those eggs.

How much energy are we talking about putting in those baskets? Dr. Furukawa spoke of 10,000 1000 MWe energy coming from thorium powered MSRs. By closing the breeding cycle that 10,000 kilos of thorium, about 11,000 tons could power the entire kit and kabootal for the entire globe. if Dr. Furukawa's paradigm were to become a reality, the pessimistic visions of the neo-Malthusians could be put off for millions of years to come.

In his ORNL talk, Dr. Furukawa pointed to several advantages of his MSR-thorium fuel cycle system. They included:
* Safety
* Elimination of long term radioactive nuclear waste
* Nuclear Proliferation resistance
* Economical construction and operation
Dr. Furukawa observed,
Simple is better,
He foresees the emergence of a huge new nuclear industry based on Fuji like technology with quick low cost launches of MSR projects, factory mass production of reactors, and the rapid emergence of a MSR based infrastructure.

In Dr. Furukawa's Thorium MSR paradigm not plutonium production is needed, there will be no core melt down problem, reactors will be small, safe, efficient and economical. Such an energy order is practical, not Utopian, and is implicit in the adoption of a thorium based Molten Salt breeding cycle.


Robert Hargraves said...

Charles, can you document "$100 billion 2010 dollars on the development of Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactors"? My number was about $16 billion.

Charles Barton said...

Robert the figue is a guess based on inflation.

Andrew Jaremko said...

Charles - thank you so much for all your posts. I really like all the molten salt reactor designs I've been reading about, even though I'm not an engineer and don't have enough background to fully appreciate them. I check your blog daily.

In discussing the molten salt reactors with a friend, he asked "What if the salt freezes?" I had no answer from what I'd read, and it's doubtless a totally naive reaction to the idea. It seems to me it's the same as asking what happens if the salt circulation stops, for any reason. What failsafes, like the frozen salt plug that will drain the salt, have designers included? The 'freezing' event seems unlikely to me in an operating reactor because of the energy from decaying fission products, but loss of circulation strikes me as serious.

A passive 'core overflow' system could handle thermal expansion of the core salt as fission continues, it seems to me.

We'd appreciate a comment about this to help us understand the designs better.

Also - Rod Adams at Atomic Insights says the molten salt reactors can throttle 'easily' for applications like spinning reserve, but I haven't seen him put numbers on the statement. It obviously depends on both the reactor design and the generation system. Has anyone had the resources to really analyze designs? The two obvious questions that occur to me are dynamic range (maximum/minimum power ratio) and slew rate (megawatts/second).

Lots of questions. I also appreciate the comments you make on the Brave New Climate site. (I check NNadir on DailyKos as well. I'm definitely pro-nuclear.)

Charles Barton said...

If for some reason salt circulation stops, the salt temperature will rise until enough fuel is pushed our terminate the critical mass in the core. At that point the chain reaction in the core stops but the decay of fission product still heats the core salts. There would be on or more emergency cooling systems, but if they fail the freeze plug will melt and the core would drain into the fuel tanks. There fuel heat can be maintained by electrical heating. If salts leak out of the core for some reason, they can be expected to flow on to the floor. Some salt might flow into drain tanks, but salt could also freeze. If salt freezes on the reactor chamber flow, it would become a clean up problem and could be a mess, but would be cleaned up, probably with robot maids.

Rick Maltese said...

Thanks Charles.

I am hopeful that someone recognizes that helping this Japanese company may be the quickest way to develop a prototype. I also recall discussion somewhere about the Mini-Fuji being used on ships. As a former cruise ship traveler I witnessed a lot of waste and wondered how much better a new type of fuel might improve the industry. The industry is already a decadent form of holiday that is largely successful because of the abundance of food and drink. They are like gigantic shopping mall/hotels/casinos on water. They have a propaganda effort to say they have cleaned up their act since regulatory agencies forced them to clean up their waste and oil polluting ways.


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