1973 Newspaper Article about MSR Cancellation

This newspaper article was published on February 13, 1973 in a local Oak Ridge newspaper, and it was recently recovered from the personal archives of one of the key persons on the Molten-Salt Reactor Program.

Molten Salt: 500 Worked For 25 Years

The recent termination of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Molten Salt Reactor Program was a bitter disappointment to the 100 people directly connected with it, but it was hardly unexpected.

Some could see the dark clouds on the horizon as early as 1967. For them, it has been only a question of when, not whether fiscal lightning would strike and end the program.

On January 29 (1973), the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission announced in its budget proposal requests for fiscal 1974 (beginning July 1) that the $5 million-a-year MSR program, based entirely in Oak Ridge, is to be eliminated.

But the decision did not come as a shock, according to H.G. MacPherson, former ORNL deputy director and now a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

MacPherson, who was involved in the MSR program for many years, said in an interview last week that a 1967 supplemental report to the President did not imply that the molten salt breeder project “would be a major program unless something disastrous happened to the liquid metal fast breeder reactor.”

In other words, the molten salt breeder project has been viewed by the federal government in the past few years as a backup–an alternative to the LMFBR.

The irony of all this for Oak Ridgers is that this town is becoming in the same decade a birthplace for one type of breeder project and a graveyard for another.

For, while 1972 was the last year for the MSR program, it was also the year in which it was announced that the AEC and a host of utilities will provide the money to build the nation’s first large-scale LMFBR demonstration power plant. And this plant–the “priority project” of the AEC–is to be built in Oak Ridge.

The tragedy of the MSR program termination is that some 500 scientists and engineers have worked directly or indirectly with the program, some for as long as 25 years.

These professional people represent a number of ORNL divisions, including the reactor, reactor chemistry, chemical technology and metals and ceramics divisions.

Is there a future for the molten salt breeder anywhere–in the U.S. or in the world?

MacPherson, who points out that a handful of people in France, England and India have shown interest in molten salt technology, said he sees “hope for some international venture” in which various U.S. industries and foreign nations would contribute to a molten salt breeder project. But he does not know how such a venture could get started.

In the U.S. there is a Molten Salt Group consisting of utilities and industrial organizations which have been investing money and doing design work for molten salt breeders. Murray Rosenthal, ORNL’s MSR program director, has said that industry is interested in the MSBR “but they say they can’t afford to do it. It takes a government commitment” such as the LMFBR has.

Studies of molten salt reactors as a power source began in 1947 when the US began to work on developing a nuclear-powered airplane. The aircraft never got off the ground, but the molten salt reactor did become a reality. Ed Bettis was a strong proponent of molten salt work at ORNL.

Some of the highlights of molten salt studies at ORNL are as follows, according to a published history written by Rosenthal, P.R. Kasten and R.B. Briggs:

1950 – Studies of molten fluoride salts (heated compounds consisting of fluorine and various metals) became the “main line effort” of ORNL’s Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion Program.

1954 – The Aircraft Reactor Experiment (ARE), a small reactor built in Oak Ridge to look into the use of molten fluoride fuels for aircraft propulsion reactors, operated successfully for nine days.

1956 – H.G. MacPherson formed a group to study the possible use of molten salt reactors in civilian power plants. MacPherson and his associates “concluded that graphite-moderated thermal reactors operating on a thorium fuel cycle would be the best molten-salt systems for producing economic power.”

1959 – An AEC task force, after comparing the different kinds of fluid fuel reactors being developed, concluded that the molten salt reactor had “the highest probability of achieving technical feasibility.” MacPherson, who represented the molten salt concept at meetings of the task force, recalled that this task force report favoring the MSR was a personal triumph for him.

1960 – The design of the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment (MSRE) was begun. It was determined then that MSRE fuel salt would be a mixture of uranium, lithium, beryllium and zirconium fluorides.

1962 – Construction of the MSRE began.

1965 – The molten salt reactor was first critical, that is, the fissioning, or atom-splitting of the fuel, was triggered.

Oct. 2, 1968 – The MSRE was made critical on uranium-233.

Oct. 8, 1968 – Glenn T. Seaborg, then AEC chairman, personally at the controls, took the power of the MSRE up to 100 kilowatts, thus bringing to power the first reactor to operate on uranium-233.

According to MacPherson, the “MSRE demonstrated that you could operate a liquid fuel reactor by circulating a highly radioactive fuel through the reactor system.”

After the MSRE was proven successful, the Molten Salt Reactor Program was directed, beginning in 1968, toward the development of a single-fluid breeder reactor.

In the LMFBR, breeding is accomplished when uranium-238 captures neutrons escaping in the fission process. These neutrons convert the uranium-238 to fissionable plutonium-239, which can be extracted and used to refuel a breeder reactor.

In a molten salt breeder, neutrons released in the fission process are slowed down by graphite and captured by thorium salt, which is changed into protactinium. The protactinium salt decays into fissionable uranium-233. This uranium is collected and run back into the reactor to keep the fission process going.

The breeder development work in ORNL’s MSR program ran into a snag in 1971 when it was discovered that surface cracking was taking place in Hastelloy-N, the nickel-base alloy in the reactor vessel and heat exchanger tubes.

It was later found that tellurium, one of numerous fission products, was causing the cracking. Last year ORNL engineers learned that, by adding titanium to the Hastelloy-N, both the cracking problem and radiation embrittlement of Hastelloy-N could be licked.

Also, in 1972, technological advances were made in containing radioactive tritium in molten salt reactors. But while the technological outlook for molten salt breeder development looked bright here, the molten salt clouds in Washington grew darker.

Last spring, the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy invited the AEC to review the molten salt project and decide whether the project should be terminated or expanded.

In anticipation of this review, the ORNL staff prepared a report recommending continuation and some expansion of the present effort with the goal of ultimately constructing for the AEC a molten salt breeder experiment.

But the AEC said no and ended the molten salt project.

Once again, the consistent answer to the question of “why was molten-salt killed?” is “because they wanted the plutonium fast-breeder reactor.” But then the inevitable follow-on question persists–why did they want the fast breeder so badly?

15 thoughts on “1973 Newspaper Article about MSR Cancellation

  1. The headline "500 worked for 25 years" implies 12,500 man-years. In the body of the article, we learn this is not what was meant.

  2. How much money does the conventional nuclear power industry make selling proprietary solid fuel rods
    to utilities? Is it otherwise profitable?

    Do fossil fuel companies want to sell less
    of their product?

    Is there ever enough Pu239 for Defense?

    Any wonder MSR was cancelled?

  3. It is nice to read about historical tidbits, but what I am dying to find out is there any progress with the LFTR?

    Last year there was a lot of interest in England, but nothing lately. Did the concept die? There did seem to be a process where the decision making was restricted to two or three people who were all anti-LFTR.

    The only comment I have heard from flibe is that they are concentrating on trying to get a project funded within the US military. I suppose this could be "secret" and we will not hear anything. If it is not secret, please let us know what is happening.

  4. only chinese creation of MSR will ever convince america of the "need" to create MSR.

    High energy prices only hurt the middle class. The rich have more than enough money and the lower class can get massive energy subsidies from the government.

    Chinese government is the only ones who by absolute necessity need to have a cheaper cleaner and inexaustable form of energy (Molten salt reactor). The chinese government needs this to satisfy the needs of their 1200 million people.

  5. Fictional timeline:
    2016 China announces working LFTR prototype, and world wide patents on many details to make it work.
    2020-2030 China installs hundreds of LFTRs making their country the lowest polluting in the world. China renews its supremacy in manufacturing because their factories pay much less for energy.
    2030 US and other broke countries beg China to install LFTRs in their own countries since they cannot afford to build their own.
    2040 US gets its first Chinese owned LFTR.

  6. but what I am dying to find out is there any progress with the LFTR?)

    Flibe is only just a year old. Probably the guys at Flibe are doing the slow hard yards getting their ducks in a row. I wouldn't expect too much in the way of significant engineering milestones for a long while. They have funding to source, facilities to establish and a technical team to build. They have to procure radioactive material and qualify to do so. In the mean time I do hope somebody is taking lots of photos. And I hope they know a lot of people are barracking for them.

  7. There is Pu239 and there is Pu239. If it is super pure, it is safer for nuclear warheads in that there is less radiation (from Pu240 decay) for military who are near the warheads (which, of course, have very little shielding because such would constitute needless weight).
    I'm not saying that MSR cancellation to pay for FBR was a good move — just that there could well have been more to the calculation of the move than "more" Pu239.

  8. Thanks for the confirmation, Kirk.
    I guess I am really paranoid that the political obstacles are too much to overcome. Entrenched powerful conventional nuclear lobbyists will work hard to make sure LFTRs to not get a foothold. It is just SO important that your plan to out-flank them by going to the military is successful.

  9. Rick, the fast-spectrum reactor has the potential to produce much higher grade plutonium than thermal-spectrum reactors. That's because Pu-239 is far more likely to fission in the fast-spectrum than to absorb a neutron and form Pu-240, which is the primary "degradation" mechanism of plutonium in thermal-spectrum reactors.

  10. Kirk, exactly my point. Pu-240 is very much "isotope non grata" in atomic weapons. On an SSBN, whose dosimeter will have read higher: a member of the engineering department or a member of the weapons department? Most likely the sailor in the weapons department. That could change with super pure Pu-239. That kind of purity could even make possible a "gun" type A-bomb (not that anyone in the U.S. military would want it)– a design that was abandoned in WWII because of the unavoidable amount of Pu-240 in the plutonium that they could make at the time.

  11. I think its sadly obvious why the AEC fell so easily into the LMFBR camp. First – the MSR was "different" outside of the realm of experience for most of the AEC's heavy-hitter admin types (and their political enablers in Congress). Second – the strategic world-view held by some in the AEC (and powerful voices in Congress) of the competition with the Soviet Union and how that competition would inevitably lead to WWIII. "Victory" in this world-view would go to the owner of the biggest nuclear arsenal or reserves of militarily useful elements (like Pu). And, of course, we would need the additional reserves of Pu for WWIV through WWVII, Latin American Incursions I through IX, and Middle Eastern Operations "Soaring Eagle" through "Battered Bustard".

  12. It should be noted that President Obama favors nuclear energy. Whether he is aware of thorium I don't know, but efforts should be made to ensure that he is aware of thorium.

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