11 workers are still missing and presumed dead after an explosion and fire on an oil-drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico.
Once again, we see that fossil fuels kill. Regularly. So far in this still-new year we’ve had an explosion on February 7 at a natural gas plant killing six, a refinery explosion on April 2 killing five workers, a terrible coal mine explosion on April 5 killing 29 miners, and now an oil rig explosion on April 20 likely killing 11.
So coal, oil, and gas have killed 51 people, or nearly a person every other day. Is this acceptable in our modern energy-starved society?
There is a better way:
Did you know that uranium dioxide is a semiconductor? In fact, it’s a really good one! That means that you could make solar panels, LEDs, and computer chips from it…can you imagine uranium oxide solar panels?
I had an idea today–since U-233 represents something like a “catalyst” for the prolonged consumption of thorium in a LFTR, and since a LFTR can be built that has a unity conversion ratio (makes as much U-233 as it consumes), then perhaps a nation that developed a large supply of U-233 could “rent” it to nations that want to start LFTRs but lack the ability to get or make U-233.
In a similar manner to the nuclear waste fund (1/10th of a penny per kilowatt*hour) the nation that “rents” U-233 to another nation could levy a rental fee on the electrical energy produced with “their” U-233. That way, a small country like Singapore could build or buy LFTRs and operate them, and the nation like the US that “rents” the U-233 could gain from the operation. At the end of the rental period, the agreement would stipulate that the U-233 be “returned” or accounted for. For a unity-conversion LFTR, this should work.
The US has 1000 kg of U-233. Unfortunately, it’s still bent on destroying this precious resource. In the scenario I outlined at TEAC2 and a few days ago in a blog post, we will use LFTRs and chloride reactors to destroy HEU and plutonium and make lots of U-233 for more LFTRs. This scenario might provide other uses for U-233 outside of the United States.
Since giving my talk at TEAC2 several weeks ago on my proposed plan for our nuclear future, I’ve been spending a lot more time thinking about this issue, the plan, and how to describe what I would propose to do.
Sometimes it helps me to sort out thoughts by drawing a picture, but in this case, as I sketched out my plan, I found that I needed to sketch out descriptions of how nuclear operations have been conducted in the past, how they are conducted currently, and what the conventional view of our nuclear future is.
Here’s a sketch of how things worked back then. They would mine uranium and process the ore at a mill. Then some of the ore would be converted from natural uranium dioxide (the form it’s in in the earth) to uranium hexafluoride (UF6), which is a gas. When I say “natural” in these descriptions, I generally mean its isotopic consistency, in other words, that the proportions of U-235 and U-238 are the same as those found in nature (0.7% U-235 and 99.3% U-238 respectively).
So the NUF6 (natural uranium hexafluoride) would be enriched in a huge enrichment plant. Some of the first of these were in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, but later facilities were at Portsmouth, Ohio and Paducah, Kentucky. At these enrichment facilities, the composition of the uranium was changed at incredible expense. Most of the uranium ended up “depleted”, which means it has less U-235 than when it started. Some ended up “highly-enriched”, to the point where the uranium was nearly all U-235.
Another path was taken to make plutonium. This time, natural uranium was loaded into special heavy-water reactors at places like Savannah River that would lightly irradiate the uranium (I sometimes call it “toasted” uranium) in order to convert some of the abundant U-238 into plutonium-239. This plutonium was then separated chemically at an aqueous reprocessing facility and used for weapons construction.
We also have a lot of highly-enriched uranium that’s coming from the decommissioning of nuclear weapons. In a bizarre waste of energy, this HEU is being “downblended” with depleted uranium to also make nuclear fuel for light-water reactors. The energy investment originally required to make HEU was titanic, so downblending it is not my favorite idea for what we should be doing, but it’s what we’re doing nonetheless.
As you can see from the graph, our weapons-grade plutonium isn’t currently being used, and our small U233 inventory is sitting there too. We have a huge inventory of reactor-grade plutonium in our spent nuclear fuel, but the current plan (and it’s still law until they change the law) is to send it to Yucca Mountain.
Our small U233 inventory, as I have bemoaned so many times, is slated for destruction in this scenario by mixing it with depleted uranium and burying it somewhere, probably in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) facility in New Mexico.
It’s also possible that we might use aqueous reprocessing to recover reactor-grade plutonium from our light-water reactor fuel and make more MOX out of that, although the prospects for doing in this in the US aren’t so likely. France is doing this right now.
In this scenario, we still need a Yucca-Mountain type facility. We may reduce the need somewhat, but it’s still there.
We also stop downblending of HEU but use instead to start special versions of LFTR that are intended just to make more U-233. So these special LFTRs will live on a diet of HEU and produce U-233 in their blankets to start other LFTRs.
We take all of the spent, exposed uranium oxide fuel (XUO2) that our light-water reactors are producing and we fluorinate it. Most of it will come out as UF6 that we could send back to the enrichment plant if we want. The transuranic waste (TRU) which is mostly plutonium is sent to the chloride reactors to be burned up.
To make all of this happen we’re going to need a lot of fluorine to make all this fluoride salt. The average LFTR fuel is over 50% fluorine by weight. Here’s a chance to kill two birds with one stone. Most of the uranium we’ve ever mined is sitting outside of the enrichment plant in barrels as depleted uranium hexafluoride (DUF6). Each of those uranium atoms is locking up six fluorine atoms. Furthermore, disposing of depleted uranium in this chemical form (UF6) is a really bad idea. UF6 is chemically unstable, because the uranium is just barely holding on to those last two fluorine atoms. UF4 is much more stable, and UO2 is more stable than that (in nature). So we need to convert all of that DUF6 to DUO2 and recover lots and lots of fluorine. The recovered fluorine is then used to fluorinate spent uranium oxide fuel from light-water reactors, and to form new fuel and blanket salts for all the LFTRs we will build. Once DUO2 has been produced from DUF6, it could be disposed on in the same mines from whence it originally came. It will never be as radioactive as natural uranium (and its decay products).
In the scenario I lay out, the U-233 is precious, and we stop all efforts to destroy it. Rather, we want to make much more of it. We want LFTRs burning up HEU to make U-233. We want chloride reactors burning up plutonium to make U-233. Uranium-233 is the constraining factor in our thorium expansion because we have so little and we need so much.
The thorium itself will be easy to come by, provided that we begin to mine for rare-earth elements again, and stop relying wholly on Chinese imports. Thorium is always found with rare-earth elements, and will be available in large quantities for essentially no cost. They may actually even pay us to take it!
The goal of this plan is to address all of the heritage HEU and plutonium both from our weapons-program and from light-water reactor operation, as well as to get us off of fossil fuels and running on thorium. Another goal of this plan is to eliminate the need for a Yucca-Mountain style repository.
I think it can work! What do you think?
(here’s the original slides if you’re interested…)
There were several of the MSRP reports that dealt with the two-fluid thorium reactor design that I have come to favor so much. I have converted the MSBR design section from the first of these reports (ORNL-4119) into a WordPress “page” to make it easier to read online. I hope you enjoy:
A few weeks ago, I sent some of my powerpoint depictions of the thorium energy generation process to Suzanne Hobbs of PopAtomic Studios, wondering if she could work her artistic magic on it.
She sure did!
Thanks Suzanne! This is great!