Sunday, September 6, 2015

Molten Salt Reactor Development: Why so Quick? Why so Cheap?

I noted yesterday on facebook that Terrestrial Energy expects

Recently on a thread in the Energy Reality Project, Margaret Harding argued:

 Ah, but I would argue that MSR's have huge vulnerabilities related to the corrosive nature of the salts that will arise with fission products. The folks I've talked to at ORNL have said that the old-timers they talked to had nothing positive to say about their experience with MSR.
EVERY reactor type has it's detractors. That's part of the problem.
Given that I was very well acquainted with one of the real MSR old timers, and know what several more, including the late Alvin Wendberg all of whome praise the MSRE very highly and all of whom were bitterly disapointed when the Molten Salt React9or research at ORNL was shut down. Not Harding does not nage any source for these for her gossipey account.

At any rate, the material problems of MSRs have been discussed at far more depth in the Discussion Forum of Energy from Thorium than they have in the Halls of the Unitedstates Department of Energy and the NRC.  The EfT discussions were based on the scientific research on materials that were exposed to heat, radiation and flouride salts.   The problems observed, were minor but correctable, and ORNL was on the road to correct them, before all MSR research at ORNL was shute down by the very same DoE and self-styled experts , that now claims that such problems are almost impossible gto solve.

Despite the claims by some that it will take decades of difficult and expensive research to mae MSRs work without doing truely terrible things to itself, and haShem only knows what else it could do to people and the envirnment, audicious people like David LeBlanc, Leslie Dewan, and Lars Jogersen are rapididly moving ahead with their revolutionary agenda.  How are these brave people defying the experts, and exactly how are they doing so with such amazing speed?

The answer to "the how question" is that they all have discovered a set of cookbooks that give them detailed instructions about how to build a molten salt Reactor, togaathur with actual detailed accounts of the building and operation  of two such reactors.  They also have some fairly detailed accounts of how both Molten Salt Reactors were built, plus extensive and very detailed reports on what was learned especially from the Molten Salt Reactir Experiment.  In other words, the ORNL MSR researchers left a thick trail of bread crumbs for future builders of MSR.  The trail of bread crumbs did not lead directly to a thorium breeder, but they did lead to reactor designs that would be safe, and cheap, and which would not cost a lot to develop deploy.

In another recent post, I have identified three nuclear startups project to build commercial Molten Salt reactors within the next ten years.  Some self styled nuclear experts consider this to be impossible, with Generation IV reactors requiring decades of intense research and development as well as billions of Dollars of R&D spending.  Note, such pronuncements come not onlyfrom the anti-nuclear, pro-renewables lobby, but from the mainstream pro-nuclear lobby as well.  Were Terrestrial Energy, Transatomic power, and Thorcon preposing to build the vaunted Liquid Flouride Thorium Reactor (the LFTR), the long term research problem might well be the case.  But each project focuses on Uranium and/or plutoonium as the primary fuel   ThorCon plands to throw some Thorium in the pot, but it plans to be an egfficient fuel burner, not a breeder.

The decision to not attempt to develop the LFTR, at least in the short run, offers an immediate reward.  The Cookie crumb path to MSR development left by ORNL Scientists and Engineers from July 1950 to about 1980.

The Aircraft Reactor Experiment was the first stage of ORNL MSR development, and its MSR was up and running a little more than 4 years after project inception.  The reactor was intended as only a proof of concept experiment, and nothing more.  It was not intended to show that such a reactor could last through several years of operation.  A long lasting reactor required material that could withstand a nuclear environment that could withstand the Heat, radiation and chemical challenges presented by the MSR core.  This was the biggest problem that MSR developers at ORNL faced.  The Second ORNL prototype, the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment (1965-1969) proved to be an outstanding sucess, before the infamous Milton Shaw, the very same AEC big whig who particated in the conspiracy to fire Alvin Weinberg, ordered the MSRE shut down, and its funting be Transfered to the disasterous Clinch River LMFBR program.

Milton Shaw played a major role in the shutdown of the Molten-Salt Reactor Experiment, and the elimination of the MSBR from the breeder reactor sweepstakes. Not only did Shaw force the shutdown of the MSRE, but he presided over AEC reactor research at the time of the Great ORNL purge, when something like a third of ORNL employees, including many reactor researchers were discharged. ORNL reactor research never recovered from the purge, even though the Lab has to continue to distinguish itself in many areas of science.
Perhaps the greatest damage which Shaw did to the American nuclear future is found in WASH-1222, a document written by Shaw’s staff to assess MSR technology. Unlike previous AEC assessments which viewed the MSR as a promising technology, WASH-1222 reached negative conclusions about MSR technology. However, a careful examination of WASH-1222 reveals deep flaws in the thinking that lay behind it. The strongest objection to the MSR was that it required more development. Thus the basic argument was not that MSR technology was fundamentally flawed, but that it should not be developed because it required development. Other assumptions were equally flawed. For example, WASH-1222 asserted that unlike the MSR, the LWR and the LMFBR were mature technologies. In the case of the former technology, this view seriously underestimated problems with LWR safety which was to lead to the Three Mile Island accident. In the case of the LMFBR, WASH-1222 seriously underestimated the technological problems which LMFBR developers faced. In retrospective, the history of the Clinch River Breeder Reactor demonstrates that the LMFBR faced far more serious developmental challenges than the MSBR did.

ORNL carefully documented every stage of their MSR research and development program.  Almost all current MSR R&D is based on ORNL findings.  In addition, ORNL charted and carefully documented paths to greater nuclear safety, 

WASH-1222 offered an assesment of the Thorium breeding cucle MSR proposed by ORNL, it failed to asses the potential of the uranium 235 and Pu-239 fueled MSR for service as a power reactor.  In fact ORNL, if anything underestimated that potential as well.  This was because, the entire nuclear community at the time, underestimated the potentual and the maturity of ORNL's MSR technology, and while underestimating the costs, and liumitations of Light Water Reactors.  The AEC followed Shaw's leadership, bu seriously overestimated the maturity of LWR technology.  The LWR is very inefficient.  Yet It takes a long time to build and is very efficient.  With careful design, Uranium fuel cycle reactors can operate more efficiently, yet will cost less than MSRs to build.  Suprisingly, MSRs cost less to develop to, than it costs to untroduce new technologies into LWR design. 

One of the reasons why ORNL was able to advance quickly was in used really simple technology, that by its simplicity solved far mor problems than it created.  Simple means really easy to design, and far less likely to cause inadvertant mistakes.  Think of the KISS principle.   KISS stands fir keep it simple stupid.  This applies to MSR designers out side France.  Keep it simple means follow the bread crumps left by the ORNL MSR R&D team.  
ORNL left plenty of options.  Some are simpler than others.  If you want to keep it simple, forget about thorium breeding, at least for the time being, that leaves too many problems to solve.  Shoot instead for a Uranium converter, which can operate with superior efficiency without developing any untried technology.  Since almost all of the basic problems have been already solved, developments can proceed at a rapid pace, without compromiseing the quality of your design.  It is important to identify customers and begin to cultivate them.  It is also important to think now about how you are going to build your reactors, and who you are goingmight get to help you with production, transportation, and facility manufacture.
David LeBlanc has hinted that he will have a commercial prototype by 2021, and thorcon has suggested that they would be ready in as soon as 4 years, although we do not know enough about their team and its program, to credit this account.  Transatomic, has a well crafted development program, as we would expect of nuclear engineering PhDs from MIT, still operating in house.  Their professors are still watching them, and Transatomic's leaderwant to earn A's for their current Nuclear Design Project.  Even if the dot all of their i's and cross all of the T's, they still expect to join the pack by a decade from now.  If I am wrong on any of these estimates, agrieved parties should draw my mstakes to my attention.  

By following the simple path laid down by ORNL MSR researchers, would be MSR builders can make their problems simple, and hopefully easy to solve.  Every one who is in the game expect that things will go easy as long as they travel the will worn path, and the path leads to the end of the line, and is clearly marked by ORNL bread crumbs.  

In addition everyone who has looked at the path is impressed at how cheap it will be.  The people who are doing this are probably wondering why no one thought to follow the path before.  This indeed is "Why do so called nuclear industry experts claimed that MSR development is going to be expensive and will require several decades befor a product can be developed?"

The Black Swan is at the door, the global energy market disrupter is comming soon.  Sound the Alarm.  The Revolution is coming.

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