Google Tech-Talk: "Why Didn't Thorium MSR Happen?"

Last week I had an opportunity to travel to the San Francisco Bay Area and to give a “TechTalk” at Google. I chose to expand on some remarks that I had made earlier in the year at the ThEC2011 conference in New York about why the thorium molten-salt reactor wasn’t developed. I had done quite a bit of research on the political circumstances in the late 1960s and early 1970s that accompanied the decision by the US Atomic Energy Commission (USAEC) to end the research at Oak Ridge on the MSR. Much of the material that I found I incorporated into the “Nuclear Historical Timeline” that I have been maintaining.

So last Friday, December 16, I gave this presentation on the Google campus:

I greatly appreciate Iain McClatchie for shooting the video and Gordon McDowell for the editing.

Why didn’t it happen?

Short answer–because all of the political, technological, and financial focus was on the liquid-metal fast breeder reactor. Later on, due to fears about non-proliferation, the US cancelled plans to commercially reprocess spent nuclear fuel to extract plutonium, and the case for the fast breeder reactor was toast. Because there were no fast breeder reactors to take all the plutonium that had been generated from light-water reactors, in 1982 the US government passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and started collecting a tax that would be intended to pay for what would eventually become Yucca Mountain.

11 thoughts on “Google Tech-Talk: "Why Didn't Thorium MSR Happen?"

  1. Excellent presentation. Great recap of the history and politics of the molten salt "impasse". No conspiracy there. Simply the humdrum of politics and circumstances and its oftentimes sorry consequences.

    Thanks a lot, Kirk.

  2. Another excellent presentation, Kirk. Understanding the political, economic and ego dynamics of this saga ought to help you and those working with you to negotiate the likely rough waters ahead.

    Of note, it has always seemed to me to be a "box canyon" strategy to tie the benefits of atomic power to the AGW bandwagon. Yes, coal is dirty and inefficient; natural gas is fraught with price fluctuations and supply questions. But it would seem that the UNIPCC has thoroughly lost whatever credibility it may have had and is now nearly a laughing stock.

    Promote atomic, and particularly LFTR, power based on its inherent advantages of energy density and Capacity Factor rather than invoke the boogeyman of CO2. It's plant food, afterall.

    Merry Christmas and best wishes for FLIBE Energy in the new year!

  3. I like the moniker of Thorium Molten Salt Reactor. It saves me the effort of switching names between MSR and LFTR. I will be interested if there was documented involvements from GE or Westinghouse.

    T. Wang

  4. Hello T. Wang–a LFTR is a type of MSR. Not all MSRs use thorium or fluoride salts, hence the distinction. One might even go further and state that all LFTRs are thorium MSRs, but thorium MSRs are not necessarily LFTRs. One might build a fast-spectrum, chloride salt MSR that runs on thorium and would be a thorium MSR but certainly not a LFTR.

  5. I really enjoyed hearing more of the history and politics surrounding our nuclear power development. As others have already mentioned, hopefully this allow FLIBE to navigate those waters with a better outcome. Thanks, and happy holidays to you and your own;-)

  6. I have recently become aware of this interest in thorium reactors. As an undergraduate I took a course in nuclear physics and encountered this back in 1980s. The advantages of the slow thorium breeder were apparent then to me, but I was informed it was a dead program.

    I am all for renewable energy sources, but in a distributed grid there will have to be stable loci of power, which so far can only come from either coal power or nuclear power. Coal has obvious problems and the current U/Pu nuclear system has trouble, which the Th/U system is free from.

    It is interesting to see the history of breeder reactors.


  7. Kirk best talk yet. I am more cynical than you are regarding the direction that nuclear power went under the Nixon administration. I believe we went the direction that Westinghouse and GE wanted as I believe they liked the business model of the LMFBR and they really thought they would never have an accident. I think that large woodges of cash found its way into Nixon's campaign fund.
    See Selling Democracy, Nixon Style. http://www.rochestercitynewspaper.com/news/blog/2

  8. Kirk,
    Possibly, a reason MSRs never got support is their origin in the Aircraft Reactor Project. Politicians were simply embarrassed!

  9. In case anyone needs the info from the book mentioned ~10:45

    The Technology pork barrel
    Linda R. Cohen, Roger G. Noll
    1991 The Brookings Institution
    ISBN 0-8157-1508-0 (cloth) 0-8157-1507-2 (paper)

    Data from Table 9-5, Page 234

    Breeder Program Appropriatons, Fiscal Years 1968-85
    Millions of current dollars


    1968 51.6 1.3 4.6 68.4
    1969 28.7 1.9 5.2 80.1
    1970 22.1 1.3 5.0 87.8

    1971 32.0 0.6 5.0 88.9
    1972 28.8 1.0 4.8 123.2
    1973 30.5 1.0 4.6 144.1

    1974 12.6-a 1.8 1.6 206.6
    1975 31.2-b [?] 4.8 308.9
    1976 52.9 8.2 3.3 351.6

    1977 53.0 12.8 0.0 564.5
    1978 69.6 14.7 0.0 412.8
    1979 90.4 21.0 0.0 456.0

    1980 57.9 14.6 0.0 476.3
    1981 95.0 0.0 0.0 459.5
    1982 84.0 0.0 0.0 500.4

    1983-c 81.8 0.0 0.0 451.2
    1984-c 70.5 0.0 0.0 303.6
    1985-d 64.4 0.0 0.0 236.9

    AC+LGB Advanced convertors and low-gain breeders
    GCFBR Gas-Cooled Fast Breeder Reactor
    MSBR Molten-Salt Breeder Reactor
    LMFBR Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactor

    a High-temperature gas reactor.
    b Light-water breeder.
    c Estimated.
    d Requested.

    1976 14.8 3.4 0.2 101.1
    Transition Quarter

  10. In the talk it was mentioned that France had been developing fast breeder reactors. I assume the Soviet Union developed them also, and that no one chose to develop Thorium reactors.

    Why didn't anyone choose Thorium? Politics could explain why the US didn't develop Thorium reactors, but it seems unlikely to me that politics would've been the reason in all countries which chose to develop nuclear reactors.

Leave a Reply