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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Bombs before GDP

Karl Denninger considers the problem of energy production in a world of increasingly expensive oil and coal:
We experimented with Thorium as a nuclear fuel in the 1950s and 1960s.  Carried in a molten salt there are a number of significant advantages to this fuel cycle.  Chief among them is that the reactors operate at atmospheric pressure, have a strongly-negative temperature coefficient (that is, reactivity drops as temperature increases) and because they operate with their fuel dispersed in the coolant and rely on a fixed moderator in the reaction vessel shutting them down is simply a matter of draining the working fuel into a tank with sufficient surface area to dissipate decay heat.  This can be accomplished passively; active cooling of a freeze plug in the bottom of the reactor vessel can be employed during normal operation and if for any reason that cooling is lost the plug melts, the coolant and working fluid drains to tanks and the reactor shuts down.  In addition thorium is about as abundant in the environment as is lead, making its supply effectively infinite.

Finally, these reactors operate at a much higher temperature; the units we have run (yes, we've built them experimentally in the 1950s - 1970s!) run in the neighborhood of 650C.  This allows closed-cycle turbine systems that are more efficient than the conventional turbines in existing designs, making practical the location of reactors in places that don't have large amounts of water available.  That in turn means that the risk of geological and other similar accidents (e.g. tsunamis!) is greatly reduced or eliminated.  Finally, the fuel cycle is mostly-closed internally; that is, rather than requiring both fast-breeder reactors and external large-scale reprocessing plants to be practical, along with a way to store a lot of high-level waste these units burn up most of their high-level waste internally and produce their own fuel internally as well as an inherent part of their operation.

So why didn't we pursue this path for nuclear power?

That's simple: It is entirely-unsuitable for production of nuclear bombs as it produces negligible amounts of plutonium.
A decision that might have made sense in the middle of the 1950s arms race doesn't make sense more than 60 years later.  So, why aren't we utilizing thorium-based nuclear power plants?

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56 Comments:

Anonymous BAJ September 25, 2012 10:22 AM  

Good question. I visited the famous B reactor in Hanford Washington. It was a technological breakthrough for its time and used U_238 to produce plutonium for the Trinity and Nagasaki bombs. Using U_238 nowadays is simply a a matter of momentum.

Anonymous Romeny's Tax Returns September 25, 2012 10:23 AM  

I blame the Tea party, neocons, Romney and Sarah Palin, in that order.

Anonymous Mr Green Man September 25, 2012 10:24 AM  

There are no votes in Iowa or New Hampshire from the Thorium lobby.

Anonymous Zenobite September 25, 2012 10:24 AM  

"So, why aren't we utilizing thorium-based nuclear power plants?" - VD

Big Uranium?

Anonymous Salt September 25, 2012 10:25 AM  

It's more than just plutonium production. It's government. Why do something for pennies when one can do it for dollars.

Anonymous Toddy Cat September 25, 2012 10:30 AM  

I was always under the impression that the military obtained plutonium 239 from its own weapons reactors in order to make bombs, rather than commerical reactor-produced plutonium. One wouldn't think that this would be an issue. More likely, there's some dimwitted regulation involved, that it hasn't been in anyone's interest to challenge.

Anonymous But... but... September 25, 2012 10:33 AM  

Radiation is bad, and scary, and stuff!

Three Mile Island! Chernobyl! Fukushima!

Anonymous dh September 25, 2012 10:41 AM  

> I was always under the impression that the military obtained plutonium 239 from its own weapons
> reactors in order to make bombs, rather than commercial reactor-produced plutonium. One wouldn't
> think that this would be an issue. More likely, there's some dimwitted regulation involved, that it
> hasn't been in anyone's interest to challenge.

It probably is true now, especially for depleted type products, but in the early days of the nuclear age, there were few reactors capable of producing it.

Saying that we aren't doing anything with Thorium is pretty silly - India and Germany both have working reactors. Worldwide there are several projects underway. The science is pretty clear, but the engineering hasn't been polished up to production levels.

For the US, the main reason we don't have anything underway is that the makers of various nuclear power plant systems - namely GE - are essentially sitting out the market.

Anonymous Jake September 25, 2012 10:41 AM  

This is a good example to throw back at people who want to use things like nuclear power as a defense of huge defense spending, NASA, etc.

Sure we get some nice stuff like GPS maybe. But a lot of it is fundamentally flawed because it was designed to be a weapon not a useful tool. The continued rejection of far safer and cheaper nuclear power such as available by Thorium for the highly problematic reactions we use is a REAL legacy of our defense spending.

Blogger Astrosmith September 25, 2012 10:41 AM  

We're not using thorium precisely for the reason that you can't make weapons grade material with it. That's it.

I am not aware that there are any laws or regulations preventing anyone from building thorium reactors, and there are in fact some people looking to do just that. See energyfromthorium.com if you're interested in the topic.

There are some engineering challenges in building these reactors, basically that you have to dissolve the thorium in highly toxic and corrosive molten fluoride salts. But it's nothing that can't be overcome with proper design.

If I were Elon Musk (or someone else with a zillion bucks) I'd be building these.

Blogger Gilbert Ratchet September 25, 2012 10:44 AM  

You've obviously never heard of Cobalt-Thorium G...

Anonymous Daniel September 25, 2012 10:45 AM  

I think India does utilize thorium plants quite a bit.

More importantly, thorium has been my favorite element since I first had to memorize the periodic table. Unfortunately, thorium isn't very dangerous, so my childhood dream of developing a thorium mine just so I could develop savage mutant canaries was quite misplaced.

Blogger swiftfoxmark2 September 25, 2012 10:46 AM  

There is plenty of oil to fuel the entire world at the United States' current usage. The reason for a lack of energy production is not because of a lack of alternatives, but because government has interfered with the demand.

And I am not just talking about direct regulations and restrictions on the production of energy either. There are several other factors to consider.

Anonymous alexamenos September 25, 2012 11:01 AM  

"in a world of increasingly expensive oil..."

Is oil becoming increasingly expensive? In 1971ish, one ounce of gold could be traded for a little more than 10 barrels of oil. Today that same ounce of gold can be traded for 17 or 18 barrels of oil.

I suspect $100/bbl oil is not so much a function of supply / demand in the oil field, but rather supply / demand of Bernanke bucks.

Anonymous The One September 25, 2012 11:06 AM  

Theory is good, need a real life working example today@

Anonymous Athor Pel September 25, 2012 11:11 AM  

Why did America shut down its thorium reactor research programs?


Here's the quote from Wikipedia,

"The Molten Salt Breeder Reactor project received funding until 1976. Inflation-adjusted to 1991 dollars, the project received $38.9 million from 1968 to 1976; for comparison, LMFBR research received an adjusted $1459.6 million (about 37.5 times the amount) during the same period.[6]

The following reasons were cited as responsible for the program cancellation:

The political and technical support for the program in the United States was too thin geographically. Within the United States, only in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was the technology well understood.[7]

The MSR program was in competition with the fast breeder program at the time, which got an early start and had copious government development funds being spent in many parts of the United States. When the MSR development program had progressed far enough to justify a greatly expanded program leading to commercial development, the AEC could not justify the diversion of substantial funds from the LMFBR to a competing program.[7]
"



Here's the link where I found this,

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molten_salt_reactor

Blogger Giraffe September 25, 2012 11:15 AM  

The green idiots hear the word "nuclear" and go apoplectic.

Anonymous Mr Green Man September 25, 2012 11:16 AM  

From the liar's encyclopedia, graciously copied by Athor Pel:

The political and technical support for the program in the United States was too thin geographically. Within the United States, only in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was the technology well understood.[7]


This one is one of those things people don't understand, and sounds like a very bad thing -- the US National Lab system is highly specialized -- e.g., PNNL doesn't compete directly with Sandia or Los Alamos or Oak Ridge on specialty. The Oak Ridge boys are supposed to know how to make reactors and generate fuel; the Los Alamos guys are supposed to know how to turn that fuel into a warhead; the Sandia boys are supposed to know how to package that warhead in a rocket; the PNNL boys are supposed to know how to bury the waste. I'm sure there's something missing from the life cycle to give Lawrence something to do. It usually works well.

Anonymous Daniel September 25, 2012 11:19 AM  

The One -

Here you go: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/nov/01/india-thorium-nuclear-plant

Anonymous Daniel September 25, 2012 11:20 AM  

Oops. Sorry forgot to tag. Dur.

Anonymous Jmac September 25, 2012 11:27 AM  

I was always under the impression that the military obtained plutonium 239 from its own weapons reactors in order to make bombs, rather than commercial reactor-produced plutonium. One wouldn't think that this would be an issue.

I don't know for certain, but I would say that the government funded the research and construction of test facilities that advanced and proved the reactor design thus making the technology available. No one else would have reason to work in competition with the government.

Anonymous chickenlittle September 25, 2012 11:39 AM  

Whatever the real reasons, you can bet that Denninger's speculations fall somewhere near the bottom of the list. His main priority is getting worked up into a hysterical rant to get off. You see this with a lot of libertardians.

Anonymous dB September 25, 2012 11:57 AM  

Here is a link (sorry I did not hyperlink it) about a discussion of thorium on NPRs website.

http://www.npr.org/2012/05/04/152026805/is-thorium-a-magic-bullet-for-our-energy-problems

I think the discussion will boil down to that current methods vs thorium have tradeoffs. One of the main concerns of this revolves around what waste is leftover and how bad it is long term. Something like suicide using a musket or a 45magnum.

And really the link I listed above points to a guy who wants to use solar as the solution to all the problems.

Anonymous Orville September 25, 2012 11:58 AM  

The PTB simply don't want to "solve" the energy problem. But there are solutions and some better than Karl's thorium hobby horse.

There is, in my non-technical opinion, an even safer reactor design called Pebble Bed Reactors or PBR. S. Africa is building a large one, and China has several. It is so safe, the Chinese actually cut the power to the reactor during one demonstration and it safely cooled down.

The design consists of billiard ball sized graphite spheres with low grade uranium dispersed within the graphite and an outer ceramic coating. Each ball itself cannot reach criticality, but a "bucket" of balls can, but can easily be actively moderated by some berylium shields. It's passively moderated by heat. If the heat goes above a certain level all reactions stop. Energy is extacted by heating an inert gas which is run through turbines and/or sterling engines to run generators.

The nice thing about the design besides the safety is that it scales down well. You can put one the size of two car garage that will supply an entire neighborhood.

Finally, the byproducts (the used balls) are worthless for any weapons purpose.

Anonymous a nony mouse September 25, 2012 12:05 PM  

a nuclear scientist gave his answer to this in a Q&A on reddit the other day

http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/10ctvo/as_requested_iama_nuclear_scientist_ama/c6cgx75

"As for thorium, the future looks less promising. Thorium tends to be attractive to countries like India that lack large uranium reserves. However, thorium is much more difficult to use than uranium because it must be irradiated by neutrons before it becomes useful fuel - a process called “breeding.” Most breeder-reactor concepts require spent-fuel processing, which isn’t currently economically viable in the US - it’s cheaper to mine and enrich natural uranium than to reuse the uranium and plutonium in spent fuel! Research on breeding fuel has taken new life in recent years, but most projects focus on breeding fuel from unenriched uranium, not thorium. I’m not saying that thorium isn’t a viable option, but most of the breeder-reactor research outside of India involves breeding fuel from uranium, and it’s unlikely that the US breeder designs will move past the drawing board in the next 20 years."

Blogger Vidad, AKA David the Good September 25, 2012 12:19 PM  

@Orville

That's amazing stuff. Depending on the size of the balls, one could play pool and make energy at the same time.

"Fission in the corner pocket."

Blogger Physics Geek September 25, 2012 12:22 PM  

As far as breeding thorium fuel, there's nothing to prevent the manufacture and usage of thorium fuel rods into today's nuclear plants. It would involve some core redesign, but that's done for every refueling outage. We have this discussion in the group in which I work which, coincidentally enough, is a sub-group for one that deals with nuclear core design.

The reality is that we could easily switch to thorium fuel rods over the next decade or so, or however long it takes to ramp up production of thorium fuel rods to use in currently operating reactors. I will state one drawback that's been discussed: the thorium fuel rods become weapons grade some time after neutron bombardment, with no additional enrichment required.

I have no comments on liquid sodium reactor designs as there are not any currently licensed by the NRC for commercial use.

Anonymous Sensei September 25, 2012 12:32 PM  

It's a political landmine, there's no Thorium lobby, and people are nervous about things they don't understand, like nuclear power and a rational approach to decision making.

Anonymous Cryan Ryan September 25, 2012 12:42 PM  

I swear, Karl Denninger is an encyclopedia with no index.

Now he's on the thorium reactor bandwagon?

Remember, Karl voted for Ohbummer. Just as did millions of illiterate blacks, feminists, gays, college kids, hollywood weirdos, atheists, and obese single mothers on welfare.

Now he wants to 'splain to his people the joys of thorium?

Jeeeeez.

Anonymous Aeoli Pera September 25, 2012 12:44 PM  

A decision that might have made sense in the middle of the 1950s arms race doesn't make sense more than 60 years later. So, why aren't we utilizing thorium-based nuclear power plants?

That one is easy. We haven't built any nuclear plants (in the US) since before the collapse of the Soviet Union. There simply hasn't been a chance to try on the new logic for size.

But be careful when you're researching this topic. Being highly specialized, the information tends to come from a small number of sources (ANS, NRC). And the existing nuclear professional cultures (in the US) seem to have no problem with straight-up propaganda.

Just saying.

Anonymous Hoots September 25, 2012 12:52 PM  

I've asked a couple nuclear engineers (graduate & post-grad) about Thorium. They are aware that Thorium can theoretically be used, but it just isn't studied at their schools (which are among the best in the world). They were not aware of the Thorium work done at Oak Ridge, and were unable to comment about the advantages/disadvantages. Basically it just isn't studied by the mainstream nuclear community. Keep in mind that building these reactors is as much art as it is science, and a lot of the art has been lost or never created in the first place. It would be a very long road to working Thorium reactors in the U.S. especially with the harsh regulatory environment. Look for it to happen somewhere else. Did someone mention India?

Anonymous JP (real one) September 25, 2012 12:59 PM  

"Whatever the real reasons, you can bet that Denninger's speculations fall somewhere near the bottom of the list. His main priority is getting worked up into a hysterical rant to get off. You see this with a lot of libertardians."

Not sure if you're a Neo-Con or Obamabot-Con, but Denninger is hardly a libertarian in my book. I don't care if he calls himself one or not. As someone else pointed out, he voted for Obama and clashes with the Austrians in many areas.

Anonymous JP (real one) September 25, 2012 1:05 PM  

"We haven't built any nuclear plants (in the US) since before the collapse of the Soviet Union. There simply hasn't been a chance to try on the new logic for size."

True. In college I worked as a co-op at a nuclear plant. The facility was supposed to have a "Part 2." It was halfway built in the 80s and then stopped. Some of the structure and remaining parts were still there as I was working in the early 90s. The rest were disposed of or sold for scrap. A huge waste--no telling how much money was sunk into that.

Anonymous Roundtine September 25, 2012 1:06 PM  

If I were Elon Musk (or someone else with a zillion bucks) I'd be building these.

For real. You think the guy who wants to take electric cars mainstream would realize the need for electricity. Cars made in America, powered by American energy.

Anonymous O.C. September 25, 2012 1:18 PM  

Because thorium reactors can't be made small enough and light enough to work in submarines, which is where most of the R&D money was going in the 1940s and 1950s, and which is why nearly all the commercial power-plant reactors now operating in the U.S., Europe, and Japan are basically scaled-up nuclear sub light-water power plants. It was that "peaceful atom" spinoff from the Navy's nuclear propulsion program, doncha know?

Which also, by the way, is why our reactors melt down so dramatically when the cooling systems fail.

Anonymous O.C. September 25, 2012 1:26 PM  

For what it's worth, there are many safer reactor designs that *could* be built now -- kudos to Orville for bringing up the pebble bed -- but thanks to a half-century of exciting and highly publicized pressurized water reactor failures, "nuclear power" is now inextricably linked with "terrifying" in the tiny minds of the general public.

All I can say is, Thank God the Air Force never got NEPA or the Convair X-6 flying.

Anonymous Orville September 25, 2012 1:49 PM  

Not to mention NERVA, which some want to bring back.

Blogger tweell September 25, 2012 2:05 PM  

Actually, the US Navy had a test thorium reactor running in the early 80's. It performed quite well, and Admiral Rickover had requested a design and full scale prototype reactor. Then he was retired, and the Navy nuclear power program has been frozen in time ever since.

Anonymous JP (real one) September 25, 2012 2:34 PM  

"but thanks to a half-century of exciting and highly publicized pressurized water reactor failures"

Three Mile Island - despite the media hypenot a single death resulted, as far as I know.

Chernobyl - The worst nuclear incident, but I blame that on the USSR's horrible management and non-concern.

Fukushima - Again, it was hugely hyped during the incident--thousands were supposed to die within a few years. This article is a good reality check:
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390444772404577589270444059332.html

Anonymous DT September 25, 2012 2:45 PM  

I suspect $100/bbl oil is not so much a function of supply / demand in the oil field, but rather supply / demand of Bernanke bucks.

I read the phrase "Bernanke Bucks" and had a vision of monopoly money with his picture on the front. I wonder if we could start printing Bernanke Bucks and using them as a form of protest?

Anonymous Aeoli Pera September 25, 2012 2:55 PM  

JP,

You've worked in the industry, but the people reading this probably don't know: a functional plant costs roughly $1 billion.

If the unfinished section was only 1% complete, the company probably had to lay off approximately 100 people to compensate for the bad investment.

Anonymous Aeoli Pera September 25, 2012 2:56 PM  

was only <- were only

Anonymous O.C. September 25, 2012 3:29 PM  

@JP
I agree, but you're trying to use facts to change the minds of people who think The China Syndrome was a documentary and nuclear power plants can explode like an A-bomb if something goes wrong.

Anonymous oregon mouse September 25, 2012 3:36 PM  

but if we didn't have depleted uranium what would we drop on the mideast? At least I've heard several times that we use depleted uranium in our bombs. It wouldn't surprise me.

OpenID SharpsKC September 25, 2012 5:10 PM  

One of the things almost everyone in power can agree on is that energy should be expensive and shouldn't get cheaper. That this dooms most of the world to relative poverty might be unfortunate, but is an unavoidable result of rent-seeking on "proven" energy reserves.

Anonymous Kalpakkam September 25, 2012 5:23 PM  

India's first Thorium reactor, Kalpakkam Nuclear Reactor Tamil Nadu, should already be online. India has the most Thorium and the USA is second. By 2030 India is striving to be energy independent. One of our nuke companies is assisting with this reactor. We have thorium here and it is cheap and abundant. What will make you the maddest is this is 1950s technology. Electricity from these reactors would be very inexpensive. Our coal could than be made into oil.

Last point, we completely wasted billions training Afghanistan Soldiers when we could have partnered with India. An English speaking country with an acclimatized plethora of males to run that region of the world and buffer China. Himalaya’s a great defense barrier. The Indian population does not like the Pakistanis! Even AL Qaeda attacked India and still no carpe diem. If the great German Otto Von Bismarck were alive he would have put a weapon in every India boys hand and crushed the opposition. John Wayne would have instructed some First Sergeant Kickass Indian Soldiers, Pilgrims!

Anonymous rat64 September 25, 2012 6:40 PM  

I have been employed as an Energy Manager for the Navy for the last 18 months.
The Navy has a "Net Zero" goal for its installations.
Net zero- each installation PRODUCE the energy it needs INSIDE the fence line.

My recommendation-
"Thorium Reactor"

Command's response-
"We need real solutions, not crazy ideas"

Rejoinder-
"you started it,,"


Anonymous HH September 25, 2012 8:24 PM  

VD says "A decision that might have made sense in the middle of the 1950s arms race doesn't make sense more than 60 years later."

Its only one of many things we own to the cold war - NASA space program, the US interstate highways, lasers, computers, the internet...

While I haven't looked at this stuff in quite a while --- the majority of the 100+ plants running in US were designed in the 60's and built in the 70's .... after 3 mile island there were no new reactors and only recently has that trended shifted... So the fact is while there has been some really exciting work in nuclear reactor design (I am partial to these sub-critical designs -- in fact I think accelerator driven sub-critical (ADS)reactors is most interesting). The new Westinghouse designs seem interesting as are the AECL Candu reactors.

** warning -- off subject topic and possible plot spoiler**

A side advantage of these accelerator driven reactors is the ability to transmute matter --- all sorts of interesting applications (like radioactive waste treatment) but perhaps most interesting to this forum is transmutation of Hg to Au (gold)... just think about the usefulness of gold as a currency when the you can just make it in the lab -- right now it costs a lot (maybe 10 times current market price of gold -- hey does that set a market limit for gold ?)) but imagine some technological achievement (like LENR)that could make it cost less than natural gold..

Anonymous Matt September 25, 2012 9:06 PM  

You've worked in the industry, but the people reading this probably don't know: a functional plant costs roughly $1 billion.

Eh, that's not so much. Cowboys Stadium cost a billion and a half.

maybe 10 times current market price of gold -- hey does that set a market limit for gold ?

Accelerator-based production of gold would be vastly, vastly more expensive than a mere factor of 10. Based on prices of RTG isotopes, we're looking at millions of dollars per kilogram.

Anonymous Noah B. September 25, 2012 10:00 PM  

"At least I've heard several times that we use depleted uranium in our bombs. It wouldn't surprise me."

This is a bit OT, but that's pretty much right. DU is used mainly for anti-armor projectiles, not so much in explosive weapons or bombs. The reasons for its use are based on its density and metallurgical properties alone and have nothing to do with the fact that other isotopes of uranium are used in nuclear weapons. The main issue with the military's use of DU is that the dust formed after a projectile impact is chemically toxic (as opposed to radioactive).

I only handled the stuff once -- my 8th grade earth science teacher used to have a chunk of it sitting on her desk.

Anonymous Vitus_Bering September 25, 2012 10:37 PM  

I grew up in Oak Ridge, (a product of... gasp... Oak Ridge Public Schools), and I never heard of the Thorium work there either. Dad was a plasma physicist at Y-12. Of course, I am a snowflake and my story means nothing.

Anonymous Columnist September 26, 2012 2:21 AM  

Why didn't they pursue both, thorium for energy, and uranium for bombs?

Anonymous Tallen September 26, 2012 9:30 AM  

How about a joint venture with Iran?

Anonymous GmBH September 26, 2012 1:27 PM  

Hear! Hear! As Kirk Sorenson points out repeatedly, the medical isotopes from a LFTR are one of the most immediate advantages of the Thorium fuel cycle.

(Not to mention distributed power sources. Thorium scales down to the point a industrial facility could have it own. Screw the grid and utility goon it rides in on.)

Anonymous GmBH September 26, 2012 1:28 PM  

@Columnist - "competitive funding" is the simplest (though not the best) answer.

Anonymous maniacprovost September 26, 2012 4:15 PM  

The biggest problem with a liquid Thorium plant might be the piping. 650 degree molten salt is extremely corrosive. I think that quote about breeder reactors being uneconomical is bad logic applied to cover his unfamiliarity with the design. As fard as I know freshly enriched uranium, right from Mother Nature, can be used to start the thorium reaction. There's no need to have "more expensive" reprocessed crap, although if you're trying to get rid of nuclear waste that might be the way to go.

I am also under the impression that a liquid Thorium plant only needs uranium to start the reaction, and fresh fuel can be injected indefinitely. This would be the advantage over solid rods.

I am not a nuclear engineer or an Oak Ridge scientist, so feel free to correct me.

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