Sunday, July 26, 2015

The MSR Potential

I wrote "Scaling the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor: The Big Lots Reactor and the Aim High Reactor" in early 2009.  It was a case study in which I attempted to sumerize much of what I had learned about the potential of the Liquid Floride Thorium Reactor  (LFTR) during the two previous years.  One of the comments on the original March 2009post by 
Bill Hannahan pointed me into what has become my short term direction

"The most important thing I learned form the LeBlanc lecture is the fact that we can build a once through MSR that produces high temperature high pressure steam using ¼ of the uranium requirement of conventional reactors.

The chemical reprocessing system design is the most problematic and time consuming aspect of developing a liquid fueled breeder reactor. Eliminating that system leaves a very simple reactor design that could be developed and tested in the minimal time span.

Given the abundant supply of affordable uranium from sea water these simple MSR’s could meet the worlds need quickly and for as long as necessary to allow R&D of a full blown breeder reactor.

I would also suggest combining the MSR concept with the floating plant concept so that we can provide high paying jobs selling these plants all over the world." - Bill Hannahan

Bill's suggestion which he borrowed from David LeBlanc points to the current stage of of Molten Salt Reactor development, which now sees as many as half a dozen organizations endevoring to build Uranium and or Plutonium fueled Molten Salt Reactors.  Much of what I said about the LFTR is also true of the UMSR and PMSR.  I want to update the "Scaling" essay to reflect the movement toward building Uranium and/or Plutonium fueled Molten Salt Reactors.


I believe that we have reached the point in our understanding of the potential of Molten Salt Reactors (MSRs) including the thorium/Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor paradigm, to talk about our grand plan before the end of this century. I believe that we can show that the use of MSRs in the near turm, and thorium fuel cycle LFTRs represents, if not the silver bullet, then at least the Uranium/Thorium bullets of future energy. The most important questions which we need to answer about MSRs including thorium cycle/LFTR technology are:
1. Can they be built at a reasonable cost?
2. Is is scalable enough to meet our energy needs?
3. Can we complete world wide deployment of carbon technology replacing LFTR by what is often seen as the cut off date of 2050?
The answers to these three questions are related. Indeed, MSR costs are a part of the scalability question.

Perhaps my only original idea about MSR concept was more a marketing suggestion, which combined David LeBlanc's suggestion that capital costs for MSRs could be lowered by using lower cost materials that would tolerate somewhat lower reactor performance. David LeBlanc's suggestions indicated that low cost LFTRs could be built from commonly available low cost materials. I saw that this would solve a major problem in all current plans to produce post carbon electricity, that is the absence of a low cost load following and peak reserve electrical production technology to replace natural gas. Indeed the Greenpeace "energy [r]evolution" plan is not a true post carbon energy plan because it calls for an increase in the capacity of natural gas powered generating facilities over the next 20 years in order to supply load following and peak energy capacity to the grid as a compensation for the increased penetration by wind powered generators.

I named the lower cost MSR, the Big Lots Reactor after the store chain from which surprising bargains sometimes emerge. Unlike Big Lots which finds bargains among over stocked and close out items, our reactor bargain will come from intelligent approaches to reactor manufacture and site construction, more efficient use of labor and careful attention to containing financing costs.

When I read David LeBlanc's observations, I was aware that operating MSRs on a partial power or a part time basis decreases neutron damage to core material. At the same time load following power and peak load power is purchased by utilities at a premium price. It appeared to me that there was a potential for synergy here.

The MSR has significant potential as both a load follower and a peak reserve power source. The trick would be to lower its price enough for MSR load following/peak reserve to be economically viable. That is where David LeBlanc's suggestions come in. By lowering capital costs the cost of the reactor manufacture can be recovered while running it with a less than base load capacity factor.

Thus the Big Lots reactor can be run on a 16/7 or 16/5 schedule. It can be run on less full power for most of the day. A Big Lots Reactor can rapidly increase power if a major online generating unit suddenly goes down, or if the electrical utilities experience a surge in consumer electrical demand. It could even cope with the fluctuating electrical output of windmills.

The Big Lots Reactor thus would be the ideal candidate to provide carbon free backup power for wind generation.  Graphite wares out quickly under neutron bombardment.  Thus after 7 years of l power operation, the graphite core needs to be replaced. Both David lAblanc's terrestrial energy's IMSR and Thorcon's MSR project, depend on lowcost core replacements.  Since the Big Lot reactor cores are built from cheap material it.  Part time and low power MSRs

The original Aim High plan calls for MSR production from high performance and expensive materials. The Aim High Reactor would be designed to operate at maximum temperature compatible with current materials technology. The Aim High Reactor would be designed for base load power and/or the production of process heat. As a base load reactor the AIM High Reactor would be expected to produce maximum power on a 24/7 basis. It is very conceivable that a Generation II Aim High Reactors might be built. The first generation Aim High Reactor, to go into production about 2020, would be built using expensive Hastelloy-N in the core structure and Molten Salt piping. The Aim High I could operate at a temperature of up to 700 degrees C. A further Aim High Reactor, the Aim High II, might then be developed to provide Industrial process heat up to 1000 degrees C. The Aim High II would be built of more exotic materials like carbon-carbon composites, and would be able to produce power with a high level of thermal efficiency.

The Big Lot Reactor can be built in the same factory as the Aim High Reactor, and the two reactors might share many of the same parts. Parts like pumps, heat exchanges turbines, fuel processing units, helium handling equipment, and core graphite can be used in common. Core structural matter for the Big Lots Reactor would be stainless steel as would be the reactors external pipes. The Big Lots core design should use a moderated two fluid approach, and might use NaF-ZrF4-UF4 salt rather than LiF-BeF2-UF4.

The Big Lots would be expected to operate no more than 2/3rds of the time and to operate at capacity factor of .60 or less. Since the lower capacity factor means less exposure to radiation over a given period of time, the stainless steel parts can be expected to be reasonably robust in the face of anticipated radiation levels. The Big Lots Reactor could be deliberately oversized in order to promote reserve peak capacity. Thus the Big Lots might be expected to operate at 25% of full capacity for part of the day, while more capacity could be brought on line quickly in the face of rising demand. Unlike the Light Water Reactor adding substantial increasing design capacity would not add proportionately to overall reactor costs.

Production of the Big Lots Reactor would be highly scalable because it is factory built. The production process can use labor savings machines at every stage of the production process. Given a large enough production volume, parts manufacture can be partially or even completely automated. Robots can replace workers in some assembly operation. It is anticipated that the factory produced Big Lots will be shipped to the reactor site for final setup in modular units. Labor savings equipment can be used in site preparation, component assembly and in finishing off the site.

The Big Lots factory would be large, but not larger than a modern aircraft assembly factory. Component modules need not be produced in the same factory. The modules would be major reactor components. The assembly of the modular components should be relatively simple and quick, with most of the assembly being performed in factory settings.

The goal of the Big Lot/Aim High Program should be the production and distribution of enough MSRs that by 2050 to assure that world wide carbon production could be lowered by 80% from 2009 levels by 2050. This will be made possible by massive production and deployment of Big Lot Reactors after 2020.

The role of the Big Lots reactor would be to assure that material shortages would not prevent the the construction of the required number of reactors. By using a common material like stainless steel, sufficient building materials should be available to insure the required number of reactors can be built. Production facilities can be designed with the capacity to handle a large number of reactors. In the United States, Europe, Japan and South Korea, highly mechanized and automated assembly/construction methods would be used to limit labor input. However in India and China less mechanized site preparation and final assembly approaches might be used.

Site design should be standardized to the extent possible. To the extent possible old power plant sites should be recycled as Big Lots sites, with structures and equipment reused to the extent possible.

The Big Lots Reactor should be designed with cooling options. It could be air cooled or water cooled depending on the availability of water.

Start up options for all MSRs would include recycling plutonium from nuclear waste or nuclear weapons, using U-235 from nuclear weapons, or by breeding U-233 from Th-232 in LFTRs and other Molten Salt Reactors. Indian technology would also create the potential to breed U-233 from Th-232 in LMFBRs. U-235 can be enriched to HEU levels using laser technology and then used for LFTR start up.

MSR Costs
I have recently pointed out reports that Indian LMFBRs costs will run at an estimated $1.4 billion per GW, while Chinese LWR costs run between $1.6 and $1.75 billion per GW. In neither case does the cost of reactor R&D play a major role in reactor costs. In both cases it would appear that financing costs are a lower percentage of total reactor costs than they would be in the United States or Europe. The rest of the cost savings would appear to come from the cost of labor. In the case of the Chinese reactor we know that the total hours of labor are similar to those required to build reactors in Europe and North America. We can suspect that the Indian LMFBR requires significantly fewer hours of labor than Chinese LWRs require.

The cost of electricity is a fundamental measure of the competitiveness of a society. The low labor and financing costs of Asian reactors would seem to give China and India significant competitive advantages during the second half of the 21st century unless energy related financial and labor costs can be better controlled. By shifting reactor manufacturing methods and settings, and by taking innovative approaches to reactor siting and facilities construction labor costs can be lowered. Controlling labor costs, the time required to build reactors will make significant contribution to closing the the gap in the cost of financing rectors. Thus it seems possible that LFTRs can be be built at a cost that would be comparable to the Asian cost range of $1.4 to $1.75 billion per GW. More research is needed, and beyond research a nearly fanatic commitment to keep LFTR manufacturing costs under control. Nothing less than the fate of a civilization rests on this.

Is There Enough Nuclear Fuel?
Thorium is estimated to be three times as abundant as uranium in the the Earths crust. Millions of tons of thorium are present in mine tailings scattered around the world. The LFTR is several hundred times more efficient at extracting energy from thorium as the current generation of Light Water Reactors are in extracting energy from uranium. If we extracted no thorium from the earth and only recovered the thorium found in mine tailings and other surface sources enough thorium could be recovered to provide energy to all human societies at a level that is equivalent to those enjoyed in Western Europe for thousands of years. Recoverable thorium resources are large enough to sustain human society for millions of years.

Can we start all of the MSRs?
This brief study is based on the assumption that the major obstacle to replacing carbon based energy technology with post carbon based energy technology would be factors like materials availability, and labor and financing related costs. I have argued that by focusing on LFTR technology and what might be described as a full court press approach to LFTR cost savings, that it would be possible to manufacture and deploy world wide, enough power generating reactors to replace current carbon based energy sources with low CO2 emitting energy sources. I have elsewhere argued that it would be possible to start these reactors with plutonium from spent reactor fuel, plutonium-239 and uranium-235 form nuclear weapons, U-235 produced by laser enrichment, and by U-233 bred in Molten Salt Reactors including LFTRs. It would also be possible to breed U-233 in Indian LMFBRs.

Is MSR technology scalable enough to reach our 2050 energy goals?
In 2009 I wrore: "The Aim High plan, the plan to substitute thorium/LFTR energy sources for carbon based energy sources by 2050 is feasible. Thorium/LFTR technology is scalable. Indeed, the Aim High Plan is the only feasible option that would allow Europe, North America, Japan, South Korea China and India to adopt their energy requirements to the necessity of finding post carbon energy sources. Plans to use renewable energy and conventional nuclear power simply will inevitably fall short."

But there is sufficiently abundant Uranium, to provide massive amounts of energy in reactors that are not configured for breeding.  Thus even without the thorium breeding LFTR  MSR technology can provide major services in providing the earth with carbon free energy.
Thus in the short run at least, everything that is true of LFTRs scalability would appear to betrue of MSRs as well, and with far future near term development problems.

What are the obstructs to the realization of the Aim High Plan?
The answer is simple, knowledge of the potential ofMSR and  thorium/LFTR technology, and commitment to its development and use. The road is open, we have only to see it, and choose to follow it.

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Dr. Joe Bonometti speaking on thorium/LFTR technology at Georgia Tech David LeBlanc on LFTR/MSR technology Robert Hargraves on AIM High