Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Why the Chinese Commitment to the LFTR Matters

I changed the name of Nuclear Green to the Nuclear Green Revolution a couple of years ago. The Name Nuclear Green signified that Molten Salt/Liquid Fluoride Thorium technology had the potential to provide energy in a way that would protect the environment. The LFTR is the environmental reactor. (In fact however, nuclear power is very benign, the LFTR is just more environmentally benign than other forms of nuclear technology.)

The reason I added the word "Revolution" to the name of my blog, was that I believed that the LFTR had revolutionary potential, that it could change the lives of everyone on earth for the better. There is a huge amount of thorium in the earth, and the LFTR is up to 300 times more fuel efficient than conventional nuclear power plants. The LFTR could provide low-cost energy at the level now enjoyed in the United States to everyone on the planet, and provide it for millions of years.

During the last four years, this has all been thought about, argued about, and speculated in the Energy from Thorium Discussion pages. As of this morning, the EfT discussion has drawn over 33,600 comments on nearly 2200 topics, and no doubt those number will continue to grow. Energy from Thorium and Nuclear Green have participated in a campaign to increase public awareness. Both Energy from Thorium's Kirk Sorensen and I come from missionary religious traditions, and we have been spreading the word about thorium and the LFTR. Kirk has been especially vigorous in the use of social media. In addition to his blog, and its adjoining document archive and discussion forum, Kirk has used Facebook, YouTube videos, and Twitter to put his message across. Kirk has been to the United Kingdom twice, and has traveled several times to the Google campus to give presentations.

The consequences of our effort has been a steady increase in public awareness. Other Members of the Energy from Thorium community have reached out as well. Articles have appeared in The (UK) Guardian, The Economist, The (UK) Telegraph, and the Geek oriented, WIRED Magazine. Journal targeting scientists, engineers and technophiles including C&E News, Machine Design, American Scientist, and Mechanical Engineering have all carried thorium/LFTR related stories.

I have concentrated on spreading the word through the blog sphere. In addition to my own blogs, my posts have appeared on The Oil Drum, Daily Kos, The Energy Collective, Energy from Thorium and even the Liberal Zionist blog, Harry's Place. In addition I have posted energy related comments in dozens of other Internet sites.

If there is to be a Nuclear Green Revolution it will have worked from the bottom up, striving to create grassroots support. An energy from Thorium community has grown up, and people like David Le Blanc, Robert Steinhaus, and Robert Hargraves, and many other people have become active communicators about thorium LFTR advantages. Few of us doubt that Anthropogenic Global Warming is a major issue and perhaps the defining issue of this century. Global Climate Change is upon us:
While some hold out hope for a renewables-based approach to mitigation of climate change, critics of renewables point to daunting issues such as high costs and unreliability as lingering problems. Conventional nuclear power, while less expensive and far more reliable than renewable energy sources, is still more expensive than desirable. In addition the world supply of fissionable U-235 is far more limited than the world supply of thorium. A more advanced nuclear approach can transform Thorium into fissionable U-233, lower nuclear energy costs, while facilitating rapid global deployment of safe and clean nuclear power generating units.
The potential promise of thorium and the LFTR technology can rapidly be brought into the effort to prevent further global climate change. China, perhaps more than any other country has realized the importance of energy in increasing the wealth of its citizens, and making life for its people better. At the same time, the Chinese have paid an enormous price for their reliance on fossil fuel technology. As many as 500,000 people die every year from fossil fuel related causes. Global Warming represents another large threat to the well-being of the Chinese people, and although China has made a large commitment to renewable energy sources, the Chinese leadership is aware that renewables cannot produce anything like the amount of energy that the Chinese people need to bring their standard of living to that enjoyed by people living in advanced Industrialized and post-industrial societies. At the same time, the Chinese leadership is far more technologically oriented than the leadership of the United States or Europe.

Thus, the leadership of China is far more open to promising new technology. In addition China has a large thorium supply that comes from its rare earth mines, and so far has not found any use for thorium. The LFTR allows China to kill two birds with a single thorium stone. First it offers a potential source of vast amounts of environmentally clean and safe energy at a low cost, and secondly it allows China to take advantage of an unused resource, which can easily replace coal. LFTR technology has the potential of providing China with abundant energy at a very low cost, and might solidify Chinese economic, cultural and political dominance of the world for a long time to come. This is what the Chinese leadership sees.


Anonymous said...

“I have concentrated on spreading the word through the blog sphere. in addition to my own blogs, my posts have appeared on The Oil Drum, Daily Kos, The Energy Collective, Energy from Thorium and even the Liberal Zionist blog, Harry's Place. In addition I have posted energy related comments in dozens of other Internet sites.”

If the tinder is dry, it only takes the tiniest of sparks to start a huge fire: a worthy accomplishment for any man.


SteveK9 said...

Be interesting to see if there is any reaction from India. Whether they may rethink their more complicated approach to using thorium. A change of course might be politically or personally difficult for the Indians, but I suppose it is possible.

Charles Barton said...

I get a lot of hits from India, far more than from China. But I suspect that someone in China has been reading Nuclear Green, or if they haven't they have been reading my mind.

Jason Ribeiro said...

America invents a lot of technology that other countries, particularly in Asia, run off with and make very successful. The fact that the Thorium community basically handed the basic blueprints to the rest of the world was very generous, but it appears America is going to be a day late and a dollar short in getting any Thorium program off the ground. If and when the Chinese create a successful LFTR, America might not even buy them from the Chinese because our NRC's "not invente here" policy.

Rod Adams said...

Charles - my issue with the messianic way that both you and Kirk push thorium is that your efforts carry a substantial risk of delaying important and measurable progress in reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.

There are way too many people in the US and Europe who think there is a magical way to step from DOS to Windows 7 without going through the intermediate steps or a way to move from a Model-T to a Lexus without countless generations of learning in between.

We know how to produce, fuel and operate light water reactors safely and economically now. Many of us know they are not the ultimate technology, but we also know that prosperous light water reactor owners are far more likely to be interested in investing in the next big fission technology than are people whose money and power comes from combustion technology.

There is plenty of uranium in the world. I still do not get the "300 times" more efficient number that you and Kirk like to toss out - even with our primitive ways of doing business, there is a maximum of 200 times more energy to capture compared to what we capture today in low enriched fuel light water reactors.

Current reactors obtain roughly 5,000 MW days per tonne of natural uranium - the theoretical maximum is 1,000,000 MW-days per tonne of heavy metal. Where does the other improvement come from?

I like the idea of using thorium and have no intention of trying to tell you guys to slow down, but why do you have to try to pull down uranium in your attempt to promote thorium. The enemies burn coal, oil and natural gas and dump their waste products into the environment without much thought at all.

Charles Barton said...

Rod, I am not sure where your current comments are coming from, but i have clearly stated that I favor an incremental MSR development program, starting with uranium fuel Molten Salt Reactors starting using technology that was tested by ORNL during the 1960's. i have laid our a number of reasons for this during 2010, had you been paying attention. My principle reasons are that MSR can be built more cheaply than LWR because they require fewer parts. They also have well documented safety advantages over LWRs and LMFBRs.

My view right now is that we don't need Thorium Fuel MSRs right now, but we might need them by the end of the 21st century, al though uranium fueled Molten Salt Fast Breeder reactors are possible, i suspect the MSFB will run into some of the same deployment problems that the IFR would run into.

As for efficiency, the current Uranium fuel cycle is highly inefficient. In addition MSRs can operate at much higher temperatures, at least twice the temperature of LMRs and about 200 C higher that IFRs. Later on MSRs probably have the potential to operate up to a temperature of 1200 C over long periods of time.

Secondly, because of the potential to build Low cost MSRs, it would be possible to build reactors that could make economic sense to use on a part time basis. Thus MSR technology offer the potential for back up nuclear power unites, and nuclear peak power producers. I have explained why this is the case on Nuclear Green. Every thing involves building reactors from low cost materials, using plausible designs. Peak operating temperatures might be lower, but heck that will probably mean a peak core temperature of 600 C instead of 700 C.

I intend to offer a post on the estimated costs of MSRs and Molten Salt cooled reactors, based on research at ORNL and other credible research institutions.

Your comments make me wonder how well you understand the fundamental concepts of Molten Salt Reactors. Kirk and I do have a body of research that backs up the statements that we make, and people who have bothered to look at the ORNL research literature agree with us.

Kirk Sorensen said...

Rod, my zeal comes about because while the US fusses with old-school LWR technology, primitive in its implementation and atrocious in its fuel efficiency, the Chinese are developing LFTR technology.

They will be selling us technology that we invented and they implemented if we don't get going very quickly. 15 years from now, if we keep on the path we're on, no one will be buying LWRs or LMFBRs or PBMRs from anyone. They'll be buying LFTRs from China and the Chinese will be raking in hundreds of billions in profits.

Engineer-Poet said...

That's a point I'd make too.

The problem I can see with LFTR is "rice-bowl breaking" even on the nuclear side; the existing LWR tech becomes obsolete, the expertise in its design and fabrication loses most of its value (only maintenance from here on out), and the whole regulatory system has to learn something new.  Yes, it's simpler and safer, but try convincing bureaucrats whose jobs depend on analyzing engineering details that don't exist in the new scheme that the switch is a good idea!  There are many reasons for the current interests to stonewall, and that's without looking at coal and gas moguls.

One other thing:  the claim that LFTRs can destroy our existing nuclear waste seems weak to me.  Many higher isotopes of Pu, Am and Cm are neutron absorbers and don't fission well in a thermal spectrum.  Putting these in LFTR sounds like a way to get a somewhat smaller but still problematic waste stream.  Fast-spectrum reactors can get rid the whole slew of them and convert the U-236 and U-238 to energy too.  I think there's plenty of room for both.

Anonymous said...

Nuclear poet. From what I have read no one is claiming that LFTRs alone could manage the waste stream in it's entirety, but that fast spectrum MSRs would need to be developed to complement LFTRs.

Engineer-Poet said...

Point.  But that would take something like a molten chloride reactor, and the USA hasn't tried one.  There would be a longer development effort than for LFTR.

Anonymous said...

Engineer-poet. I agree. But it seems the most rational and economic approach given the alternatives.

Kirk Sorensen said...

The chloride fast reactor will take longer to develop than LFTR, but I think it will take less time and take less money to develop an efficient chloride fast reactor than an efficient sodium-cooled, solid-fueled fast reactor. Continual fuel rehomogenization will make all the difference.

Engineer-Poet said...

Kirk, if you've got any details on the virtues of rehomogenization, I'd appreciate a pointer.

Anonymous said...

Engineer-poet. Were the actinides are concerned I think the principle difficulties with solid fuels are isotopic blending and fuel element fabrication as well as the inefficiency associated with these processes, all of which can be avoided with liquid fuel systems (MSRs). Now rehomogenization is not a term I have come across before...

Yip said...

I love this site and thread, but let's remember that we're not going to get any where with pessimistic talk like "there's no way to convince the bureaucrats" or "there's already an entire industry built around the LWRs." Let's stay positive. We can convince the bureaucrats. We CAN convince the public. I'll be damned if I don't stand at the foot of an LFTR I helped build one day. It's GOING to happen people.

Much Love


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