I’m in love

For ages I’ve been convinced that the Integral Fast Reactor was the best way to go. Argonne labs tested the the EBR1 and perfected it in the EBR2. Yes, it has passive safety and eats nuclear waste and can go up on the assembly line to be mass-produced cheaply. No, there is no operating IFR in the world today, but remember that the IFR is only one type of fast breeder reactor — those reactors that ‘breed’ nuclear waste up through the fuel cycle and ‘eat’ waste. One that is pretty close in design to an Integrated Fast Reactor is Russia’s brand new BN-800. GE have the S-PRISM design ready to go the moment a country gives them the go-ahead. These are fantastic reactors, machines that could give the world cheap, safe, reliable power forever (when we eventually switch to burning uranium from seawater.) The world could do a lot worse than build out a whole fleet of IFR’s.

There’s just one small problem. There isn’t enough nuclear waste to run them all yet! If I was to wave a magic wand and every coal-fired power plant on the planet changed into a waste-eating nuke like the IFR, there would not be enough fuel for them. It will take decades to breed the waste up for all those IFR’s.

In other words, we were going to have to wait a while for the IFR anyway. In the meantime, we build out today’s technology. A bit of wind and solar here, and a whole bunch of nukes over there. Today’s nukes. Safe nukes. Nukes like the AP1000. I’d much rather live next door to an AP1000 than to an old Fukushima styled reactor, let alone the   horror of the radioactive, heavy metal wasteland of living next to a coal-fired power station! Yuk.

Nuclear power is the quickest way to solve climate change. France increased their nuclear fleet 73% in 11 years. That’s converting three-quarters of their grid to safe, clean, reliable power in just over a decade. That’s amazing!

So given that today’s nuclear waste is tomorrow’s fuel, we can go ahead and build a whole fleet of AP1000’s while we perfect tomorrow’s design. What is the perfect design for tomorrow? I was convinced it was the IFR. I’ve promoted it for years. It’s a good reactor. No, it’s a great reactor!

But here’s the good news. I’m convinced that there is another reactor that could be even better!

Watch this 2 hour documentary featuring NASA engineer Kirk Sorenson. I watched it in half hour chunks over a week.

It features the “Lifter”, the LFTR, Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor. I love this thing!

  • Passive safety, just like the IFR
  • Eats nuclear waste and warheads, just like the IFR
  • But uses stable liquid salt, not the unstable and explosive sodium of an IFR!
  • Uses graphite moderators to slow the neutrons for a slow thermal reaction, not the fast neutron reaction of the IFR (advantage below)
  • Every other reactor on earth uses power to cool the reactor
  • The LFTR uses a lack of power to trigger a cooling emergency.
  • The moment power fails, the ice-plug melts and the reactor drains away into a safe, passive-cooling drain tank
  • Only the reactor tank has the graphite moderator: the drain tank doesn’t have a moderator so the reaction cannot continue!
  • “Melt down” is impossible: it is already a liquid, and gravity never fails. The moment there is a power failure, the frozen salt plug melts and the reactor drains away!
  • Thorium is four times more abundant than uranium and every nation on earth pretty much has their own supply

But how ready is the LFTR to roll out? Isn’t it just hypothetical? Isn’t it just a nice idea that some scientists talk about, but no one is taking seriously? Isn’t the IFR decades ahead in prototype testing, and the LFTR just a nice idea we can explore sometime in the distant future?

Wrong!

The Chinese visited Oak Ridge a few years back. Oak Ridge built the world’s first LFTR back in the 1960’s, but the Cold War was on and the military needed plutonium. LFTR’s don’t produce plutonium, so LFTR’s were sidelined in the quest for the BOMB. Oak Ridge filed the project on a bunch of CD’s, and abandoned it. Most of the staff are dead or retired.

Until Kirk Sorenson retrieved all those files, uploaded new PDR’s onto his website, and the Chinese started taking notice! Now the son of a former Premier is running a truly massive fast-tracked program aiming to prototype, test, and build out Lifter’s within a decade. This changes everything. I no longer think the LFTR is a ‘nice idea’. It’s serious. And the first nation to massively mine thorium for fuel also wins in the rare-earth market. Valuable rare-earth’s then become another resource stream byproduct of the lithium fuel market! Everyone wins!

As the UK’s Telegraph explains:

  • LFTR’s make it very difficult to produce bombs
  • China’s thorium project was launched as a high priority by princeling Jiang Mianheng, son of former leader Jiang Zemin, in 2013
  • 140 PHD scientists and $350 million, so far.
  • 750 staff by 2015 but could be more
  • Opens the floodgates for a massive, worldwide nuclear comeback once people understand how safe and reliable Lifters are, and how utterly different to anything at Chernobyl and Fukushima

Unobtrusive, tidy, reliable, clean, cheap, abundant power can mean only one thing. Hope.

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2 Responses to I’m in love

  1. “The moment power fails, the ice-plug melts and the reactor drains away into a safe, passive-cooling drain tank”
    “frozen salt” not “ice” (there is no H2O)

    “Only the reactor tank has the graphite moderator: the drain tank doesn’t have a moderator so the reaction cannot continue!” and “reactor drains away”
    Not the best phrase, “drain tank” makes people think nuclear “stuff” going down the drain.
    How about “storage tank” as the fuel is properly stored?
    The storage tank does not have a graphite moderator, but the salt moderates some; in the reactor core fission would happen less without graphite moderator. In the storage tanks, fission is stopped by the geometry of the tanks. You need enough fuel, concentrated around a small area, to get fission. With the deliberately low fuel concentration in a LFTR, you also need neutron reflectors, to send neutrons flying the wrong direction back to the center. Fission is stopped by the storage tanks being the wrong shape — flat to dissipate heat.

    ““Melt down” is impossible: it is already a liquid”
    Yes, and more important is the reactor materials can handle the hottest the fuel can get in any normal or emergency situation. In LWR, the coolant easily boils away, the fuel gets much hotter than normal and melts the reactor materials. In MSR, the fuel temperature is strongly regulated by thermal expansion making the fuel less dense, slowing fission. In MSR, the fuel is strongly chemically bound to the coolant; “loss of coolant accidents” are physically impossible. With MSR, the radioactive materials stay in the reactor. If something broke the reactor vessel, there is no pressure (the fuel salt would not explode), and the salt would quickly cool to a solid (easy to collect, no entering the water supply, no traveling by air).

    Thorium is not hundreds of times more abundant than uranium, but rather U-235. LWR only uses U-235 (0.7% of uranium) as fuel. Thorium is 3-4 times as abundant as all isotopes of uranium.

    http://liquidfluoridethoriumreactor.glerner.com/

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