This is why:
Militants in Pakistan attacked a fuel supply convoy yesterday, killing at least four, that was bound for US military facilities inside Afghanistan. Twelve tankers were set ablaze and crews struggled throughout the night to put out the fire.
What does this have to do with thorium or LFTR?
A small rugged LFTR could provide electrical energy to these bases in Afghanistan that currently rely on shipments of vulnerable petroleum. Furthermore, the high-temperature capabilities of LFTR mean that we could also synthesize hydrocarbons to fuel vehicles on site, rather than trucking them in.
How would it work?
A small LFTR unit would be brought in to a military site in the form of a few standard containers. One would hold the reactor, its fuel and blanket processing system, and the primary heat exchangers, all within a strong and sealed containment system. The fact that LFTR operates at low pressure would mean that this containment would be close-fitting to the reactor. This is very different than the containments required on today’s water-cooled reactors, where they have to accommodate the expansion of high-pressure water into steam that can happen if pressure is lost. In a LFTR, the system is at low pressure and there is no high-pressure water or other gases inside the containment. The only thing that goes in is coolant salt and the only thing that comes out is coolant salt.
This whole assembly would be lowered into a below-ground concrete bunker. The gas turbine power conversion system would be brought in and attached to the coolant salt system. Coolant salt would heat gas that would drive turbines and generate power. The gas used in the power conversion system would be air-cooled via large air intakes and outlets.
How could we generate hydrocarbons? Using the electricity from the LFTR, we crack water electrolytically to generate hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is reacted with carbon (either brought in to the site or extracted from CO2 in the air) to form synthetic hydrocarbons to power vehicles and aircraft.
The fuel for the LFTR would be brought in separately from the reactor, and when it was time to leave it would be removed from the reactor first. The reactor would not be transported with fuel or blanket material onboard.
Why consider LFTR versus other designs?
LFTRs can operate at low pressures. Pressurized-water reactors can’t and gas-cooled designs like the pebble-bed reactor can’t. Low-pressure operation means you can have a compact unit with a close-fitting containment and no risk of high-pressure explosions.
Liquid-metal-cooled designs like sodium-fast reactors can also operate at low pressures, but they have reactive coolants that would be much too risky in a combat zone. You need a reactor that can take a lot of punishment and not risk a sodium fire or an supercriticality accident.
LFTRs can operate at high temperatures. This is important for generating power efficiently, but it’s even more important for making gas turbine power conversion (Brayton-cycle) and air-cooling feasible. With lower temperature reactors like water-cooled and sodium-cooled reactors, you have to use steam turbine power conversion (Rankine-cycle) and it’s really hard (not impossible, but really hard) to air-cool these systems without excessive penalty.
LFTRs are easy to fuel and keep running. Nobody wants to try to swap fuel rods or reprocess solid fuel elements in a remote environment. The liquid fuel used in LFTR can be shipped separately from the reactor. Don’t try that with a solid-fueled reactor. LFTR’s liquid-fuel is already in the right form for simple processing techniques like fluorination/reduction. Thorium in the blanket/shield of the LFTR absorbs neutron and gamma radiation while making new fuel to keep the reactor running.
LFTRs are stable and self-controlling. You don’t want a whole bunch of reactor operators trying to keep your reactor happy in a remote environment. You want a reactor that runs itself. LFTR can do that, through a strong negative temperature coefficient that makes it follow the load well, and the simple removal of xenon gas that would otherwise make changes in power level difficult. It’s the same reason why they wanted liquid-fluoride reactors for aircraft sixty years ago–they’re good at controlling themselves.
LFTRs can be protected against enemies. Liquid fuel means that “just-in-time” denaturing of the uranium-233 fuel is possible. If it looks like the bad guys are going to overrun your base, you hit a button and dump depleted uranium tetrafluoride in the core. Now no one will ever start your reactor again, and the U-233 is thoroughly denatured against any other use. (It’s always sad to trash U-233, but if the bad guys are coming, don’t you want to have the option?) Solid-fuel reactors can’t do just-in-time denaturing. You’ve got what you’ve got in the fuel and you can’t change it out in the field.
I spent two years as a civilian working at the US Army Space and Missile Defense Command, and had the privilege of working with men and women in uniform who had been over to the “sandbox”. I have talked with senior officials who have seen the problem firsthand that we face with vulnerable fuel convoys. I have talked to a general who wrote the letters to mothers and fathers telling them that their son or daughter had been killed transporting fuel through a combat zone. He had a simple question for me: would this reactor make a difference?
Yes sir, it would. It would make a big difference.
I really enjoyed being Kirsten’s guest and I thank her very much for the opportunity to talk with her about thorium and the liquid fluoride reactor!
The United States is facing a budget deficit of $1.5 trillion this year, and the new Republican-led House of Representatives (where spending originates in the US government) is looking for ways to save money.
We in the thorium community have a significant idea for how the government can
It’s pretty simple–cancel the Department of Energy’s plan to destroy the uranium-233 stored at Oak Ridge National Lab.
For over ten years, the DOE’s Environmental Management division has been implementing a plan from the Defense Facility Nuclear Safety Board (97-1).
According to the DOE-EM 2011 budget request (page 14):
The Oak Ridge National Laboratory maintains the Department’s inventory of Uranium-233 (U-233), which is currently stored in Building 3019. The FY 2011 funding request will continue design of a project that processes the U-233 material in preparation for future disposal. Benefits include reducing safeguards and security requirements and eliminating long-term worker safety and criticality concerns. Recent discoveries of structural integrity issues with Building 3019 and determination that a portion of the U-233 is unsuitable for disposal at WIPP will require significant design changes to the facility. EM plans to continue the design effort through 90 percent design in FY 2011. At that point, a new baseline for construction and operations will be established. This will ensure that the construction estimate will have the accuracy necessary to complete the project on schedule and within budget.
Here’s the monetary stats on this project, according to a table on page 65 of the budget plan:
Site: Oak Ridge Reservation
PBS Field Code: OR-0011Z
PBS Name: Downblend of U-233 in Building 3019
Prior Costs FY 97-2009: $138.809M
FY10 and Remaining Cost (Low Range): $222.040M
FY10 and Remaining Cost (High Range): $246.012M
Lifecycle Cost (Low Range): $360.849M
Lifecycle Cost (High Range): $384.821M
It’s not too late to save the uranium-233. Despite spending $130 million, the effort to actually destroy the U-233 really hasn’t begun yet. Never have I rooted so hard for a government contractor to go slow and perform poorly!
From page 132:
U-233 Downblend Contract: The contract for U-233 downblending and Building 3019 shutdown was awarded to Isotek Systems, LLC in October 2003, originally managed by the Office of Nuclear Energy Congress directed the Department in the FY 2006 Energy and Water Appropriations Act to transfer the management of this project to the Office of Environmental Management and to terminate the medical isotope production. The contract has been revised accordingly. Phase I covered planning and design, which was completed in July of 2007. The current contracting schedule is for enhanced 90% design, in which a detailed cost proposal will be provided with a revised baseline and data sheet.
FY 2009: $58M
FY 2010: $38.9
FY 2011: $50M
Downblending of the U-233 hasn’t begun yet. From what I have heard, the contractor (Isotek) plans to import enough depleted uranium (DU) to create a final mixture of DU and U-233 that has the same fissile content as natural uranium (0.7% U-235). Well, if you want your final product to have only 0.7% U-233, then you’re going to need to bring in 1400 kg/0.007 = 200,000 kg of depleted uranium, and that weighs a lot. I’m guessing that that is what is requiring expensive modifications to building 3019 to support all that weight. I don’t know–one can only speculate at what is going on.
This is a very expensive project to destroy a very valuable resource. Please ask your Congressman to put an end to this waste of taxpayer money and to direct the DOE to use the U-233 for LFTRs that will produce electrical power and valuable materials for NASA’s space exploration and cancer-fighting medical isotopes.
Here is a video presentation of how saving U-233 from destruction can help NASA explore space and help save lives from cancer.
Here’s their report:
Should the Department of Energy (Department) carry out its disposition plans to dispose of its uranium-233, there is no assurance that a viable inventory of progeny isotopes (actinium-225 and bismuth-213) will be available to meet domestic medical and scientific research needs.
I’ve scanned and uploaded a new document to the EfT Document Repository: