LFTR and the Manchester Report
I should have known right from the moment I walked in the building that this was going to go well. Right inside the main door are two large statues; one of James Prescott Joule, the famous physicist and thermodynamicist, and the other of John Dalton, chemist and pioneer of atomic theory. As I walked by, Joule whispered that I better tell them a bit about thermodynamics, and Dalton reminded me that chemists could build the best reactor of all.
The Manchester Town Hall is truly magnificent, at least to my poor American eyes. Stone and statues and staircases sweep upwards to ornately decorated ceilings, and a visitor to the Manchester Report would follow these upstairs to the Great Hall. The magnificent Great Hall is the centerpiece of the Town Hall, and is lined with paintings called “The Manchester Murals” which depict events from the history of Manchester. I especially liked ones like “Dalton collecting Marsh-Fire Gas” or “John Kay, Inventor of the Fly Shuttle” but cringed a little bit at “The Expulsion of the Danes from Manchester” and wondered if my English heritage might get me through.
The day of my presentation I began with a little breakfast at Starbucks–a tall hot chocolate and a chocolate muffin. I was the first customer in the little shop and the two girls working there were chatting with me about the Manchester Report and what was going on across the street. One asked me what I would be talking about, and I said that is what how we could use a special element called thorium in a special kind of nuclear reactor to replace coal plants and fight global warming. At the mention of “nuclear” the girl scrunched her face a little and said in a breezy voice, “But isn’t nuclear bad?” to which I said, “No, nuclear is good!”
“But what about waste…and bombs? Shouldn’t we just build windmills instead?”
I smiled and said I would love to talk to her more about it but perhaps she should come to my talk and she could learn more. I don’t think she made it, but I repeat the interaction here because I think the Starbucks girl is an example of the vague distaste that much of the public has for nuclear power, often stoked by the media. More about this later.
I’d like to tell you that I carefully listened to all the sessions in the morning, but the reality was that I was working on my presentation. The more I changed, the more I wanted to change, and I began to think at some point the whole thing would be abandoned rather than completed. I had been mentally delivering my talk to the audience in my head for about a week and it was beginning to drive me nuts–I needed to do it for real and give me mind a break.
During the morning, four of my thorium “mates” arrived from England and France. These were folks that were members of the thorium-forum and had decided to come to the conference to lend their support to the effort. Meeting each of these guys was a real boost to me and I hoped my talk wouldn’t disappoint.
During lunch, I had a chance to talk further to the panel members. Bryony Worthington is an charming lady and the founder of a non-profit organization called Sandbag that is working to buy up carbon credits. I briefly chatted with Dan Reicher, a fellow American and head of Google.org, a philanthropic organization endowed by Google. I also met Dan’s wife and 6-year-old son, and we shared a few stories about being Americans in England on the Fourth of July! Lord Bingham was the head of the panel and kept things on topic and on target, and I also met Chris Goodall, who was a really charismatic guy with a ready smile and good questions for each of the presenters.
I was first after lunch and bounded up on the stage determined to share my enthusiasm about thorium and the liquid-fluoride reactor. I began my talk telling them about how coal is the central culprit in the emissions of CO2, and how our central focus should be on the replacement of coal-powered plants. But how? With a nod to Joule I briefly described how heat engines convert the random energy of heat to the directed energy of work, and how the heat engine is a basic principle that we see repeated with coal, gas, fission, or concentrated solar. All use heat to make work and must reject waste heat. Some make CO2, and there’s part of our problem.
But to replace coal we need to think about material inputs, and for the renewables they are steep–roughly 5 times the steel and concrete needed per megawatt generated.
Then I showed a picture of the atom and described how there is roughly a million times more energy waiting for us in the nucleus of the atom than in its electron cloud. This energy was infused in the atom by a supernova over 5 billion years ago, and today, billions of years later, thorium and uranium remain as natural gifts of this titanic explosion. Three basic fuels are available to us (U-235, U-238, Th-232) and only one is naturally fissile, but the other two can be converted to energy through careful design.
I went through the process of converting thorium to energy and showed how a LFTR uses liquid fluoride fuel to carry the uranium and thorium in a two-fluid arrangement designed to follow the natural processes of thorium’s conversion to protactinium, uranium, and then to energy. I described the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment and how it demonstrated that this was a real and feasible approach to take to extracting the energy from thorium. I described a more modern version–the Liquid-Fluoride Thorium Reactor–that would couple the fluoride reactor to a closed-cycle gas turbine and enable the extraction of energy from thorium at an efficiency roughly 300 times greater than we currently get from uranium in existing reactors.
This radical improvement in efficiency means that we could supply world energy needs with about 6000 tonnes of thorium rather than the 65,000 tonnes of uranium, 5 billion tonnes of coal, 32 billion barrels of oil, and 3 trillion cubic meters of gas we use today.
Thorium resources are abundant and a single thorium site in Idaho could provide nearly all the world’s yearly demand for thorium. But long before we even need that, there’s 3200 tonnes of thorium sitting in the desert of Nevada, neatly separated for us, that the US would probably give to the UK for free–if they paid the cost of shipping!
I briefly touched on the safety features of LFTR, specifically its freeze plug, as well as the reduced waste stream and valuable byproducts that could be produced by a LFTR.
Then I talked about rapid deployment, and offered my opinion that due to the coastal location of so much of the world’s population, and my considered opinion that LFTR could be built much more compactly than existing reactors, that we ought to consider building portable submersible LFTRs. Such submersibles could be built in the shipyards of England and then sent to wherever the power is needed, preferably plugging into the grid offshore of existing coal-fired power plants and providing reliable power as well as desalinated seawater to this most maritime of nations.
I concluded with describing the support of prominent environmentalists for new nuclear power as well as the “green shoots” of support that we are seeing in the US Congress for thorium. Thorium has the potential to be the backbone of our energy future, and we need to move quickly towards it.
After applause that I greatly appreciated, the panel asked me questions, the first of which was about the costs of the enterprise. I demurred on a cost estimate but hastened to point out that the low-pressure operation and compact size should lead to much cheaper construction costs. Another question had to do with why this reactor had not been developed further in the US. I explained how the technology did not align with “national needs” in the early 1970s, but that these priorities are quite different now. Finally I was asked about the biggest challenge this faced, and I answered that I thought it was the general ignorance and fear of nuclear technology. I told the story of my encounter with the Starbucks girl that morning, and her basic distrust of nuclear power. I said that we needed to get a message out to the world, and I thought that this was important enough that I came from the United States and missed my nation’s birthday, and then mentioned that I missed my own birthday (which led to laughter and applause) in order to come and explain this further. Lord Bingham, gracious as ever, asked me where one could find thorium, to which I replied, quite seriously…”everywhere.”
It all went very well and I was relieved to be finished! I left the hall with my thorium “mates” and we talked in the foyer and staircases for about an hour about how the talk went and what all the implications might be. Later, a documentary filmmaker came out and mentioned how he wanted to include thorium in a film he’s making about how to combat global warming. After the session, I had another chance to talk with different members of the panel and exchange business cards and so forth. Several of them seemed excited about what I had said and all seemed open to the idea.
That night I got to enjoy a real English dinner of roast lamb and Yorkshire pudding at a pub not far from the hall, and my thorium friends and I made plans to save the world with thorium, starting with England…
It was a great experience! My deepest appreciations go out to the Manchester International Festival for inviting me to come and speak and making all the arrangements. They took care of everything and made my stay in Manchester very enjoyable! Volunteers were always helpful and the Festival provided all the maps and information I needed to get around without any problem. I also really appreciate the Guardian newspaper for their sponsorship of the Manchester Report and I particularly enjoyed meeting the folks from the Guardian like Duncan Clark who were associated with the conference. Finally I have great respect and appreciation for our distiguished panel, Lord Bingham, Bryony Worthington, Dan Reicher, and Chris Goodall. They had the challenge of sitting in front of hundreds of people for two days listening to 20 presentations and managing to still ask good and cogent questions! Thank you!
The Guardian newspaper in Manchester was one of the primary sponsors of the Manchester Report, and the first day’s presentations were reported here:
UK Guardian: Can cloud-making ships, giant algae “stomachs” and the lessons of the Serengeti save us?
I anticipated that we would see an article in the paper about each of the technologies for combatting global warming that was presented. And here they are:
I recorded a brief video to accompany my presentation, where I briefly described their subject and its potential benefit. Despite an unfortunate slip-of-words at the end of my talk, here is my description:
Later on, the thorium approach went on to win the public poll in the Guardian newspaper.
Months later, the full Manchester Report was released:
The Manchester Report (PDF, 2.6MB)
The description of LFTR is found on pages 22-23:
The uranium that makes conventional nuclear power possible has a number of disadvantages. For one thing, uranium reactors generate large quantities of waste – some of which remains dangerous for millenia and a small proportion of which can be used to make nuclear weapons. A second issue is that uranium is a comparatively scarce material, which exists in significant quantities in a small number of countries.
For both of these reasons, a growing number of scientists and energy experts believe that the world should investigate the possibility of switching from uranium to thorium as its main nuclear fuel. Compared to uranium, thorium is far more abundant as well as much more energy-dense – a person’s lifetime energy needs could be held in one hand. In addition, the waste products generated by thorium are virtually impossible to turn into the plutonium needed for nuclear weapons production – and they remain dangerous for hundred of years rather than thousands.
There are a number of different ways to use thorium to produce electricity. In Manchester, Kirk Sorensen made the case for liquid-fluoride reactors. This technology was developed by the US military in the 1950s and 1960s and was shown to have many benefits. For example, reactors of this type can be both small and massively productive. Despite its early promise, research into liquid-fluoride thorium reactors was abandoned – the most likely reason being that the technology offered no potential for producing nuclear weapons.
VERDICT: Although the panel are not in a position to assess the feasibility of liquid-fluoride thorium reactors, Sorensen’s articulate and knowledgable advocacy made a persuasive case that this electricity generation technology deserves renewed investigation. Other ways of extracting energy from thorium should also be explored – both to reduce emissions and to help limit the production of the most dangerous nuclear waste.