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09/07/2010

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Rick Maltese

If you have not mentioned Weinberg or LFTR in your story your research is sadly lacking. There is a push for Molten Salt Reactors in at least 3 countries from various Nuclear Energy advocates. This is the "silver bullet" because it has been tested successfully using old technology back in the 1960's.

Dan Kallem

Very good post, as always, Dave!

"(a) lot of technology development, research and demonstration activities need to be completed before commercial deployment of thorium reactors for power”...“I think it is decades away.”

"This is the "silver bullet" because it has been tested successfully using old technology back in the 1960's."

No, these advanced technologies, or "silver bullets" will likely never come to fruition, despite our best efforts because, as John Michael Greer (http://bit.ly/3lxl) has pointedly noted, without huge fossil fuels inputs this sort of "alternative" energy technology will never be fully developed, let alone deployed on any scale that will make a difference to our desperate attempts to find a solution to Peak Oil that doesn't involve changes in the American lifestyle.

He and many others also note that the EROEI for such things as Thorium reactors may be insufficent to make this technology viable, and that regardless, as your "cost of opportunities foregone" comment implies, we've waited too long to even begin to tackle this problem with such schemes, as all currently in-use sources of energy are effectively taken for other purposes.

Not that we won't try to accelerate our efforts to find some sort of technology solution, but adding yet more layers still of this sort of complexity to our already overly-complex civilization (http://bit.ly/cN6yUK) will, I think, achieve little more than to hasten the end of the Fossil-fuel Era.

The downside of the Hubbert Curve is indeed going to be a bumpy ride in the coming decades and centuries, and, I fear, to a much lower level of complexity.

John Mack

Personally, I think solar thermal is underrated. There is an initiative in europe called DESERTEC which plans for the building of solar thermal plants in North Africa, although I don't realistically expect that to happen anytime soon. I know there are several negatives (intermittent supply, expensive compared to coal) but the long-term benefits exceed the obvious problems, in my opinion.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desertec

Tony

Stories such as this depress me (even more). Dave is right to invoke the free lunch paradigm but the piece he quoted also mentions solar energy.

These topics are depressing, on the one hand, because our energy problem is taken in isolation, without regard for all of the other problems that are facing us, and, on the other hand, because there is an implicit assumption that whatever we do to solve the energy problem will have no adverse impact. So, the technology optimists completely ignore the environmental and resource issues, apart from energy (and, unless the energy "solution" is infinite, it is not a solution). In nature you can't do just one thing.

You'll notice all sorts of articles that talk about the "untapped" resources, including solar, as though all of those resources have been created purely for our use. I've only twice seen any kind of reference to the environmental impacts of diverting natural energy systems for our own use. All (100%) of the natural energy systems are (obviously) currently employed by nature to give us our current liveable environment. "Oh, but surely the tiny percentage we divert couldn't possibly have an impact". We don't know; no-one does the studies and no-one advocates going slowly, with constant reassessments, because we simply must fix the energy problem now.

To me, things are getting worse, with each passing day, as intelligence gets jettisoned to try to keep the party going for a bit longer.

Lars Jorgensen

Dave,
The Telegraph article mixes two reactor style (ADS and LFTR) and then exaggerates the benefits. But that doesn't mean there isn't a $10 bill on the ground. Developing LFTR is not free - getting it to full commercial stage will take a few billions of dollars. It does provide sufficient energy for us all. The fuel is plentiful and the reactor uses it efficiently. It does generate fission product wastes which are radioactive for some 300 years, but the nastiest wastes (plutonium, americium, curium)can be recycled into the reactor and destroyed (not just buried but properly destroyed). One can even take the nastiest parts of the existing Spent Nuclear Fuel and destroy them in such a reactor.

Your attitude seems to be to wait around for someone else to do the work and only inspect it once it is completed. But there is an urgency to solving this problem. If we do not find a MAJOR energy source that costs less than coal (w/o carbon capture) then you can expect China and India will double or triple the number of coal plants that exist in the world today.

It would be nice if some private company would take all the risk, spend the money and then donate that results (or take a modest profit) to society.

I don't think a Manhattan style project (explore any plausible idea, build factories before you know what to put in them, don't worry about the money, just get it done QUICK) is appropriate. But we should be investing much more money here - (current US investment in LFTR is around $40,000 per year).

Robert Steinhaus

Good technology is not a free lunch.

Dr. Edward Teller, the founding director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, wrote a final paper one month before his death regarding the problems posed by running out of oil and gas supplies and the environmental problems that are due to greenhouse gases wherein he suggested the use of the energy available in the resource thorium, which is much more plentiful than the conventional nuclear fuel uranium. Dr. Teller’s proposes in his final paper to use Molten Salt Thorium Reactors to achieve energy independence while securing a sustainable abundant source of significantly less polluting nuclear energy.
http://bit.ly/cnjjrp

Tony Weddle

Lars, check the first quote near the start of the article. It includes:

"end to our dependence on fossil fuels within three to five years."

This is what is completely unrealistic, just like a free lunch. There are no thorium reactors and yet this journalist thinks the US can build enough of them within 5 years to end dependence of fossil fuels.

You said:

"If we do not find a MAJOR energy source that costs less than coal (w/o carbon capture) then you can expect China and India will double or triple the number of coal plants that exist in the world today."

I recently read or heard that China now consumes about half of the coal production of the world. How likely is it that China and India can double or triple their number of coal plants? Especially as peak coal is not too far away, even at current consumption rates.

Another way is to reduce our consumption, which includes reducing imports from China and India, producing stuff ourselves (I'm not from the US but it applies to most developed nations).

jcg1969

Thanks for addressing this issue. Ambrose Evans-Pritchard has a flare for the dramatic (he made his name in the Vincent Foster case, not economics or energy), but nonetheless he is reflecting an important opinion of this fuel source. I agree with TonyWeddle's comments above - we cannot view our challenges in isolation. As luck (:)) would have it we are in the midst/or heading for of an economic depression. A credit expansion never seen before is collapsing and there is very little capital to draw on to make these "wonderful" semi-experiments happen. Moreover, when we hit economic bottom in the next 10 years, our oil situation will be that much worse due to a supply collapse from under-investment. Powering down will happen "to us" or "by us".

Andrei Serbanica

One thing I don't understand about these miraculous technological solutions: given that humanity is obsessed with technological innovation and increasing comfort (supported by ever-increasing consumption of energy) you'd think that the most rich and advanced nation on Earth would jump at the chance of a better source of energy (like it did from wood all the way to oil) in a heartbeat.
The only reason it didn't it's because of possible critical shortfalls of thorium compared to uranium that are not publicized to keep the delusion alive.
And considering that humanity has been playing with nuclear reactors for about 70 years now, just how difficult can it be to switch from a radioactive element to supposedly a better one?
In conclusion, I agree with Dave: I'll get my hopes up when there actually is an operational thorium based reactor somewhere.

Laurence Watson

Oh goodness, Evans-Pritchard's article may have overdone it a bit and this article was full of excellent points, but your conclusion really doesn't make much sense to me.

A commercial thorium reactor won't appear without substantial further investment into the technology. The projects you mentioned that are already running demonstrates the feasibility.

A free lunch is not free, but after you've paid for it you do get lunch!

Robert Steinhaus

Thorium (and its fissile complement U-233) is better and safer nuclear fuel. The primary advantage of thorium is that it is over 500 times as abundant as the U-235 which we actually burn in current light water reactors. When coupled with the right reactor technology (liquid fluoride Thorium Reactors) you get safe Thorium resource utilization approaching 100%. This has beneficial implications on cost and safety throughout the Thorium fuel cycle (everything from how much Thorium you have to dig out of the ground to supply a GigaWatt-year of energy to in the end how much nuclear waste you have to find room for and burry for a few hundred years).

***Thorium in solid fuel rods is mediocre and a somewhat not cost effective technology and this was thoroughly explored in the mid 1950s when the US choose its existing Plutonium Fuel Cycle technology for the combined needs of weapons manufacture and power generation (and in that order of priorities). Thorium when used with fluid fuel molten salt reactors is dramatically better and it is only in that fluid fuel format that additional development of Thorium Fuel really makes sense. To many people in the public still judge Thorium based on assessments of the technology in solid fuel rod format***

We have a choice to make. We can choose either an energy-poor future rent by wars over ever-diminishing resources, or we can choose an energy-rich future where everyone can enjoy a standard of living comparable to that now enjoyed in developed countries. We in the USA have to quit thinking of our energy issues in parochial terms and accept the global nature of the challenges we face. Once we do that, then we must pursue realistic global solutions, not fantasies.

Okfrank

David and some of you others seem to be unaware of the history of Thorium and Alvin Weinberg's and Eugene Wigner's contribution and as Robert Steinhaus mentioned Edward Teller. Alvin Weinberg invented both the currently used nuclear reactor (104 of them across USA) and developed the Thorium molten salt reactor. The reasons MSR technology has been so shamefully neglected is because Thorium reactors were so good at burning up fuel that the waste products were unusable for Nuclear weapons therefore the project was forgotten about because at the time (1960's) the US wanted weapons. Weinberg liked the MSR because it was so much more efficient than Uranium plus a number of other excellent reasons. Now let's also not forget the oil and coal companies as well as existing nuclear energy companies with billions already invested don't want to have a new and better technology threatening their profits.

You're entitled to be cynical considering the odds but saying what is likely and saying what is right are two very different things.

Tony

Robert,

"we can choose an energy-rich future where everyone can enjoy a standard of living comparable to that now enjoyed in developed countries"

We can't choose such a future. Such a future is impossible on this planet. It's not just about energy (unless we have infinite energy and can harness infinite energy to create any atom from its component parts), but about all resources. There is no free lunch in resource consumption. We have to consume any resource only at, or below, its renewal rate (which for non-renewables is zero grams per year) and we have to avoid damaging our habitat, for our lifestyle to be sustainable. The lifestyles of developed nations is unsustainable, no matter how much energy we have. To extrapolate that to the whole world having the same standard of living is just wishful thinking.

Mark Robinowitz

The only molten salt power reactor ever built in the US was Fermi I, between Detroit and Toledo. If you can find a copy of the book "We Almost Lost Detroit" about the near meltdown at that facility you will see that using molten salt in close proximity to water to cool extremely radioactive material is dumb beyond language. The only safe nuclear reactor has a 93 million mile evacuation zone, it rises every morning and sets every evening. I've used solar PV for two decades, it's great, it won't replace the fossil fuel but our current solar budget is what we will all have after oil, coal, natural gas, etc. It's not a "free lunch" even if the meal is irradiated, and who is going to be our "nuclear babysitter" to keep the excrement out of the biosphere for eons? Thorium reactors are just as toxic as uranium reactors - our DNA is just as damaged from thorium generated alpha radiation as from uranium generated alpha radiation.

Mark Robinowitz

Also, some of the fission products - whether from a thorium reactor or a regular reactor - are radioactive for a lot longer than "300 years." And does anyone think the nuclear industry could isolate anything for 300 years when they cannot even do that for 30? It's also not true that nuclear wastes are reduced in a thorium reactor although it's a nice marketing campaign to claim that they are.

Power down, relocalization of food production - these are more productive paths than nuclear powered fantasies. I think I'll go eat some very local veggies from my garden now.

---

No degree of prosperity could justify the accumulation of large amounts of highly toxic substances which nobody knows how to make safe and which remain an incalculable danger to the whole of creation for historical or even geological ages. To do such a thing is a transgression against life itself, a transgression infinitely more serious than any crime perpetrated by man. The idea that a civilization could sustain itself on such a transgression is an ethical, spiritual, and metaphysical monstrosity. It means conducting the economical affairs of man as if people did not matter at all.
-- E. F. Schumacher “Small is Beautiful”

Jordan 13

For years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa. (Charles E. Wilison American president of GM)

Charles Barton

The statement "There is no such thing as a free lunch<" is an awfully trite way to dismiss a potential breakthrough in energy technology. First I would like to point out that on a number of historical occasions, significant energy breakthroughs have occurred. I will draw attention to a few. The first was the improvement of steam engine technology by James Watts, improvements so dramatic that they lead to revolutions in transportation and is factory production systems for material goods. Improvements in steam technology continued during the second half of the 18th century and during the entire 19th century. The development of steam technology lead to the development of the rail road and to steam powered ships during the 19th century. In addition steam power was used in factories. The coupling of the steam engine to the loom lead to the first industrial revolution in the United Kingdom. The lunch may not have been free, but it was certainly a lot cheaper than it had been.

Secondly, you introduce a vicious circle into your argument. You argue, that a thorium breeding reactor does not exist, and therefor we should not expect one to exist, It would seem to follow from this line of argument that nothing new should ever be invented, since the lack of development of a technology is held to be sufficient grounds to argue against its potential for development.

You further use what can be called the "no silver bullets" argument. No matter how promising a technology, it is to be dismissed precisely because it is promising, and there is no such thing as a silver bullet. (In this case the silver bullet would be an energy breakthrough.)

You also mix several quite different thorium technologies, some of which have significantly more liabilities than others.

Finally, you greatly exaggerate the amount of effort required to build thorium breeding reactors. The Indians are developing two reactor types designed to breed thorium/ One uses well understood CANDU nuclear technology and should be ready by 2020. The second uses more complex fast breeder nuclear technology, and should be ready to go by 2025. Not tomorrow but hardly a matter of generations. Much of the technology used by the LFTR was developed in Oak Ridge nearly 60 years ago. There are still some technology gaps, but scientists in several countries are working to fill those gaps. The development of the LFTR is an industrial project that is not more complex, time consuming or expensive than the development of the Airbus 380 or the Boeing 787.

The Thorium fuel cycle has a number of advantages when compaired to uranium based fuel cycles. Those advantages can lead to greater nuclear safety, a very large decrease in the problem of nuclear waste, improved proliferation resistance in reactor design, and a significant decrease in nuclear costs. In addition advanced thorium cycle reactors are far less complex than current uranium fueled reactors, and thus can be built more rapidly and at lower costs. Not a free lunch, mind you, but one that cost less, taste better, and be cooked quickly fir a large number of people.

ThomasJ

The comment from Mark Robinowitz consists of false assertions: the waste products produced from a Liquid Flouride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) are in fact much less than our current Uranium/Plutonium Reactors, in terms of both the amount of waste, and the radioactive half-life durations for the components of that waste. And much of what is known about Thorium reactors was proven by 20 years worth of hands-on experience in running just such a reactor at the U.S. Oak Ridge Natl Lab (circa early 1950's to early 1970's).
Also, Andrei Serbanica comments about:
"...possible critical shortfalls of thorium compared to uranium that are not publicized to keep the delusion alive."
WTF! The only delusion here is that there is any such shortage of Thorium!! It is well documented that Thorium is at least 4 times more abundant in the earths crust than Uranium. And the USA already has a huge existing stockpile of refined Thorium (decades worth of national supply) left over from the Manhattan Project days. Not only that, but Thorium (by weight) is also a much more efficient source of power than even Uranium - and Uranium itself is a FAR more efficient energy source than oil, coal or wood. It has been estimated that an average Americans lifetime energy requirement could be met (using LFTR) by an amount of pure Thorium just the size of a marble!

EugeneO

The proliferation of MSR's will provide a much more stabile environment, evironmentally and politically than our current energy plan. That plan being, wage wars to protect our access to oil, then once we have it burn it as fast as we can. Then send our money to countries to pay for that oil so they that wage wars against us. Talk about a vicious circle.
Thorium reactors must be redeveoped, yes re one ran for 220000 hours in the middle sixties, and the technology learned must be given to all nations to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Or we can keep marching down the path to our own energy poor, expensive future.

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