Last Friday this blog quietly celebrated its fifth anniversary.
Very quietly in fact because I was busy getting the family to the in-laws to celebrate Easter and I imagine many other people were busy too. But even though it’s a few days late, permit me to tell the story of this blog.
Like many other things in my life, this blog was born of frustration. In 2002, Bruce Patton (now of ORNL, then of NASA) and I had obtained some modest funds to get the records of the Molten-Salt Reactor Program digitized and scanned in PDF documents. By the end of 2002, I had a stack of five CDs that contained the bulk of these records and I wanted to see them read by people in key-decision making positions.
I made copies of the CDs and sent them to various leaders–heads of national labs, the Secretary of Energy at the time, university professors. I viewed my role as akin to the medieval monk who had obtained a copy of the great works of Aristotle or Plato and wanted his contemporaries to read it. I had hope that one of the people who might read the documents on the CDs would say, “Aha! This work was incredibly important! We should restart it!”
But that simply didn’t turn out to be the case.
By early 2006 my friend at Glenn Research Center Ray Beach told me that he was going to set up a meeting with me and some of his friends and colleagues in the energy generation arena. We had the meeting in February 2006, and I credit that with being the start of my public advocacy for LFTR.
Sometime in April of 2006 I saw an advertisement for a web site hosting service for $100/yr and 25 GB. I realized that would be enough to hold the documents and so I bought the domain name “energyfromthorium.com” and began uploading the documents. It took a few days. Then I needed to promote it, so I started a blog using the Blogger software and some of you might remember the original location of Energy from Thorium being a blogspot.com address.
Those first few months were still some of my very best blogging, as I would write articles about the various aspects of LFTR design and processing. The readers to the blog came slowly but steadily, and I really appreciated everyone who came and commented. Back then I only had two kids and they were sleeping through the night so I had more time to blog.
By November of 2006 I noticed that some of our discussions were getting pretty long and I wanted a discussion forum to complement the blog, so I installed one on the server and we got the Energy from Thorium Discussion Forum. It was a lot of fun and active discussions stayed near the top of the list which was a substantial advantage over the blog comments.
In the spring of 2007 I led a graduate design team as part of my coursework at the University of Tennessee and we had a baby boy, so both my blogging and commenting on the forum dropped a lot. But I really enjoyed all of the things I was learning through the attempt to design a fluoride reactor albeit for a school project.
On June 30, 2007 I awoke one Saturday morning to find that my baby son had died in the night, and my life seemed to end. I stopped blogging. I pretty much stopped doing everything. I appreciate Charles Barton co-blogging at Energy from Thorium as well as at Nuclear Green for those years where it was difficult for me to get going again.
In June of 2009 a panel meeting at the American Nuclear Society meeting in Atlanta got me excited about blogging again, and I took over the reins of Energy from Thorium once more. I’ve done better since 2009 but I’ve never come close to matching the output of that first year in 2006 or the prolific blogging of my friends Charles Barton or Rod Adams. Frankly, I don’t think I ever will.
Lots of people came to know about thorium from this blog. John Kutsch found out about it and started the Thorium Energy Alliance, which has been a tremendous force for moving the message forward. We had our first conference in October 2009 in Washington, DC, then our second in March 2010 hosted by Google in Mountain View California. In a few weeks we’ll have our third conference again in Washington DC.
As far as I know, Andreas Norlin found out about thorium from this blog and started the International Thorium Energy Organization (IThEO) which had its inaugural conference in London in October of 2010 and was a great success.
In March 2010 I started a Facebook page to correspond with the blog which has turned into a bit of a “micro-blog” for the thorium message and has attracted over 2500 fans and is growing every day.
Many people have learned about thorium from the blog and the organizations it has spawned and inspired. That gives me deep satisfaction.
But I have also been surprised at how muted the response to the thorium message has been among two communities that should have embraced it with open arms.
First is the environmentalist community. Thorium is a reliable and energy-rich substance that can address many of their issues with existing forms of nuclear power. Yet not a single environmentalist organization of any stature has embraced it. Why?
Second is the nuclear power generation community. LFTR technology addresses concerns about safety, high-pressure operation, spent-fuel management, nuclear fuel resources, and a host of other concerns. Yet not a single large-scale nuclear manufacturer has any effort to develop LFTR. No national nuclear program outside of the Chinese has an effort to develop thorium/LFTR. Why?
It truly makes me wonder if the things that the nuclear and environmentalist communities say are important to them really are important to them, because if you take them at face value, they should be enthusiastic about thorium/LFTR, and after five years of effort it’s safe to say that they’re not. It really makes me wonder.
Nevertheless, our efforts have brought many thousands of people to know and advocate for thorium and LFTR who probably never thought much about nuclear energy before that, and I am very very grateful for that.
Thank you all for your support of this blog and the larger effort to move the world to sustainable and safe nuclear energy powered by thorium and LFTR technology.
Almost half of new electricity demand over the last decade has been generated from coal, meaning that “achieving the goal of halving global energy-related CO2 emissions by 2050 will require a doubling of all renewable generation use by 2020 from today’s level.”
And how does the IEA suggest that renewable generation be doubled in the next nine years? Through increased investment in renewable technology – most importantly, so-called “clean coal.”
“Extensive deployment of carbon capture and storage is critical to achieve climate change goals,” the report claims, calling for around 100 large-scale CCS projects by 2020, and over 3,000 by 2050. There are five large-scale CCS in operation today – none of which are commercial deployments.
I’m sorry, but building 10 CCS plants a year over the next nine years is a fantasy. In 2009 I produced a report for Pike Research on CCS that punctured the notion that commercial coal plants will be retrofitted with carbon-capture systems in the near-term.
“The addition of CCS systems to power plants will likely add between 50% and 70% to the cost of producing electricity,” I calculated. The challenges include uncertainty about the costs of the technology, the lack of a pipeline network to transport CO2 to geological storage sites, and most notably the absence of a price on carbon emissions. “The intensive short-term financing, radical policy shifts, and R&D advances that would be required for multiple deployments of CCS in the next five years appear unlikely,” I concluded.
A look at the chart accompanying the IEA report tells you all you need to know about the flawed priorities behind the Agency’s projections. Under the scenario contemplated here, by 2050 expanded nuclear power will account for 6% of the carbon-emissions reductions required to reach the “Blue Map” goal for total worldwide CO2 emissions; CCS will provide 19% of the desired reductions. If you reverse those totals you’d have a much more realistic, and achievable, set of goals.
Meanwhile overall venture funding for clean energy is up: “Venture capitalists invested $2.57 billion in the clean technology sector in the first quarter,” Reuters reports, citing figures from Cleantech Group LLC, “up 31 percent from a year earlier, with most of the money going to companies involved in solar power.” That’s the most since 2008, before the financial crisis shoved the world economy into a ditch. None of that went into advanced nuclear power, although Khosla Ventures, one of Silicon Valley’s most admired and imitated venture funds, is a backer of TerraPower, which is developing traveling-wave reactors.
President Obama, having watched his energy policy go down in flames at the start of his administration, is readying a revamped and scaled-down plan to move away from fossil fuels. But the radical new budget proposal from Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House budget committee, would essentially abandon all government support for renewable energy while preserving federal subsidies for fossil fuels.
The plan “rolls back expensive handouts for uncompetitive sources of energy, calling instead for a free and open marketplace for energy development, innovation and exploration,” Ryan wrote in an op-ed the week in The Wall Street Journal. Translation: forget about solar tax credits and government-support loans for wind-energy projects, and don’t touch subsidies to Big Oil.
So what is to be done? The plan outlined by Kirk on this blog is a great place to start. I would add that the steps in the plan – particularly No. 2, “Restart LFTR Research & Development” – should be thoroughly costed-out. In his July 2010 post on Energy From Thorium entitled “Energy Cheaper Than From Coal,” Robert Hargraves makes some initial calculations. A realistic, fully developed cost model for developing liquid-fluoride thorium reactors is the first step in demonstrating that advanced nuclear power is the only way out of our current dilemma. And that organizations promoting clean coal, and ill-founded goals for carbon capture and sequestration like those found in the new IEA report, are “talking moonshine,” to quote Lord Rutherford.
And, by the way: Abu Dhabi, the scene of today’s ministerial meeting, last month “broke ground on the proposed site of its $20 billion first nuclear plant, part of the emirate’s plan to diversify its energy mix and free-up more fossil fuels for lucrative export.” To where do you think they’re planning to export that excess oil?
Kirk’s note: I want to welcome Bram Cohen as an author on Energy from Thorium!
The ongoing Fukushima Daiichi disaster is naturally making many people wonder about the safety of nuclear power. It’s a good illustration of how unexpected failures happen in practice, and also shows how Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) is a fundamentally safer approach. When building a reliable system, you must assume it will fail. Regardless of how many layers of safety you build into something, what really determines its fundamental safety is what happens if all safety systems fail at once. For a nuclear facility, aside from specifically hardening against disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes, terrorist-flown airplanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, malicious actors, etc., you must also make a fundamental engineering assumption that it will melt down. No matter how improbable you think you’ve made it for a meltdown to occur, the most important feature of any nuclear facility is what happens when a meltdown does occur. And not only that, but there should be contingency plans for what happens when the plant is hit with God’s flyswatter, not because such a thing is likely or even possible, but because you can’t really be too paranoid about engineering for such scenarios.
Below I will describe development of the disaster in Japan, and how a Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) is a fundamentally safer design, not only in terms of basic safety measures, but in terms of planning for absolute worst-case scenarios.
Here are the basic facts of what we know has happened at the Fukushima Daiichi plant (events are still developing and currently available information is sketchy and unreliable, but these points are fairly well established):
This is fairly typical of disaster scenarios. Something unexpected occurs, resulting in failure. In this case the cause was a natural disaster which was merely larger than prepared for, usually it’s something far less prosaic. The failure was then followed by a predictable chain of events which extra safety precautions could have been built for, but weren’t on the theory that adequate safety mechanisms were already in place, violating the maxim everything will fail. Specifically in this case, pressure valves could have been added so that in the event of excessive pressure building up gases could be released without cracking the containment vessel. But that sort of extra safety precaution, while a good idea, should only be viewed as a stop-gap measure. The real problem is having water-cooling at all, which inherently creates problems of high pressures, potential dissociation of the water, and need for powered cooling. Far better to not have water present in the first place.
While some currently operating plants are much safer than the compromised Japanese reactors, no existing reactors have near the potential safety features of a LFTR, which can be designed to limit the amount of damage that happens if everything, and I mean everything fails.
That said, all possible levels of failure of a LFTR can and should be prepared for. They basically go as follows:
A final step to keeping everything secure, counterintuitively, would be to build a plant submerged underwater. We tend to think of oceans as stormy places, because we are used to the surface, but 100 feet down they are the most serene, well-shielded place on earth, immune to earthquakes, hurricanes, airplanes, and all but the most extraordinary of tsunamis.
All these safety features aren’t happenstance to the advantages of LFTRs. Almost every aspect of how LFTRs are cheaper and more expedient to produce is directly related to them having fundamental safety features which make them not require the massive overengineering of conventional nuclear reactors. While the fuel cost advantages of a LFTR over a conventional reactor appear overwhelming at first ($100,000 instead of $50,000,000) when you dig into the numbers it turns out that fuel costs aren’t a big driver of nuclear plant cost, because Uranium contains extraordinary amounts of energy itself. The extreme lengths you have to go to in order to overcome a conventional solid fueled plant needing to have excess fuel in the reactor and operate at greater than atmospheric pressure are what account for most of the price of conventional plants.
Last night I was flying back from speaking at TEDxYYC to Alabama and I had a bit of time on my flight, so I watched a program that I had recorded on PBS a few days earlier.
It was called “Plan-B: Mobilizing to Save Civilization” and it focused mostly on the work of Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute, as he travelled the world and particularly through Asia discussing how climate change would affect food production, and ultimately, civilization.
The program began with what has become fairly standard fare in these types of programs, describing how fossil fuels have filled the atmosphere with CO2 and all the terrible things that will entail…I’ve seen all that before, many times.
I wanted to know about the solution set–what would Mr. Brown propose to do about it?
The answer was also unsurprising. Nuclear was dispatched in a single sentence as “too expensive.” That was the beginning and the end of the entire discussion on nuclear power. No consideration of how to change that fact, no allowance for any new technologies. Too expensive. Move on.
The tone of the music changed. It went from heavy and ominous to light and hopeful. Glorious computer-generated images of endless rows of offshore windmills appeared, all of them steadily rotating in the computer-generated breeze. These windmills were backlit by a setting sun. Golden light, an artist friend used to tell me, was the key to making everything beautiful. Golden light.
Then there was more optimism. Endless arrays of solar panels. Then the extruded parabola of the parabolic-trough solar concentrator. Even geothermal was included in the joy, with billowing white clouds of steam emerging from a plant nearly shrouded in white. The music told us what we needed to know–that this was good, virtuous stuff, and it was Going To Save Us.
I wish I shared the optimism. Because despite the computer-generated images of the high-speed rail cars moving through a landscape of windmills, the numbers just don’t add up. Solar and wind are too diffuse to be economical and too intermittent to be dependable. Geothermal is just thorium energy with a bad heat exchanger and a long time scale.
Matt Damon’s impassioned narration made it clear that Mr. Brown was absolutely committed to saving the world from the doom that lies ahead of us if we don’t change our ways. I ended the program wondering if I should email him about thorium/LFTR.
I’m still wondering and would appreciate your advice.