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Cheers - AE

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Keeping the lights on.

Having seen a link to a video about fission energy from the thorium fuel cycle on someone's blog recently (I'm sorry but due to my chaotic RSS I can't remember where I saw it and in whose direction I should tip the Akubra) I've been getting interested in the idea lately. Without going into detail thorium based reactors answer a lot of the objections to safety, weapons proliferation, waste management and the long term supply of the fuel. So it's good to see the idea making its way off the internet and into more mainstream media, though I don't agree with everything Ambrose Evans-Pritchard says in the article. That starts at the very beginning:
If Barack Obama were to marshal America’s vast scientific and strategic resources behind a new Manhattan Project, he might reasonably hope to reinvent the global energy landscape and sketch an end to our dependence on fossil fuels within three to five years.
We could then stop arguing about wind mills, deepwater drilling, IPCC hockey sticks, or strategic reliance on the Kremlin. History will move on fast.
Muddling on with the status quo is not a grown-up policy. The International Energy Agency says the world must invest $26 trillion (£16.7 trillion) over the next 20 years to avert an energy shock. The scramble for scarce fuel is already leading to friction between China, India, and the West.
It might well be literally true that the government of the US or any major industrialised nation could throw the resources at such a project, but I think it's likely also to be true that those same governments share some of the blame for us not basking in the glow of incandescent bulbs lit from thorium sourced electricity. This is not some wonderful new technology that scientists have just discovered - the basic idea is more than four decades old and a working reactor, albeit using a different fuel, was designed and operated in the late 60s (my emphasis):
The Molten-Salt Reactor Experiment (MSRE) was an experimental molten-salt reactor at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL); researching this technology through the 1960s. The MSRE was a 7.4 MWth test reactor simulating the neutronic "kernel" of an inherently safe epithermal thorium breeder reactor. It used three fuels: plutonium-239, uranium-235 and uranium-233. The last, 233UF4 was the result of breeding from thorium.


The fuel was 7LiF-BeF2-ZrF4-235UF4-232Th (70-23-5-1-1 mole %).
This reactor could breed more of its 233U fuel from thorium. Thorium is at least four times as abundant as uranium in the Earth's crust and at least 500 times as abundant as uranium-235. Compared to conventional light-water reactors, this breeding had the potential to eliminate the difficulty and expense of uranium enrichment, as well as the need for fast breeder reactors to make plutonium fuel from 238U.
And it bloody worked, too.
The MSRE operated for 5 years. The salt was loaded in 1964 and nuclear operation ended in December, 1969,[2][12] and all of the objectives of the experiment were achieved during this period.


After the final shutdown in December 1969, the reactor was left in standby for nearly a year. A limited examination program was then carried out, including a moderator bar from the core, a control rod thimble, heat exchanger tubes, parts from the fuel pump bowl, and a freeze valve that had developed a leak during the final reactor shutdown. The radioactive systems were then closed to await ultimate disposal.


The broadest and perhaps most important conclusion from the MSRE experience was that a molten salt fueled reactor concept was viable. It ran for considerable periods of time, yielding valuable information, and maintenance was accomplished safely and without excessive delay.
The MSRE confirmed expectations and predictions.
The late 60s for fuck's sake. They shut the bugger down before I was even conceived. Are we to believe that left to their own devices nobody anywhere would have taken it to market? The unfortunate thing was that around that time the Cold War was in full swing and both sides were worried about the other shooting down their warheads if the button was ever pushed. The answer to that was obviously more warheads, ooooh, lots more. And the answer to that was reactors that produced more bomb material, and since this kind of reactor didn't the US government probably wasn't all that interested in taking the research to the next stage. So why no privately constructed LFTR reactors in that time? Well, governments have a tendency to do a couple of things that would form barriers to a privately funded and constructed thorium based reactor: they pass laws to force you to ask permission to build practically anything from a garage extension, much less a nuclear reactor, and they like to use taxpayers' money to subsidise construction of things they do like - which, if you remember, when it comes to nuclear reactors was mainly the type that produced lots of nice fissile material that worked in bombs. (Incidentally, I'm making no comment here either way on the pros and cons of nuclear deterrents - I'm just saying it was a poor time to want to build a reactor that didn't produce much handy bomb material.) And as a result of all that, plus a few incidents that made the word 'nuclear' by far the most socially unacceptable n-word for some people, by the time the Cold War was thawing the whole world was heavily invested in uranium fuelled reactors, and coincidentally 500 foot tall bird shredders and other bullshit, to be keen on anything like LFTR.

In fairness to him Ambrose Evans-Pritchard does point this out:
After the Manhattan Project, US physicists in the late 1940s were tempted by thorium for use in civil reactors. It has a higher neutron yield per neutron absorbed. It does not require isotope separation, a big cost saving. But by then America needed the plutonium residue from uranium to build bombs.
"They were really going after the weapons," said Professor Egil Lillestol, a world authority on the thorium fuel-cycle at CERN. "It is almost impossible make nuclear weapons out of thorium because it is too difficult to handle. It wouldn’t be worth trying." It emits too many high gamma rays.
In other words it might be technically possible to produce weapons material from it in the same way that it's technically possible to walk on your hands all the way down the M1 in morning rush hour - in both cases it's almost certain to kill you and in any case there are much easier ways to get where you want. Besides that the gamma rays will apparently play hell with electronics, and it's a fairly solid bet that nuclear weapon arming and triggering systems aren't made from clockwork.

And then we run into the next of the government made problems.
You might have thought that thorium reactors were the answer to every dream but when CERN went to the European Commission for development funds in 1999-2000, they were rebuffed.
Brussels turned to its technical experts, who happened to be French because the French dominate the EU’s nuclear industry. "They didn’t want competition because they had made a huge investment in the old technology," he said.
Well, quelle fucking surprise!
The UK has shown little appetite for what it regards as a "huge paradigm shift to a new technology". Too much work and sunk cost has already gone into the next generation of reactors, which have another 60 years of life.
Cheers, fellas. It's not like we're in any rush, you know.
Another decade was lost. It was a sad triumph of vested interests over scientific progress. "We have very little time to waste because the world is running out of fossil fuels. Renewables can’t replace them. Nuclear fusion is not going work for a century, if ever," he said.
Now that I'm not so sure of. I'm not convinced by the peak oil doomsayers but even assuming that there's still a few hundred years worth waiting to be dug up we're going to have to do without it eventually, and I think anyone who seriously believes that renewables on their own are going to be anything remotely close to an adequate replacement is certifiable. The bottom line is the dreaded n-word is going to have to be spoken in polite conversation once more. Go on, try it.

New..... kleee..... ahh.

See, the world didn't end. Now, the nuclear options are fission and fusion, and in theory the better of the two is fusion if only we could get it to work for us. We know that it does work because we can build small scale fusion reactors cheaply and simply (cheap as in a few thousand - yes, thousand - dollars and simple as in a high school student can do it) but they don't produce net power. And we also know that fusion can produce net power because it's been going on in the sun and every other star since the year dot and we ourselves know how to get surplus fusion energy out of an H-bomb. Finding the middle ground of getting out more energy than you put in with a stable and controlled reaction and without needing storage for several billion, billion, billion tonnes of fusing hydrogen has been proving a little tricky. On the one hand we have ITER, the latest in the 'tokamak' approach to fusion, which is going to be both enormous and enormously expensive. On the other hand we have the Inertial Electrostatic Confinement approach, which is the one used in the cheap small scale working reactors that have been built already, and which is a technique that may just need refining to produce net power from something like the Polywell (H/T to the Devil - I first saw it on DK's old blog and the post doesn't seem to have made it to the new one yet). My physics isn't anywhere near strong enough to predict which of the two, if either, will eventually win out but if I was a betting man I'd have a few quid on the relatively small and cheap Polywell option.* Even assuming that it takes them another 50 years to make it work - and the Polywell mob think it might be much less if they can just get the money, a fraction of what is being hosed at ITER - fission power is the obvious stopgap solution. And if we're going to have fission why not do as Ambrose Evans-Pritchard suggests in The Tele and base it on thorium? Well, aside from the vested interests he mentioned there is that hysteria about the n-word that I mentioned earlier, which he seems to think is on the wane.
Anti-nuclear neorosis is at last ebbing. The White House has approved $8bn in loan guarantees for new reactors, yet America has been strangely passive. Where is the superb confidence that put a man on the moon?
I suspect a combination of government policies that favour and protect the status quo over anything that seems new, even if it is actually where we should all have gone in 1970, and also a lot of the world still hasn't got over the n-word. The Greens have done well in recent elections in Britain and here in Australia, and both are singing the usual song - renewables are good and nuclear, despite its obvious advantages if you have bought into man made warble gloaming, is verrrrry baaaad. How they'd feel about LFTR (or a Polywell fusor for that matter) I have no idea, but they are fundamentally opposed to nuclear power. Full stop, end of. Yet LFTR would answer their objections to nuclear power - it's inherently safer since any overheating will simply cause the fuel to drain safely away into holding tanks, and importantly this will happen without human intervention. It's highly unlikely to result in any weapons proliferation, and since it needs a fissile material like uranium or plutonium to start the reaction** it has the potential to actually use up decommissioned nuclear weapons. Worried about Osama getting his hands on a second hand nuke? Not just weapons either, but possibly some nuclear waste materials as well. Feed it to LFTR and let the cave dwelling fucknuts go piss. You only need to mine a few tonnes of ore at one end of the process to get the same output at the other end as a couple of hundred tonnes of uranium ore would have given you, and since it uses up nearly all its fuel there would be only a fraction of the nuclear waste, and even that would mostly be relatively short lived and apparently need only 300 years or so of storage. And at the other end of the process the waste products are all short lived isotopes since thorium is far more plentiful than uranium there's probably enough for thousands of years. If you're feeding waste to it at the same time it's probably going to be solving the waste storage problem faster than it can contribute to it. Grid managers should prefer it to current reactors since it's supposedly (as in I haven't seen an explanation for this yet) capable of load following, whereas the current designs are pretty much base load only from what I understand. Best of all, compared to uranium there is shitloads of thorium. Absolutely shitloads. Australia alone has enough to supply its domestic power for well over ten thousand years if my back of envelope calculations were anywhere near right, though even if I'm off by an order of magnitude there's still a hell of a lot of the stuff. Bearing in mind that even though we still haven't hit peak oil yet some people are already muttering about peak uranium (and I'm not saying they're wrong) what's not to like about thorium?

Even if it disappoints on half its possibilities it still looks worth pursuing, and if like the Greens you believe that carbon emissions are a problem and object to current nuclear power plants you should be at least provisionally in favour of this. Cleaner, safer, lower carbon, no weaponisation, possible reduction in existing weapons and waste, and enough to produce all the power we need for the foreseeable future? I'd love it to work, because if it does then not only would peak uranium be irrelevant but peak oil could be put off indefinitely. You see, synthetic production of hydrocarbons has been around since the 1920s, and it strikes me that if there was enough spare energy to make up for what will eventually run short then cheap fuel for flights and V8 penis extensions might not be a worry anymore. I'm sure I read somewhere that someone's even working on a way to use atmospheric CO2 to do it, which would be another dragon slain for the Greenies.

And that, I suspect, might be the problem. They, or a significant proportion of them at least, don't want a world with cheap energy, cheap fuel, recreational long distance flying and driving, and a way to deal with the the carbon that comes from them. Technical solutions to the world's problems, even the ones that aren't highly questionable, would be a victory for all of humanity, but not the kind of victory they want. They don't want answers, they want austerity, and for that reason it'll be a globally warmed cold day in hell before many of them get behind anything nuclear.

* If you've got an hour and a half spare and a passing interest in physics I'd suggest watching this video in which the late Dr Robert Bussard explains the concept. Obviously there are obstacles to overcome and the possibilty of problems they don't yet know about, all of which applies to ITER as well, and by nature I'm a cynical bastard and a hard sell anyway. Still, like I said, I'd be tempted to stick a few quid on it.
** As I understand it thorium is not fissile, so it's actually unsuitable for throwing neutrons at to split the thorium atoms and produce power. But it is 'fertile', which means when you throw neutrons at the thorium atoms they can change into uranium atoms. Uranium-233 to be precise, which is fissile and is what the LFTR reactor actually gets power out of. If you have an hour watch this video (H/T and apologies to the previously mentioned blogger where I found it - I feel terrible about forgetting where I saw all this stuff) for more information.


Bill Sticker said...

One of the problems I'm told with fusion is the tendency for the plasma to 'disorganise' and discharge where it's not wanted a little like bolts of static. One solution is to feed a large electric charge through it, which makes the plasma self organise into tight little spirals. See this article on the RFX-mod Reversed Field Pinch Experiment.

However me old mate, no one's going to listen to us because We're only menial robots.

Angry Exile said...

Ta for the link, but I wonder does that still apply to IEC fusion? They only mention tokamaks but still... I think I need to watch the Bussard video again. I'd have needed a brain the size of a planet if it was all going to sink in first time.

Gordon the Fence Post Tortoise said...

Bussard's polywell plasma confinement relies on a different principal to the mainstream fusion BIG science megawatt donut gang...

As he points out in the Google talk , they don't like him (sadly past tense as the good doctor is no longer with us in person) because he did loads more with lots less. His technique was such an anathema to the megabucks gang that the US Navy funded him in secret (on a shoestring)and didn't allow him to publish.

The torch is being carried forward

These boys are some of the old team.

There's a few vids on YouTube if you've the time...

I really hope they crack it - I just love the idea of Bussard ad the boys cooking up a plasma fusion reactor with a bunch (200!) of near short circuited truck batteries and a bank of converted microwave ovens - beats zapping CDs any day.

Anonymous said...

You might look at
which I generally find interesting although I don't agree with the global warming aspects. This site links to, ,which is a blog in development but gives access to interesting renewable statistics.

I will have to reread your blog as I'm a bit thick and slow and it will take me some time to digest it fully.

Angry Exile said...

@ Gordon the Fence Post Tortoise. One of the footnotes contains a link to a video of the late Dr Bussard's Google TechTalk, and the Polywell link in the main text goes to I may have missed the Wikipedia one. BTW,m interesting name - how did you get up on to a fence post in the first place?

@ Anon, I've had a look at Brave New Climate before and bookmarked their bit about sustainable nuclear power. I have a fair bit of respect for these guys because although I disagree with them about the cause and urgency of climate change they are unusual in being realistic about renewables and they don't seem to rule out every other solution until the only option is for us all to go back to the horse and cart. For my taste they're a little too keen to use words like 'denier' (or worse, 'denialist', which isn't in my dictionary and would cause my English teacher to suffer palpitations), but at least they're practical enough to look at what solutions are least objectionable to them instead of objecting to everything. The other one is new to me so I'll have a good look over the next few days. Thanks for that.

Gordon the Fence Post Tortoise said...

It's getting a bit tired - but it amused me for a while...

A general purpose gag I suppose - substitute the name of the idjit...

While stitching up the hand of a 75 year old Devon farmer, who cut it
on a gate while working cattle, the rural doctor struck up a
conversation with the old man. Eventually the topic got around to
Gordon Brown and his appointment as Prime Minister.

Well, you know," drawled the old farmer, "this Brown fellow is what
they call a fencepost tortoise." Not being familiar with the term, the
doctor asked him what a fencepost tortoise was. The old farmer said,
"When you're driving along a country road and you come across a fence
post with a tortoise balanced on top, that's called a fencepost

The old farmer saw a puzzled look on the doctor's face, so he
continued to explain, "You know he didn't get up there by himself, he
definitely doesn't belong up there, he doesn't know what to do while
he is up there, and you just have to wonder what kind of idiot put him
up there in the first place.

Angry Exile said...

I've not heard that one before, Gordon. That's gold.

htomfields said...

Idaho National Laboratory's Sodium-Cooled Fast Reactor is designed for management of high-level wastes and, in particular, management of plutonium and other actinides.

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