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?
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.
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.
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: