I was more than a little dismayed to read a recent article in The Ecologist written by one Eifion Rees and titled, “Don’t believe the spin on thorium being a ‘greener’ nuclear option.” At the outset, anyone should be a little concerned about an article that tells you to believe or not believe something in its title. I wasn’t an English major, but I do distinctly remember learning something about a “thesis” in writing, which is then intended to be backed by “evidence,” and hopefully leads to a “conclusion.” Let us examine whether Mr. Rees has followed these simple and time-honored principles in his article that tells us not to believe the “spin” about thorium.
“The pro-thorium lobby claim a single tonne of thorium burned in a molten salt reactor (MSR) – typically a liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR) – which has liquid rather than solid fuel, can produce one gigawatt of electricity. A traditional pressurised water reactor (PWR) would need to burn 250 tonnes of uranium to produce the same amount of energy.”
I will start by commending Mr. Rees on accurately recapitulating the advantages of the LFTR and correctly identifying that it is the LFTR using thorium—and not conventional solid-fueled, water-cooled reactors using thorium—that is the centrality of the argument here. Far too many writers miss making this key distinction, and instead focus on the limited application of thorium in solid-fueled reactors, and conclude somewhat accurately that thorium has an only modestly-appealing future in existing reactors.
“They also produce less waste, have no weapons-grade by-products, can consume legacy plutonium stockpiles and are meltdown-proof – if the hype is to be believed.”
Again, I appreciate a recapitulation of the advantages, but the sentence ends with the assertion that these advantages are merely “hype” and do not stand up to scrutiny. I did a search of an online dictionary for the word “hype” and found a range of definitions, from “excessive publicity and the ensuing commotion” to “something deliberately misleading; a deception.” If the “hype” surrounding thorium and LFTR reaches this latter category, then truly the author is correct to warn the public about something deliberately misleading or a deception.
So he employed five witnesses in his case against thorium and LFTR, each intended to show that there is hype or deception involved. They are:
Peter Rowberry of No Money for Nuclear (NM4N).
Neil Crumpton of Friends of the Earth
Jean McSorley, senior consultant for the anti-nuclear campaign waged by Greenpeace.
The closest thing to a “pro-nuclear” witness interviewed by the author was a UK National Nuclear Laboratory “white paper” entitled “The Thorium Fuel Cycle.”
Mr. Rees goes on to point to the Indian example of thorium development and their national commitment to it before getting to the crux of his entire argument:
We haven’t done it before.
This is a very strange argument with which to base a case against any technology. I’ve spent my entire career in technology development, and the reason why people undertake technology development is precisely because they haven’t done it before!
The case against a new technology like LFTR should then be supported by evidence as to why the author might think it likely that a technology development will fail if undertaken. For this we turn to the five witnesses.
Dr. Karamoskos says:
“Without exception, [thorium reactors] have never been commercially viable, nor do any of the intended new designs even remotely seem to be viable. Like all nuclear power production they rely on extensive taxpayer subsidies; the only difference is that with thorium and other breeder reactors these are of an order of magnitude greater, which is why no government has ever continued their funding.”
Dr. Karamoskos is a nuclear radiologist, not a nuclear engineer. Has he evaluated the LFTR economic case? I highly doubt it. Has he reviewed the performance of other thorium-based technologies before issuing his blanket statement? We will never know because the author does not give us additional details.
One has to wonder why Dr. Karamoskos does not think the thorium-based LFTR will be viable. Perhaps he thinks it will have to operate at higher pressures than existing reactors–but it won’t, it will operate at lower pressures. Perhaps he thinks that it will operate at a lower temperature and achieve lower thermodynamic efficiency–but it won’t, it will operate at higher temperatures and achieve higher efficiency. Perhaps he thinks that the thorium fuel will be more difficult to find and more expensive than uranium fuel–but it won’t, it is more common than uranium and will be mined as we search for rare-earth materials for our wind turbines.
Dr. Karamoskos does seem anxious to promote “guilt by association”, however, by lumping any thorium-based reactor in with uranium-based reactor technologies, which he then goes on to paint as dependent on “extensive taxpayer subsidies.” This is certainly not the case in the United States and I suspect is not the case in the UK as well. He also decides, apparently out of thin air, that thorium is going to cost an “order-of-magnitude” more than uranium-based reactors, without any supporting evidence.
Anti-nuclear campaigner Peter Rowberry also creates a false collusion when he asserts that the effort to develop thorium-based reactors is simply a smokescreen for continued use of uranium-based pressurized-water reactors (PWR).
“This could be seen to excuse the continued use of PWRs until thorium is [widely] available.”
Interesting theory, Mr. Rowberry, but it doesn’t support the author’s thesis that thorium reactors are a bad idea because we haven’t done them before. It simply suggests that uranium-based reactor providers are looking to transition into thorium, another thing that we have seen no evidence whatsoever of taking place.
But in a great irony, Mr. Rees then goes on to call the uranium-based nuclear industry itself to testify against thorium reactors, seeming to contradict the statement of Mr. Rowberry entirely. He points out that there is no interest amongst the existing nuclear reactor vendors for thorium, and references the NNL report to buttress this evidentiary line. Again, one is left to wonder how this supports the overall thesis of “we haven’t done this so we shouldn’t do this.” Rather, it seems to support an alternative viewpoint from Mr. Rowberry, namely that the technological overlap between existing water-cooled, uranium-based reactors and liquid-fluoride thorium reactors is so miniscule that existing players see little reason to try to promote a better technology.
Typewriters did not lead to word processors and computers. Neither will uranium-based light-water reactors lead to LFTRs.
Mr. Rees then concedes that the conventional nuclear industry may have missed the mark when they evaluated thorium but without the LFTR concept as the paradigm. I agree with that statement, but I have to wonder why Mr. Rees introduced two lines of evidence that he goes on to immediately contradict. It would seem to be a poor use of an article whose purpose is to propose a thesis and then defend it.
So Mr. Rees shifts gears in the middle of his piece and concludes that even if thorium and LFTR is all that it is cracked up to be that it will arrive too late and will be uneconomic compared to solar and wind options.
His new thesis would also seem to want for evidence. Will solar and wind get much cheaper? We have been told that for many years. Is it indeed the case?
There are no witnesses called to testify to support the new thesis. It is only stated as a self-evident truth accepted among “those who support renewables.” By the same token, it could be taken of equal evidentiary value that among “those who support thorium” there is a belief that they will be less expensive than solar and wind. Without true evidence the statements are meaningless.
Mr. Rees then reminds us that thorium is “still nuclear energy” and goes on to say that it will “disgorge toxic byproducts” like some benighted monster. Unlike Mr. Rees, I have spent considerable time modeling each and every one of the fission product decay chains and have presented my results in public discussions. Do thorium reactors produce radioactive materials? Certainly. Do these pose an undue threat to human life or society? Certainly not, in my opinion, and I offer the results of my modeling as the evidence.
At some point, I am called to testify as to the benefits of thorium reactors, but Mr. Rees then goes on to dismiss the benefits I offer as “putative” and to assert that they will be outweighed by a “proliferating number of reactors.” I have to wonder a bit at the choice of language in his dismissal, for typically when we discuss “proliferation” in the nuclear arena we refer to the undesired spread of nuclear weapons rather than the expansion of a lifesaving technology. The literal meaning of the statement is valid, but the choice of adjective strikes me as no accident and is meant to sow fear and doubt in the mind of the reader.
Dr. Karamoskos is then called in again to label thorium reactors a “dishonest fantasy” because the fissile material is uranium-233 rather than thorium. This is a strange way to express dishonesty, since I have been forthright since I first started discussing the technology that uranium-233 was the fissile material. But uranium-233 comes from thorium and only from thorium, and the consumption of U-233 in a LFTR leads to the formation of new U-233 from thorium. U-233 then serves as a sort of “nuclear catalyst,” and the real fuel of the reactor is thorium. Is this dishonesty? No, I think it is simplicity. Where does the uranium-233 that drives the reactor come from? Thorium. What is used to create new uranium-233? Thorium. Hence we call these machines such as LFTR by a simple and accurate name: thorium reactors.
A paragraph of errors about half-lives and fission products then follows, which by itself could have been enough reason to pull the article back into dry dock and rebuild it, but Mr. Rees declines to do so. In short, U-232 doesn’t have a half-life of 160,000 years, it has a half life of about 69 years. Protactinium-231 is not produced by a LFTR or any other reactor, it is a natural step on the decay chain of uranium-235 and has nothing to do with whether man chooses to use nuclear power or not. Technetium-99 and iodine-129 are asserted to pose a risk because of their long half-lives. Rather, precisely because they have long half-lives they have low radioactivity and manageable risk. I doubt that Mr. Rees has a good handle on the nature of radioactivity and risk.
The next witness called to support Mr. Rees’s shifting case is Neil Crumpton of the Friends of the Earth. Mr. Crumpton advises waiting to see what will come of LFTR technology, asserting that we will know more in the future. Unfortunately, the simple truth about technology development is that the only way to learn more is to advance the technology and examine the results. The question that is always before those who would attempt to advance the technology and those who would finance those efforts is, “does this look promising?” Mr. Crumpton’s statement provides no insight into that basic question.
The last quote in the article is by Jean McSorley of Greenpeace who asserts that thorium technology is not renewable, not sustainable, and can’t connect to smart grids. I would assert that in the strictest sense no energy source is renewable, but thorium-fueled LFTRs are sustainable since they utilize an abundant natural resource at a very small rate, and that they most certainly can connect to “smart grids”. Smart grids are intended to handle diffuse and intermittent energy sources like wind and solar. Connecting the grid to a reliable and concentrated energy source like LFTR is a piece of cake in comparison.
And in what has to be my most delicious piece of irony, Ms. McSorley of Greenpeace calls the conventional nuclear industry in to support her assertion that thorium reactors are of no value. This has to be the first time I have ever seen someone from Greenpeace lean on the opinions of the conventional nuclear industry to support their position. We should mark it well—both Greenpeace and the conventional nuclear industry have found common cause and consider thorium reactors a “distraction.”
If I had handed this paper into my eighth-grade English teacher as an example of the defense of a thesis statement, I expect that he would have given me a low grade. He would have said:
1. You didn’t defend your thesis.
2. You changed your thesis halfway through the paper.
3. You didn’t defend your new thesis.
4. You had no conclusion.
Final grade: D-. Redo your paper Mr. Rees, and try to support your thesis next time.