First of all, I’m very glad that John Kutsch has gone to the considerable time and effort it has taken to form the Thorium Energy Alliance. Then John went beyond that and organized the TEA Conference in Washington, DC, that took place on the 19th and 20th of October. John called me up in about June and said, “I’ve booked the hotel and conference room–now get some folks together or I’ll be eating the refreshments by myself!”
And so we did, bloggers and friends and advocates and newbies–all working together to get the word out about this infant conference and get people there. And I think the turnout was very good–I think we had about 30 people there along with a few who came in and out. Many of the familiar “faces” on the thorium-forum came, including David LeBlanc and Bob Hargraves, and other folks who have done a lot for the thorium effort “behind-the-scenes” were there as well.
I drove up from northern Alabama in my wife’s Honda Odyssey, picking up eager thorium-philes along the way. After a 12-hour drive to DC, we rolled into town and to the Kellogg Conference Center tired but excited for what was to come.
On Monday morning, John welcomed us all heartily and I gave the “keynote” speech. Figuring that a technical discussion of LFTR would probably not be the best idea at that point, I oriented my talk around the magnificent discovery of the nuclear properties of thorium by Glenn Seaborg and his graduate student team back in 1942. I talked about how Seaborg’s curiosity about the “extinct” decay chain that included U-233 led him to direct his students to bombard thorium with neutrons. Upon creating U-233, he correctly guessed that it would have fissile properties, but when it was discovered that U-233 would fission with more than two neutrons emitted, Seaborg quickly grasped the tremendous implications of that information and called it a “$50 quadrillion discovery.” For 67 years we have only slowly been coming around to understand what Seaborg grasped in a moment that day.
I was followed by Dr. David LeBlanc, who gave an excellent speech (just as I had thought) on the different types of fluoride reactors, both one-fluid and two-fluid, and describing the advantages and disadvantages of each. Someone who had never been exposed to the technology would have been well-served by listening to his talk. Dave also laid out how Oak Ridge National Lab personnel used their understandings of fluoride chemistry and potential reprocessing schemes to chart the most promising course through the myriad design possibilities, and where things stood when they ended.
Following that talk, Dr. Robert Hargraves gave his excellent talk “Aim High,” which I always get excited to hear. Bob talked about how if we want to stabilize world population, we need to raise standards of living, and that will take a lot of energy. A LOT of energy. But Bob tells us to “aim high” and to use LFTR technology and the manufacturing techniques pioneered by jet manufacturers like Boeing to mass produce the thousands of LFTRs that will be needed to achieve this lofty goal, that must be achieved.
Next Paul Houle spoke on “Getting LFTR off the Ground”, identifying approaches in simulation that will be necessary to design the reactor properly. He also discussed the most recent efforts in LFTR design in the Czech Republic.
We then enjoyed a very nice buffet lunch right outside the conference room–which meant that the great conversations could continue right through lunch. Before I went to lunch, John Wheeler and I had a chance to talk to Dr. Mitch Jacoby who was there from Chemical and Engineering News. As Mitch heard the thorium story (for the first time) he kept asking John and me–how come everyone isn’t talking about this? Mitch, I’ve wondered the same thing!
After lunch, our first speaker was Colonel Paul Roege of the US Army. Col. Roege is now actively investigating whether the Army could benefit from increased use of nuclear energy, and the answer appears to be a resounding yes. He talked about the “burdened” cost of petroleum fuel for soldiers in combat areas and it is in the hundreds of dollars! At such a cost, I’m surprised that developing a portable nuclear power system like LFTR isn’t one of the Army’s top priorities!
Jim Kennedy was another fascinating afternoon speaker. Jim owns a mine in Missouri that has valuable deposits of rare-earth minerals. He told how the Chinese, through shrewd industrial policy, have managed to become the only world supplier of rare-earth minerals. Furthermore, he described how rare-earth minerals are used in practically every consumer and high-tech good that we know of. He also described how the Chinese have used a carefully-engineering trade policy to get nearly all manufacturing processes that use rare-earths to locate in China. He advocated (and I completely agree with him) that we need a rare-earth refinery in the United States, backed by government policy, to insure that these critical and strategic minerals are available to American industry in all circumstances. What is particularly compelling is that thorium is nearly always found with rare-earth minerals, and that such a refinery would produce–simply in course of normal operation–a large stream of thorium that would available to us for power generation, at very low costs.
Think about it–with LFTR technology and an American rare-earth refinery, the energy needed to power our entire country would be available at a cost, both in dollars and environmental impact, of nearly nothing.
These are important messages that need to get out:
1) There is enough energy in thorium to power industrial civilization indefinitely.
2) The technology exists in the liquid-fluoride reactor to extract that energy.
3) Simply in the course of meeting other needs, we will have the thorium we need.
4) Our economic and national security could be tremendously enhanced by this resource.
Doesn’t this sound like a great conference? That’s because it was!
I attended the Thorium Energy Alliance meeting in Washington DC last week to present my submitted response to the ARPA-E, August 31, Request for Information about energy ideas such as “disruptive new approach to…thermodynamic power cycles.” I have to publicize this myself because DOE promised not to respond to submissions! I believe the responses help DOE plan and budget future Requests for Proposals, where money is actually granted. So get your grant writing hat on.