Jiang Mianheng gave the lead-off presentation at the International Thorium Energy Organization 2012 meeting in Shanghai, sponsored by the Shanghai Institute of Nuclear and Applied Physics and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). Jiang Mianheng is the son of former president Jiang Zemin and a leader of CAS. After publication of Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors in the July/August 2010 American Scientist he led a delegation to Oak Ridge National Laboratory to learn more about the ORNL molten salt reactors experience. In January 2011 the CAS announced a $350 million 5 year thorium MSR project engaging 400 people.
Videographer Gordon McDowell provided this initial draft of Jiang’s presentation. Jiang explains China’s GDP growth, urbanization, and increasing energy demand and concern about environmental impacts of burning fossil fuels. He presents the potential for using LFTR to solve these problems. You might spot some graphics from the American Scientist article and the Aim High presentation.
After his presentation I presented him a copy of THORIUM: energy cheaper than coal, which he insisted that I autograph.
Our world is beset by global warming, pollution, resource conflicts, and energy poverty. Millions die from coal plant emissions. We war over mideast oil. Food supplies from sea and land are threatened. Developing nations’ growth exacerbates the crises.
Few nations will adopt carbon taxes or energy policies against their economic self-interests to reduce global CO2 emissions. Energy cheaper than coal will dissuade all nations from burning coal. Innovative thorium energy uses economic persuasion to end the pollution, to provide energy and prosperity to impoverished peoples, and to create energy security for all people for all time.
We can solve our global energy and environmental crises straightforwardly – through technology innovation and free-market economics. We need a disruptive technology – energy cheaper than coal. If we offer to sell to all the world the capability to produce energy that cheaply, all the world will stop burning coal. It’s as simple as that. Rely on the economic self-interest of 7 billion people in 250 nations to choose cheaper, nonpolluting energy.
Energy is about 7% of the economy. We, and especially developing nations, can not afford to pay much more for energy. Many environmentalists advocate replacing fossil fuel energy with wind and solar energy sources, blind to the fact that these are 3-4 times more costly! Global economic prosperity requires lower energy costs, not higher costs from taxes or mandated costly wind and solar sources. THORIUM: energy cheaper than coal advocates lowering costs for clean energy – a market-based environmental solution.
1 Introduction: an introduction to world crises related to energy and the environment, and the potential for good solutions.
2 Energy and civilization: the relationship between energy, life, and human civilization, easy energy science, life’s dependence on energy flows, civilization’s progress with the energy of the Industrial Revolution, and the 21st century crises of global warming and energy consumption.
3 An unsustainable world: global warming and its terrifying implications for water, agriculture, food, and civilization; depletion of economical petroleum reserves, deadly air pollution from burning coal, increased competition for natural resources from a growing population, and the solution of new energy technology, cheaper than coal.
4 Energy sources: the character and cost of current and principal emerging energy sources: coal, oil, natural gas, hydropower, solar, wind, biomass, and nuclear.
5 Liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR): the history and technology of liquid fuel nuclear reactors, the Oak Ridge demonstration molten salt reactors, thorium, LFTR, the denatured molten salt reactor (DMSR), builders, and possible contenders for energy cheaper than coal.
6 Safety: the safety of molten salt reactors, comparisons to alternative energy sources, radiation risks, waste, weapons, and fear.
7 A sustainable world: environmental benefits of thorium energy cheaper than coal: reduced CO2 emissions, reduced petroleum consumption, synthetic fuels for vehicles, hydrogen power, water conservation, desalination.
8 Energy policy: current confused policies; failure to reduce CO2 emissions, subsidies, recommendations, leadership.
“This book presents a lucid explanation of the workings of thorium-based reactors. It is must reading for anyone interested in our energy future.”
Leon Cooper, Brown University physicist and 1972 Nobel laureate for superconductivity
“As our energy future is essential I can strongly recommend the book for everybody interested in this most significant topic.”
George Olah, 1994 Nobel laureate for carbon chemistry
“Hargraves’ book contains a wealth of information that I’ve never seen anywhere. Very informative and insightful.”
Steve Kirsch, San Jose entrepreneur and philanthropist
“The book describes mankind’s hope for a sustainable and prosperous future: high-temperature thorium-based reactors. The writing is clear and factual, and the book will helpful to anyone interested in energy choices.”
Meredith Angwin, Director of Energy Education for the Ethan Allen Institute
“A terrific book-length description of the need for energy solutions for this century, leading the reader to the advantages of thorium fissioning in a fluid of of molten salt. He explains the technical basis for how such a power plant works and why it can be cheaper than making power from coal — the dominant fuel for power plants today. This book will be a valuable aid for the many people who will take this demonstrated technology of the 1960s at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee through the rebirth phase and into deployment in this century possibly to dominate the power plants by the later part of the 21st century. Another book about why the molten salt reactor development option was abruptly stopped in early 1970s, even though its demonstration was successful and the use of thorium held great promise is Super Fuel by Richard Martin (2012). For background the reader is referred to The First Nuclear Era by Alvin Weinberg (1994).”
Ralph Moir, retired Lawrence Livermore Laboratory physicist, expert in fusion and molten salt reactors
Energy from Thorium reader Raul Parolari thought that some of our posts should be presented in other languages, so he offered this translation to French.
French translation follows…
In the recent Nuclear Ammonia article post, ammonia was illustrated as a fuel that could propel vehicles in a zero carbon era. Despite our best efforts in developing new internal combustion engines and direct ammonia fuel cells, there will continue to be a role for carbonaceous fuels. Gasoline and jet fuel have double the volumetric energy capacity of liquid ammonia. A given fuel tank can only contain half as much ammonia combustion potential energy as gasoline combustion potential energy. Fuel tank size is very important in aircraft. Decades of engineering of airframes and turbine engines have optimized aircraft performance using diesel-like JP8 jet fuel.
Click to read full post…
The liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR) has the potential to make electric power cheaper than from coal. Typical costs for electric power bought by US utilities average around 5-6 cents per kilowatt hour generated by coal, hydro, and natural gas sources. Government regulations are requiring utilities to buy solar- and wind-generated power at 20-30 cents/kWh. LFTR’s potential cost advantage of 3 cents/kWh is the economic incentive to stop burning CO2-emitting coal, without economically injurious carbon taxes and politically obscured feed-in tariffs. In this way LFTR can improve both the environment and the economy.
Click to read full post…
The American Physical Society forum on Physics and Society has just published its quarterly newsletter, containing two articles about nuclear power, including one by Robert Hargraves and Ralph Moir, Liquid Fuel Nuclear Reactors.
Today’s familiar pressurized water nuclear reactors use solid fuel — pellets of uranium dioxide in zirconium fuel rods bundled into fuel assemblies. These assemblies are placed within the reactor vessel under water at 160 atmospheres pressure and a temperature of 330°C. This hot water transfers heat from the fissioning fuel to a steam turbine that spins a generator to make electricity. Alvin Weinberg invented the pressurized water reactor (PWR) in 1946 and such units are now used in over 100 commercial power-producing reactors in the US as well as in naval vessels.
Weinberg also pursued research on liquid fuel-reactors, which offer a number of advantages over their solid-fueled counterparts. In this article we review some of the history, potential advantages, potential drawbacks, and current research and development status of liquid-fueled reactors. Our particular emphasis is on the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR).
Before describing the characteristics of liquid-fuel reactors we review briefly in this paragraph the situation with PWRs. In a conventional PWR the fuel pellets contain UO2 with fissile U-235 content expensively enriched to 3.5% or more, the remainder being U-238. After about 5 years the fuel must be removed because the fissile material is depleted and neutron-absorbing fission products build up. By that time the fuel has given up less than 1% of the potential energy of the mined uranium, and the fuel rods have become stressed by internal temperature differences, by radiation damage that breaks covalent UO2 bonds, and by fission products that disturb the solid lattice structure (Figure 1). As the rods swell and distort, their zirconium cladding must continue to contain the fuel and fission products while in the reactor and for centuries thereafter in a waste storage repository.
In contrast, fluid fuels are not subjected to the structural stresses of solid fuels: liquid-fuel reactors can operate at atmospheric pressure, obviating the need for containment vessels able to withstand high-pressure steam explosions. Gaseous fission products like xenon bubble out while some fission products precipitate out and so do not absorb neutrons from the chain reaction. Like PWRs, liquid-fuel reactors can be configured to breed more fuel, but in ways that make them more proliferation resistant than the waste generated by conventional PWRs. Spent PWR fuel contains transuranic nuclides such as Pu-239, bred by neutron absorption in U-238, and it is such long-lived transuranics that are a core issue in waste storage concerns. In contrast, liquid-fuel reactors have the potential to reduce storage concerns to a few hundred years as they would produce far fewer transuranic nuclides than a PWR.
History of liquid fuel reactors
The world’s first liquid fuel reactor used uranium sulfate fuel dissolved in water. Eugene Wigner conceived this technology in 1945, Alvin Weinberg built it at Oak Ridge, and Enrico Fermi started it up. The water carries the fuel, moderates neutrons (slows them to take advantage of the high fission cross-section of uranium for thermal-energy neutrons), transfers heat, and expands as the temperature increases, thus lowering moderation and stabilizing the fission rate. Because the hydrogen in ordinary water absorbs neutrons, an aqueous reactor, like a PWR, cannot reach criticality unless fueled with uranium enriched beyond the natural 0.7% isotopic abundance of U-235. Deuterium absorbs few neutrons, so, with heavy water, aqueous reactors can use unenriched uranium. Weinberg’s aqueous reactor fed 140 kW of power into the electric grid for 1000 hours. The intrinsic reactivity control was so effective that shutdown was accomplished simply by turning off the steam turbine generator.
In 1943, Wigner and Weinberg also conceived a liquid fuel thorium-uranium breeder reactor, for which the aqueous reactor discussed above was but the first step. The fundamental premise in such a reactor is that a blanket of thorium Th-232 surrounding the fissile core will absorb neutrons, with some nuclei thus being converted (“transmuted”) to Th-233. Th-233, in turn, beta decays to protactinium-233 and then to U-233, which is itself fissile and can be used to refuel the reactor. Later, as Director of Oak Ridge, Weinberg led the development of the liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR), the subject of this article. Aware of the future effect of carbon dioxide emissions, Weinberg wrote “humankind’s whole future depended on this.” The Molten Salt Reactor Experiment, powered first with U-235 and then U-233, operated successfully over 4 years, through 1969. To facilitate engineering tests, the thorium blanket was not installed; the U-233 used in the core came from other reactors breeding Th?232. The MSRE was a proof-of-principle success. Fission-product xenon gas was continually removed to prevent unwanted neutron absorptions, online refueling was demonstrated, minor corrosion of the reactor vessel was addressed, and chemistry protocols for separation of thorium, uranium, and fission products in the fluid fluorine salts were developed. Unfortunately, the Oak Ridge work was stopped when the Nixon administration decided instead to fund only the solid fuel Liquid sodium Metal cooled Fast Breeder Reactor (LMFBR), which could breed plutonium-239 faster than the LFTR could breed uranium-233.
The Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor
A significant advantage of using thorium to breed U-233 is that relatively little plutonium is produced from the Th-232 because six more neutron absorptions are required than is the case with U-238. The U-233 that is bred is also proliferation-resistant in that the neutrons that produce it also produce 0.13% contaminating U-232 which decays eventually to thallium, which itself emits a 2.6 MeV penetrating gamma radiation that would be obvious to detection monitors and hazardous to weapons builders. For example, a year after U-233 separation, a weapons worker one meter from a subcritical 5 kg sphere of it would receive a radiation dose of 4,200 mrem/hr; death becomes probable after 72 hours exposure. Normally the reactor shielding protects workers, but modifying the reactor to separate U-233 would require somehow adding hot cells and remote handling equipment to the reactor and also to facilities for weapons fabrication, transport, and delivery. Attempting to build U-233-based nuclear weapons by modifying a LFTR would be more hazardous, technically challenging and expensive than creating a purpose-built weapons program using uranium enrichment (Pakistan) or plutonium breeding (India, North Korea).
Work on thorium-based reactors is currently being actively pursued in many countries including Germany, India, China, and Canada; India plans to produce 30% of its electricity from thorium by 2050. But all these investigations involve solid fuel forms. Our interest here is with the liquid-fueled form of a thorium-based U-233 breeder reactor.
The configuration of a LFTR is shown schematically in Figure 2. In a “two-fluid” LFTR a molten eutectic mixture of salts such as LiF and BeF2 containing dissolved UF4 forms the central fissile core. (“Eutectic” refers to a compound that solidifies at a lower temperature than any other compound of the same chemicals.) A separate annular region containing molten Li and Be fluoride salts with dissolved ThF4 forms the fertile blanket. Fission of U-233 (or some other “starter” fissile fuel) dissolved in the fluid core heats it. This heated fissile fluid attains a noncritical geometry as it is pumped through small passages inside a heat exchanger. Excess neutrons are absorbed by Th-232 in the molten salt blanket, breeding U-233 which is continuously removed with fluorine gas and used to refuel the core. Fission products are chemically removed in the waste separator, leaving uranium and transuranics in the molten salt fuel. From the heat exchanger a separate circuit of molten salt heats gases in the closed cycle helium gas turbine which generates power. All three molten salt circuits are at atmospheric pressure.
LFTRs would reduce waste storage issues from millions of years to a few hundred years. The radiotoxicity of nuclear waste arises from two sources: the highly radioactive fission products from fission and the long-lived actinides from neutron absorption. Thorium and uranium fueled reactors produce essentially the same fission products, whose radiotoxicity in 500 years drops below that of the original ore mined for uranium to power a PWR. A LFTR would create far fewer transuranic actinides than a PWR. After 300 years the LFTR waste radiation would be 10,000 times less than that from a PWR (Figure 3). In practice, some transuranics will leak through the chemical waste separator, but the waste radiotoxicity would be < 1% of that from PWRs. Geological repositories smaller than Yucca mountain would suffice to sequester the waste.
Existing PWR spent fuel can be an asset. A 100 MW LFTR requires 100 kg of fissile material (U-233, U-235, or Pu-239) to start the chain reaction. The world now has 340,000 tonnes of spent PWR fuel, of which 1% is fissile material that could start one 100 MW LFTR per day for 93 years.
A commercial LFTR will make just enough uranium to sustain power generation, so diverting uranium for weapons use would stop the reactor, alerting authorities. A LFTR will have little excess fissile material; U-233 is continuously generated to replace the fissioned U-233, and Th-232 is continuously introduced to replace the Th-232 converted to the U-233. Terrorists could not steal this uranium dissolved in a molten salt solution along with lethally radioactive fission products inside a sealed reactor, which would be subject to the usual IAEA safeguards of physical security, accounting and control of all nuclear materials, surveillance to detect tampering, and intrusive inspections.
It is also possible to configure a liquid-fuel reactor that would involve no U-233 separation. For example, the single fluid denatured molten salt reactor (DMSR) version of a LFTR with no U-233 separation is fed with both thorium and < 20% enriched uranium. It can operate up to 30 years before actinide and fission product buildup requires fuel salt replacement, while consuming only 25% of the uranium a PWR uses.
Starting up LFTRs with plutonium can consume stocks of this weapons-capable material. Thorium fuel would also reduce the need for U-235 enrichment plants, which can be used to make weapons material as easily as power reactor fuel. U-233, at the core of the reactor, is important to LFTR development and testing. With a half-life of only 160,000 years, it is not found in nature. The US has 1,000 kg of nearly irreplaceable U-233 at Oak Ridge. It is now slated to be destroyed by diluting it with U-238 and burying it forever, at a cost of $477 million. This money would be far better invested in LFTR development.
Can LFTR power be cheaper than coal power?
Burning coal for power is the largest source of atmospheric CO2, which drives global warming. We seek alternatives such as burying CO2 or substituting wind, solar, and nuclear power. A source of energy cheaper than coal would dissuade nations from burning coal while affording them a ready supply of electric power.
Can a LFTR produce energy cheaper than is currently achievable by burning coal? Our target cost for energy cheaper than from coal is $0.03/kWh at a capital cost of $2/watt of generating capacity. Coal costs $40 per ton, contributing $0.02/kWh to electrical energy costs. Thorium is plentiful and inexpensive; one ton worth $300,000 can power a 1,000 megawatt LFTR for a year. Fuel costs for thorium would be only $0.00004/kWh.
The 2009 update of MIT’s Future of Nuclear Power shows that the capital cost of new coal plants is $2.30/watt, compared to LWRs at $4/watt. The median of five cost studies of large molten salt reactors from 1962 to 2002 is $1.98/watt, in 2009 dollars. Costs for scaled-down 100 MW reactors can be similarly low for a number of reasons, six of which we summarize briefly:
Pressure. The LFTR operates at atmospheric pressure, obviating the need for a large containment dome. At atmospheric pressure there is no danger of an explosion.
Safety. Rather than creating safety with multiple defense-in-depth systems, LFTR’s intrinsic safety keeps such costs low. A molten salt reactor cannot melt down because the normal operating state of the core is already molten. The salts are solid at room temperature, so if a reactor vessel, pump, or pipe ruptured they would spill out and solidify. If the temperature rises, stability is intrinsic due to salt expansion. In an emergency an actively cooled solid plug of salt in a drain pipe melts and the fuel flows to a critically safe dump tank. The Oak Ridge MSRE researchers turned the reactor off this way on weekends.
Heat. The high heat capacity of molten salt exceeds that of the water in PWRs or liquid sodium in fast reactors, allowing compact geometries and heat transfer loops utilizing high-nickel metals.
Energy conversion efficiency. High temperatures enable 45% efficient thermal/electrical power conversion using a closed-cycle turbine, compared to 33% typical of existing power plants using traditional Rankine steam cycles. Cooling requirements are nearly halved, reducing costs and making air-cooled LFTRs practical where water is scarce.
Mass production. Commercialization of technology lowers costs as the number of units produced increases due to improvements in labor efficiency, materials, manufacturing technology, and quality. Doubling the number of units produced reduces cost by a percentage termed the learning ratio, which is often about 20%. In The Economic Future of Nuclear Power, University of Chicago economists estimate it at 10% for nuclear power reactors. Reactors of 100 MW size could be factory-produced daily in the way that Boeing Aircraft produces one airplane per day. At a learning ratio of 10%, costs drop 65% in three years.
Ongoing research. New structural materials include silicon-impregnated carbon fiber with chemical vapor infiltrated carbon surfaces. Such compact thin-plate heat exchangers promise reduced size and cost. Operating at 950°C can increase thermal/electrical conversion efficiency beyond 50% and also improve water dissociation to create hydrogen for manufacture of synthetic fuels such that can substitute for gasoline or diesel oil, another use for LFTR technology.
In summary, LFTR capital cost targets of $2/watt are supported by simple fluid fuel handling, high thermal capacity heat exchange fluids, smaller components, low pressure core, high temperature power conversion, simple intrinsic safety, factory production, the learning curve, and technologies already under development. A $2/watt capital cost contributes $0.02/kWh to the power cost. With plentiful thorium fuel, LFTRs may indeed generate electricity at less than $0.03/kWh, underselling power generated by burning coal. Producing one LFTR of 100 MW size per day could phase out all coal burning power plants worldwide in 38 years, ending 10 billion tons per year of CO2 emissions from coal plants.
Development Status of LFTRs
A number of LFTR initiatives are currently active around the world. France supports theoretical work by two dozen scientists at Grenoble and elsewhere. The Czech Republic supports laboratory research in fuel processing at Rez, near Prague. Design for the FUJI molten salt reactor continues in Japan. Russia is modeling and testing components of a molten salt reactor designed to consume plutonium and actinides from PWR spent fuel, and LFTR studies are underway in Canada and the Netherlands. US R&D funding has been relatively insignificant, except for related studies of solid fuel, molten salt cooled reactors at UC Berkeley and Oak Ridge, which hosted a conference to share information on fluoride reactors in September 2010.
Developing LFTRs will require advances in high temperature materials for the reactor vessel, heat exchangers, and piping; chemistry for uranium and fission product separation; and power conversion systems. The International Generation IV Forum budgeted $1 billion over 8 years for molten salt reactor development. We recommend a high priority, 5-year national program to complete prototypes for the LFTR and the simpler DMSR. It may take an additional 5 years of industry participation to achieve capabilities for mass production. Since LFTR development requires chemical engineering expertise and liquid fuel technology is unfamiliar to most nuclear engineers today, nuclear engineering curricula would have to be modified to include exposure to such material. The technical challenges and risks that must be addressed in a prototype development project include control of salt container corrosion, recovery of tritium from neutron irradiated lithium salt, management of structural graphite shrinking and swelling, closed cycle turbine power conversion, and maintainability of chemical processing units for U-233 separation and fission product removal. Energy Secretary Chu expressed historical criticism of the technology in a letter to Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) answering questions at his confirmation hearings, “One significant drawback of the MSR technology is the corrosive effect of the molten salts on the structural materials used in the reactor vessel and heat exchangers; this issue results in the need to develop advanced corrosion-resistant structural materials and enhanced reactor coolant chemistry control systems”, and “From a non-proliferation standpoint, thorium-fueled reactors present a unique set of challenges because they convert thorium-232 into uranium-233 which is nearly as efficient as plutonium-239 as a weapons material.” He also recognized, however, that “Some potential features of a MSR include smaller reactor size relative to light water reactors due to the higher heat removal capabilities of the molten salts and the ability to simplify the fuel manufacturing process, since the fuel would be dissolved in the molten salt.”
Other hurdles to LFTR development may be the regulatory environment and the prospect of disruption to current practices in the nuclear industry. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission will need funding to train staff qualified to work with this technology. The nuclear industry and utilities will be shaken by this disruptive technology that changes whole fuel cycle of mining, enrichment, fuel rod fabrication, and refueling. Ultimately, the environmental and human development benefits will be achieved only when the cost of LFTR power really proves to be cheaper than from coal.
Robert Hargraves and Ralph Moir, Liquid Fluoride Reactors, American Scientist, July/August 2010
Alvin Martin Weinberg, The first nuclear era: the life and times of a technological fixer. Springer, New York, 1997.
S. David, E. Huffer, H. Nifenecker, Revisiting the thorium-uranium nuclear fuel cycle
David LeBlanc, Molten Salt Reactors: A New Beginning for an Old Idea
Ralph Moir, Edward Teller, Thorium fueled underground power plant based on molten salt technology,
Per Peterson, Pebble Bed Advanced High Temperature Reactor, http://www.nuc.berkeley.edu/pb-ahtr/
Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Fluoride Salt-Cooled High-Temperature Reactor Agenda,
A Technology Roadmap for Generation IV Nuclear Systems, http://gif.inel.gov/roadmap/pdfs/gen_iv_roadmap.pdf
On August 30 Robert Hargraves presented a ten-minute version of Aim High to the Reactor and Fuel Cycle Subcommittee of the President’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. All the presentations are posted here by the commission.
The commission will not recommend any specific technology such as LFTR, but this presentation might nudge them closer to recommending policy changes for NRC that would facilitate SMR (small and medium reactor) licensing, and also support technology neutral licensing, so that technologies differing from today’s standard light water reactors might be approved.
Here is the text of the presentation, one paragraph per slide.
When economic well-being measured by the gross domestic product exceeds a threshold, birthrate drops sharply.
Global warming now threatens irreversible climate damage, ending glacial water flows needed to sustain food production for hundreds of millions of people, and shrinking the polar cold water regions of the ocean where algae start the ocean food chain. Atmospheric CO2 dissolving into the ocean acidifies it, killing corals and stressing ocean life. Demand for biofuels increases destruction of CO2 absorbing forests and jungles.
Burning coal for power is the largest source of atmospheric CO2, which drives global warming. Airborne coal soot causes 24,000 annual deaths in the US and 400,000 in China. We seek alternatives such as burying CO2, or substituting wind, solar, and nuclear power.
The world population growing from 6.7 to 9 billion will increase resource competition, exacerbating environment stress. Yet the OECD nations, with adequate energy supplies, have birthrates lower than needed for population replacement. Nations with GDP per capita over $7,500 have sustainable birthrates. Electricity for water, sanitation, lighting, cooking, refrigeration, communications, health care, and industry contributes to economic development. Those nations with per capita electricity of 2,000 kWh/year (1/6 US use and an average power of 230 W) do achieve GDP of $7,500 per capita, which leads to sustainable birthrates.
Taxing carbon seeks to encourage energy sources that do not emit CO2, yet this has not been effective in Europe. Developing countries will not agree to carbon taxes and forgo an advantage they perceive led to prosperity in OECD nations. Alternatively, a source of energy cheaper than from coal would dissuade all nations from burning coal, without imposing tariffs or taxes that reduce economic productivity. Affordable electric power can also help developing nations reach modest levels of prosperity and lifestyles that include sustainable birthrates.
The objective for energy cheaper than from coal is $0.03/kWh and a capital cost of $2/watt of generating capacity. How can the liquid fluoride thorium reactor produce energy cheaper than from coal?
Fuel costs. Thorium fuel is plentiful and inexpensive; one ton worth $300,000 can power a 1,000 megawatt LFTR for a year – enough power for a city. Just 500 tons would supply all US electric energy for a year. The US government has 3,752 tons stored in the desert. US Geological Survey estimates reserves of 300,000 tons, and Thorium Energy claims 1.8 million tons of ore on 1,400 acres of Lemhi Pass, Idaho. Fuel costs for thorium would be $0.00004/kWh, compared to coal at $0.03/kWh.
Capital costs. The 2009 update of MIT’s Future of Nuclear Power shows new coal plants cost $2.30/watt and PWR nuclear plants cost of $4.00/watt. The median of five cost studies of molten salt reactors from 1962 to 2002 is $1.98/watt, in 2009 dollars. The following are fundamental reasons that LFTR plants will be less costly than coal or PWR plants.
Pressure. The LFTR operates at atmospheric pressure, without a massive reactor vessel pressurized to 160 atmospheres, and without a large containment dome needed to contain any accidentally released radioactive materials propelled by pressurized steam. One concept for the smaller LFTR containment structure is a concrete building below grade, with a concrete cap at grade level to resist aircraft impact.
Safety. PWRs are safe because of defense in depth – multiple, independent, redundant systems engineered to control faults. LFTR’s intrinsic safety keeps such costs low. A molten salt reactor can’t melt down because the core is already molten — its normal operating state. The salts are solid at room temperature, so if a reactor vessel, pump, or pipe ruptured the salts would spill out and solidify. There is no explosion potential because the pressure in the reactor is atmospheric. If the temperature of the salt rises too high, a solid plug of salt in a drain pipe melts and the fuel drains to a dump tank; the Oak Ridge researchers turned the reactor off this way on weekends.
Heat. The LFTR safely operates at high temperatures. Salt remains liquid below 1400°C; internal graphite core structures maintain integrity even above this. Molten salt heat capacity exceeds that of the water in PWRs or liquid sodium in LMFBRs, allowing more compact heat transfer loops. The molten salt heat exchange loop components of high-nickel metals such as Hastelloy-N are qualified up to 750°C.
Helium gas (green) is successively heated by 700°C molten salt (red) from a LFTR heat exchanger as it passes through high, medium, and low pressure turbines (T). The gas cycles back through three successive compressors (C), cooled by fluid (blue) that transfers rejected heat externally. The recuperator (R) transfers some energy from the compression cycle back to the expansion cycle. The generators (G) produce electricity. (Diagram courtesy of Per Peterson of UC Berkeley.)
Brayton Cycle. The triple reheat closed cycle Brayton turbine achieves a 45% efficiency of conversion from thermal to electric power, compared to 33% typical of existing nuclear and coal power plants using traditional Rankine steam cycles. The Brayton rejected heat to power ratio is thus 1.2 (55/45) rather than Rankine’s 2.0 (67/33) so the cooling requirements are nearly halved, reducing cooling tower costs and making air cooled LFTRs practical in arid regions where water is scarce. This compact Brayton turbine machinery is a quarter the mass, suggesting a similar cost reduction.
Boeing, producing one $200 million airplane per day, is a model for LFTR production.
Mass production. Commercialization of technology leads to lower costs as the number of units increase. Experience benefits arise from work specialization, new processes, product standardization, new technologies, and product redesign. Business economists observe that doubling the number of units produced reduces cost by a percentage termed the learning ratio, seen in the early aircraft industry to be 20%. Today Moore’s law in the computer industry illustrates a learning ratio of 50%. In The Economic Future of Nuclear Power University of Chicago economists estimate the learning ratio is 10% for nuclear power reactors. Boeing, producing one $200 million airplane per day, is a model for LFTR production. Reactors of 100 MW size costing $200 million can be factory produced. Manufacturing more, smaller reactors traverses the learning curve more rapidly. Producing one per day for 3 years creates 1095 production experiences, reducing costs 65%
Research. Cost reductions are presaged by current engineering research. Compact, thin-plate heat exchangers may reduce fluid inventories, size, and cost. Possible new materials include silicon impregnated carbon fiber with chemical vapor infiltrated carbon surfaces and higher temperature nickel alloys. Operating at 950°C can increase thermal/electrical conversion efficiency beyond 50%, and also improve water dissociation to create hydrogen for manufacture of synthetic fuels such as methanol or dimethyl ether that can substitute for gasoline or diesel oil, another use for LFTR technology.
In summary, LFTR capital cost targets of $2/watt are supported by simple fluid fuel handling, high thermal capacity heat exchange fluids, smaller components, low pressure core, high temperature Brayton gas turbine power conversion, simple intrinsic safety, factory production, the learning curve, and new technologies already under development. A levelized $2/watt capital cost contributes $0.02/kWh to the power cost. With plentiful, inexpensive thorium fuel, LFTR can generate electricity at <$0.03/kWh, underselling power generated by burning coal. Producing one LFTR of 100 MW size per day could phase out all coal burning power plants worldwide in 38 years, ending 10 billion tons of CO2 emissions from coal plants now supplying 1,400 GW of electric power. Low LFTR costs are vital to this coal replacement strategy, achievable if this goal is maintained during every design choice. Inexpensive electric power can also assist developing economies to improve prosperity, encouraging lifestyles with sustainable birthrates.
The July/August 2010 issue of American Scientist magazine has a ten-page article, Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors, by Robert Hargraves and Ralph Moir. The article ends with a link to this web site, so welcome to you and other newbies.
This redesigned site is rich with information; here’s a guide for those with inquiring minds. Start at the very top of the page at the eight links in lower case separated by bars. Click on “about” for a short introduction to thorium, the research history, and a graphic representation of the liquid fluoride thorium reactor, LFTR.
Click “msrp” to read the summary of the molten salt research program at the Oak Ridge National Laboratories in 1958-1976, where these nuclear reactors ran. Click “plan” to read Kirk Sorensen’s vision of a deployment strategy that starts up a global fleet of LFTRs using up the fissile material from spent fuel “waste” and excess weapons.
In the right hand column under “Pages” are a timeline, a LFTR fuel cycle summary, and a plea to save the DOE’s U233 slated to be destroyed.
Under “Top Links” is the cited online forum, where engineers and scientists openly exchange ideas about LFTR technology. If you would like to contribute your knowledge, spend some time reading the posts in your area of expertise, register, and post.
Also under “Top Links” is the rich “PDF Document Repository” which is an index of all the LFTR R&D done by Oak Ridge National Laboratories, plus many recent papers by current researchers worldwide.
Scroll down to explore more of the right hand column links, pausing at “Archives” to peruse earlier posts to this blog.
Welcome to American Scientist readers and all newbies at Energy from Thorium.
I look forward to presenting Liquid Fuel Nuclear Reactors talk at the Thorium Energy Alliance symposium at the Googleplex next week. Part of that talk will remind us that the liquid fluoride thorium reactor is capable of producing energy cheaper than from coal.
Cap and trade and carbon taxes have faded from public attention. No agreement was reached in Copenhagen because the developing nations would not accept taxes that limited their potential for economic growth. From their point of view, the OECD nations achieved their wealth from cheap energy, from burning coal.
A way to dissuade nations from burning coal is to provide an economically superior alternative. If the LFTR can undercut the economics of coal, nations will build LFTRs and stop burning coal — all this without punishing carbon taxes and fraud-prone carbon credit trading. In the US the average cost of coal delivered to a utility is $40/ton, which works out to 2 cents/kWh just for the coal fuel. Depreciation and operating expenses double this. In China electric power is delivered at 5-7 cents/kWh to the industrial and commercial centers; I suppose [coal] power generation costs are half that. I propose a target for LFTR power of $0.03/kWh, from the power plant. This is an ambitious, achievable target, because of its unique, low cost attributes of compactness, intrinsic safety, and high temperature. I’ll present these next week.
Overpopulation, global resources, and wars over them are as critical to civilization survival as is climate change. Population is projected to climb from 6 to 9 billion people. Nations refuse to protect the few tuna left in the oceans. Mid-east wars over oil are fresh in memory.
Yet population growth is stable in the wealthy OECD nations; children are born at less than the population rate. Analyzing data from the CIA World FactBook shows that prosperity stabilizes population. At a GDP of $7,500 per capita, birthrates fall below the replacement rate. Fewer people competing for scarce global resources will stabilize the earth’s civilization.
Energy is a critical element of achieving prosperity. Prosperity also depends on food, education, health care, rule of law, a stable financial system, and good government. Consider the importance of electric power. It is essential to water distribution, sanitation, lighting, cooking, heating, refrigeration, communications, health care, and machinery. Prosperity helps people spend more time in productive jobs, becoming more educated, and having some leisure time to enjoy life. Freeing women from constant toils of everyday life allows them time to become educated, contribute to the paid workforce, and make choices about bearing children,
Providing power at $0.03/kWh makes energy affordable to developing nations. Another unique attribute of the LFTR is its ability to be produced in small sizes at affordable investment levels — $200 million for a 100 MW LFTR will meet the $0.03/kWh target. The CIA World FactBook data above shows that 2,000 kWh per capita per year suffices for modest prosperity. For comparison, the US uses 12,000 kWh per capita per year.
Energy cheaper than from coal is critical to civilization for two reasons: (1) stopping CO2 emissions from burning coal is a big step to controlling climate change, and (2) affordable electric power is key for developing nations to achieve modest prosperity and the lifestyles that include stable birthrates.