believe that we have reached the point in our understanding of the potential thorium/Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor future, where we can talk about our grand plan. I believe that we can show that the use of thorium fuel cycle LFTRs represents, if not the silver bullet, then at least the thorium bullet of future energy. The most important questions which we need to answer about thorium cycle/LFTR technology are:
1. Can it be built at a reasonable cost?
2. Is is scalable enough to meet our energy needs?
3. Can we complete world wide deployment of carbon technology replacing LFTR by what is often seen as the cut off date of 2050?
The answers to these three questions are related. Indeed LFTR costs are a part of the scalablity question.
Perhaps my only original idea about Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) design was more a marketing suggestion, which combined David LeBlanc’s suggestion that capital costs for LFTRs could be lowered by using lower cost materials that would tolerate somewhat lower reactor performance. David LeBlanc’s suggestions indicated that low cost LFTRs could be built from commonly available low cost materials. I saw that this would solve a major problem in all current plans to produce post carbon electricity, that is the absence of a low cost load following and peak reserve electrical production technology to replace natural gas. Indeed the Greenpeace “energy [r]evolution” plan is not a true post carbon energy plan because it calls for an increase in the capacity of natural gas powered generating facilities over the next 20 years in order to supply load following and peak energy capacity to the grid as a compensation for the increased penetration by wind powered generators.
I named the lower cost LFTR, the Big Lots Reactor after the store chain from which surprising bargains sometimes emerge. Unlike Big Lots which finds bargains among over stocked and close out items, our reactor bargain will come from intelligent approaches to reactor manufacture and site construction, more efficient use of labor and careful attention to containing financing costs.
When I read David LeBlac’s observations, I was aware that operating LFTR on a partial power or a part time basis decreases neutron damage to core material. At the same time load following power and peak load power is purchased by utilities at a premium price. It appeared to me that thee was a potential for synergy here.
Thus the Big Lots reactor can be run on a 16/7 or 16/5 schedule. It can be run on less full power for most of the day. A Big Lots Reactor can rapidly increase power if a major online generating unit suddenly goes down, or if the electrical utilities experience a surge in consumer electrical demand. It could even cope with the fluctuating electrical output of windmills.
The original Aim High plan calls for LFTR production from high performance and expensive materials. The Aim High Reactor would be designed to operate at maximum temperature compatible with current materials technology. The Aim High Reactor would be designed for base load power and/or the production of process heat. As a base load reactor the AIM High Reactor would be expected to produce maximum power on a 24/7 basis. It is very conceivable that a Generation II Aim High Reactors might be built. The first generation Aim High Reactor, to go into production about 2020, would would be built using expensive Hastelloy-N in the core structure and Molten Salt piping. The Aim High I could operate at a temperature of up to 700 degrees C. A further Aim High Reactor, the AIm High II, might then be developed to provide Industrial process heat up to 1000 degrees C. The AIm High II would be built of more exotic materials like carbon-carbon composites, and would be able to produce power with a high level of thermal efficiency.
The Big Lot Reactor can be built in the same factory as the Aim High Reactor, and the two reactors might share many of the same parts. Parts like pumps, heat exchanges turbines, fuel processing units, helium handling equipment, and core graphite can be used in common. Core structural mater for the Big Lots Reactor would be stainless steel as would be the reactors external pipes. The Big Lots core design should use a moderated two fluid approach, and might use NaF-ZrF4-UF4 salt rather than LiF-BeF2-UF.
The Big Lots would be expected to operate no more than 2/3rds of the time and to operate at capacity factor of .60 or less. Since the lower capacity factor means less exposure to radiation over a given period of time, the stainless steel parts can be expected to be reasonably robust in the face of anticipated radiation levels. The Big Lots Reactor could be deliberately oversized in order to promote reserve peak capacity. Thus the Big Lots might be expected to operate at 25% of full capacity for part of the day, while more capacity could be brought on line quickly in the face of rising demand. Unlike the Light Water Reactor adding substantial increasing design capacity would not add proportionately to overall reactor costs.
Production of the Big Lots Reactor would be highly scalable because it is factory built. The production process can use labor savings machines at every stage of the production process. Given a large enough production volume, parts manufacture can be partially or even completely automated. Robots can replace workers in some assembly operation. It is anticipated that the the factory produced Big Lots will be shipped to the reactor site for final setup, in modular units. Labor savings equipment can be used in site preparation, component assembly and in finishing off the site.
The Big Lots factory would be large, but not larger than a modern aircraft assembly factory. Component modules need not be produced in the same factory. The modules would be major reactor components. The assembly of the modular components should be relatively simple and quick, with most of the assembly being performed in factory settings.
The goal of the Big Lot/Aim High Program should be the production and distribution of enough LFTRs that by 2050 to assure that world wide carbon production could be lowered by 80% from 2009 levels by 2050. This will be made possible by massive production and deployment of Big Lot Reactors after 2020.
The role of the big lot reactor would be to assure that material shortages would not prevent the the construction of the required number of reactors. By using a common material like stainless steal, sufficient building materials should be available to insure the required number of reactors can be build. Production facilities can be designed with the capacity to handle a large number of reactors. In the United States, Europe, Japan and South Korea, highly mechanized and automated assembly/construction methods would be used to limit labor input. However in India and China less mechanized site preparation and final assembly approaches might be used.
Site design should be standardized to the extent possible. To the extent possible old power plant sites should be recycled as Big Lots sires, with structures and equipment reused to the extent possible.
The Big Lots Reactor should be designed with cooling options. It could be air cooled or water cooled depending on the availability of water.
Start up options for all LFTRs would include recycling plutonium from nuclear waste or nuclear weapons, using U-235 from nuclear weapons, or by breeding U-233 from Th-232 in LFTRs and other Molten Salt Reactors.
Indian technology would all create the potential to breed U-233 from Th-232 in LMFBRs. U-235 can be enriched to HEU levels using laser technology and then used for LFTR start up.
I have recently pointed out reports that Indian LMFBRs costs will run at an estimated $1.4 billion per gW, while Chinese LWR costs run between $1.6 and $1.75 pre gW. In neither case does the cost of reactor R&D play a major role in reactor costs. In both cases it would appear that financing costs are a lower percentage of total reactor costs than they would be in the United States or Europe. The rest of the cost savings would appear to come from the cost of labor. In the case of the Chinese reactor we know that the total hours of labor are similar to those required to build reactors in Europe and North America. We can suspect that the Indian LMFBR requires significantly fewer hours of labor than Chinese LWRs require.
The cost of electricity is a fundamental measure of the competitiveness of a society. The low labor and financing costs of Asian reactors would seem to give China and India significant competitive advantages during the second half of the 21st century unless energy related financial and labor costs can be better controlled. By shifting reactor manufacturing methods and settings, and by taking innovative approaches to reactor siting and facilities construction Labor costs can be lowered. Controlling labor costs, the time required to build reactors will make significant contribution to closing the the gap in the cost of financing rectors. Thus it seems possible that LFTRs can be be built at a cost that would be comparable to the Asian cost range of $1.4 to $1.75 billion per gW. More research is needed, and beyond research a nearly fanatic commitment to keep LFTR manufacturing costs under control. Nothing less than the fate of a civilization rests on this.
Is There Enough Thorium?
Thorium is estimated to be three times as abundant as uranium in the the Earths crust. Millions of tons of thorium are present in mine tailings scattered around the world. The LFTR is several hundred times more efficient at extracting energy from thorium as the current generation of Light Water Reactors are in extracting energy from uranium. If we extracted no thorium from the earth and only recovered the thorium found in mine tailings and other surface sources enough thorium could be recovered to provide energy to all human societies at a level that is equivalent to those enjoyed in Western Europe. Recoverable thorium resources are large enough to sustain human soviety for millions of years.
Can we start all of the LFTR?
This brief study is based on the assumption that the major obstacle to replacing carbon based energy technology with post carbon based energy technology would be factors like materials availability, and labor and financing related costs. I have argued that by focusing on LFTR technology and what might be described as a full court press approach to LFTR cost savings, that it would be possible to manufacture and deploy world wide, enough power generating reactors to replace current carbon based energy sources with low CO2 emitting energy sources. I have elsewhere argued that it would be possible to start these reactors with plutonium from spent reactor fuel, plutonium-239 and uranium-235 form nuclear weapons, U-235 produced by laser enrichment, and by U-233 bred in Molten Salt Reactors including LFTRs. It would also be possible to breed U-233 in Indian LMFBRs.
Is thorium/LFTR technology scalable enough to reach our 2050 energy goals?
The Aim High plan, the plan to substitute thorium/LFTR energy sources for carbon based energy sources by 2050 is feasible. Thorium/LFTR technology is scalable. Indeed, the Aim High Plan is the only feasible option that would allow Europe, North America, Japan, South Korea China and India to adopt their energy requirements to the necessity of finding post carbon energy sources. Plans to use renewable energy and conventional nuclear power simply will inevitably fall short.
What are the obstructs to the realization of the Aim High Plan?
The answer is simple, knowledge of the potential of thorium/LFTR technology, and commitment to its development and use. The road is open, we have only to see it, and chose to follow it.
I have suggested on several occasions that several unique features of the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (and other molten salt reactors) makes it suitable for several important roles in supplying electricity to the electrical grid as demand shifts over time. Daily and seasonable shifts in electrical demand require part time generating capacity, that can be brought on line as demand increases, and withdrawn as it declines. In addition to the predictable variations in customer demand, a quick response reserve generating capacity is required as protection against a sudden loss of generating capacity. Power plants may go off line at short notice due to equipment problems. In order to keep the grid stable, grid managers must be able to quickly bring reserve generating capacity on line;
David Walters and I had an online conversation yesterday. It was clear from the conversation why we are both bloggers, and why we are nuclear bloggers. We discovered during the course of the conversation that we were among the few people in the world to have watched the NEI’s YouTube videos of its President and CEO Marvin S. Fertel’s February 12 Wall Street Briefing. I was very impressed with Fertel, who came across as intelligent and articulate, and aware of many of the issues that I raise. The NEI’s YouTube videos were so poorly edited that I suspect that the NEI outsourced that job to Greenpeace. Greenpeace also appears to be in control of the distribution of these videos, because most of them have been seen 10 times or less, despite having been posted a week ago. Both David and I were favorably impressed with Fertel’s briefing.
Alexander DeVolpi has offered a serious critique of Amory Lovins that That i believe accurately raises questions about Mr. Lovins’ authority. DeVolpi, points out that
Because Lovins renders no substantive academic or acquired nuclear credentials, the analyses he presents ought to be held to a strict standard of scientific credibility, such as that described by the Daubert U.S. Supreme Court decision. . . . This is in lieu of granting him interim benefit of doubt, a courtesy often extended to individuals who have an established scientific reputation . . . In other words, I would advise treating Lovins’ renderings on nuclear issues with healthy, but not dismissive skepticism. His presentation and publications should be judged by standard scientific criteria, no more, no less.
Next Dr. DeVolpi points to Lovins’ scanty educational credentials and his lack of the sort of experience that would qualify him as an expert on nuclear matters.
Although Lovins seems to have completed some courses in experimental physics at Oxford University in England, he lacks any laboratory experience in nuclear physics or engineering. His vetted degree credentials are vague enough to induce caution, caveat emptor. Such a shortcoming has not prevented him from writing numerous articles, giving many briefings, and speaking frequently about nuclear technical policy. . . . Lovins has been a widely praised proponent of the so-called “soft-energy path,” as well has having been an habitual and readily available critic of nuclear energy.
. . . expertise alleged should not be considered credible simply because of personal experience, widely publicized image, or self-declared credibility — which can be crafted as concatenating substitutes for substantive technical analysis and publication. The individual being challenged should follow the same established guidelines for scientific analysis and peer-reviewed publication as the rest of us have during our professional careers.
Having offered this preamble to the question of Lovins’ authority, DeVolpi proceeded to examine Lovins’ method of presentation of “what appeared to be an informative but complex analysis . . .”. DeVolpi thus offers a phenological approach to Lovins presentation by placing it into brackets, which examines what it appears to be at first in light of the accepted standards of scientific evidence which DeVolpi has suggested we apply to expert testimony. DeVolpi noted Lovins use of “extremely busy tables and graphs” which he found “difficult to sort through”, and then suggested
his extrapolation from laboratory model to production product is unrealistic, being deficient in practical marketplace engineering. Faulty reasoning and extrapolation often reflect a lack of hands-on construction experience. Lovins did not put into evidence anything he actually built or was responsible for constructing, other than a viewgraph of a fancy banana greenhouse situated on his Aspen, Colorado, property.
The last comment is downright funny, because Lovins allegedly unheated Aspen greenhouse in which he grows bananas, is very much a part of the Lovins mystique. The greenhouse itself plays on role in establishing Lovins expertise, or the truthfulness of the case he presents.
DeVolpe noted that Lovins’ presentation
more of an evangelical tirade against nuclear power, rather than a systematic case for balanced and alternative energy sources. A key indicator of stridency is the absence of explicit statistical characterization; Lovins presents almost everything in terms of absolutes, without conceding a range of uncertainty.
DeVolpi found an absence of a probabilistic perspective not only in Lovins’ oral presentation but in his papers
Take a look at his papers and try to find any treatment or awareness of statistical uncertainty. What’s notably odd is that doubt/uncertainty is part of the natural order of things; to avoid recognizing it, especially in a paper about technical issues, is quite unnatural and unusual, and more indicative of proselytization for a cause.
Thus Amory Lovins’ presentations are
more of an evangelical tirade against nuclear power, rather than a systematic case for balanced and alternative energy sources.
DeVolpi subjects Lovins work to two related tests, those of “smell” and “ripeness”. The smell test is designed to determine “legitimacy” or “authenticity”. while the ripeness looks at “maturity”, or “development”.
DeVolpi notes that during a visit to Argonne National Laboratory 30 years ago Lovins called for a shutdown of all nuclear power plants. At that time almost no electricity in Illinois was produced by reactors, at the beginning of 2009 that figure had increased to between 70% and 80& of Illinois electricity being generated by reactors. DeVolpi observed
here’s a situation that has ripened enough for comparing actual outcomes with his original counsel. . . . If Lovins had his way 30 years ago, I would be paying . . . (for) coal-produced electric power. On the basis of cost, or feasibility, or environmental benefit, electric-power utilities and the state regulators would have been ill-advised if they adopted his anti-nuclear advice (at least in Illinois).
Nuclear power is not only commercially competitive, but extremely safe (no coal miners dying), no air pollution at all, no greenhouse gas emissions (such as carbon-dioxide). Nuclear-plant lifetime is being doubled from 30 to 60 years (which utilities, investors, and ratepayers appreciate). If Lovins had his way 30 years ago, considerably more particulates and gases would have been vented to the local and regional atmosphere from coal-fired plants (aside from the greenhouse gases emitted).
Moreover, if Lovins had his way, we would not have conserved the electricity-equivalent in domestic coal, imported and domestic oil, and domestic and imported natural-gas resources and reserves that we have for 30 years. A typical nuclear power plant each year avoids consumption of 3.4 million short tons of coal, or 65.8 billion cubic feet of natural gas, or 14 billion barrels of oil. (The United States has ample uranium resources.) So Lovins was wrong in implying that nuclear had no overriding societal or environmental benefits.
DeVolpi focuses on Lovins claims about nuclear costs:
Lovins displayed complex viewgraphs that, he purports, show that nuclear is the costliest of “low-or-no-carbon resources.” Yet, in the last 30 years, nuclear has displaced half the fossil-fuel combustion in Illinois while still being competitive. Inasmuch as nuclear-power plants emit no byproduct carbon-dioxide to the atmosphere, surely his claim that it is the costliest of low-carbon-emission sources fails the smell test.
Most of Lovins’ pricing and cost/benefit comparisons are based on “new delivered electricity” which frames the cost of U.S. domestic nuclear construction in the least favorable light.
He declares nuclear power an economic failure. Can someone explain that to my bank account which has benefited from compounding competitive electric power savings for the past 30 years? His rimy claim certainly fails the ripeness test.
DeVolpi then challenges Lovins’ claims about nuclear reliability.
On the issue of electrical-grid reliability, Lovins asserts that there is no such thing as a “outage-free” source of electrical power. He must think that nuclear power runs by government fiat. Nuclear is a fixture on the grid because it is more economical to operate as base-load supply, while sources less reliable, intermittent, and more costly (such as wind, solar, and gas) provide supplementary power. During the past 30 years in Illinois, I don’t recall having the electricity supply and cost problems that California has had after it prohibited nuclear-power plants from being
built within its borders. By the way, average U.S. nuclear capacity factor was about 92% in 2007. That’s excellent. Lovins pitiful effort to undermine the reliability of nuclear power egregiously fails the smell test.
DeVolpi examined Lovins account of nuclear power and finds that Lovins
chronically demonizes it on the grounds of the proliferation risk
opposes subsidies for nuclear power but favors them for renewables
Calls nuclear power a failure despite the reliable production of power at competitive rates
Opposes the construction of new nukes in the United States because of proliferation risks, even though new nukes are being built in other countries.
Argues that nuclear power is anti-democratic
called attention to Lovins 1980 statement in Foreign Policy that
the global nuclear power enterprise is rapidly disappearing
for nuclear power is … the main driving force behind proliferation…
(nuclear power) retards oil displacement by the faster, cheaper and more attractive means which new developments in energy policy now make available to all countries…
DeVolpi next points to a 1980 article which the science journal Nature published. In this article Lovins, who was after all an undergraduate physics drop-out from Harvard (twice) and Oxford posed as an expert on plutonium weapons. Lovins concluded in the Nature article that
…It is therefore incorrect to state categorically that bombs made from reactor-grade or deliberately ‘denatured’ Pu are less effective, less powerful, or less reliable than those made from weapons-grade Pu.
DeVolpi was expert enough in nuclear weapons design to qualify as an expert witness on weapons design in the famous Progressive case and who had stood up to an Energy Department’s attempt to intimidate him into silence about his “politically incorrect” views on “reactor grade plutonium” and nuclear proliferation gives short shift to Lovins “expert” information. De Volpi responded to Lovins
While Lovins convinced the editors and reviewers of Nature that a neophyte had figured out nuclear weaponry enough to become an publishable expert, his inverted conclusion is not supported by theoretical or anecdotal evidence . . .
Lovins further concluded
The foregoing argument also implies that power reactors are not an implausible but are rather potentially a peculiarly convenient type of large-scale military Pu production reactor….
Coming from a neophyte who might never have seen the inside of any of those reactors, it reflects a hoary belief system that was as untenable then as now. Just show me a civilian power reactor that has been used to make military plutonium. This published proposition of his fails the ripeness test in 2009, just as it failed the smell test back in 1980.
In short, the somewhat greater technical difficulty of using power-reactor Pu for effective military bombs — assuming the reactor is actually operated at high fuel burn-up — may be more than counterbalanced by the greater political and economic ease of obtaining that Pu. It should not be lightly disdained in favour of purer material from dedicated facilities.
This pitiful conclusion is the foundation of Lovins’ nuclear-proliferation belief system. It too, long ago, failed both the smell and ripeness tests. Incidentally, note the absence of measures of incertitude in this so-called technical paper.
The Nuclear Illusion or the Nuclear Illusionist?
as he “fisks” Lovins 2008 paper “The Nuclear Illusion”. Lovins once again is allowed to go beyond a credible interpretation of evidence, ignoring the constraints of uncertainty.
Dr. DeVolpi in his Knols, exhibits outstanding and sophisticated critical skills. The DeVolpi Knols deserve far wider recognition than they have received to date. They are significant contributions to public discussion on many issues related to future use of nuclear energy in our society. In addition, the DeVolpi Knols are important examples of the sort of critical thinking that ought to be encouraged in the class room. DeVolpi’s Knol on Amory Lovins ought to be read by any journalist, scholar, or politician who is considering using Lovins as a source.