Several weeks ago Baroness Bryony Worthington of the House of Lords in the United Kingdom came to visit Flibe Energy in Huntsville, and as we in Huntsville are wont to do, we took her to the US Space and Rocket Center, where I gave her a guided tour of America’s race to the Moon. I couldn’t help but throw a few insights and analogies towards LFTR development in there as we talked.
Video editing and filming was done by Gordon McDowell and Cameron Frisby.
Baroness Worthington and I were interviewed by Jan Mazotti and Kelly de la Torre of Driving Force Radio and ICOSA Magazine during the Baroness’s visit to Huntsville, Alabama, on Tuesday, June 5, 2012.
I had the pleasure of meeting Jan and Kelly at the Global New Energy Summit in Colorado Springs in March, where we had a short interview. Jan and Kelly are a real pleasure to talk to and they came to Huntsville specially to meet the Baroness.
Last year, Kirk Dorius and I travelled to London to participate in the kickoff of the Weinberg Foundation, an advocacy group for thorium energy. I am pleased to announce with them the formation of an “All-Party Parliamentary Group” or APPG that contains members of both the House of Commons and House of Lords, to consider the potential of thorium as an energy source. This is a press release from the Weinberg Foundation that was issued today. Press contact details are included below.
Safer, cleaner nuclear alternative tops the agenda for new All-Party Parliamentary Group on Thorium Energy
World’s first coalition of cross-party legislators formed to examine thorium-fuelled nuclear power
Westminster, London – 01 March 2012 – The Weinberg Foundation, a not-for-profit advocacy group for thorium energy, announces the formation of a new All-Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Thorium Energy, which held a lively inaugural meeting in parliament yesterday.
Attracting cross-party support from MPs and Peers, the forum will generate critical debate on the potential of thorium as a viable new energy source and examine reactor technology and new fuel designs in planning for the adoption of a viable cleaner, safer and abundant global energy solution. As 10,000 times the energy density of coal, thorium is a convincing nuclear fuel option to tackle fossil-fuel reliance.
Labour Peer Baroness Worthington, who is the patron of the Weinberg Foundation and Chair of the APPG, comments:
“Whilst public opinion is moving towards the acceptance of nuclear power to combat environmentally damaging fossil-fuelled energy sources, Fukushima clearly demonstrated the dangers of traditional solid-fuel uranium reactor designs. If there is a safer ‘green nuclear’ alternative, which also effectively tackles waste, proliferation and energy security, we have a responsibility to future generations to examine it.”
Vice-Chair of the group Dr Julian Huppert MP said:
“As a scientist I am delighted to help establish this platform for evidence based discussion and debate on this most important issue. Nuclear power has always had great potential and the UK was once a world leader in nuclear science research. We intend to explore whether energy from thorium can make a significant contribution to delivering a low carbon economy and help to reinstate the UK’s leadership position.”
The Department for Energy and Climate Change in its recent response to a highly critical House of Lords Science and Technology Committee report into nuclear R&D recently announced its intention to consult on a long term strategy for nuclear power in the UK.
Many of the APPG members have backgrounds in science, climate policy and the energy industry and are well placed to examine the need for the UK to take a considered position on Thorium. Energy-hungry nations like China, Japan, India and others currently look to be leading the march on exploiting the benefits offered by Thorium-fuelled reactors.
The Weinberg Foundation is providing the secretariat to support the APPG.
Notes to the Editor
The list of founding members of the APPG is as follows:
Lord Clark of Windermere
Mike Crockart MP, Lib Dem
Tony Cunningham MP, Labour
Lord Deben, Conservative
Barry Gardiner MP, Labour
Lord Grantchester, Labour
Viscount Stephen Hanworth, Labour
John Hemming, Lib Dem
Lord Jay, Cross bench
The Rt Reverend Bishop of Hereford, Antony Priddis
Lord O’Neill of Clackmannan, Labour
Lord Oxburgh, Cross bench
Lord Stoddart, Independent Labour
Lord Taverne, Lib Dem
Lord Teverson, Lib Dem
James Wharton MP, Conservative
Heather Wheeler MP, Conservative
Lord Whitty, Labour
Simon Wright MP, Lib Dem
Tim Yeo MP, Conservative
For further information contact:
Communications, Weinberg Foundation
Secretariat to the APPG on Thorium Energy
Tel: +44 (0) 7793 555403
Email: Sophia [dot] henri [at] the-weinberg-foundation [dot] org
davidmj [at] parliament [dot] uk
Tel: 07903 434399
david [dot] martin [at] the-weinberg-foundation [dot] org
Yesterday the oldest nuclear power plant in the UK (Oldbury) permanently closed. Perhaps today the door is opening on a bright new thorium-powered future!
I just looked back and realized that I didn’t post a single time in the month of January. For that I apologize–I want you to know that the frequency of posting is not connected to the pace of development in the world of thorium. In fact, it may be just the opposite–the more that is going on the less time there seems to be to make good high-quality postings.
Nevertheless, in an attempt to recapitulate recent developments let me call a few out:
Baroness Worthington discussed thorium in the House of Lords on January 12th as part of a larger discussion on British national energy policy:
“I shall end on a discussion of whether the tried and failed technologies that we talk about a lot will deliver, and by that I mean the current generation of nuclear reactors. We often hear the promise that we are going to build eight or even 10 new reactors to replace the ones that are closing. My reading from those whom I speak to in the industry is that there is a great deal of cynicism about this. It is very unlikely that we will see the scale of build that the Government are anticipating because our current reactor designs are simply not attractive. As one executive who had looked at both designs put it to me, “They are both pretty awful and we do not like them”. I think that a nuclear renaissance is possible and indeed desirable, but it will have to be achieved by looking at the full range of new generation nuclear reactors. It will come as no surprise that I shall mention thorium molten-salt reactors, because of all the technologies that I have looked at in relation to climate change this one has huge potential. If we were able to match the amount of money that we are currently spending on nuclear fusion, there is no doubt that we would develop a technology that had massive potential for export. I would like to mention the Lords Science and Technology Select Committee report on nuclear research and development. It is an excellent report and I hope that the Government will respond to it, because we really do need to look again at our spending.”
I particularly like how she juxtaposed the large investments in nuclear fusion, which has never produced a single watt of electrical power with the non-existent investment in fluid-fueled thorium reactors.
While the noble Baroness was defending an advanced nuclear option in the House of Lords, things were changing a great deal for us at Flibe Energy. Kirk Dorius and his family relocated to northern Alabama and I spent several days helping him unpack and get situated into his new home and in our offices at Flibe. But while we were in the middle of unpacking on Saturday the 14th, one of our biggest media exposures of all time was taking place on the TED.com website:
George Monbiot is increasingly realizing that so-called “nuclear waste” might have a lot of value, if placed in machines suitably designed to use it:
But others worry about the glut of natural gas and its effects:
The DOE is announcing financial support for the licensing of small modular reactors:
While the Chinese keep visiting Oak Ridge to get more data on MSRs:
And finally, in Japan, the mighty nation is laid low yet again, as the shutdown of their nuclear power plants drives them into a trade deficit for the first time in decades.
On Thursday, September 15, we had an opportunity to present on thorium and liquid-fluoride reactor technology at the offices of Friends of the Earth in London. We were accompanied by Baroness Worthington and several members of the Weinberg Foundation, Laurence O’Hagan, John Durham, and Joanne Fishburn.
We were introduced by Craig Bennett, who recounted the events of the Weinberg Foundation launch a week previous, and encouraged the group to keep an open mind about the potential of thorium technology to fight climate change. Continue reading…
It had been a full week for us, and on Saturday morning Laurence O’Hagan took us for a drive up to Cambridge to see the Baroness and relax some. Riding in a car in the UK was still quite a new experience for me. Sitting in the “drivers side” of a car and having no steering wheel there, as well as driving on the left-hand side of the road, took a bit of getting used to. But the drive from London to Cambridge was lovely and it was nice to see the countryside away from the city.
Within Cambridge we met the Baroness at the gate to Trinity College, where we had a morning appointment with Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, master of Trinity College, and a member of the House of Lords. Continue reading…
That was the essential character of the question that Baroness Bryony Worthington asked in the House of Lords on September 7th, 2011. I had the privilege of being in the House of Lords as she asked the question, and the response was very positive from both sides of the chamber. Keep reading…
I had the privilege of meeting Bryony Worthington, founder of Sandbag.org, in July 2009 when she was a member of the panel that would deliver the Manchester Report, which was a part of the Manchester International Festival sponsored by the Guardian newspaper. Sandbag works to purchase and “retire” carbon credits, thus reducing the amount of CO2 emitted to the atmosphere under European carbon trading regulations.
She was a delight to meet in person, and we have kept in touch since then about her fight against climate change and my efforts to promote thorium as a clean energy source.
Recently, Bryony became a “life peer” and a member of the House of Lords, and became Baroness Worthington. Her ascension to the House of Lords has met with a great deal of interest from the media since she doesn’t ascend alone but takes her beautiful little boy Rohan Chennu with her. She tells me that he has been a real hit amongst the Lords who never miss an opportunity to smile or wave to him in an attempt to catch his attention.
She also writes regularly for the Guardian…
I should have known right from the moment I walked in the building that this was going to go well. Right inside the main door are two large statues; one of James Prescott Joule, the famous physicist and thermodynamicist, and the other of John Dalton, chemist and pioneer of atomic theory. As I walked by, Joule whispered that I better tell them a bit about thermodynamics, and Dalton reminded me that chemists could build the best reactor of all.
The Manchester Town Hall is truly magnificent, at least to my poor American eyes. Stone and statues and staircases sweep upwards to ornately decorated ceilings, and a visitor to the Manchester Report would follow these upstairs to the Great Hall. The magnificent Great Hall is the centerpiece of the Town Hall, and is lined with paintings called “The Manchester Murals” which depict events from the history of Manchester. I especially liked ones like “Dalton collecting Marsh-Fire Gas” or “John Kay, Inventor of the Fly Shuttle” but cringed a little bit at “The Expulsion of the Danes from Manchester” and wondered if my English heritage might get me through.
The day of my presentation I began with a little breakfast at Starbucks–a tall hot chocolate and a chocolate muffin. I was the first customer in the little shop and the two girls working there were chatting with me about the Manchester Report and what was going on across the street. One asked me what I would be talking about, and I said that is what how we could use a special element called thorium in a special kind of nuclear reactor to replace coal plants and fight global warming. At the mention of “nuclear” the girl scrunched her face a little and said in a breezy voice, “But isn’t nuclear bad?” to which I said, “No, nuclear is good!”
“But what about waste…and bombs? Shouldn’t we just build windmills instead?”
I smiled and said I would love to talk to her more about it but perhaps she should come to my talk and she could learn more. I don’t think she made it, but I repeat the interaction here because I think the Starbucks girl is an example of the vague distaste that much of the public has for nuclear power, often stoked by the media. More about this later.
I’d like to tell you that I carefully listened to all the sessions in the morning, but the reality was that I was working on my presentation. The more I changed, the more I wanted to change, and I began to think at some point the whole thing would be abandoned rather than completed. I had been mentally delivering my talk to the audience in my head for about a week and it was beginning to drive me nuts–I needed to do it for real and give me mind a break.
During the morning, four of my thorium “mates” arrived from England and France. These were folks that were members of the thorium-forum and had decided to come to the conference to lend their support to the effort. Meeting each of these guys was a real boost to me and I hoped my talk wouldn’t disappoint.
During lunch, I had a chance to talk further to the panel members. Bryony Worthington is an charming lady and the founder of a non-profit organization called Sandbag that is working to buy up carbon credits. I briefly chatted with Dan Reicher, a fellow American and head of Google.org, a philanthropic organization endowed by Google. I also met Dan’s wife and 6-year-old son, and we shared a few stories about being Americans in England on the Fourth of July! Lord Bingham was the head of the panel and kept things on topic and on target, and I also met Chris Goodall, who was a really charismatic guy with a ready smile and good questions for each of the presenters.
I was first after lunch and bounded up on the stage determined to share my enthusiasm about thorium and the liquid-fluoride reactor. I began my talk telling them about how coal is the central culprit in the emissions of CO2, and how our central focus should be on the replacement of coal-powered plants. But how? With a nod to Joule I briefly described how heat engines convert the random energy of heat to the directed energy of work, and how the heat engine is a basic principle that we see repeated with coal, gas, fission, or concentrated solar. All use heat to make work and must reject waste heat. Some make CO2, and there’s part of our problem.
But to replace coal we need to think about material inputs, and for the renewables they are steep–roughly 5 times the steel and concrete needed per megawatt generated.
Then I showed a picture of the atom and described how there is roughly a million times more energy waiting for us in the nucleus of the atom than in its electron cloud. This energy was infused in the atom by a supernova over 5 billion years ago, and today, billions of years later, thorium and uranium remain as natural gifts of this titanic explosion. Three basic fuels are available to us (U-235, U-238, Th-232) and only one is naturally fissile, but the other two can be converted to energy through careful design.
I went through the process of converting thorium to energy and showed how a LFTR uses liquid fluoride fuel to carry the uranium and thorium in a two-fluid arrangement designed to follow the natural processes of thorium’s conversion to protactinium, uranium, and then to energy. I described the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment and how it demonstrated that this was a real and feasible approach to take to extracting the energy from thorium. I described a more modern version–the Liquid-Fluoride Thorium Reactor–that would couple the fluoride reactor to a closed-cycle gas turbine and enable the extraction of energy from thorium at an efficiency roughly 300 times greater than we currently get from uranium in existing reactors.
This radical improvement in efficiency means that we could supply world energy needs with about 6000 tonnes of thorium rather than the 65,000 tonnes of uranium, 5 billion tonnes of coal, 32 billion barrels of oil, and 3 trillion cubic meters of gas we use today.
Thorium resources are abundant and a single thorium site in Idaho could provide nearly all the world’s yearly demand for thorium. But long before we even need that, there’s 3200 tonnes of thorium sitting in the desert of Nevada, neatly separated for us, that the US would probably give to the UK for free–if they paid the cost of shipping!
I briefly touched on the safety features of LFTR, specifically its freeze plug, as well as the reduced waste stream and valuable byproducts that could be produced by a LFTR.
Then I talked about rapid deployment, and offered my opinion that due to the coastal location of so much of the world’s population, and my considered opinion that LFTR could be built much more compactly than existing reactors, that we ought to consider building portable submersible LFTRs. Such submersibles could be built in the shipyards of England and then sent to wherever the power is needed, preferably plugging into the grid offshore of existing coal-fired power plants and providing reliable power as well as desalinated seawater to this most maritime of nations.
I concluded with describing the support of prominent environmentalists for new nuclear power as well as the “green shoots” of support that we are seeing in the US Congress for thorium. Thorium has the potential to be the backbone of our energy future, and we need to move quickly towards it.
After applause that I greatly appreciated, the panel asked me questions, the first of which was about the costs of the enterprise. I demurred on a cost estimate but hastened to point out that the low-pressure operation and compact size should lead to much cheaper construction costs. Another question had to do with why this reactor had not been developed further in the US. I explained how the technology did not align with “national needs” in the early 1970s, but that these priorities are quite different now. Finally I was asked about the biggest challenge this faced, and I answered that I thought it was the general ignorance and fear of nuclear technology. I told the story of my encounter with the Starbucks girl that morning, and her basic distrust of nuclear power. I said that we needed to get a message out to the world, and I thought that this was important enough that I came from the United States and missed my nation’s birthday, and then mentioned that I missed my own birthday (which led to laughter and applause) in order to come and explain this further. Lord Bingham, gracious as ever, asked me where one could find thorium, to which I replied, quite seriously…”everywhere.”
It all went very well and I was relieved to be finished! I left the hall with my thorium “mates” and we talked in the foyer and staircases for about an hour about how the talk went and what all the implications might be. Later, a documentary filmmaker came out and mentioned how he wanted to include thorium in a film he’s making about how to combat global warming. After the session, I had another chance to talk with different members of the panel and exchange business cards and so forth. Several of them seemed excited about what I had said and all seemed open to the idea.
That night I got to enjoy a real English dinner of roast lamb and Yorkshire pudding at a pub not far from the hall, and my thorium friends and I made plans to save the world with thorium, starting with England…
It was a great experience! My deepest appreciations go out to the Manchester International Festival for inviting me to come and speak and making all the arrangements. They took care of everything and made my stay in Manchester very enjoyable! Volunteers were always helpful and the Festival provided all the maps and information I needed to get around without any problem. I also really appreciate the Guardian newspaper for their sponsorship of the Manchester Report and I particularly enjoyed meeting the folks from the Guardian like Duncan Clark who were associated with the conference. Finally I have great respect and appreciation for our distiguished panel, Lord Bingham, Bryony Worthington, Dan Reicher, and Chris Goodall. They had the challenge of sitting in front of hundreds of people for two days listening to 20 presentations and managing to still ask good and cogent questions! Thank you!
The Guardian newspaper in Manchester was one of the primary sponsors of the Manchester Report, and the first day’s presentations were reported here:
I anticipated that we would see an article in the paper about each of the technologies for combatting global warming that was presented. And here they are:
I recorded a brief video to accompany my presentation, where I briefly described their subject and its potential benefit. Despite an unfortunate slip-of-words at the end of my talk, here is my description:
Later on, the thorium approach went on to win the public poll in the Guardian newspaper.
Months later, the full Manchester Report was released:
The description of LFTR is found on pages 22-23:
The uranium that makes conventional nuclear power possible has a number of disadvantages. For one thing, uranium reactors generate large quantities of waste – some of which remains dangerous for millenia and a small proportion of which can be used to make nuclear weapons. A second issue is that uranium is a comparatively scarce material, which exists in significant quantities in a small number of countries.
For both of these reasons, a growing number of scientists and energy experts believe that the world should investigate the possibility of switching from uranium to thorium as its main nuclear fuel. Compared to uranium, thorium is far more abundant as well as much more energy-dense – a person’s lifetime energy needs could be held in one hand. In addition, the waste products generated by thorium are virtually impossible to turn into the plutonium needed for nuclear weapons production – and they remain dangerous for hundred of years rather than thousands.
There are a number of different ways to use thorium to produce electricity. In Manchester, Kirk Sorensen made the case for liquid-fluoride reactors. This technology was developed by the US military in the 1950s and 1960s and was shown to have many benefits. For example, reactors of this type can be both small and massively productive. Despite its early promise, research into liquid-fluoride thorium reactors was abandoned – the most likely reason being that the technology offered no potential for producing nuclear weapons.
VERDICT: Although the panel are not in a position to assess the feasibility of liquid-fluoride thorium reactors, Sorensen’s articulate and knowledgable advocacy made a persuasive case that this electricity generation technology deserves renewed investigation. Other ways of extracting energy from thorium should also be explored – both to reduce emissions and to help limit the production of the most dangerous nuclear waste.