As our planet warms and nations create expensive, short-sighted plans to “adapt” to catastrophic changes, why not eliminate one of the largest sources of CO2-caused Climate Change? Why not replace carbon-fueled and uranium power plants with Thorium Nuclear Power: Climate Change Killer for the 21st Century?
The Industrial Revolution, the genie that delivered the Age of Hydrocarbons and its endless supply of marvels, also had a dark side – a world of melting ice caps, rising sea levels, resource wars, powerful storms, desiccating droughts and increasing acidity that threatens the ocean food chain. Nevertheless, in less than fifty years, we can reverse these trends if we welcome the Age of Thorium.
By 1959, the United States already had a design for a thorium-powered reactor that had proven advantages over uranium, but uranium won primarily because U-235 is great for making bombs. And because uranium won, we settled for an Edsel when we could have built a Porsche.
The Seaborg Commission already knew how to build safe, emission-free Molten Salt Reactor (MSR) power plants that could generate low cost, abundant electricity while breeding their own fuel and creating little waste. Had their recommendations been followed, switching to MSRs would have eliminated much of the fossil fuel-generated CO2 and emissions that has created climate change – and medical expenses estimated by the EPA in billions of dollars. In fact, James Hansen, former head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, claims that just our partial reliance on nuclear power since 1971 has saved 1.8 million lives that would otherwise have been lost due to fossil fuel pollution.
However, in the fifties, Admiral Hyman Rickover demanded uranium-based reactors to power his submarines, and because these reactors already existed, and thorium was relatively new, Rickover won. Never mind that Alvin Weinberg of Oak Ridge National Laboratories had proved the superiority of thorium reactors in hundreds of tests, the military wanted the weapons-grade plutonium that uranium reactors produced. Predictably, the military got their uranium powered reactors – and Weinberg was fired.
Things have not improved. According to Michael Mayfield, head of the Office of Advanced Reactors at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the NRC is “unfamiliar with most new small-reactor technology, and has no proven process to certify one.” How can this be, when in July, 2013, the U. S. Energy Information Administration predicted that world energy use will increase 56% by 2040 – and most of the increase will come from burning fossil fuels, which will add billions of tons of CO2 to our already damaged oceans and atmosphere. In addition, a recent report from the United Nations indicates that, by 2020, ocean acidification from excess CO2 production will severly damage the ocean food chain that we rely on for 20% of our protein.
Why not expand nuclear power production, which creates no CO2? Is it really as dangerous as some claim?
Not all radiation is dangerous. We are bathed in natural radiation from birth to death – about 2/3 from cosmic radiation and earth elements like radon, and the rest from elements within us, from consumer products and medical uses.
So what about Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima? Let’s examine them one by one, but first, we should understand that the nuclear plants that have been supplying some 14% of the world’s electricity while emitting no CO2 have 15,000 reactor-years of almost-accident-free operation, and second, that the reactors that have powered our navy for more than 40 years have similar histories.
Three Mile Island – In March, 1979, two weeks after the release of the best-seller, The China Syndrome, a partial meltdown of one of the reactor cores (due to coolant pump failure and subsequent operator error) caused mildly radioactive gases and hydrogen to accumulate in a main reactor building. After being filtered through charcoal, the gases were vented. No one died or was harmed at Three Mile Island. In fact, radiation exposure from Three Mile was less than what an airline passenger would receive on a round trip flight across the U.S. And in the following decades, operator training and safety measures have been greatly enhanced.
Chernobyl – During an equipment test in 1986, reactor operators ignored computer warnings, disabled the safety systems and exposed the reactor core. This negligence led to a “runaway” reactor and a hydrogen explosion that released radioactive gases into the atmosphere because the reactor had no containment structure. In contrast, every water-cooled U.S. reactor has a robust containment structure, and the NRC strictly supervises every plant.
Chernobyl was a failure not of nuclear power, but of bad design, poor training and a political system that forbade operators from sharing information about reactor problems. Until Fukushima, Chernobyl was the only accident where radiation directly killed anyone. Twenty-eight firefighters (who should not have been sent into the building) died from intense radiation, and others were injured.
Fukushima – The Fukushima “Mark 1” reactor began operation in 1971, just one year before the Atomic Energy Commission recommended that Mark 1s be shut down and modified for safety issues.
Although the reactors were damaged by an earthquake, their grossly inadequate 18-foot seawall was subsequently swamped by a tsunami that severed Fukushima’s connections to the grid. (Scattered across the region are old, deeply weathered Sendai “stones” that warn “Don’t build below the 150 foot elevation.”)
Batteries powered the coolant pumps for 8 hours – and failed. Without coolant, meltdown was assured. Had a reservoir been built nearby, and space was available, the buildings could have been flooded with gravity-powered water when the pumps failed.
Japan’s Onagawa nuclear plant, which was closer to the epicenter of the quake, survived the quake (like Fukushima), because its 45-foot seawall easily blocked the tsunami, and the reactors were shut down only as a precaution. The tsunami took 20,000 lives that day, but the Fukushima failure directly took the lives of just three firefighters.
What about reactor waste?
Nuclear plants are required to contain every speck of their waste. If you were to get all the electricity for your lifetime from uranium, your total share of the waste would weigh just two pounds – but part of that will be hazardous for thousands of years. Disposal of these wastes has not been solved. Instead, they have been allowed to accumulate at places like Washington’s Hanford Site – a site that Tom Zoellner, the author of URANIUM, called the “most polluted piece of real estate on earth.” Half as big as Rhode Island, the site had one purpose, the manufacture of plutonium – for bombs.
Advantages of nuclear power.
No other technology produces energy steadily on a large scale and as cheaply with a better safety record than nuclear power. Compared to fossil fuels, nuclear energy is akin to a gift from the energy gods.
Nuclear reactors emit no greenhouse gases. Instead, they are the largest displacers of greenhouse gases on the planet. Given that fact, how can anyone, even my fellow “greens,” oppose nuclear power when the environmental costs of burning carbon-based fuels are so high?
James Lovelock, a patriarch of the environmental movement, begged his friends to drop their objection to nuclear energy: “…its worldwide use as our main source of energy poses an insignificant threat compared with the dangers of lethal heat waves and sea levels rising…. civilization is in imminent danger and has to use nuclear power—the one safe, available, energy source—now or suffer the pain soon to be inflicted by an outraged planet.” (from Power to Save the World – G. Cravens)
Finally, consider this – Radiation from nuclear plants in Western Europe and the United States has never killed ANYONE, but we’ve had many thousands of coal and petroleum related deaths.
So what’s the fossil fuel record?
The ash derived from burning coal averages 80,000 pounds per American lifetime. Compare that to two pounds of nuclear waste. The world’s 1200 largest coal-fired plants are responsible for 30% of all the emissions that cause 30,000 premature American deaths per year plus hundreds of thousands of cases of lung and heart diseases. Coal-fired plants also expel radioactive elements into the environment, exposing us to 300-400 times more radiation than nuclear plants.
In 2006, the Sago coal mine disaster killed 12, and a few years later, West Virginia’s Big Branch coal mine explosion killed 29, but no one seeks an end to coal mining. And in 2008, ten billion pounds of coal ash slurry containing toxic metals burst through a Tennessee berm, destroying homes and fouling lakes and rivers.
When a natural gas pipeline exploded in San Bruno, California, eight people died, thirty-five homes were leveled and dozens more were damaged. Should we abandon natural gas?
In 2010, an Enbridge pipeline ruptured in Michigan, spilling more than a million gallons of tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River, and the “cleanup” is still incomplete. BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster killed 11 workers and spilled 20 million of gallons of heavy crude. Prior to that, a devastating explosion at a BP Texas refinery killed 15.
More recently, a derailed train loaded with North Dakota crude incinerated the center of Lac Magentic, Quebec, killing dozens – another page in the petroleum tale, like the disastrous Exxon “spill” in Arkansas that received scant notice from a press and public glued to the trial of Jodi Arias. But mention nuclear power or RADIATION, and it’s OH DEAR! OH MY!
If we give nuclear power a score of 1 on watts produced per fatality, coal is 25 times worse, and oil gets a 38. In addition, the cost per kwh of nuclear electricity is less than that of coal, as well as that from wind and solar, which are intermittent and unpredictable.
Why don’t we power container ships with the reactors that power our navy – an update that would saveseven million barrels of oil per day, remove 4% of greenhouse gas emissions – and would replace their huge fuel tanks with profitable cargo. (Propelling one of our huge aircraft carriers at 27 mph for 24 hours requires only three pounds of nuclear fuel.)
Why do we persist with carbon fuels when six uranium fuel pellets the size of your little finger contain as much energy as 3 tons of coal or 60,000 cubic feet of natural gas – and the pellets create no CO2? The Excel Energy plant at Becker, MN turns 30,000 tons of coal per day into CO2, but just 100 pounds of uranium would do as well without making CO2.
Why do we plunge ahead with fracking for natural gas when even Louis Allstadt, the former executive vice president of Mobil Oil opposes the practice because, as he says, “With hundreds of thousands of wells leaking methane, you’re going to exacerbate global warming.” Moving on, he warns that “The industry is unloading all the costs of what it’s been doing onto the public. Just go out and build miles of levees around New York City and build drainage systems…. We’ll go on producing natural gas and keep the cost low by having taxpayers pick up the cost of dealing with the consequences of global warming. Something has to wake up the public. It will either be education from the environmental movements or some kind of climate disaster that no one can ignore.” (The sediments and bottom water in the world’s shallow oceans and lakes also contain vast amounts of methane (a greenhouse gas at least 20 times more potent than CO2), that is released from frozen soils when organic matter thaws and decomposes. According to a United Nations report, atmospheric methane levels have never exceeded 700 ppb in the last 400,000 years, but they recently reached 1850 ppb. We must not dither.)
If uranium-based power is so safe, why switch to Thorium?
Thorium is far more efficient than uranium, and using it creates less waste. A thorium reactor “burns” close to 100 % of the thorium, but a conventional uranium reactor consumes just 1%, so that’s like burning a tiny part of a log while the rest gets contaminated with radioactive isotopes you must store for thousands of years.
In a conventional reactor, uranium pellets the size of the tip of your little finger are sealed in hundreds of narrow, 12 foot-long zirconium tubes that are housed under 330 degree C water at 2700 psi pressure to keep the water from exploding. Steam generated by the fissioning powers a turbine that spins a generator to make electricity. (Because of the potential for an explosion of the super-heated, pressurized water, a huge, expensive, immensely strong and heavy containment dome is required to enclose the reactor so that steam and other gases cannot escape.)
Using uranium also limits the amount of fissile material that can be placed in the rods. In the rods, reaction products accumulate, some of which can damage the zirconium rods that must contain all the fission products while in the reactor and for thousands of years thereafter. Other reactions produce hydrogen, which caused the explosions at Fukushima.
During refueling, which must be done every 18 months during a multi-day shut-down, the assemblies are moved by remotely operated cranes and kept under water to keep them from melting and to shield the operators. After a few years, the radioactivity of the “spent” fuel decreases enough so that it can be moved to dry cask storage, which provides a temporary answer.
At New York’s Indian Point plant, a cooling pool houses 1,218 “spent” (but highly radioactive) rod assemblies although the pool was designed to house just 264. If the pumps or the power were to fail, the rods could easily become hot enough to boil away the water. Once the fuel is exposed to air it can melt, burn and release massive amounts of radiation. And, according to the NRC, the nation will run out of pool space by 2015, at which time another stop gap measure like dry cask storage will need to be implemented!
Molten salt reactors (MSRs) avoid the main disadvantages of uranium solid-fuel reactors.
Molten Salt Reactors were developed at Oak Ridge Laboratory, and ran successfully for 22,000 hours. In a MSR, the fuel – uranium or thorium – is dissolved in a liquid fluoride salt, and although fluorine gas is corrosive, fluoride salts are not. Fluoride salts don’t change under high temperatures or high radiation, and they lock up radioactive materials to prevent them from being released to the environment.
When uranium or thorium is combined with a liquid fluoride salt, there are no pellets, no zirconium tubes and no hydrogen. The fluid containing the fissile materials is also the heat-transfer agent, so no coolant water is needed.
Because the molten salt does not boil until 14OO°C, MSRs can operate at atmospheric pressure. As a consequence – unlike the water-cooled reactors – there are no pressurized radioactive isotopes that can be propelled by steam into the environment. And no huge containment dome or cooling towers are needed.
As the liquid salt fuel in the core heats up, it expands, decreasing the density of the fuel, which slows the rate of fission. As a consequence, an MSR is inherently stable or “self-governing,” and because the fuel is liquid, it can be easily drained from the reactor as needed, so a meltdown cannot occur.
Furthermore, in the event of a power outage, a refrigerated salt plug at the bottom of the reactor automatically melts, and the fuel drains into tanks where it solidifies, stopping the reaction. In effect, MSRs are walk-away safe. If you abandon an MSR, it will cool down and solidify all by itself. (The Fukushima disaster could not have happened with a Molten Salt reactor, which would have simply shut itself down.)
Efficiency – A thorium-powered MSR is called a Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor – a LFTR – pronouncedLIFTER.
Traditional reactors “burn” less than 1 % of the uranium, but LFTRs consume 99 % of the thorium – and one pound of thorium equals 300 pounds of uranium— or 3.5 million pounds of coal. Replacing just coal-burning power plants with LFTRs would eliminate the largest source of CO2-caused climate change, as well as water vapor, another greenhouse gas produced by burning carbon-based fuels. Just ¼ pound of thorium – a golf ball sized lump – can yield all the energy a person will ever need, and just one ton can power a small city for a year. Replacing ALL coal, oil and natural gas power production with LFTRs would eliminate about 50% of all man-made greenhouse gases. LIFTRs can also “burn” our stored 68,000 tons of uranium’s radioactive waste and consume the fissile material in our arsenal of some 9,000 nuclear bombs. (The world’s 340,000 tons of spent uranium “fuel” contains enough plutonium to start a new 100 MW LFTR every day for 93 years.)
Thorium ore is four times as plentiful as uranium ore and 500 times more abundant than uranium’s fissile U-235 isotope. At current consumption rates, uranium fuels can last for decades, but thorium-based reactors could power our world for centuries. The U. S. has some 400,000 tons of thorium reserves. Australia and India tie for the largest at approximately 500,000 tons. China is also well supplied. The Chinese Academy of Sciences has allocated $1B to build Thorium reactors (LFTRs) by 2020, and Candu, a Canadian reactor builder, is working with China to further develop thorium as a fuel source.
Waste and storage.
Because of their efficiency, MSRs produce far less waste than solid fuel reactors whose waste remains hazardous for thousands of years. With thorium, it’s a few hundred. For example, a 1 Gigawatt LFTR, run for 30 years, would produce less than 100 lbs. of waste, and LFTRs can run practically forever because they produce enough neutrons to breed their own fuel. Furthermore, the radio-toxicity from LFTR waste is 1/1000 that of conventional waste, so geological repositories even smaller than Yucca mountain would easily suffice.
Transmission line costs and losses will be reduced by using LFTRs.
With no need for huge cooling towers or large containment buildings, MSRs can be much smaller, both physically and in power capacity. Factories, cities, ships and even homes could have their own power source, thus creating a more reliable and economic power grid that provides a huge advantage over Uranium or carbon-fueled power plants while cutting transmission line losses that can run to 20%.
Not surprisingly, the conventional nuclear industry, like the carbon-based industries, has had zero interest in LFTRS, perhaps for financial reasons. Furthermore, no elected official is likely to challenge industries that provide millions of jobs and wield great political power. As a consequence, thorium technology gets little help from the government, although China, India and Canada are moving toward thorium.
How it works.
Thorium 232 cannot sustain a chain reaction, but it is fertile, meaning that it can be converted into fissile U-233 through neutron capture, also known as “breeding.” However, you can’t mash two lumps of purified thorium together to trigger an explosion. In fact, you could keep a ton in your garage, and nothing would happen. And with thorium, security issues are greatly reduced because it’s impractical for making bombs.
In the thorium fuel cycle, U-235 starts a process that converts fertile TH-232 into fissile Th-233, which fissions, releasing energy that creates Protactinium-233. The PA-233 decays to U-233, which activates more Th-232. During the process, huge amounts of energy are released.
The half-life of Th-232, which comprises most of thorium ore, is 14 billion years, so it is not hazardous due to its extremely slow decay. In comparison, Th-233 has 20 minute half-life, which makes it INTENSELY radioactive, very short-lived and a potent power source to drive a chain reaction.
Summary: Advantages of LFTRs
- No C02 emissions. Not practical for making bombs. LFTRs breed their fuel.
- LFTRs create 1% as much waste as a uranium reactor – contain little fissile material.
- LFTRs do not need periodic shut downs because fission byproducts are continuously removed.
- LFTRs are air-cooled – critical for arid areas and countries where water is scarce.
- Don’t need massive containment domes because they operate at atmospheric pressure.
- The reactor “core” can’t melt down.
- Thorium is available almost for free from rare earth mining waste streams.
- Thorium ore is safer to mine because it is much less radioactive than uranium ore.
- Thorium 232 is 500 X as abundant as U-235.
- Fluorine salt is less corrosive than the super-hot water in uranium reactors.
- Thorium reactors produce no hydrogen, so Fukushima-like explosions are eliminated.
- LFTRs are highly scalable – from small plants to more than 100 mw plants.
- 100 mw LFTRs could replace all of the world’s coal-powered generators by 2060.
- LFTRs will cost just $200 million for a 100 MWe unit, allowing affordability to developing nations, and suitability for factory production, truck transport, and site assembly.
- LFTRs are intrinsically safe because overheating expands the fuel salt past criticality.
- LFTR fuel is not pressurized.
- Loss of power or control causes a freeze plug to melt, draining the fuel salt into a dump tray.
- At least 99% of a LFTR’s thorium is “burned”, compared to 0.7 % of uranium in today’s reactors.
THE ANSWER: Why Only Inherently Safe, Mini-Nuclear Power Plants Can Save Our World. by Reese Palley
“By 2050 we will have added 50% to the world population, which will add 50% more CO2 than the eight billion tons per year we are adding now. This will drive the present 390 ppm of CO2 to a tipping point of 450 ppm, beyond which we will have little chance to reverse global warming…. Even more alarming is a release from the National Academy of Science, dated January 28, 2009: ‘The severity of climate change depends on the magnitude of the change and on the potential for irreversibility. The climate change that takes place due to increases in CO2 concentration is largely irreversible for 1,000 years after the emissions stop. …temperatures will not drop significantly for at least 1,000 years.’”
“According to David Archer, author of The Long Thaw, the prospect of recapturing and sequestering CO2 from the atmosphere is an exercise in futility fueled by stupidity. Once CO2 is released, it will take more energy to reclaim it.
“A favorite of the recapture community is the use of algae, which, like trees, take in CO2 and emit water and oxygen. However, by one conservative estimate, an algae bloom the size of the Southern Ocean would be required to make a small dent in atmospheric CO2.
“Unlike our 68,000 tons of accumulated nuclear waste, which accounts for just 0.01 % of all industrial toxic waste, there is simply no place to store the billions of tons of CO2 that will spell disaster within 50 years if we fail to act wisely. That 68,000 tons of waste – generated since the fifties – pales beside the same tonnage of waste that is generated EACH WEEK by New York City.
“If we are to get out of this mess, here’s what it will take:
- Restrict population growth.
- Stop using carbon fuels.
- Progressively tax energy use.
- Restrict the use of fertilizer.
- Reduce the consumption of meat. (12% of greenhouse gases are due to the production of meat.)
- GO NUCLEAR with thousands of small, on-site MSRs.
“Coal-fired power plants consume huge volumes of water that is, in many areas, already in short supply.
“Geo-thermal power plants release 41% more CO2 (plus other harmful gases) than comparably sized natural gas plants.
“It would take 6 square miles of solar cells (in a desert climate) to replace one average coal-fired power plant.
“The interconnected power grids we rely on can be damaged, if not destroyed, by a massive solar flare.
“The detonation of a 500 kiloton nuclear bomb above the Midwest would practically destroy the US economy due largely to the effects of its electronic pulse on the power grid, and cyber damage could wreck it as well. However, if the country were powered with thousands of small, independent LFTRs, these risks would be greatly reduced.”
“We no longer have time to build enough 1,000 Mw plants to replace the fossil fuel plants that are at the core of global warming. [But] these small, modular, inherently safe reactors [LFTRs] can be built on assembly lines at high speed and shipped by the thousands on semi-trailer trucks.”
THORIUM: Energy Cheaper than Coal – by Robert Hargraves. “The United Nations cannot solve our energy/climate crises…. Ultimately, individual leaders are the key.”
SuperFuel – by Richard Martin. “For millions of years, thorium has been there, awaiting the right time, the right circumstances and the right minds to enable it to provide thousands of years of clean, safe, affordable energy…. The technology exists, the economics are favorable, and the need is urgent.”
Power to Save the World – by Gwyneth Cravens “The power to save the world does not lie in rocks, rivers, wind or sunshine. It lies in each of us.”
Popular Science – special ENERGY ISSUE – July, 2011 – The liquid sodium/thorium reactor. Great for power – not for bombs!
To schedule Dr. Erickson and his Power Point presentation on Molten Salt Reactors, including Thorium Nuclear Power, call 218-744-2003 or email email@example.com.
George Erickson – www.tundracub.com