Public Statement before the BRC Fuel Cycle Subcommittee

After two days of meetings for the Fuel Cycle Subcommittee of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, the public had an opportunity to make statements before the commission. These public statements were meant to be less that five minutes and were allotted on a first come, first serve basis. So bright and early this morning, my friend Rod Adams and I were at the committee table signing up for our spot. I went first and delivered the following statement:

Commissioners, it is my pleasure to participate in this meeting and to address you today. Yesterday there were a number of discussions on the nuclear fuel cycle. These seemed to focus on whether or not fuel recycle should take place, and if it does, whether it should proceed in a thermal-spectrum reactor like our light-water reactors, or if it should proceed in a fast-spectrum reactor, of which the most commonly discussed type is based on solid fuel cooled by liquid sodium.

Another way to view these two options is that one represents the consumption of uranium-235, which is our only naturally-occurring fissile material, and the other represents the consumption of uranium-238 and its derivatives, primarily plutonium-239. Due to the specific properties of uranium-238, it can only be consumed in a sustainable manner in a fast-spectrum reactor.

There is another option that receives relatively little attention but has compelling attributes, and that is the use of natural thorium in nuclear reactors. Thorium is fertile and can be converted into a fissile nuclide, uranium-233, inside a reactor core. Uranium-233 has the compelling attribute of being able to produce enough neutrons in thermal-spectrum fission to continue the conversion of thorium to U-233 and then into energy.

Early in the nuclear age it was realized that this special property had superlative value. Early luminaries like Eugene Wigner and Alvin Weinberg worked to develop nuclear reactors based on liquid fuels. Research focused on a fluoride salt fuel form because it was the only appropriate liquid into which thorium could be dissolved as a true solution. Weinberg’s research and development program at Oak Ridge in the 1960s showed that it was possible to build and safely operate liquid-fluoride thorium reactors.

The fluoride fuel form is particularly compelling since it represents the most chemically stable form of nuclear fuel. In fact, all of our nuclear fuel goes through a fluoride form in today’s nuclear fuel cycle, preparatory to enrichment. We know how to turn uranium oxide into uranium fluoride and we do it every day at conversion plants. Then we successfully use uranium fluoride in enrichment plants. Many of these technological accomplishments are directly applicable to the use of thorium and uranium fluorides in fluid-fueled reactors.

Thorium’s performance means that it is possible to build a reactor that, once started on fissile material, requires no additional fissile input and runs only on thorium. This has profound consequences for our energy future.

Fluoride reactor technologies can also be used to help solve our current nuclear waste concerns. Our spent uranium-oxide could be fluorinated into a fluoride fuel form. Once converted, it is straightforward to remove the uranium that comprises roughly 95% of spent nuclear fuel into uranium hexafluoride gas that could be removed and potentially recycled.

The same nuclear technology that allows us to use thorium could also be used to destroy plutonium while extracting electrical energy. Fluoride fuels will not require the long and lengthy fuel qualification programs that solid fuel require. Fluoride fuels are impervious to radiation damage due to their ionic chemical bonds. They do not swell, crack, or undergo other property changes under strong irradiation. The base fluoride can be used and reused essentially forever, by adding fuel and removing fission products periodically.

I encourage the commission to strongly consider the potential benefits of using fluid-fueled reactor technology to solve our current nuclear waste concerns as well as to open a bright new energy future based on the effective use of natural thorium.

Thank you.

After I spoke, Rod Adams spoke about the importance of nuclear energy in realizing low-cost energy. Another gentlemen spoke about the importance of getting certified as a professional engineer.

By the time we had a chance to speak, the audience had dwindled considerably, from about 30 for the afternoon session to perhaps only 20 or so by the time we spoke. But a number of key people were in the audience, like Dr. Eric Loewen, the president of the American Nuclear Society. Of the original subcommittee members, only Per Peterson and Allison MacFarlane remained.

Previous to my statement I delivered a printed package of several “introductory” slides to the members of the commission.

13 thoughts on “Public Statement before the BRC Fuel Cycle Subcommittee

  1. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/comment/797061
    Obama could kill fossil fuels overnight with a nuclear dash for thorium
    If Barack Obama were to marshal America’s vast scientific and strategic resources behind a new Manhattan Project, he might reasonably hope to reinvent the global energy landscape and sketch an end to our dependence on fossil fuels within three to five years.

    By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, International Business Editor
    Published: 6:55PM BST 29 Aug 2010

    Thorium eats its own hazardous waste. It can even scavenge the plutonium left by uranium reactors, acting as an eco-cleaner. "It’s the Big One," said Kirk Sorensen, a former NASA rocket engineer and now chief nuclear technologist at Teledyne Brown Engineering.

    "Once you start looking more closely, it blows your mind away. You can run civilisation on thorium for hundreds of thousands of years, and it’s essentially free. You don’t have to deal with uranium cartels," he said.

  2. It is only possible to include so much in a 5 minute speech and I think it can be said that you managed to pack allot of great ideas into your BRC public comment. One thing that you did not make mention of is the LCFR liquid chloride fast reactor that you have long thought about and discussed on the EfTh Forum and in your TEAC2 keynote talk (http://bit.ly/cxpfx0). Thermal neutron spectrum LFTRs should make much less nuclear waste which should alleviate many waste storage problems. To really do an efficient job burning Minor Actinides from current LWRs you need a fast neutron spectrum. The LCFR can economically provide the fast neutrons needed to burn up the long half live MA in reasonable amounts of time that are such worry to decision makers and the many folks that are uncertain that nuclear is sustainable and safe. While the position of the LCFR might be a lonely one (the prevailing opinion seems to preference for expensive high fissile start-up plutonium fuel cycle sodium cooled fast reactors such as IFR or GE-Prism) probably you Kirk are the only person at the BRC meeting that has the awareness to propose the LCFR and explain its distinct advantages. Was 5 minutes too short a time to discuss the LCFR for actinide burning or have you backed away from the LCFR concept?

  3. Time was very short and I had little time for technical exposition. I tried to focus on the most important points.

  4. Great job Kirk.

    It's a bit discouraging that only two subcommittee members bothered to stay for your talk.

    However, it's very encouraging that Eric Loewen did stay.

    Were there any questions from anyone?

    One question from me: one of yor slides suggests that a LFTR's core/fuel salt would be "batch", not continuously, processed. Why?

  5. ORNL did batch distillation for reprocessing on 2-fluid LFTRs. I've looked at continuous distillation reprocessing, and the usual advantages are there, BUT there are two major fission products, cesium and zirconium, that you can't get rid of – not unless you can build a sidestream column with <0.1 mmHg pressure drop to run at 1000C. Neither element is a major neutron absorber, they could perhaps just be left in, if you are not worried about breeding much, but it's not ideal.

  6. Eric is indeed the current President of the ANS. I understand that his term officially began in June of this year.

    While it's true that he is indeed very much involved with promoting his employer's version of the LMFB, I'm convinced that the main reason he does so because he's genuinely committed to trying to make Weinberg's vision of a clean, green & prosperous future for all of us come true. He stayed for Kirk's (& Rod's and Robert's??)talk(s) because he realizes that LFTRs might prove to be a better way to reach that goal.

  7. Also very important is the Areva's recycling plan. http://us.arevablog.com/2010/08/30/areva-outlines
    It is also relevant to the immediate task of the commission, the disposal of SNF post Yucca. The Transuranics, separated as a result, could be used to dispose off the bulk uranium of the SNF as well as provide fissile feed for thorium use.
    Molten salt technology is useful for both.

  8. Am I counting something wrong here or does your Simplified Neutron Balance (slide 4) run at a loss in uranium? Of the 111 atoms of uranium generated, 22 absorb neutrons without fission, with another 100 requiring fission to maintain neutron numbers for the next cycle – short fall of 11 atoms /10%.

    Not that this kills the reactor concept of course, but it would mean it's not a breeder.

  9. It's good that Mr. Sorensen made the presentation. However, I'm sure that most of us could contribute to the effort.

    Most of us can find ways to meet out political representatives on both the state level and the federal level. That provides us with the opportunity to inform them of the serious shortcomings of "renewable" energy and the advantages of nuclear power, especially with LFTR technology.

    Also, some newspapers provide Internet readers with the opportunity to comment on articles. When an article is energy-related, we then have the opportunity to make a plug for LFTR technology. Similarly, there are Internet discussion groups about energy.

    It is not a good idea to use only one approach to plugging LFTR technology. It is more effective to use a variety of approaches simultaneously.

  10. I was nuclear trained USN Class 66-3 Arco Idaho A1W Enterprise Aircraft Carrier. Qualified first in class Mechanical Operaror. We need to persue all avenues of alternative energy available to us. We also must deal with the amount of CO2 we have released. Carbon sequestration must be pursued also. Even with the new nuclear technologies being developed how can we have a chicken in every pot when the chickens have had their brooding capabilities bred out and the seed companies own the rights to this or that hybrid which do reproduce viable offspring either. In the so called third world people don't twitter or tweet. They are involved in a very stark battle to survive disease and feed themselves. I have suggested the use solar in the form of stoves to cook with and stills to furnish clean drinking water.
    Maybe we could trade them one of the new fission reactors for chickens and vegetables that work year after year.

  11. Did anything come about from this talk? Was any interest generated in MacFarlane and Peterson? Any chance a bigger push for Thorium is going to occur in DC?

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