A Cheaper, Safer Sort of Nuclear Power

The case for thorium.

SuperFuel: Thorium, the Green Energy Source for the Future, by Richard Martin, Palgrave MacMillan, 240 pages, $27.

Suppose—just suppose—that there were a tested energy technology out there that

• produces electricity cheaper than coal, because of lower capital and fuel costs,
• uses a fuel that is in almost inexhaustible supply, both in the U.S. and elsewhere,
• operates continuously, in baseload or peaking mode, for up to 30 years,
• operates at an efficient high temperature but at atmospheric pressure,
• can be factory-built and deployed in compact 100-megawatt modules close to the end use of the power,
• contributes nothing to air or water pollution and needs no water for operation,
• safely consumes long-lived transuranic waste products from current nuclear fission reactors,
• produces high-temperature process heat that can make hydrogen fuel for vehicles, and
• is walkaway safe.

Science journalist Richard Martin's book SuperFuel makes the case that such a technology exists. It's thorium, and particularly the LFTR—the liquid fluoride thorium reactor.

All 104 units of the U.S. reactor fleet, plus all of its naval nuclear fleet, are comprised of light water reactors using low-enriched uranium. (Around 4 percent of the uranium fuel is the fissionable U235.) These reactors transfer the fission heat of nuclear fuel into water and then high-pressure steam, which eventually turns turbines that turn generators that produce electricity.

These conventional reactors have gotten larger over the years—up to 1,700 megawatts—to attain capital cost efficiency. They generate power inside large steel and concrete containment vessels to contain any accidents. There are several other varieties of nuclear reactors: high temperature gas cooled (China's HTR-10, Germany's THTR), heavy water and natural uranium (Canada's CANDU), graphite moderated bomb factories (Chernobyl), and the fast breeder (Russia's BR600, France's Superphenix).

In the 1960s, Oak Ridge National Laboratory pioneered the idea of the thorium reactor. If you bombard the plentiful and slightly radioactive heavy metal thorium 232 with neutrons, you convert it to fissionable uranium 233. Instead of water, the LFTR circulates the thorium tetrafluoride fuel through the reactor core dissolved in molten lithium and beryllium fluoride salts. A small amount of U235—or later, U233—supplies the neutrons that cause fission. Excess neutrons fly off into a surrounding blanket of molten thorium salt to convert more thorium into new U233 fuel, which can then be used to keep the reaction going. Because the molten salt expands when heated, it is inherently safe: The lower density fuel won't support a continuing nuclear reaction.

Every stage of this process—fuel loading, neutron management, fuel separation, heat exchange, refueling, and waste separation—has been successfully tested in actual reactors, although not in an optimum commercial-scale configuration.

So why aren't we doing it? To answer that, Martin details the long battle between the demanding and acerbic Admiral Hyman Rickover, who wanted nuclear engines based on known technology right now to propel his fleet of submarines, and the gentle visionary Alvin Weinberg, longtime director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, who envisioned a fleet of safe and affordable thorium-powered electric plants. Rickover, a savage bureaucratic infighter, got what he wanted, and Weinberg got fired. The industry put its muscle behind the hugely expensive liquid metal fast breeder reactor. It in turn was shelved in 1984 after Congress spent $8 billion on the Clinch River Breeder without turning a shovelful of dirt.

As Martin puts it, "Light water reactors and their younger cousin, the liquid metal breeder, won out because of technological intransigence rooted in the military origins of the U.S. nuclear program."

From 1965 to 1969, Weinberg's molten salt reactor experiment had operated successfully, in the later months with thorium-derived U233 fuel. By 1973, Weinberg was gone, molten salt was rejected, and thorium was dead. Rickover's uranium-based industrial empire was preserved, as Westinghouse and other companies built the admiral's naval reactors; the cheaper, safer alternative was shelved.

A man with all the capital in the world couldn't crack into the U.S. nuclear power market: Since it involves uranium, the government stands adamantly in the way, arm in arm with the interests committed to defeating any challenge from disruptive technology. (Nuclear Regulatory Commission approval of a new reactor type typically takes up to 10 years.) That's why Martin believes the LFTR or a variant is more likely to be developed and eventually marketed by China, Russia, India, France, Canada, or even the Czech Republic, all of which are actively pursuing the idea.

Is the LFTR just another fantasy? Weinberg's R&D program solved the major technical problems over 40 years ago. There are several unsolved but not insuperable issues: getting the neutron-eating lithium 6 out of the lithium salt, separating certain fission product salts from the molten salt carrier, and managing small amounts of gaseous tritium. And of course, it will take a lot of engineering to put all the pieces together into one efficient, factory-built 100 Mw modular plant sized to supply, say, Terre Haute, Indiana. It remains to be seen how hard it will be to get such a plant insured, but LFTRs are inherently far safer than light water reactors. If one obtains a Nuclear Regulatory Commission license as a certification of safety, insurers ought to accept it—but there will terrific pressure from the established industry to drag out that certification for as long as possible.

Martin's book is a good read, but when he proposes the steps he thinks are needed to bring his "superfuel" into widespread use, he just comes up with more industrial policy. He wants the government that snuffed out thorium and molten salt reactors four decades ago to subsidize them back into existence, perhaps (one might conjecture) making use of the now vacant Solyndra factory. Maybe the government ought to just get out of the way? If thorium is the Next Big Energy Thing, let its advocates prove it—as soon as Washington stops protecting anachronistic technologies and the companies that sell them, and lets new ideas and talent bring us into a brighter energy future.

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    ...thorium is a cheaper, safer form of energy whose failure to catch on has more to do with bureaucratic infighting and regulatory barriers than any innate problems with the technology.

    It's always the government's fault, isn't it, reason? If I dig deeper, I won't find that the Koch brothers own all the thorium, will I?

  • Tim||

    Your questions become tiresome.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Your tires becomes questionsome.

  • R C Dean||

    If the Kochs owned all the thorium, why wouldn't they want to create a market for it?

  • JW||

    Because they want to hoard it, like all rich people do with their stuff. At least, that's what I'm told by my very nice, but mentally deranged, liberal friends.

  • Almanian's Evil Twin||

    Wow dude, makes a lot of sense when you think about it LOL!

    www.kochbrothersthoriumcartel.com/monopoly

  • Bill||

    The Kochtopus has blocked access to this site. Yet another reason we need guberment regulation of the internet.

  • ||

    Someone should make a libertarian- or Koch-themed Monopoly game.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    But..but...nuclear power feels dangerous and scary.

    Also, terrorism...somehow.

  • The_Choctaw||

    Also, is. See: Japan.

  • sarcasmic||

    But does thorium power produce fuel for nuclear weapons?

  • Tim||

    No. And, it stays crispy in milk.

  • Bardas Phocas||

    What about us brain-dead slobs?

  • Tim||

    You get to vote for Romney or Obama!

  • Cro's Innumerous Basterds||

    ... and be given cushy jobs

  • IceTrey||

    Actually, it burns deweaponized nukes.

  • Juice||

    contributes nothing to air or water pollution and needs no water for operation

    Absolutely sure about that? How about Thorium and uranium production (mining and refining)? Those contribute nothing to air and water pollution?

  • cthorm||

    The DOE buried 3 metric tons of U-233 in the Nevada desert this year. In a shallow grave. In a LFTR that would be enough to power all of the WORLD's energy needs for a year.

    Thorium is currently classified as natural occuring radioactive waste, and it's a byproduct of rare earth metal mining. China has a shit ton of it because the DOE overregulated the US out of rare earth mining 20 years ago.

  • CZmacure||

    3 tons would actually produce about 3 GW-yrs of power (roughly 0.7% of US electric consumption). It would take a few thousand tons a year to power the world. That might sound like a lot, but compare it to the billions of tons of coal actually burned.

  • dguilder||

    LFTR reactors burn 99% of their fuel, while conventional reactors

  • dguilder||

    LFTR reactors are 100x more efficient (burn more of their fuel, leave less waste), so 3 tons is enough for a world-year of power.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EbucAwOT2Sc

  • Jesus H. Christ||

    Thorium power sounds fantastic. I might have to read that book.

  • cthorm||

    If you're a USA Today reader, pick up Super Fuel.

    If you want actual details and thorough citations pick up Robert Hargraves' Thorium: Energy Cheaper than Coal.

  • dguilder||

  • Raven Nation||

    "slightly radioactive heavy metal thorium 232"

    Serious question born out of pure curiosity: are there definitions for what is "slightly," "moderately," "heavily," radioactive?

  • cthorm||

    No, they're just dumbing it down because the media has made you a soft puppy trained to drool in fear when you hear radiation.

    Thorium 232 has a 14 billion year half life. Holy shit, that's scary and really long right? Yeah, it's longer than the age of the god damn universe, but you have the meaning backwards. It's so radioactive (i.e. emitting so much of it's mass as alpha particles) that in just 14 billion years half of it will be gone. A banana emits many times more radiation on a timescale relevant to humans.

  • ||

    are there definitions for what is "slightly," "moderately," "heavily," radioactive?

    Slightly = between sleeping on a bed made of bananas and sleeping out in the sun near the equator.

  • cthorm||

    Cheerios to you sir for getting this article up on Reason. I've been babbling about it in the comments section for far too long.

    But let's get real here, the Th232-U233 fuel cycle is great and all, but the vast majority of the benefits come from using a fluid fuel form. For the first generation of molten salt reactors we're better off going with a denatured MSR design running on spent nuclear fuel from aging LWRs. That should give us enough design expertise to really master the two-fluid LFTR design that can power civilization for the unforeseeable future.

  • noreason||

    That.
    Thorium itself is not a panacea, it has been tried in reactors before and the results were not all sunshine and an economical disaster:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P.....re_Reactor

  • CZmacure||

    Reading the actual article, the releases were due to bad design (insufficient interlocks) and operator error, nothing to do with thorium whatsoever.

    The final run of the Shippingport reactor went 5 years on a single fuel load, composed of U-233 and thorium. Despite using neutron-eating light water for a moderator, it eked out a breeding ratio of 1.01:1 and had no refueling outage for the entire period.

    Lightbridge is working to commercialize thorium-based fuel for existing light-water reactors.

  • noreason||

    WIth the exception of Fukushima, all of our nuclear power incidents so far were due to operator error and bad design.

    That's why I reject the "inherently safe" claim that is being attributed to Thorium reactors, since in reality, man can (and will) screw them up the same way as a Uranium reactor.

  • CZmacure||

    It's not thorium per se but molten-salt technology that's inherently safe. Thorium just happens to be well-suited for a thermal-spectrum breeder reactor.

    The Molten Salt Reactor Experiment (MSRE), a successor to the ARE (Aircraft Reactor Experiment, aka "Fireball reactor"), ran at Oak Ridge National Laboratory from 1965 to 1969. For most of that time there was no budget for operators to work over the weekend, so on Friday evening the operators just shut it down.

    They shut it down by turning off the circuit breaker for the fan which kept the "freeze valve" at the bottom of the reactor solidified. The salt in the freeze valve melted, the reactor drained to its dump tanks in the sub-basement, and the operators went home! On Monday the operators pumped the salt back into the reactor, and it was up and running again just like that.

    That is literally "walk-away safe".

  • noreason||

    Well, liquid salt technology gives you the safety of running at atmospheric pressure and not having a glowing molten core in the worst case. However, many nuclear incidents with our existing reactors were not the exposure of the core (that happened only in Fukushima and Tchernobyl), but the release of radioactive gases into the atmosphere - and as far as I understand, that is what still can happen with a molten salt design.

  • CZmacure||

    You can't get much release of gases to the atmosphere if they're chemically bound, and the reactor has a system to remove volatile products such as xenon and iodine so there will not be a significant inventory in the fuel itself. Cesium fluoride in particular has a boiling point of over 1200°C, and a molten-salt reactor doesn't have any water coolant in it to dissolve and mobilize radioactive products.

  • noreason||

    The article seems to omit answers to a few questions. Sure, it's nice to have a reactor that can not go into a runaway chain reaction like the reactors in Fukushima. But what are the waste products of a Thorium reactor? And will the reactor vessel itself, just like with any other nuclear reactor, turn into nuclear waste?

    This reactor design solves one problem that we have with traditional designs, but it there are still other problems to be solved, the biggest one in my opinion being the storage of waste products. The scenario of radioactive waste contaminating ground water is more scary than a facility exploding.

  • ||

    But what are the waste products of a Thorium reactor?

    None. It can consume waste products from uranium reactors.

    And will the reactor vessel itself, just like with any other nuclear reactor, turn into nuclear waste?

    No it consumes the extra neutrons and converts them to energy (it actually does this too much and is a problem that needs to be solved if ever used for commercial energy production). If say you made the the reactor vessel out materials that were radioactive they would actually become less radioactive over time. In fact a thorium plant could be used to clean up materials from decommissioned uranium plants.

    The scenario of radioactive waste contaminating ground water is more scary than a facility exploding.

    Uranium reactors have the same problem. Of course it is not hard to place the reactor away from aquifers or place them below the ground water table. Furthermore as i mentioned Uranium reactors have the same problem...only uranium is far more radioactive so the risk with Thorium per kilowatt generated would be far less.

  • ||

    The scenario of radioactive waste contaminating ground water is more scary than a facility exploding.

    Should also point out that Thorium is unlikely to move vary far in the ground as it is a large atom and not soluble in water.

    Water is also not very good at holding radiation as hydrogen is a very small molecule and can really hold extra neutrons and oxygen in terms of its atomic rather then chemical composition is very stable. If water could hold radiation for any length of time people would be dying all over the place as radon which is far more radioactive then Thorium is really really common in the strata surrounding ground water (or anywhere else underground for that matter.)

    Your fears are born out of ignorance really.

  • ||

    hydrogen is a very small molecule and can really hold extra neutrons

    can't really hold

  • noreason||

    "Water is also not very good at holding radiation as hydrogen is a very small molecule and can really hold extra neutrons and oxygen in terms of its atomic rather then chemical composition is very stable."

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

    Anyways, I'm not talking about heavy water, I'm talking about water contaminated with salts of radioactive materials.

  • ||

    I'm talking about water contaminated with salts of radioactive materials.

    Some salts are soluble in water (like table salt) some are not (like granite)

    Thorium fluoride would be the kind that does not dissolve in water.

    I should also point out that you can drill a well within 50 feet of the ocean and get clean drinking water. Dissolved salts do not travel very far in an aquifer.

  • Scooby||

    Corning, have you ever studied any sort of nuclear engineering or physics?

    A Th-232/U-233 fueled reactor would produce very similar waste to U-235 fueled reactor. The fission products be, on average, one neutron lighter than those of U-235 reactor, and the transuranic waste produced would tend to contain less Pu-239 (the nasty, proliferation promoting one) and Pu-240(the one that makes Pu-239 so hard to make into a workable explosive).

    I haven't studied the neutron economy of U-233 fission process, but I doubt it produces enough excess neutrons to make it very good at transmuting nasty waste products, unless a reactor is designed to do that instead of producing power- especially after using excess neutrons to generate U-233 from Th-232.

    ...

  • Scooby||

    As for dissolved salts somehow not being transported in an aquifer- that is also false. You can get fresh water from a well right next to the ocean, but it will be by drilling down through impermeable layers- the water isn't coming from the ocean, it is coming from fresh water aquifers recharged from land somewhere.

    Thorium fueled reactors might be great, but they are no panacea. They have just as many engineering challenges to overcome as do U-235 reactors.

  • cthorm||

    Scooby,

    You're making a pretty big omission. No one runs a "U-235" reactor, they run on U-238 with U-235 enrichment from 3% to 20%. Fission of Pu-239 (bred from U-238) provides about half the power in a typical LWR. This is where the nastier transuranics come from.

    A "waste transmuter" design doesn't run exclusively on U-233/Th-232. The DMSR runs on Spent Fuel, U-233/Th-232, and requires periodic addition of new U-235. It still produces electricity cheaper than coal. Over the life of the reactor you increase the amount of Th-232 added instead of U-235, and after about 30GW(e)y the DMSR will consume all but 1% of the spent fuel from a 40-year 1GW(e) light water reactor.

  • noreason||

    "None. It can consume waste products from uranium reactors."

    That's what you put into the reactor, but what comes out of it? It is certainly not turning every single atom into 100% energy, it is a nuclear fission and nuclear fission leaves products behind.

    Any nuclear reactor has waste products. And the waste is, in my opinion, the big problem that all nuclear reactors share.

    "No it consumes the extra neutrons and converts them to energy (it actually does this too much and is a problem that needs to be solved if ever used for commercial energy production)."

    Neutrons are not converted to energy in a reactor. Neutrons are bombarding all material around them, which mostly is Thorium or Uranium, but also the lead/steel/concrete of the reactor building. By inserting extra neutrons into concrete, it becomes radioactive waste.

  • noreason||

    For reference, according to Wikipedia:
    "The LFTR does still produce radioactive fission products in its waste, but they don't last very long - the radiotoxicity of these fission products is dominated by cesium-137 and strontium-90."

  • ||

    Any nuclear reactor has waste products.

    You do not know what you are talking about.

    This process is called breeding. All reactors breed some fuel this way,[15] but today's solid fuelled thermal reactors don't breed enough new fuel from the fertile to make up for the amount of fissile they consume. As a consequence they must add new fissile fuel periodically and swap out some of the old fuel to make room for the new fuel.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L.....um_reactor

    In other words thorium fluoride consumes fissile material. It consumes what you are calling waste.

    As mentioned in the wiki paragraph it takes in fissle material that fissle material becomes less radioactive and must be replaced. ie it made the material less radioactive.

    You can have a fission reaction that produces (breeds) radioactive material like say in a uranium reactor or you can have a fission reaction that consumes it (converting it to heat energy) A thorium reactor is the consuming type and more fissle materiel must be added to keep it going...or it will just consume what it has and turn itself off.

    Neutrons are not converted to energy in a reactor.
    In a thorium reactor they are.

  • noreason||

    "A thorium reactor is the consuming type and more fissle materiel must be added to keep it going...or it will just consume what it has and turn itself off"

    And left over is what, a vacuum?

    "In a thorium reactor they are."
    Uhm, no. Neutrons are absorbed by atoms which then decay, releasing energy and more neutrons. That's how a chain reaction works.

  • ||

    And left over is what, a vacuum?

    Energy. You do understand what fission is right? The conversion of matter to energy

    Anyway you put in enriched uranium it gets spent and you pull out a slightly smaller amount of inert uranium and get a shit pot of heat energy from the whole process.

    Uhm, no. Neutrons are absorbed by atoms which then decay, releasing energy and more neutrons. That's how a chain reaction works.

    In a breeder yes. Neutrons hit atoms break them and releases more Neutrons then you started with. This is what happens in a uranium reactor. In a thorium reactor there is also a chain but the start of the chain has more neutrons then the end of the chain.

    I do not know the exact numbers but for example you start with 100 neutrons bouncing around from the fissile material it goes through the whole chain at the end of the chain you have only say 90 neutrons bouncing around...and then the chain does the whole thing again and you have 80 and so on...until there is none.

    This fundamental point is why we are talking about thorium reactors in the first place. They are not breeding reactors.

  • noreason||

    "Energy. You do understand what fission is right? The conversion of matter to energy"

    Fission is when an atom decays to smaller atoms and energy.
    An atom decaying to just energy and nothing else would be nice to have, but that's not what happens. Not even with Thorium. If that were the case, the THTR-300 would be a glowing ball of energy instead of the pile of waste that it now is.

    As mentioned above, the waste products of a liquid salt Thorium reactor include things like caesium, which in its flouride salt form is water soluble and radioactive. While not Plutonium, it is still a waste product that's not safe to dump into the ocean or a land fill and needs to be disposed of properly.

    The thorium reactor is not a miracle machine that takes nuclear waste by the ton and turns it into energy and vacuum. It does have waste products, and there needs to be a plan on how to deal with them.

    About neutrons - you can't guide them. Neutrons go in a straight line, and many of them will hit thorium, some of them will hit what's around the thorium - your reactor building. Some of your 100 neutrons will hit concrete or steel, and that concrete or steel will lose strength and in the long term, become radioactive. That happens not just in fission reactors but also in a fusion reactor.

  • noreason||

    Corning, you should really read wikipedia articles before linking to them.

    You wrote:
    "This fundamental point is why we are talking about thorium reactors in the first place. They are not breeding reactors."

    The article you linked to says:
    "A LFTR is usually designed as a breeder reactor."

    So please don't tell me that I am the one who doesn't know what he's talking about.

  • ||

    The article you linked to says:
    "A LFTR is usually designed as a breeder reactor."

    So please don't tell me that I am the one who doesn't know what he's talking about.

    You forgot to continue reading after you read that sentence:

    but today's solid fueled thermal reactors don't breed enough new fuel from the fertile to make up for the amount of fissile they consume. As a consequence they must add new fissile fuel periodically and swap out some of the old fuel to make room for the new fuel.

    Note: I quoted this same section above.

    Quit being intentionally obtuse.

  • noreason||

    So my mistake is that I'm using the common definition of a breeder reactor and not your definition?

    The wikipedia article starts out with the sentence "The liquid fluoride thorium reactor (acronym LFTR; spoken as lifter) is a thermal breeder reactor which uses the thorium fuel cycle in a fluoride-based molten (liquid) salt fuel to achieve high operating temperatures at atmospheric pressure."

    Yet you're trying to convince me that it's not a breeder? And did I understand you correctly that you're implying that a conventional pressurized water reactor, such as Three Mile Island, is a breeder reactor (which it is not)?

  • nellanave||

    You are misusing the term "fissle." You can not "consume" a fissle material, you can only fission it.
    Additionally, no reactor uses neutrons as the primary source of energy. Almost all of the energy is generated from the kinetic energy of the daughter nuclei and secondary reactions.
    Truthfully, neither one of you have any idea what you're talking about.

  • ||

    Truthfully, neither one of you have any idea what you're talking about.

    Wait, hold on there. SOMEONE has to be right. You HAVE to pick one side or the other in an argument, it's a RULE. It's not like there can ever be more than two positions on any issue, right?

  • nellanave||

    In technical terms, neither one is correct about most of what they're saying. There's a gross misunderstanding about the fission process and how a material becomes activated.
    Both of them are "wikipedia scholars" regurgitating information that they don't truly understand. And I don't really have the time to correct all of their gross conceptual errors.
    If you have a direct question that needs answering, I'd be more than happy to provide a more learned point of view.

  • IceTrey||

    Go here for all the answers. For free no less.

    energyfromthorium.com

  • ||

    Is thorium fluoride salt liquid at room temperature?

    If it is: Jesus that weird to think about.

  • Scooby||

    No... it's melting point is 1110 degrees C. It's also hygroscopic (it absorbs water from the air) and at 500 degrees C, it reacts with that atmospheric moisture to oxidize into Thorium Oxyfloride, which probably has a higher melting point.

    For reference, carbon steels have a eutectic point at around 1100degC. I'm not a material scientist (it's been 20 years since I took a materials class), but I'm pretty sure it's going to take some crazy exotic shit to build a reactor that will contain and move around a fluid that will solidify if it is as cool as molten steel.

  • IceTrey||

    They did it at Oak Ridge in the 60's so it must not be that hard.

  • Scooby||

    They also put guys on the freakin' Moon back in the '60s, but I wouldn't mark that down in the "not that hard" column.

    It's nowhere near impossible, it's just not easy, and will not be cheap. I don't suppose the author has found some non-government patrons to fund the proposed research- or does he want DoE grants to pay for it? Are there actually insurers that would offer liability coverage against nuclear accidents- with or without NRC licensing- or does the author propose just releasing the owners/operators of LFT reactors from any liability as they do with existing licensed plants?

    I'm intrigued, but I've seen too many Kool-aid mustaches on LFTR fans to not have my skepticism dial cranked up a bit.

  • IceTrey||

    I don't know about the author but there is already a company working on the tech. Unfortunately they want to sell it to the military first.

    http://flibe-energy.com/

  • Scooby||

    From the CEO bio: "Kirk has briefed many senior military and civilian decision makers on LFTR technology and its compelling advantages, including its potential use in portable modular reactors for the US military."

    I hope they are talking about naval reactors, where the results of a loss in battle are buried at the bottom of the sea, as opposed to portable reactors to power bases lacking infrastructure.

    Warships don't tend to get boarded and captured much these days, but the same can't be said about patches of dirt- even in wildly asymmetric conflicts. It would really suck to lose the ability to make a tactical retreat because you don't want to hand over a pile of special nuclear material to a horde of RPG wielding barbarians.

  • IceTrey||

    In 1960 metallurgy was 7,000 years old, space travel was 10. What they used was hastelloy.

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

  • Scooby||

    Yeah, I found that after posting above. Nuke power operates in a completely different temperature, pressure, and radiation environment than I'm used to working in, so I'm not intimately familiar with the materials used.
    I only got a brief exposure to nuke engineering in my recent back-to-school adventure before I abandoned that field for something more viable. I found it technically fascinating, but the existence of the entire industry is too dependent on government subsidies and liability indemnities for my taste.

    If LFTRs can be developed without government subsidy, that would be great. All I see here, though, is a potential nuclear Solyndra.

  • Scooby||

    I also looked closer at how it works- the LiF and BeF salts that the ThF is dissolved in are have a melting point around 450C (at least for a 2:1 mixture of LiF and BeF- I didn't hunt for a phase diagram). Being floride salts, they are very corrosive, and Be is a nasty element on its own.

    Another challenge I see- the Be in combination with the alpha sources that will be present in the fuel will generate neutrons (wide energy spectrum, but mostly slow), so the entire fuel system, including the reprocessing subsystem outside the reactor itself, might require neutron shielding (bulky).

  • cthorm||

    Peter Thiel is supporting it.

    What's that? Crickets?

  • Scooby||

    That's great. If Thiel can finance it to a feasible design, more power to him (and us). The problem is that the cheerleaders for this aren't trying to get Thiel's money- they've got their tin cups out hoping to score some DARPA money or some DoE money.

    Thiel might be throwing a few shekels in, but he spreads his cash around pretty wide. This isn't something that is going to take off because it's got a couple of angel investors behind it.

  • Scooby||

    Peter Thiel also supports floating cities out in international waters, but only to the tune of $1.25 mil, which won't buy enough boat to keep an extended family on, much less a tech incubator.

  • Scooby||

    What's that? Crickets?

  • cthorm||

    Hold on their turbo. They aren't literally dumping Thorium Flouride into a pot and calling it a reactor. Thorium Flouride (melting point of 1100C) is dissolved in a coolant salt like FLiBe, FLiNaK etc, which reduces the melting point to about 450C.

  • ||

    The marginalization of Rickover as a "demanding and acerbic" ... "savage bureaucratic infighter" is really unnecessary. I've also noticed that blurbs about LFTR always misrepresent the facts when comparing it to other alternative energies (like take the worst case scenario fro 10 years ago and pretend that things haven't changed). In short, I don't believe a word about LFTR until it's proponents start being more responsible and professional in their reporting efforts. The first sign of a failing technology is that it's adherents attack the competition because it can't stand on it's own feet.

  • ||

    other alternative energies

    And which alternatives might these be?

  • ||

    it's adherents attack the competition

    Yeah, that sort of happens when it's competition tries to keep it from competing in the first place:

    Since it involves uranium, the government stands adamantly in the way, arm in arm with the interests committed to defeating any challenge from disruptive technology. (Nuclear Regulatory Commission approval of a new reactor type typically takes up to 10 years.)
  • Chris Yoder||

    Another option that is being discussed is the "slow burn" method that uses existing nuclear waste. So you not only provide power but you do it with the waste which solves another problem. Nuclear power is cleaner than burning coal or oil the problem lies with waste storage and the mining/refining of the fissable material.

  • IceTrey||

    Thorium is a byproduct of rare earth mining so you basically get it for free and it doesn't require any refining so that issue is also moot. Thorium itself is not fissile. It is bred into uranium in the LFTR which is then burned.

  • 4thaugust1932||

    The ratio of plutonium needed to seed and convert thorium into fissionable uranium-233 is very high (8:10)

  • MarkPawelek||

    Why does Martin want government subsidy to get this technology off the ground?

    Am I right in thinking the reviewer didn't bother asking him?

    It could take a billion or two to get this to a stage where we're certain it'd work. All we have now is our gut feeling. $50 billion + invested in fast breeders and countless failed prototypes failed to get that technology to work - yet it's supporters were as convinced in it as I'm convinced by LFTR.

    There are too few capitalists out there willing to take the risks to fund this. Most are like Apple with their 80 billion buybacks. They want absolute certainty. Is it a myth that capitalists are willing to take risks? If the Koch family don't invest in this it'll be because their pussies, not because their money's from fossil fuel.

  • crazydaisy||

    fascinating article, thanks! concrete cracks

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