Reprinted with the author’s permission and my admiration and gratitude for a job well done!
12 May 2010
Physicians for Social Responsibility
1875 Connecticut Ave, NW, Suite 1012
Washington, DC, 20009
Nuclear Information and Resource Service
6930 Carroll Avenue, Suite 340,
Takoma Park, MD 20912
Taking encouragement from your (PSR’s) website’s promise: “We encourage the submission of any comments…”, I’m writing you in hopes you’ll correct errors in a particular paper you’ve apparently promulgated to many interest groups like NIRS/IEER, worldwide, resulting in misleading them and our fellow Americans on an extremely important issue. As doctors give oath “to do no harm”, scientists & engineers too work under an implied oath to serve the needs of humanity, and to do so honestly & completely. The PSR/IEER ‘Fact Sheet’ you’ve unfortunately published fails that test. It lacks completeness, accuracy and so, responsibility.
I’m referring to “Thorium Fuel: No Panacea for Nuclear Power”, by Makhijani & Boyd:
I’ll begin at the heart of the inaccuracy and misleading nature of the piece – it considers only solid nuclear fuels. As a result, it achieves three major failings: 1) it displays the authors as unaware of nuclear-reactor designs that are indeed safer than present LWR/BWR solid-fuelled systems; 2) it suggests PSR and/or IEER don’t have proper review procedures; and 3) it illustrates the danger of bias in content that gives the appearance of motivation to mislead readers.
None of the above are excusable, especially not for any organizations using the words “Responsible“ or “Resource Service” in their names. In other words, the result of the report’s failings is to mark it as an example of exactly the kind of misleading document we need less of today and in the future. Perhaps it’s served as a lobbying tool, but we have far too much of that everywhere today, as well. So, in the interest of responsibility to our fellow citizens across the globe, here are comments you say you “encourage”:
a) Paragraphs 2, 9, 10 & 13 are mutually inconsistent as to the danger of natural Thorium (isotope 232), apparently attempting to strike fear in the reader about a mildly radioactive metal that’s still half here because its half life is the age of the known universe. By definition, such a long-lived nucleus is hardly a danger. In fact, about every cubic meter of rock on Earth, Moon & Mars has 12 grams of Th232, which turns out to be enough to feed a reactor that meets an American’s energy-consuming needs for about a decade.
b) In additional sentences you refer to Th232 mining as “posing long-term hazards”, yet you fail to mention that mining for it is unnecessary, because Thorium is a byproduct of most “rare-earth” mining around the world and with a 14-billion year half life, constitutes not only no danger when treated properly, but has been stockpiled by DoE in sufficient pure-metal quantities to obviate any mining to meet all US energy needs for about a decade. How is it that the authors didn’t report this?
c) By the way, the company you list as “advocating for Thorium fuel” is no longer under the name you list, but is now LightBridge.
d) Again in the 2nd paragraph, the authors evidence ignorance of the liquid-fuel cycle successfully developed and used at ORNL between 1954 and 1974 – discontinued because it could not be used for weapons. So, saying: “Thorium doesn’t solve the proliferation, waste, safety…problems and still faces major technical hurdles…” simply underscores ignorance, intentional or otherwise, of the well-documented successes of Alvin Weinberg’s team at Oak Ridge over 40 years ago. They used liquid (molten-salt) fuel cycles, of which Th232-U233 is most relevant & promising today. So the generalizations of paragraph 2 are specious.
e) The 3rd paragraph continues the error above and fails to mention that not only can Th232 be easily bred to U233 in molten salt, but the resulting U233 (which doesn’t occur in nature) fissions far more completely than other U or Pu isotopes, leading immediately to lower waste production. See reaction diagram attached summary (your authors could easily have found this).
f) The 4th paragraph is irrelevant for the same reason – the authors for some reason are unaware of the very safe, successful, anti-proliferation fuel cycle invented by Weinberg. The reason we should respect him is not least that he stood up for nuclear safety, despite having patents on the light-water reactors we’ve been deploying, and which he rightly considered dangerous in operation as well as in waste. In other words, we should all be grateful and study what his team did, in service to the oath scientists, engineers & doctors make for benefit to all.
g) The 5th paragraph is oddly wrong, even manipulative of the facts – “U233 is as effective as PU239 for making bombs”. Later in the same piece the authors warn of the natural coexistence of U233 & 232, the latter being highly radioactive (gamma). It can’t be had both ways – if a bomb is attempted with U233, enough U232 will naturally occur such that not only will workers be killed very soon, any successfully-constructed weapon would be so radioactive in penetrating gammas that its surrounding controls & delivery mechanisms would be ruined. And, it would be extremely hard to hide & easy to detect. U233 is in no way a military or terrorist weapon, rather it would eliminate any terrorists foolish enough to try to use it. But again, this paragraph is irrelevant because it assumes existence of solid U233 fuel, which is exactly not the Wienberg MSR design. The authors should know this.
h) Paragraph 5 continues the odd ignorance of ORNL’s MSR program and talks about enriching Uranium to start “existing reactors using thorium fuel”. This is, of course, not at all the issue relating to Thorium & MSRs. In fact, DoE also has a U233 stockpile, which could be used to start a Th232-fed MSR, but there would never be any “enriched fuel” sitting around for theft – it would all exist as, say, Fluoride salts, dissolved into the simple MSR chemistry. The Th232-U233 transmutation can even be started with a medical proton-accelerator, as the Japanese have done. This again is a surprising hole in the authors’ writing that proper review would have corrected. We all like our medical procedures & drugs to be properly developed & reviewed, but apparently this has not been PSR’s or IEER’s objective.
i) The paragraphs from here through 8 are equally irrelevant to Thorium use in MSRs. But, paragraph 7 contains the relevant U232 information cited in g) above.
j) The 8th paragraph is singularly misleading, because there’s no “spent fuel” in an MSR – all Th232 & U233 are consumed, and there’s never a scheduled shutdown for refueling, because of the very nature of the design – an unpressurized,liquid. ThF4 or UF4 (or even higher U & Pu isotopes as salts) are simply added into the molten mix as it’s pumped around the reactor & heat-exchanger plumbing. It’s what every chemist understands & loves: liquid, unpressurized chemistry. And, since all fuel is consumed, an MSR can be used to reduce nuclear wastes down to any level desired, even on the site of a de-commissioned U/Pu reactor. This is exactly the kind of ability responsible scientists, engineers, doctors, politicians and citizens care about. PSR/IEER proliferation of this paper hides what is perhaps the most important knowledge we need today to pursue a weapons-free world — MSRs can consume them all. Why the authors say nothing of this deserves intense scrutiny. For details…
k) The 11th & 12th paragraphs continue on the irrelevant tack of “reprocessing” and loose, solid U232/233. The MSR has none of this outside an 800degC molten salt.
l) Paragraph 13 makes an oddly unscientific guess that a “thorium fuel cycle is likely to be even more costly” that a Uranium one. As any nuclear engineer or physicist knows, the enrichment process for Uranium fuel is very expensive. Since Thorium is a common byproduct of such mining as for “rare earths” (ignoring our decade stockpile), and 100% of Thorium supplied to an MSR is consumed over its years of operation, then it’s indeed incredulous that anyone would try to say a far less abundant element, whose isotopic concentration must be strenuously altered from its natural state, and which, in solid-fuel form, can only be under 1/10 consumed, is less “costly”. For use in an MSR, Thorium simply needs to be Fluorinated to a salt that gets dumped into a pot of sister molten salts sitting aside a reactor.
In summary, it’s not a bad deal to have a byproduct of strategic materials mining serve to safely provide power around the world, even in space, at about $2/Watt, with no proliferation risk, 0.1% of current Pu waste, and about 50lbs of other wastes per GW-year. Of course, that’s what the liquid-salt reactor gives us, when using Thorium as the fertile input. But the same liquid process can even be used to consume all existing and future wastes, as desired. These all exactly result from Alvin Weinberg’s sense of honest dedication & responsibility.
Rather than attempting to mislead the world about Thorium in narrow uses, PSR & IEER, and all who passed around, unquestioned, the Makhijani & Boyd paper as gospel, owe the world’s citizens an apology and a rewrite of Thorium as a likely useful tool to environmentally meet our energy and fresh-water needs via molten-salt reactors.
Dr. Alexander Cannara
Menlo Park, Calif.
Attached: ThoriumSummary.pdf, http://tinyurl.com/2elhhds
Cc: Secretary Chu, US DoE
Senate & House Energy Committees
Rep. J. Sestak; Senators Hatch & Reid
House Speaker Pelosi
Editors: NY Times, Washington Post, CNN, Newsweek, Time
P.O. Box 53350
Washington, DC 20009