The Atomic Show #185 – Is Thorium Superior to Uranium?

On July 23, 2012, busy schedules aligned and I had the chance to talk with Richard Martin, the author of SuperFuel: Thorium, the Green Energy Source for the Future and Kirk Sorensen, the co-founder and chief technology officer of Flibe Energy, a start-up company formed to “develop small modular reactors based on liquid-fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR) technology.” Kirk is also the founder of Energy from Thorium.

Thought I did not think of phrasing it in this manner until I sat down to post the show, the initial question we discussed was “is thorium superior to uranium”? Even if Martin and Sorensen were able to win that argument, the more important question was determining whether the answer matters as much as the fact that both uranium and thorium (and their periodic table neighbor, plutonium) are atomic fission fuels that have serious advantages over combustion fuels in terms of energy density, total energy value and ability to produce power without pollution.

We talked quite a bit about my solidifying theory that a major part of the long running battle against using any of the three available nuclear fission fuels has derived from the fact that the current kings of the energy hill do not want either one to take their market share away. As is often the case, my discussion opponents initially labeled my theory as a crackpot conspiracy theory; I stubbornly continued explaining that pointing to a business strategy that includes efforts to “raise the barriers of entry” for formidable competitors should not be dismissed.

It is not a conspiracy theory to point out the enormous amount of capital that is invested in the global effort to locate, extract, transport, refine, distribute and market coal, natural gas and oil. It is not a conspiracy theory to point out that politicians and the advertiser supported media have numerous reasons to help their friends continue to capture trillions of dollars worth of revenue each year from suppling industrial society with the fuels that keep it running at prices that are far higher than they would be if there were amply supplies of nuclear fission based machines being allowed to operate on a remotely level playing field.

I hope you enjoy the discussion. Rick had another engagement, so he dropped out at the 45 minute point, but he suggested that we continue the conversation within the next six months as more developments occur. I think that is a capital idea. I’m looking forward to more discussions about the complicated but exceedingly important topic.

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16 Responses to “The Atomic Show #185 – Is Thorium Superior to Uranium?”

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  1. I’m glad the 3 of you had this discussion. A comment here on the LFTR/Th vs Uranium.

    I consider myself part of the LFTR ‘community’ though as of late I haven’t engaged in online activity around it for other reasons.

    The problem that Rod and Kirk, most notably, were engaged with was over the question of how to advocate for one type of technology which one believes is superior (as I do) and not disrespect the general development of another more dominant technology?

    Like Rod has expressed here and on the ANS list, vis-a-vis the Richard Martin book that Kirk promotes (despite some factual flaws brought out in other discussions) one can promote LFTR without putting down LWRs run on uranium (or thorium).

    This is a challenge I think Kirk has not risen too. It’s too easy to “dis” LWR when pointing out the superiority of LFTR. I think LFTR is superior in every way the LWR but unlike Kirk, I don’t believe it’s necessary to ‘put down’ LWR tech. I don’t think this is what Kirk “means’ to do but it comes off in his videos and interviews. I just think Kirk and others in the LFTR advocacy community have to be more consciousness about this.

    Rod, however, is overly ecumenical. The fact is that people like Kirk and many others who promote LFTR and, people like Barry Brooks and Tom Blees who promote the IFR, have to do comparisons. It is inevitable when trying to show *why* particular reactor technology is more advanced and simply better than what exists now. There is nothing wrong with doing this. Rod, in his own way who has promoted SMR does this when touting the real advantages of SMRs over utility-scale larger SMRs. Though Rod is able to do this far more successfully in terms of not putting down existing tech but seeing it more as an evolutionary flow from the existing tech. LFTR folks need to develop the same thing.

    It is impossible not to talk about LFTR, and this is addressed to Rod, without the question of how LFTR would of handled the tsunami that knocked out Fukushima. And that’s a good question not a bad one. The facts are that the LFTR would of handled a station black out better, just as a the Chinese HTR reactor can, and proved on television. So inevitably older early Gen II BWR LWRs are going to come out look bad. Kirk is addressing a real problem: the press controls the public perception of what happened. To show how it would of been a non-event if their were LFTRs (or PMBRs, IFRs or any Gen IV reactors) is good thing.

    So where does this leave us? My belief and where I differ I think from Kirk, is that one cannot separate LFTR (or any Gen IV reactors) from the public concerns around radiation and meltdowns and accidents and ‘waste’ even though LFTR directly, and in a superior way, deals with all these better. The future of LFTR, if it can be deployed seriously by anyone, Chinese included, is wholly dependent on the success not only of the current crop of Gen III and Gen II+ reactors but on breaking through to the truth about Gen II reactors and that they don’t represent a threat. To get the public to believe, with the Internet and the media the way it is, that a “No! But Wait, We Have This Model That Addresses Your Need…” is simply not going to work.

    The success of LFTR, as a superior form of fission that we need to be headed toward, depends on the success of the current fleet of reactors and the new ones replacing these in the Gen III category as well as, and perhaps more so, with the SMRs currently under development at places like B&W (where Rod works) and other ventures. To think that LFTR is actually going to somehow, a priorit seperate itself from the pack without a working first-of-a-kind model that can be vetted by the public is simply never going to happen.

    This is why my advocacy of LFTR means advocated for all fission reactor tech currently in development and the existing fleet. I urge all LFTR advocates, Kirk especially, to think about this.

    David

    • Jon says:

      Very good response.

      Maybe Mr. Sorensen should focus on explaining why his technology is superior to fossil fuels and avoid discussing other nuclear technologies altogether. Perhaps the general population won’t even associate LFTR with the negativity towards LWRs if he mostly avoids the discussion. Instead of “my nuclear vs your nuclear” it would be “my clean energy technology vs fossil fuels”.

  2. David says:

    I’d had this discussion in a fb group a while ago following a heated debate concerning the protesters who broke into the french reactors and what should be done with them. It boils down to deployment strategy and whether to lump Thorium and Uranium in the publics eye. Some great points made here and this has indeed shifted my view. Best way to know you have a mind is to change it :)
    Should LFTR deployment not refrain from condescending to the public about whether it can differentiate between old uranium, new uranium and new prototype thorium reactors. Not meaning to sound whimsical but we survived moving from leaded to unleaded petroleum as people accepted the science. Can the technology development pathway combine efforts to unify LFTR/PMBR/IFR/Gen IV reactors to ultimately tip the balance in LFTR’s favour in the future?

  3. Stewart Peterson says:

    I’d be interested if intervening events make anyone more receptive to the following two points – I’ve tried to articulate them before, but I guess not very well. I used to post similar statements here, and elsewhere, but that was a while ago.

    1. This is about the “what’s my favorite reactor” debate. We all know that the general public’s knowledge of LWR operating characteristics is massively behind the actual state of the art. The direct reason, regardless of root causes as to who is paying for it etc., is that anti-nuclear activists made statements about LWRs that were not true. What stops them from just making up more lies about whatever new reactors are devised? Wouldn’t the time be better spent in articulating the general principles that apply to all reactors? If the problems we have are totally unrelated to the reality of the situation and are rooted entirely in people’s perceptions, why are we making the reality part better rather than working on the perceptions part? Nuclear power has been the best there is for decades, and that hasn’t helped new plants get built – if being right would win a debate, we would have won it 30 years ago. Unfortunately, I think the question “what’s my favorite reactor” is an easy one for geeks to answer, and to talk about. I’ve been guilty of this a bit with the IFR; a couple of deep breaths and a better understanding of strategy indicates IMHO that we can’t afford to take this bait. Our already negligible political fighting power is being turned inwards, not outwards toward the opponents.

    2. I don’t see a need for a conspiracy to produce the outcome we’re seeing. Nuclear power is a political lightweight; that is to say, it doesn’t have any constituents. Sure, people benefit from it, but they don’t turn the benefits into gratitude and that into political support. Nobody ever lost a vote by trashing it. It’s a convenient punching bag for the three groups that have enough political power to have input into the regulatory process: industry, which can hire lobbyists, activists, who can make life hard for the regulatory agency by filing lawsuits and requests for hearings and anything else they can think of, and the regulators themselves, who want to (a) expand their empires and (b) do as little work as possible while (c) not getting in any political trouble, to increase the likelihood that they won’t be fired as a result of an investigation. If there were no conspiracy, these three groups would simply pursue their own interests until they were unable to get any more of what they wanted from the other two, and I think that matches perfectly with what we’re seeing. In fact, it works even better the more they hate each other – activists think they’re attacking the industry by getting more regulations, but the industry doesn’t object, because it locks out the smaller players (note that they aren’t taking any active role here; they don’t have to do anything but just not challenge it, and why should it occur to them to decide whether or not to challenge it if it doesn’t hurt them?); being a closed market, they can raise prices without fear of someone taking market share, so the increased costs are no problem to the established players. Being the established players, they don’t want new nuclear power plants to be built any more than the activists do – that’s the competition. Likewise, I think the activists know deep down that an industry with no new entrants eventually gets comfortable, loses all sense that it should innovate, and rots. Again, they don’t say this, but the status quo doesn’t conflict with what they want anyway so it hasn’t occurred to them as a problem – no one is asking them to push for lower barriers to entry and if someone did, they’d say “why would we want to do that – more nuclear power plants would get built!” The regulators, of course, want more regulations to enforce so that they can raise license fees and be able to justify a higher budget, allowing them to hire more people, while making a political point about being tough on the industry – but they don’t want it to generate more real work. Ergo, a lot of regulations, which generate more paperwork (e.g., “reporting requirements”), but don’t actually change the industry’s business practices. Costs go up and are passed on to the consumer, regulatory budgets go up, and the anti-nuclear activists think they’re winning. Everybody who matters to the political process wins, and the technology itself loses. Nobody’s going to bat for it – do you really think the industry will say “nuclear power is a great technology, and our strategic business mistakes, poor marketing, internal conflicts of interest, and selfishness flushed it completely down the toilet?” An expensive system that doesn’t work (read: doesn’t force anyone out of their comfort zones by making them do their jobs), yet provides personal gratification to all its participants, is the path of least resistance. Nothing more. It doesn’t have to be more than that.

    Thoughts?

  4. DV82XL says:

    Anyone still laboring under the delusion that thorium or Gen IV technology will get a free pass from the antinuclear side needs to read this:

    A critical analysis of future nuclear reactors designs

    It’s not so much that this D A. Ryan makes any valid points, but it does illustrate that Th and Gen IV are just as vulnerable to the same tactics of half-truths and dissemination that current nuclear designs are.

  5. totterdell91 says:

    regarding DARyan in particular, I did screen shots of his review on MSRs & ripped into it, with no holds barred, to demonstrate what a total berk you would have to be to believe any of his blog. The way he builds up to getting a reader to accept that a thorium salt has to be melted in order to dissolve it in a solvent, is solely to introduce the question of material suitability which is the central core to his “review”. he uses this to question the reliability of the reactor & the associated plumbing to infer that it “obviously” could never work.
    By showing that it is not necessary to melt Sodium Chloride to get it to dissolve & make make sea water, or melt any other substance to get it to dissolve, his credibility, & that of those like him, can be damaged beyond repair. Admittedly I used graphics for screen shots & attached comments to dissemble his arguments & point to his careful construction of each “lie”, but the basic idea is to demonstrate the deliberate guile & deceit in their technique.
    What needs to be done is to take on each and every one of these ‘activists’, & make them look to be obvious clowns. The general public do not like being deceived, and it is guys like this who are obviously being intentionally deceitful, & who need to be exposed, to help erode support from the major campaigns & players.
    With DARyan, every time his blog is referred to on twitter by the main activists, I post a link to a summary page of rebuttals. Sometimes that has amounted to posting the same thing 20 times a day, but it has had the effect of slowing the main activists to almost zero traffic, because the more they post easy to target untruths, the more support they lose.

  6. Aaron Rizzio says:

    Again a good discussion and clash of ideas & opinions.

    Contra Kirk & Martin the resource issue of Th isn’t all that germane. MIT’s Monitz observes conservatively there’s enough U235 for a 2000GW-century; and that’s just LWRs: “Our analysis of uranium mining costs versus cumulative production in a world with ten times as many LWRs and each LWR operating for 60 years indicates a probable 50% increase in uranium costs.” Uranium itself now only constitutes 2-4% of the cost of a LWR kWh. Think about it; we mine more potential energy in the 1-4ppm of uranium (and thorium) than contained in the billion tons of coal we’ve been burning every year for the past quarter century! And there are ore grades of coal containing >10-20ppm uranium. Shale & phosphate ores typically contain 20-200ppm uranium. So there remains QUITE a margin for additional LWR expansion yet.

    LONG before then we will have likely moved on to close the cycle (or accumulate ~4 million tons of UNF). No one is talking about building any more Mk I BWRs so the question of relative safety are irrelevant; at the time they were built in the early 70s they were (and remain still) orders of magnitude safer and cleaner than oil, coal or gas. It will likely be more than a decade before any LFTRs are put on-line. In the meantime the US alone could add another 100GW to the US grid and the Gen III+ designs are orders of magnitude safer than the Gen IIs. An ESBWR or AP1000 could have survived a Fukushima-style station black-out for example.

    And all this could come to pass surprisingly quickly if natural gas hits $10 MMBTU and stays there (something that has never happened apart from brief spot-market spikes). There would be a huge built-in arbitrage incentive for the utility holders of the cheap long-term contracts to build NPP and re-sell their gas, first-movers would capture a windfall before the gas market re-collapses.

    As an aside Kirk made an analogy between rocketry in the age of Von Braun and modern-day rocketry. In fact we WOULD HAVE been far better off had we retained the Saturn V (which was far more versatile, economic, and probably safer than the Shuttle Orbiter) for the past 40 years, and built on it; there were fascinating plans in the works for uprated versions of Saturn VIs & VIIs capable of taking a modular base to the moon and crews to Mars and asteroids.

    • DV82XL says:

      “In fact we WOULD HAVE been far better off had we retained the Saturn V (which was far more versatile, economic, and probably safer than the Shuttle Orbiter) for the past 40 years, “

      A very valid point, and very apropo to the argument over new reactor designs.

      • Aaron Rizzio says:

        Kirk & LFTR fans might find it worthy to note that both the Saturn V heavy rocket (along with the Apollo program) and Weinberg’s MSR program at ORNL were cancelled in the same year by the same man: Richard Nixon in 1972 (same year I was born in-between the 1st & 2nd Watergate break-in).

        The Space Shuttle program consisted of 134 flights costing $209 billion, or ~$1.5 billion per launch. Adjusted for 2012 inflation each Saturn V launched averaged $1.17 billion; plus the Saturn V could haul 100 tons to LEO, the Shuttle Orbiter only 25 tons (in essence the Space Shuttle itself was its payload). So unit mass transport cost was FIVE times more with the Space Shuttle, and the Shuttle had no Earth escape ability. This is one of the profound tragedies resulting in the virtual generational crippling of NASA that historians have not yet recognized. No economies of scale ever emerged because the system was not capable of attaining the promised (nearly weekly) sortie rate, something that was well understood in the wake of the 1986 Challenger accident but ending the program then would have been politically impossible after the fiasco overruns in the Orbiter’s development costs. So it took another tragedy for GW Bush to terminate one of the most profligately wasteful science programs in history; yet even here NASA’s planners had locked the Shuttle program in for 21 more flights in order to complete the ISS; (Saturn V could have lofted a habitable pressure volume greater than ISS in 3-4 assembly flights) had it not been for the 2003 accident the misbegotten program could conceivably have run for another generation, between Gagarin’s 1st flight on Vostok 1 in 1961 and the Shuttle’s 1st mission spanned 20 years exactly to the day.

        Kirk’s 2nd Youtube Google tech talk included Nixon’s (in)famous tape recordings with CA congressmen discussing the (uneuphonious) LMFBR; his reasoning seems to have been simply favoring his home state with a big federal project (and CA was probably more Republican leaning than TN at the time) which was where presumably it was assumed much of the work would be done, at Seaborg’s UC Berkeley lab (Seaborg discovered plutonium). Ironically the abortive CRBR prototype (cancelled in the early 80’s) would have ended up being built not far from the ORNL, in TN.

        Also discussed briefly in the podcast was the potential for electricity to play an increasing role in the heating of buildings via ground-source heat pumps. AC is an example of one-way air source heat pump; ground source heat pumps are more efficient and pump heat in both directions for both summer cooling and winter heating. In fact ground and water source heat pumps are economically adaptable throughout the country, even for big buildings like schools in MN. About 1/3 of US primary energy is consumed in the heating and cooling of buildings, so the potential for ultimate nuclear displacement of traditional home heating fuels is just as great and right now far more practical than Obama admin attempts to displace oil in the transport sector. 20% of the country heats with oil, mostly in NE which is not well served with pipelines, which is why they import LNG from Trinidad. NE is now >50% electrified by natural gas. AMAZINGLY it is actually more thermodynamically efficient to electrify heat pumps with natural gas generated electricity than to directly fire natural gas in-home furnaces.

        http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/thermo/heatpump.html

        • Joel Riddle says:

          I would guess that the selection of the Clinch River site for the LMFBR program was made in part as an attempt at appeasement for the cancellation of MSR research in Oak Ridge. That is completely just a guess on my part though, since I wasn’t born until after the CRBR project was cancelled (1984 birth year). I find it a bit ironic that the first mPower will very possibly end up at that same site.

  7. gallopingcamel says:

    In the USA it is futile to discuss BWR vs. IFR vs. LFTR vs. “Whatever”. You might as well discuss how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

    We have deliberately made Nuclear Power Plants uneconomic and we are well on the way to making coal fired plants uneconomic as well. These policies reflect the dire influence of the Greenies who increase the price of our electricity while boosting the market share held by “Natural Gas”. Fortunately, the USA is well endowed with cheap natural gas so we will survive until methane clathrates take over.

    It would be nice to think that the EPA will be defunded so that rational energy policies can return to the USA but do we have the political will to make it happen?

    The countries that have an incentive to develop innovative Nuclear Power Plants include France with its lack of cheap coal, India with its Thorium reserves, China and Russia. Don’t forget the little guys like the Czech Republic who may surprise us all.

  8. Rick Maltese says:

    We keep saying that the problem is education and this is partly true but the real barriers to that is getting a receptive public when a majority are preoccupied with lust, personal survival and greed. What does have an impact on the people are good feature films. Films like Network and A Beautiful Mind which is based on a true story have long lasting effect. Look at Total Recall. It is being remade. Look at the success of James Cameron films. These kind of movies even the latest Batman the Dark Knight Rises have important messages to pass on. Now who will tell a true story in a feature film about the nuclear pioneers? I would love to see a movie about Alvin Weinberg which would be hard to do without including at least have a dozen other important figures. Where are the good writers and researchers. Get to work.

  9. P Booruguu says:

    What is the smallest size for such a technology,
    What will it cost – even an experimental prototype.
    $ per KWH

    What is the timeline
    For alpha testing, beta testing?

  10. EmBar says:

    Dr. David LeBlanc (Ottawa Valley Research Associates) says “Come for Thorium, Stay for the Reactor”

    He points out that the Molten Salt Reactor is so efficient that it remains fully viable as a uranium burner, even if the price of uranium were to rise above $500 per kg. It would seem that the only reason for constructing a uranium breeding thorium reactor would be a lack of suitable uranium ore. Unlike solid fueled reactors, which can only burn a small fraction of their fuel before their rods swell with nuclear waste, liquid fueled reactors can burn almost their fuel and transuranic waste products by continual recycling.

    The primary technical advantage is the liquid fueled molten salt reactor design.

    There is no reason to breed uranium from thorium as long as sufficient uranium can be obtained from the directly from the Earth. One might say that one example of this reactor type has already been ‘alpha’ tested at Oak Ridge in the early 1970’s.

    • Rod Adams says:

      @EmBar

      Since the solid fuel that is currently used in commercial reactors has an average cost of just 0.68 cents per kilowatt hour produced, I think that the molten salt reactor advocates have a huge hurdle to climb.

      The nice thing about solid fuel that is carefully designed to retain fission products is that it is really, really easy to operate. There is no need to keep any chemical engineers on staff at a power plant and no need to worry about separating and carefully storing fission product gases. They remain nicely stored inside the fuel rods until the rods are replaced. Even with the effects that you mention, the rods in a typical commercial nuclear plant last for about 4.5 years (three cycles of 18 months each).

      In other words, molten salt reactors may be an excellent solution looking for a problem to solve.

      The real need in nuclear is to figure out ways to drive down the initial capital cost and the time to market. I strongly believe that the best way to attack that very real problem is to follow the lead of other successful manufacturers of complex products – establish a consistent design, take advantage of learning curves and achieve series economies that reduce both cost per unit and time from project start to finish.

  11. MarkRavingMad says:

    I’m a huge advocate of nuclear energy in any form. However, I have to admit that I’m attracted to the elegant design of the LFTR. However, it seems to me most of these advantages are derived from the use of liquid fuel, not necessarily Thorium.

    The abundance of Thorium doesn’t hurt either but hey, resource scarcity isn’t exactly a problem in nuclear power.