More poor, desperate people died today trying to get gasoline from an overturned tanker than in the history of nuclear power.
A truck carrying fuel veered off the road into a ditch, caught fire and exploded in Nigeria’s oil-rich delta on Thursday, killing at least 95 people who had rushed to the scene to scoop fuel that had spilled, an official said, in a tragic reminder of how little of the country’s oil wealth has trickled down to the poor.
Shall we ban the use of gasoline?
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.
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After the luncheon panel on “Green Technology: What’s Now & What’s Next” at the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference, in Aspen, I confronted Amory Lovins and asked him a simple question: “Is there any potential technological innovation that would cause you to reconsider your views on nuclear power?”
Lovins is the founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute and his anti-nuclear stance is well-known, as exemplified by this article entitled “Forget Nuclear.” Lovins claim is that nuclear is both unsafe and uneconomical as compared to new wind and solar capacity. His answer to my question was, essentially, “No.” When I mentioned that I am the writer of the thorium feature that ran in Wired last year he replied “Well, I recall thinking that you got the economics and the technology backward.”
I have great respect for the work of the Rocky Mountain Institute and I will not detail here the ways in which he has it wrong on thorium-based nuclear power (for that please see the book version of the thorium story, due out next spring from Macmillan Science)—other than to note that the close-mindedness epitomized by his reply is what got us into our current energy crisis in the first place. What I will do is share some of the insights from the panel, which featured futurist Peter Schwartz, co-founder of Global Business Network, and Andy Karsner, CEO of Manifest Energy. The consensus was that there’s great reason for optimism on the technology side and little reason for it on the policy and politics side.
“We’re in a remarkable period of this great storm of innovation worldwide,” said Schwartz. “The problem is in the U.S.” The problem, he added, was the inability of the government to take concrete, rational policy steps that will clear the way for green-technology innovation to reach the market and for innovative companies to succeed.
The unexpected boom in natural gas from shale deposits, said Karsner, could serve as a relatively low-carbon bridge to the renewable-energy-based economy of the future, but that the obstacles of pervasive regulation and perverse incentives could prevent that from happening.
“We’re just an anti-energy development country,” declared Karsner. “That’s where we are.”
In his new book Reinventing Fire, due out in the fall, Lovins argues that by 2050 we can build a non-fossil-fuel based energy industry that includes no nuclear, significantly less natural gas, no oil, and that essentially runs on wind and solar and other renewables, with an 80 percent decrease in carbon emissions and 180 percent growth in GDP. (I do not share that optimism.)
Schwartz—who does not share Lovins’ knee-jerk opposition to nuclear power—mentioned that we are on the verge of a “new industrial revolution” based on new energy technologies, that will transform many businesses. “Where that will lead manufacturing, energy, and other industries is an open question,” Schwartz added. “What’s unquestionable is that the range of options will continue to grow.”
Mutiplying options was another theme that each of the panelists promoted. Lovins mentioned the work of RMI spinoff FiberForge, which has led the way in developing cars made from ultralight materials, chiefly carbon fiber, that will require one-third the energy to power them. He claimed that at least three carmakers (including most visibly BMW) have adopted this strategy and four others are in process of adopting it—representing a “radically different competitive path in automaking.”
As options for energy sources, particularly in transportation, multiply, one risk is “consumer confusion,” said Schwartz. If there are cars on the market with multiple forms of power sources—plug-in hybrid, hydrogen battery, serial hybrid, diesel, biofuel, and so on—the question for buyers become “What do I want, and how amI supposed to think about that?”
Given the rapid advance of clean-energy technology, the larger question, said Karsner, is one of national competitiveness: “Will we use these new resources, including natural gas and the new technology ideas, to address our greatest problems [in the United States] or will we export the gas, deploy solar manufacturing facilities, and send our better ideas to China, to collateralize our debt to China to pay the Saudis?”
Three things to point out about this discussion:
a) It’s remarkable how many discussions of the future of energy come down to Us vs.Them, i.e., the U.S. vs. China.
b) There is broad agreement that technologies will be available to meet broad carbon-emission goals by 2050, if national policy is shifted.
c) It’s remarkable that in a discussion that centered around energy density and efficiency, nuclear power was hardly even mentioned.
I really enjoyed the opportunity to be a part of Jim Puplava’s “Financial Sense Newshour” recently. Jim opened the interview with almost exactly the question I wanted to talk about: what are we going to do about our staggering dependence on fossil fuel?
Before I ever knew about thorium or LFTR, I would read about a lot of different energy technologies that promised to someday be 5% or 10% of our overall energy picture. I was always left wondering–what’s the 80% answer? What’s the 90% answer? What’s the technology that’s going to shoulder the burden of the planet’s energy needs into the future.
At one point I thought it was space solar power, but I was wrong. Later I thought it would be controlled thermonuclear fusion, but more education in that area left me highly doubtful. Ocean thermal-electric conversion looked very appealing, but it looked like is was only going to be a 5-10% type answer.
When I first read “Fluid Fuel Reactors” and learned about thorium and LFTR technology, it seemed like that was the “silver bullet” as Jim Puplava put it, but my own ignorance and fear of being wrong led me to second-guess my beliefs. That’s why I started working on a nuclear engineering degree. That’s why I wanted to get the scanned ORNL documents up on the Web and why I started to blog–to answer the simple question: is this as good as it looks to me?
I’m convinced now that it is.
I hope you enjoy the interview, which you can download in a variety of different audio files or read the transcript (but I think the audio versions are better).
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?
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.
The People’s Republic of China has initiated a research and development project in thorium molten-salt reactor technology, it was announced in the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) annual conference on Tuesday, January 25. An article in the Wenhui News followed on Wednesday (Google English translation). Chinese researchers also announced this development on the Energy from Thorium Discussion Forum.
A Chinese delegation led by Dr. Jiang travelled to Oak Ridge National Lab last fall to learn more about MSR technology and told lab leadership of their plans to develop a thorium-fueled MSR.
The Chinese also recognize that a thorium-fueled MSR is best run with uranium-233 fuel, which inevitably contains impurities (uranium-232 and its decay products) that preclude its use in nuclear weapons. Operating an MSR on the “pure” fuel cycle of thorium and uranium-233 means that a breakeven conversion ratio can be achieved, and after being started on uranium-233, only thorium is required for indefinite operation and power generation.
The Chinese now have the largest national effort to develop thorium molten-salt reactors. Whether other nations will follow is an open question.
For some time now, I’ve been working on a simulation of our electrical generation system, and as part of that I’ve fed in a lot of data about nuclear and coal-fired powerplants into a database. The simulation isn’t quite finished yet, but I wanted to share a very interesting observation.
How many times have you heard that “Three Mile Island was when we stopped building nuclear reactors…”
I’ve heard it a lot. And it turns out to be very untrue. The incident at Three Mile Island-2 happened in March of 1979. Take a look at this graph:
Specifically, look how much capacity was added AFTER 1979, both in PWRs (pressurized-water reactors) and BWRs (boiling-water reactors). About half of all the PWR capacity we have today came about AFTER TMI-2, and nearly that much of BWR capacity. So we kept building and commissioning new nuclear reactors well after TMI-2, and even into the 1990s. But this graph also shows the results of scheduled shutdowns of nuclear reactors (all the dates came from the EIA website). Many of these reactors will get license extension but you can see the general trend.
Now look at this data:
There is no equivalent “EIA” website where you can look up the shutdown dates for coal-fired powerplants, and these aren’t even all the coal plants in the country, only the biggest ones. Look how much coal-fired capacity came online in the 1970s. Staggering, isn’t it? And even into the 1980s lots of coal-fired capacity came on the grid. But in the 1990s it nearly stopped.
I don’t know how many of these coal-fired plants will be shutdown in the future, but you can see where the trends are going with regards to coal and nuclear. We’re going to need to build nuclear plants fast just to “hold our ground”, and if we want to advance against coal we’re going to need to build a lot faster. That’s why we have to get capital costs down for new nuclear plants and speed their construction, and that’s where the advances inherent in the liquid-fluoride thorium reactor make such a profound difference.
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:
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.