Meeting and Talking about our Energy Future

For several weeks now, I have been part of an informal group of individuals interested in the prospects of thorium power for the future. Most of these folks have been up in Ohio, connected with NASA Glenn Research Center, Cleveland State University, and Battelle. A few have been at some of the DOE national labs, such as Oak Ridge and INL. And then there’s me down in Alabama.

We’ve been getting together by phone telecon and discussing what must be done to help the nation, and perhaps the world, achieve the secure energy future we all so desperately desire. This work hasn’t necessarily been part of our jobs, but it certainly has been congruent with the ideals of what research in the national interest is all about.

Well, after talking on the phone for so long, we decided that it would be a good idea to get together face-to-face. So we met in Cleveland, at the Glenn Research Center, on Thursday, May 25th. And I think it was a great meeting for all of us.

Dr. Albert Juhasz of GRC was our host and the coordinator of the meeting. We were also welcomed by a representative of GRC.

Dr. Charles Alexander of Cleveland State got us started. Chuck is a former president of the IEEE (professional society for electrical engineers) and is currently Dean of the College of Engineering at Cleveland State University. Chuck talked about the world’s needs for power, his efforts at Cleveland State to excite and encourage new students to enter the field of engineering (especially power engineering), and a new research group that has been organized at Cleveland State specifically to pursue some of these new opportunities. He spoke with zeal about the ability of engineers to conquer the problems that lie before us in the world, which was a timely message for our group and their aspirations.

Jim Werner of Idaho National Laboratory talked about the work they are doing at INL under the GNEP (Global Nuclear Energy Partnership) program. GNEP is eesentially an effort to close the nuclear fuel cycle for light-water reactors by destroying transuranic isotopes in a fast-spectrum reactor. They anticipate down-selecting on the sodium-cooled fast reactor in the next year or so. Then they anticipate building a LWR fuel reprocessing facility in 2012, a fast-spectrum reactor fuel fabrication facility in 2015, and a fast-spectrum demonstration reactor in 2018. I mentioned my concerns about achieving an acceptably negative temperature coefficient of reactivity in a fast-spectrum reactor with uncertain isotopic concentrations in the fuel elements, but Jim said that the initial reactor would run on highly-enriched uranium as a “driver” and the transuranics as a “blanket”.

Then I spoke on the value of thorium as a possible energy source. I tried to highlight the extensive nature of the thorium resource, the issues involved in using it (essentially the need for continuous reprocessing), and the several attempts at fluid-fueled reactors designed to burn thorium.

I then followed with a presentation on the history and potential of the liquid-fluoride reactor, describing its origin as a high-temperature reactor for the nuclear aircraft program, its evolution into a thorium-breeder, and its eventual demise at the hands of the AEC in an attempt to preserve the liquid-metal fast-breeder program. I talked about why it is uniquely suited to exploit the thorium resource, and why most of reasons it was previously killed would be considered selling points for the reactor today.

Chris Pestak of Battelle got the discussion going by stating, “I think the purpose of this meeting is to save the world!” We all laughed, but there was a lot of truth to the statement. I had realized, thanks to Jim Werner’s talk, that despite the best efforts of the DOE and the GNEP program over the next few decades, we would merely be “holding the line” for US nuclear power production. We would not be able to mount a major expansion of nuclear power in the US, nor in the world, because of the basic limitations of the light-water reactor and its profligate use of uranium resources. The efforts outlined under the GNEP program would have a primary goal of preventing the need for a second US high-level waste repository.

The group seemed optimistic on what we could do, even though we realized that we were not going to be changing the course of nuclear energy any time soon. “What is the plan forward?” Chris asked, and we began to discuss the possibilities that would be opened by concentrating on university-scale research. Perhaps a small fluoride research reactor could be built at a university? Cleveland State didn’t have a nuclear engineering program, but Ohio State did, and soon we were speculating how Ohio State might be able to get involved with the fluoride reactor and perhaps even build one.

Certainly building the first new fluoride reactor since the MSRE would be a powerful shot-in-the-arm for the program, and the idea was not outside the realm of reason. The ARE and MSRE were both small reactors, and TRIGA reactors have been a staple of university nuclear research programs for years. Like the TRIGA, the fluoride reactor can have a very strong negative temperature coefficient of reactivity—an absolute must for a reactor that students might be operating. It seemed reasonable to me, and helping students build and operate a real reactor could get them trained and excited for the thorium future we hoped to build.

Thorium as a basic energy source was endorsed heartily by Dr. Alexander. He said, “I haven’t heard anything today to make me think that this isn’t the way to go.” He spoke about the desireability of he and I writing a paper for the upcoming IEEE Power Conference on the subject of thorium as the energy source of the future. Someone suggested that perhaps that might “brand” us a bit, so we suggested an alternate title: “Should thorium be the energy source of the future?” In this paper we could describe the promise of thorium, the advantage of the liquid-fluoride reactor as the machine to release that energy, and the advantage of the helium gas turbine as the machine to turn that energy into electricity.

We also discussed the intriguing possibility of the submarine LFTR as a power source. Could it be done? Would it “fly” politically and socially? Ray Beach stated that he thought the issue of siting a nuclear power plant was a big problem, and everything I’ve read leads me to agree. No one wants to live next to a nuclear power plant, and no one likes big ugly power transmission lines. Considering the proximity of so much of the population to the coast, the ability to site plants offshore and out-of-sight is very appealing. I mentioned that I had recently read a book about the history of the submarine, and in the mid-1950s Admiral Arleigh Burke, Chief of Naval Operations, decided that a submarine should be an underwater Cape Canaveral for ballistic missiles. The concept was considered to be the very edge of credibility. Yet after a few years of hard intense work, technological advancement, and strong leadership, the first ballistic missile submarine went to sea. How crazy was it to imagine the submarine as an underwater power station? Now we just need an Admiral Burke…

Finally we wrapped up and headed back to our homes and
hotels after a long and productive day. I felt so much excitement about what we had talked about and the general agreement we felt. I know many of the folks in the group felt the same way. There is obviously so much more hard work to do, but if we succeed, I’m sure we will look back on this meeting as the moment when our efforts first began to coalesce.

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