Identifying antinuclear slants in Richard Martin’s “Superfuel”
Richard Martin’s new book titled Superfuel: Thorium, The Green Energy Source for the Future is a book that should come with a warning label. Though the author professes to be worried about climate change and fossil fuel depletion and wants to be seen as favoring new nuclear power development, that support comes with a very large caveat. He so strongly believes that molten salt reactors fueled with thorium are “the only safe reactor” technology that he uses that phrase as the title for chapter three of his manuscript.
That chapter starts off with a description of a ship named the Altona, which was transporting natural uranium in its mined, oxide form called yellowcake (U3O8). The ship ran into some weather and some of the containers holding the yellowcake broke open, spilling some of the contents inside the hold.
For some unexplained reason, Martin described that incident as some kind of near miss. He also claimed that the ship was carrying “770,000 tons” of uranium yellowcake. A quick search of the vast resources at our fingertips reveals that the world’s total production of yellowcake in 2011 was 63,000 tons and that the world’s largest ship displaces about 565,000 tons. Perhaps that should have been 770,000 POUNDS, not tons. That is just one of many technical errors, including a statement that India’s current fleet of nuclear reactors is based on light water technology (actually all but two are pressurized heavy water reactors) and one indicating that Westinghouse is “Korean-owned” (the majority owner is Toshiba, a Japanese company.)
I suppose that Martin believes that if the Altona had sunk and the 770,000 pounds of uranium in its hold had spread through the ocean, it would have been a disaster. It seems that he never thought to do a quick search to find that the world’s oceans already contain an average of 3 parts per billion of uranium for a total mass of something close to 4,500,000,000 tons.
After completing the book and noticing a number of digs and slants against existing nuclear energy systems that supply the world with the energy equivalent of 12 million barrels of oil per day, I published a few thoughts on Twitter that summarized my reaction to the book. Here is an example:
@Atomicrod: Many antinuclear slants in “Superfuel” Ex. “get rid of existing #nuclear” pg 236 Bad fact checking “Westinghouse is Korean owned”?? pg 226
That one drew out a fairly rapid response from the author who said the following:
@RMartinBoulder: ‘Atomic Insights’ blogger @Atomicrod decries “anti-nuclear slant” in @superfuel, odd since it’s a book on the promise of nuclear power…..
Though it has occasionally been a disadvantage in my pursuit of a nuclear focused career, I spent quite a bit of time during my undergraduate days studying literature and seeking to tease out the true meaning and motivation behind written words. I know that many technically-minded people hate the whole concept of literary analysis, and believe that all you need to do is to read what the author said. The problem with the projected concept that people write what they mean is that is it often not true; much communication goes unsaid. There are also words and phrases that have multiple meanings.
Here are some example quotes from “Superfuel” that I think demonstrate a bias against nuclear energy and a bias in favor of the hydrocarbon industry that has dominated the economy and politics of the developed world for about two centuries.
Because the core is liquid, it operates at atmospheric pressure, meaning that the extremely thick-walled, pressurized vessels used in conventional reactors, which have an unfortunate tendency to blow their top, are unnecessary.
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I challenge Martin to provide even one example of a commercial light water reactor blowing its top. The only example that comes even close is the SL-1, an event that happened in 1961 at a reactor that was not even pressurized at the time that the center rod was pulled out by hand to initiate the accident.
…overall safety record of nuclear power is quite good – which nuclear power executives, as tone-deaf to public mistrust as any group of business leaders outside of the tobacco industry, never tire of pointing out.
(1159 of 5225)
It is not being “tone-deaf” to point out the truth. I often criticize nuclear power executives for not pointing out our safe record frequently enough – in consistent advertising campaigns designed to sway public opinion.
Nor is nuclear power economical. Nuclear plants are now so expensive to license, not to mention build, that there is little prospect of investors receiving reasonable returns. Many, many words have been written about “the true costs of nuclear power.” Much of this analysis is based on faulty reasoning or is outright bogus, but there is no question that the rosy pronouncements of industry groups like the Nuclear Energy Institute are specious, given the true social costs of producing power from uranium.
(1175 of 5225)
I have not read any rosy pronouncements from the Nuclear Energy Institute about the cost of new nuclear power plants. The NEI cost estimates are generally pretty pessimistic and indicate that the industry needs a jump start from the government to restore lost momentum from a 40 year period with no new construction starts.
The second flaw is that, once uranium has been refined enough to use it in a nuclear reactor, it can be used to make nuclear weapons. No one has ever successfully constructed a bomb using smuggled or stolen uranium, but that is not from lack of trying. Entire ministries and government agencies have as their sole raison d’etre the control of the traffic in enriched uranium, though the danger of losing, misplacing, or being robbed of the stuff is admittedly small, it adds greatly to the expense, risk and the public opprobrium of running nuclear reactors.
That is one of those loaded paragraphs that contains enough truth to be believable and enough slant to sway undecided people against the use of nuclear energy.
Though I agree that there are costs associated with the irrational belief that uranium destined for use in reactors can be used to build a bomb, the total fuel cost for nuclear reactors in the United States including “amortized costs associated with the purchasing of uranium, conversion, enrichment, and fabrication services along with storage and shipment costs, and inventory (including interest) charges less any expected salvage value” amount to about 0.68 cents per kilowatt hour (2011 figure). Fuel system security costs are just a part of that and do not “add greatly” to the cost of operation.
Here is a quote that could have come almost directly from Amory Lovins:
By the end of the century, we will have built a safe, clean, energy infrastructure based on a mix of offshore and land-based wind farms, big solar arrays in the West, geothermal, and natural gas plants, layered on top of a baseload power-generating sector of thorium reactors.
(4168 of 5225)
Like Lovins, Martin confuses natural gas with clean energy production plants.
All the evidence today indicates that Shaw seriously overestimated the maturity of competing technologies (indeed, problems with the LWR itself would cost operators tens of billions of dollars in the next decade), and he vastly overestimated challenges for the molten salt breeder.
(2375 of 5225)
What Martin failed to mention was the fact that the costs associated with improving light water reactors were accompanied by revenues from selling power that were high enough to support the costs and still lead to profitable operations at moderate electricity prices. There is a lot to be said for making electricity that can be sold instead of spending endless years refining the best ideas in laboratories.
Meanwhile the world’s existing reactors, which include many facilities already years beyond their original planned production life, could be reduced in coming years. An April 2011 study by the financial services giant UBS found that as many as 30 nuclear plants, including many in areas of seismic activity, could be shut down by 2016.
(1012 of 5225)
Again, that statement includes enough truth to be dangerous. There are operating units that may end up being forced to shutdown by 2016 by a combination of organized opposition, artificially imposed regulations that ignore the evidence of a lack of seismic vulnerability to damage, and the effects of low natural gas prices.
However, it is false to assert that there are many nuclear plants operating beyond their initial license period of 40 years; Oyster Creek is the oldest currently operating facility in the US and it just recently reached its 40th year of operation.
It is also false to imply that the license period has anything to do with the safe operational longevity of a nuclear power plant. The initial license period established by the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 was a political compromise based more on antitrust considerations than any knowledge of technology limits. After all, there were no operating nuclear power generation facilities at the time it was selected; there was no operating history on which to base the estimate.
However, the most telling indication that Richard Martin is opposed to using nuclear energy in its current proven form to reduce fossil fuel consumption comes in the following sentence:
It does no good to build carbon-free thorium reactors if you don’t get rid of the existing nuclear and coal-fired plants.
(4222 of 5225)
Combined with the earlier quote indicating that natural gas still plays a significant role in Martin’s view of an ideal electrical power production and distribution system, I believe that statement tags him as just one more fossil fuel promoting wolf in sheep’s clothing – on a part with Jerry Taylor of the Cato Institute.
Why in the world would anyone who recognizes that conventional light water reactors have an outstanding safety record and generate massive quantities of emission free power at a reasonable cost decide that shutting down existing nuclear plants is a higher priority that shutting down coal plants – and wants to keep on operating natural gas plants into the next century?
The final clue for me about Martin’s true purpose came with a surprisingly frank final paragraph in the acknowledgement section that paid tribute to a rather unusual group – for a pronuclear book.
Finally I want to mention the men who have done the work of the Hydrocarbon Era. I have seen them in their labors all over the world: the roughnecks of Kazakhstan, the pipefitters of the North Slope, the forklift operators of Baku, the geologists of the Colorado Plateau, the deckhands of the Gulf of Mexico. Their blood literally flows in the fuel that powers our cities and our vehicles. Many, many have died to bring power to the world. This book is also for them.
Maybe if a few more “nuclearati” (the sobriquet that Martin uses to refer to people who work in the existing nuclear industry) had died to provide power to the world, we might have earned a tribute in his book as well. Instead, we have earned his distain so strongly that he wants to put us out of work as soon as possible. Go figure.
Additional views of Superfuel
Yes Vermont Yankee – Superfuel: A Book I Wanted to Love
Atomic Power Review – Review: “Super-Fuel: Thorium, the Green Energy Source for the Future”
Overscope – Review: SuperFuel by Richard Martin
Watt’s Up With That – Book Review of “Super Fuel”
Invoking safety from meltdowns is yet another canard liquid fueled reactor supporters use to imply that their technology is superior. Not only is this the worse tactic, as it reinforces the lie that current reactors are at risk, but fails to point out that the issue is containment, and a liquid-fueled reactor with poor containment would be just as big a risk if not more than its solid fuel counterpart in an incident.
Clearly this book is an attempt to do with thorium just what many of us suspected: provide an argument for the delay of further development of current uranium technology by promising something better in the future. I certainly hope that all the thorium supporters are proud of their handwork.
Rod and Robert (DV8),
I think you both have probably read a bit much into those excerpts. Also, I think it would be wrong to lump all thorium advocates into agreeing with these excerpts (which were not particularly wisely chosen by Mr. Martin), particularly after Kirk Sorensen explicitly told you that he and Martin do not speak for each other.
Personally, I would love to see the LFTR concept succeed, particularly in America, since we pioneered the concept in my home region of East Tennessee. That does not preclude me from being a supporter of Gen II (where my actual work experience lies) and Gen III nuclear reactor technologies, as well as other non-LFTR Gen IV concepts, nor almost any other technology that can be considered to add value within the nuclear supply chain and represent technological progress, like GE-H’s laser enrichment.
That said, a few of those excerpts are indeed quite questionable.
‘I certainly hope that all the thorium supporters are proud of their handwork.’
I don’t remember writing any part of this book.
Thank you for pointing out what is not being said as well as being important. There is much more to a structure of written work that what is said. Hank you for pointing that out a long time ago and then repeating it again and again.
@DV82XL What you argue is not entirely true. MSRs *are* superior. I doubt there would be any interest in any fueled MSRs, especially LFTR, without obvious superiority. The *entire* safety culture built up around LWR is to prevent meltdowns and subsequent breaches that would allow radiation to escape into he environment.
That LFTR runs on melted fuel to begin with, and at 1 astmsphere, makes it “superior” I believe in anyone’s book.
I generally agree with Rod’s over all assessment of the problems of “LFTR-dom” and its adherents as articulated in this book. But trying to throw an equal sign, as you do, between both, is silly. Gen IV reactors are Gen IV and NOT Gen III simply because they are different. It’s because they are generally *better*.
If you look at China, they are doing the right thing…a massive build out of LWRs tech, and then a swap over to Gen IV. Why? Because Gen IV is better at many, many levels.
Here’s the bottom line: There are no compelling economic or technical reasons to select thorium fuel cycles over uranium fuel cycles at this time, or into the short to medium term (<50 years) future. None. That is why arguments have centered on artificial waste/security/safety issues. Thorium supporters can make as much of a show of washing their hands as they want, but ultimately it is their invocation of these synthetic concerns that found their way into the media and are at the roots of the arguments in this book.
Clearly this happened due to shortsightedness rather than by design, but I made a point years ago of trying to tell the thorium crowd that their tactics were inappropriate and would blow up in their faces, and now it has begun. Foolishly you have handed the enemies of nuclear energy, regardless of stripe, an argument to hold off on building new nuclear plants that will resonate with the public, particularly those that might be called ‘soft supporters.’ This is the worse possible outcome as it will give politicians the ability to support both natural gas in the short term, while claiming support for thorium-based nuclear in the long term. In other words nuclear is snookered.
The situation wouldn’t be so bad if indeed MSRs in general and LFTRs in particular were ready for commercial launch, but they are not, and the arguments that they are simply do not recognize the real-world process by which an idea (no matter how viable) becomes a product. I do, and right now twenty years is the best anyone could do for LFTR and that would be with close to unlimited funding and assuming that the politics is on side. And that last one is far from given, as the antinukes will find a host of reasons to throw a wrench into the works if this technology stated to look viable.
What there are compelling economic and technical reasons to build are small reactors fueled by HEU. The need is clear, the markets are there, and the designs, based on marine power plants are both proven and viable, yet Megatons-to-Megawatts focused on down-blending existing HEU stocks in the face of this clear need. Anyone that cannot see that commonsense rationality is at the very least of reasons why decisions in nuclear matters are made is hopelessly naïve. Why would they suddenly apply to this issue?
Getting things done in the real world is a messy business and I have watched so many individuals go down in flames standing on rational arguments because they refused to see that the world does not work by simple logic alone. This is just the way it is and no one gives a damn that it’s not fair or efficient. Thorium/MSR/LFTR will not win this fight, but nuclear in general will very probably lose.
Your proclamation in bold has one major potential pitfall: CHINA.
1.3 Billion people want to live with near-U.S. levels of energy. I think they stand a very decent chance of having a LFTR within under 20 years.
Otherwise, your points do hold some fair merit.
On the China and thorium front: http://m.smartplanet.com/blog/intelligent-energy/us-partners-with-china-on-new-nuclear/17037
And one other factor besides China is if nuclear coal-to-liquid fuels takes off in the next decade-ish, as more liquid fuel sources will be needed, and a higher reactor outlet temp needed.
High outlet temperatures have their advantages, but the LFTR doe not have a monopoly on that measure of effectiveness. In fact, it is not even in second place among proven fission power systems – both the HTR and the IFR produce higher gas / steam temperatures.
Right, the LFTR doesn’t have a monopoly, but that is a significant potential advantage for LFTR over any reactor that uses water as it’s coolant. The higher temp. could afford non-water-cooled reactors (LFTR, IFR, HTGR, etc.) to do 3 potentially very attractive things:
1.achieve a higher thermal efficiency for their power cycle
2.be considerably better than a water-cooled reactor as a load following power plant, expanding beyond solely baseload electricity, into generating a degree of load-following electricity
3.expanding into energy markets beyond solely electricity generation
Those are the initial reasons that Gen IV should be championed, in my opinion, but not at the expense of expertly-operated Gen II plants of course.
Robert – I respectfully submit that there are compelling “economic or technical reasons to select thorium fuel cycles over uranium fuel cycles at this time”, and into the short to medium term (<50 years) future.
We live in a time where nuclear technology is embattled. It is currently uncertain whether ultimately the United States will go the way of Germany (and within the next decade give up nuclear altogether) or follow China (and pursue nuclear to the exclusion of renewable wind and solar). We currently do not know which way things will go, and my reading at least is that things stand on the edge of a knife (could go the one way, but nearly as easily, it could go the other way).
Under these circumstances, one thing the world will not tolerate is another nuclear safety incident. The compelling reason why the world requires LFTR within the next decade is that Thorium LFTR is intrinsically SAFER nuclear technology. Expeditiously switching over to LFTR technology reduces significantly the risk of a safety related incident. This is not to suggest that current nuclear is not safe, but that LFTR, which runs at low pressure, has a strong negative reactivity coefficient, and is a stable thermal neutron spectrum reactor not subject to Zircaloy produced steam-hydrogen reactions, is safer.
LWR technology, incorporating Zircaloy cladding, is subject to steam-hydrogen explosions under emergency conditions. Catalytic recombiner units installed in the roofs of containment buildings can mitigate to some extent the risks, but any technology that retains the latent possibility (or certainty) of hydrogen explosions in the event of loss of coolant is not as safe as a molten salt based reactor like LFTR. LFTR achieves higher levels of safety with simplicity and out of the intrinsic qualities of chemically stable high temperature molten salts. There is literally no way that plumbing of molten salt reactors can explode like the high temperature steam plumbing of PWRs and BWRs, it is just not possible. This is also a significant safety difference that does matter to decision makers, who are completely intolerant to any further nuclear safety incidents. This perception that LFTRs are safer is not bias or slant, but real and substantial. Fully 95% of the accidents that can occur with a LFTR just end up with the full core of molten fuel salt ending up confined in perfect safety in the engineered and preprepared Molten Salt Drain Tank where it sits passively cooling until it is pumped back up into the LFTR core after the incident is cleared. None of the remaining 5% of incidents when the salt, for some reason, does not end up in the drain tank (but perhaps spills on cement containment building floor after a magnitude 12 earth quake) ends up in an explosion or destructive event. LFTR is safer technology, and in an environment of intolerance to nuclear safety incidents, that is a compelling reason to move to LFTR and Thorium Fuel Cycle.
This is not just my opinion, but the opinion of the man who innovated and continues to hold the original patent for the Light Water Reactor, Dr. Alvin Weinberg. Weinberg felt that MSRs (LFTRs) were clearly superior to both LMFBRs and LWRs in safety, and he was willing to stake his reputation and future on that to the point of being willing to be fired as the Director of a prestigious National Laboratory while upholding that belief.
@Robert Steinhaus: Nuclear energy is not embattled because of any of the reasons you list. It is embattled because it competes with fossil-fuels. These interests have done, and are doing everything in their power to inhibit the growth of nuclear energy because it will cut into their market.
It is from this source that the lies over the false issues of waste/security/safety have come. Because these are synthetic issues there is no call to answer them, and even if you do, new lies will be forged to take their place. You cannot win this game by playing fair.
Nor will another nuclear accident do anything. Public opinion has recovered from Fukushima Daiichi faster than anyone though and in the face of constant propaganda that tried to keep the issue alive. Like aircraft crashes, the public is becoming inured to problems at nuclear plants the more they are exposed to reports about them. You do not help your position parroting the the claims of the opposition, that nuclear is a technology hated and feared by the public, when a glance at the polls shows this is not the case.
@Joel Riddle. India and China DO have what they feel are compelling economic reasons to select thorium fuel cycles over uranium fuel cycles – they have a limited supply of uranium, and they fear a dependence on fuel sources from outside their control. However this doesn’t apply to any country in the West or in particular to the US where the political harm that promoting these fuel cycles will occur. Even at this, the growing economic strength of both India and China may make their concerns moot and we may not see the development of Th fuels there after all.
Furthermore, India has been tinkering with Th fuel-cycles for over a decade, if not longer and certainly with some need after they were cut off from uranium as punishment for their weapons program. Their lack of success, while hardly definitive, is nevertheless telling. Apparently establishing a thorium fuel cycle is not a trivial exercise.
@All Th supporters – Right now, if I were a utility or a country in the market for a nuclear power plant, and assuming there was no major political resistance in my polity, I could sign a contract with one of half a dozen firms making nuclear reactors and be guaranteed that the power plant could assume load within about three years. This is because there are deliverable technologies available on the market.MSR/LFTR are not among them; you guys don’t have a product.
A product is not a design on a paper, it is not a technology demonstrator, it is not a pilot-plant. It is something that one can get financial institutions to sign LOUs over. Nothing you have is close to this and you are a long way off. Your big trouble is that you can argue yourselves blue in the face showing how superior you think your designs are but before anything happens you will have to get it past someone like me: someone paid to see that their employer’s money is not wasted. And you just do not mount arguments that are that convincing that would make someone take a chance on LFTR when proven designs are available.
Nor are you going to see any real help from the political side because they are owned by carbon fuels, and they will leverage what you claim to further the ends of that sector, not nuclear.
It’s just too bad that you are going to wait until events rub your faces bloody into the truth of what you are doing before you wake up. By then of course it will be too late.
Indeed, that is an important point that we should not lose sight of. Nuclear power technology can, and should, be improved. The Generation IV International Forum issued a response to Fukushima that made this statement:
“In response to the Fukushima accident, the Forum’s member countries are conducting safety reviews of their operating nuclear power plants, developing lessons learned and implementing appropriate safety improvement measures. Taken together, these measures should confirm the safety of existing reactors.”
and continued with this statement:
“Generation IV nuclear power plant designs will be based on innovative technologies that offer significantly enhanced performance featuring a higher degree of safety and security, reliability, economic competitiveness, waste minimization, resource utilization and resistance to proliferation.”
Excellent work Rod! In the world of Public Relations, more properly known as propaganda (ref Edward Bernays), many techniques are available to one who hopes to massage and direct opinions of the masses. You have clearly identified this “concern troll” and backed it up with damning evidence. A lack of technical rigor, with glib unsubstantiated statements for good measure, generally go hand-in-hand with sophistry and hackery. He is clearly pretending to be on our side by claiming to support thorium, then using the high ground just staked out to launch an attack using “concerns” he has about existing nuclear power.
The net position sold to the audience: you can’t trust today’s nuclear power! A brilliant piece of manipulation with the pretense of being your “friend”. This is a cautionary, teachable moment writ large, IMHO.
To all the promoters of “better” reactor technologies: please be aware of the PR implications of the ground you stake out. There is a battle coming to the door of Big Oil over the next few years when oil and gas prices start their next leg up into the stratosphere, and when climate-change pressures mount. In this battle will be the common good of humanity (i.e. abundant, scalable, sustainable, emissions-free energy) vs. the richest corporations and most powerful people on the planet. Please think of the implications of positions publicly staked out in the context of the coming epic battle for public opinion. You have to be as smart in the world of communications as you are with the science, technology and engineering. OTOH, it is probably a lot easier to design a new reactor than it is to master human psychology, public relations and politics…
Thanks for writing this. Hope Richard can correct his mistakes in his book’s new edition.
Overall do you support Thorium research?
Yes. I support thorium research and deployment as soon as possible. I just do not favor any delays in building machines that we not only know how to build, but that we have factory capacity to make right now.
Break before make is always a risky infrastructure strategy.
Major issues facing LFTR
1. Congress ihas not going set aside funding to develop it.
2. The NRC doesn’t have anyone to license it.
3. #1 and 2 means that no private company is going to risk working on it.
4. If any of the assertions about LFTR (safety, waste, proliferation) can be shown to be false or not as good as advertised, then #1-3 won’t matter.
That is a very narrow American focus. There are many other advanced nations in the world that would be able to develop MSRs/LFTRs if they would put their mind to it and fund its development. They don’t have to deal with U.S. Congress and the NRC.
One of us should write “Superfuels: the Book Richard Martin would have written if he had fact-checked with the Nuclearati first”.
The success of a book like that should guarantee the author talking-head status on every media outlet seeking a “Thorium-head” for a sound bite.
Seriously, I wish both LFTR and IFR would find a deep-pocketed patron, preferably in the private sector, and also wish that Sorensen had written the first groundbreaking popular LFTR book himself.
I totally agree with you on an economic and technical basis – but those aren’t the biggest problems facing nuclear today. The biggest problems facing nuclear today are those of public and political acceptance, enthusiasm, and PR.
If, in the public mind, Thorium has the buzz, let it take the lead. It has already caused a significant number of non- or even anti-nuclear people to reappraise their position. This is a good thing! Now with a little more education they just may open up a little further and admit that, if not an optimal utilization of heavy nuclei, at least LWRs of Gen III and even II are not such a bad thing. I think Martin will come around to this on his next iteration – he’s a bright guy and a heckofa writer.
As they say in the political arena, right now nuclear needs to have a Big Tent – thorium is providing another door. Once we have gotten most of the public inside, we can retire to our separate corners and compete for minds and markets.
The other major problem facing nuclear today must include financing. I think you could have added that one on your list.
But a solution is around the corner.
Of late, China, which has the world’s largest foreign exchange reserves of $3.3 trillion, has been expanding into Europe’s energy and infrastructure sectors by buying stakes in firms such as Britain’s Thames Water and Portuguese utility EDP.
Do not be surprised if money suddenly appears. How many nuclear plants can 3.3 trillion US dollars finance? A truck load if you ask me.
It also would be a smart way for China to start spreading its hegemony on this planet. Bye Bye USA.
I want to expand on the inevitability of China financing nuclear undertakings world wide.
China does not like sitting on $3.3 trillion US dollars. It is their single most significant macro economic risk. So how do they get rid of the risk and increase receivables in non US foreign exchange ?
Easy. They finance the expansion of nuclear energy, starting right now with India and Great Britain, and once the plants are bult and their US dollars gone, they collect diversified sources of foreign receivables.
It is going to happen. China is not going to sit on that much US cash. You can rule out financing as a constraint for at least a 100 or so nuclear plants worldwide in the next 5 years.
Be careful of what you promise. Don’t forget that many of these folks are the same ones who won’t let the “too cheap to meter” promise go away, even after almost 60 years (not that it was ever a real promise, mind you). These are people who would still like to believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny if it were at all possible.
They are not the type to be satisfied with being handed an unproven, pie-in-the-sky concept followed by a cold, hard dose of reality. Thus, I doubt that the bait-and-switch tactic that you propose would be anything other than a total PR disaster in the long run.
Rod – I think you blog post does service in bringing to the fore awareness of slant and bias in some of the ways Thorium LFTRs are promoted by Thorium advocates.
I am a thorium advocate, and strongly believe in the potential of LFTR technology. I am grateful to Richard Martin, who is a versatile journalist, for making the effort required to write the first LFTR aware nuclear book, but like David LeBlanc and many others I am embarrassed at the factual errors in the book, and I regret the clear bias that is often in evidence against current LWR technology.
It is certainly not necessary to be against building and continuing to operate current LWRs to be for Thorium LFTRs. Indeed, someone who cares about there being enough of a nuclear industry left in America in twenty years to launch a Thorium Nuclear Renaissance should want to see the existing nuclear industry preserved and to flourish and for new LWRs to be built in ever increasing numbers so that LFTRs can ultimately be launched from a stronger manufacturing base.
One of the largest disappointments for me in Richard Martin’s book is failure to focus clearly on the elements that currently hold back the advance of nuclear technology. The principal impediment to a renewal of nuclear in the United States has everything to do with the levels of obstruction existing in current unwarranted fear inspired NRC regulation. Without new licenses, no new nuclear – Thorium or otherwise, will be built. NRC is absolutely the rate determining element in the advance of nuclear technology in the United States, and the current levels of regulation obstacles insure that nuclear innovation in the US must – GO SLOW. Two licenses to build new nuclear reactors in 30 years (since 1979) does not cut it. Richard Martin’s book does not get this (regulation is mentioned only 5 times in the book, and never as a sustained topic).
If you do not get the BIG PICTURE right when writing on what holds back LFTR (and all nuclear), you cannot be completely successful in your effort to write the first and best Thorium LFTR book.
Super-Fuel is trying to adapt to an audience that does not respect nuclear energy. There are far more people who adamantly oppose nuclear fission than support it and this has resulted in powerful environmental factions capable of ruining the benefits of modern industrial society.
While I may sound like an elitist, most of the people who have the time to campaign against a technology like nuclear fission are not career-oriented professionals. They are however a community with more voting power, creativity, spirit, and dedication, which unfortunately goes towards destroying one of the most needed industries, and preventing the advancement of society.
If Super-Fuel can convince some of these hardliners to supporting molten salt reactors, then it will be beneficial to all types of nuclear plants because as they learn more about the MSR technology, they will begin to appreciate even the older LWRs. Ultimately, its the LNT hypothesis and impossible regulations, enforced by existing nuclear players, which will prevent a nuclear renaissance.
At the TEAC4, Future of Energy Conference, Baroness Worthington said specifically, “There’s no point criticizing the existing nuclear industry since they will ruin it for themselves”. After seeing how the NEI conducts their weak PR campaigns, I believe the Baroness is right. Therefore, the legacy nuclear advocates should at least be thankful that Super-Fuel and Thorium Energy Alliance are advancing the nuclear dialog.
I really do not like how this blog is attacking a book like Super-Fuel though. The fact of the matter is the thorium community has been far more successful in captivating an audience and promoting nuclear fission than traditional players have. The Thorium Energy Alliance has held conferences, and produced documentary footage in far more depth and quantity than any of the existing industry players have. They have also been successful in defecting various anti-nukes, receiving press coverage, and creating new legislation that will enable innovative reactor designs.
“The fact of the matter is the thorium community has been far more successful in captivating an audience and promoting nuclear fission than traditional players have.”
Captivating an audience with vapourware is hardly something to be proud of. Cutting the legs out from under traditional nuclear technology with the same is something to be ashamed of. Make no mistake about it – that is exactly what you are doing. You are playing into the hands of nuclear energy’s enemies and all you will get out of it is a bit of funding to keep some programs going, but you will never see the sort of money needed to move toward full development, the “Manhattan Project” size push you all dream of.
Also I am not surprised that you see no issues with the sorts of lies against uranium and the existing nuclear industry that show up in this book. Apparently morals and ethics have sunk in leading pro thorium groups to the point that they fully support this kind of attack.
You also persist in parroting the assertions of the antinuclear movement on what the public thinks. Spend a little time on Google searching the public opinion polls; you might be surprised just what the majority of people really think about nuclear energy. Noisy minorities have been used by nuclear energy’s opponents to try and frame the debate. The truth however is something different and you might want to find out just what that is before declaiming it.
Rob G, no one HERE is “cutting the legs” out from current nuclear tech. And you have a lot of LFTR advocates here. I know dozens of people personally who were won over to supporting nuclear energy in general because they saw, and were inspired by, the concept of liquid fueled reactors. I’m basically one of them as well, though it happened more or less simultaneously.
Most LFTR advocates who actually write about it, in my experience, understand that stakes: you can’t separate out ANY future reactor development from the success of LWRs tech. At all. This is what I’ve been saying. I think it’s what Rod is saying though he’s being specific about this one book and it’s errors, and approach, something I’m totally in line with.
We’ll see how LFTR develops with start up companies, China, etc. China, BTW, is scheduled for their FOAK experimental LFTR in 2017.
On HEU. Seriously? You think this is going to fly? I would love to see one-shot 100 MW HEU fueled reactor/batteries that don’t need refueling (Adams Engines anyone?). We do need them. But unlike yourself and many others, the issue is neither economic nor technical, it’s 100% *political*. And because it is, no one is going to allow HEU out of the enrichment plants for just anyone, least of all a *utility*! You’d have to rewrite every domestic and international agreement you know of and don’t know of. Good luck with that!
@UCNR I wouldn’t even agree that the LFTR community has captured much. It’s captured a very small number of people. Certainly the author’s actual article from Wired a few years ago put it on the map but that doesn’t mean LFTR, thorium or even Gen IV is on the map. As LFTR is not yet deployed, the ramp up of opposition to it, and it’s there, is only slowly growing now. With endorsements from China and a section of the scientific elite in the UK, expect more anti-LFTR propaganda. But as a whole, it hasn’t reached 1% of 1% yet.
@Rob G. I think you are quite wrong. There are many, many compelling reasons to move toward a thorium economy based on LFTR, above all, the economic one: it’s a cheaper product. I believe the IFR will be cheaper too, in the long run. If you want we can debate this, but your anti-LFTR stance, which is what this is, is doing the same disservice as anti-LWR comments do from LFTR advocates: mislead and prevent a serious discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of various forms of technology.
As a whole, we need to continue to advance the LWR (and a little HWR in India) along, show faults where they lie, advantages where they prove the cae for nuclear, and generally boost the tech that can provide a material basis for real economic development and the phasing out of fossil fuels, eventually. LFTR plays, or can play, an important role here.
First off what I wrote about HEU was to illustrate that very point: good economic and technical reasons do not trump politics. I don’t know what you think I was driving at; I thought the passage was rather clear. That’s why I see no merits in the sorts of arguments tabled by pro-thorium supporters – it is not that these reasons are invalid; it is that they are not sufficient, if better arguments for small HEU reactors cannot carry them forward, nether will they carry MSRs.
I am sure you and others find your reasons compelling, but I think you have confused “valid” with “compelling.” One can mount any number of valid arguments for adopting a base-12 system of counting to replace the current base-10 system, (Google the ‘Dozenal Society to see them) but they are far from compelling, that is they are not so good that they can overcome the effort required to convert. It is a tragedy that MSRs were not the path that was followed in the 1950s, it would have been the better course, but they were not. That is not to say they won’t come back, and certainly they should be developed, along with thorium fuel, but these are not in any position to take part in the current nuclear power revival, and claiming that they can is counter-productive.
That is why I am not going to get drawn into the sort of discussion you want to have because clearly you are not willing to take into account the broader picture. The one where fossil-fuel driven politics and existing nuclear reactor manufactures with high sunk costs in existing designs and a host of others that are not prepared to let your ideas fly and will act in their own self-interest to see to it they don’t.
My argument is not against Th or NSRs per se, it is against the tactic of invoking the artificial fears levied against current fuel cycles in an attempt to promote them as solutions. All this has accomplished is to validate these lies of safety and security and given those who will oppose nuclear energy in any form, a weapon to use against it by calling for a delay while this new technology is developed. This is the crux of the matter, and this is the issue none of you want to address.
Can you please site your source that shows far more people adamantly oppose nuclear than support it?
With all this talk about LWRs and LFTRs I am kind of curious why more people are not supporters of the NGNP project. This is a project that I have been watching with quite a bit of interest as it seems to address many of the complaints against nuclear and is one of the Gen IV concepts closest to market.
From an energy standpoint you have the higher outlet temperatures leading to improved efficiency. It is also designed as a small modular reactor that is great for small, isolated communities and for developing countries. It is also designed to be able to use the heat to drive many different processes (chemical/petroleum manufacturing, hydrogen production, desalination, etc.)
From a safety standpoint you don’t have to worry about cladding melting and you don’t have the zircalloy clad/water reaction producing hydrogen. In the event of power loss you can just walk away. If your reactor vessel cracks then let it crack wide open and allow natural convection to cool it. For all those worried about non-proliferation cracking open the TRISO coatings is not a trivial task.
From a waste management perspective carbon is extremely stable and the TRISO particles are ready made canisters for long term disposal, thus purchasing fuel also invests money into long-term storage. This may be a downside since it inhibits reprocessing, but I don’t see that as an inhibiting reason not to build them. In fact, if the US did decide to start reprocessing the back end of current reprocessing processes feeds right into the SOLGEL process for creating the fuel spheres for the TRISO particles.
I also know that using the graphite as a moderator does allow for a harder neutron spectrum to be used that will allow for more actinide burnup, but I am not a neutronics expert so I don’t know much about that area.
I am just curious of the opinion of everyone here on the development of the NGNP.
“… uranium in its mined, oxide form called yellowcake (U308).”
Typo: U3O8 (triuranium octoxide), not U-308 (which does not exist).
Hi Rod, I agree with most of your criticism of the book, however I disagree with the broad strokes of your criticism as if it applied to majority of MSR proponents. I always emphasize that current nuclear is clearly the best energy source we have now, and gave several public presentations to that effect. MSRs are in my opinion the best option to improve upon them in terms of cost, scaling, variety of applications; and to recycle the LWR spent fuel. Most of people I know in the “thorium community” shall we say gets the message that a) LWRs are the best we have now; 2) success of current LWRs is critically important for advanced reactors such as the MSRs.
While MSRs have great appeal to me it is embarrassing to have advocates like Richard Martin shoot himself (and by implication would be supporters like this camel) by making a bunch of schoolboy howlers.
Thank you Rod for reading his book so I won’t have to.
hahahah That makes two of us!
Most of the time I defer to your great knowledge of things nuclear but once in a while you get dogmatic to the point that my BS detector activates. Here is a statement you might want to reconsider:
“Here’s the bottom line: There are no compelling economic or technical reasons to select thorium fuel cycles over uranium fuel cycles at this time, or into the short to medium term (<50 years) future. None."
Passing judgement on an emerging technology puts you in the company of people like Lord Kelvin. While such men were great scientists they sometimes suffered from a lack of vision:
"There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now, All that remains is more and more precise measurement."
"X-rays will prove to be a hoax."
@GC –The critical phrase in the passage you quote is “at this time” and it should be read in the context of the current effort to build out nuclear power. I have never suggested or implied that this technology should not be pursued as a long-term objective, however at the moment it is not ready to launch and will not be for some time. Claims that it is are simply untrue and fail to take into account the numerous pitfalls that stand in the way of scaling this technology to the point where it is.
All things being equal, this would not be an issue – new ideas are often hyped before their time to attract investment and official interest and that’s fine. However in this instance the game is being played not only against legitimate competing designs, but against forces that would see nuclear suppressed in favour of the status quo. To them any excuse to delay the growth of nuclear energy is a good one, and the rhetoric of MSR/Th supporters are playing into the hand of these. This is the root of my objections.
Right now the goal (in my opinion) should be to work as quickly as possible to build new nuclear plants to reduce the output of GHG which, regardless of one’s opinion on AGW, cannot be permitted to grow at the current rate for any number of valid reasons and to supply the cheap energy needed to power emerging economies before their demands drive the price of energy up for all of us. Self-immolation by internecine warfare within the pronuclear community over this issue, and handing excuses for delay to our opponents does not advance this program.
Thanks for the explanation. NPP advocates resemble the GOP by their preference for fighting each other rather than their enemies.
Are you related to this physicist?
Are you related to this physicist?
Maybe, but not likely. Gauthier is a very common French family name.
Rod A: I am not quite understanding your apparent preference for LWR , and subsequent, “mainstream” type reactors. I have seen statements attributed to Alvin Weinberg, the originator of both lines, saying that he thought the MSR type is much more suitable for civilian power than the alternaitves. Was he mistaken? If so, how?
Well, above I have judged to quickly. After seeing Richard do a short talk at TEAC4 I have decided I will read his book and draw my own opinon.
Here is where you can see his talk.
Dr. David LeBlanc (Ottawa Valley Research Associates) has pointed out that the only reason for using a complex uranium from thorium breeding, Molten Salt reactor would be a lack of natural mined uranium.
The real advance, he says, is the fluid fueled, Molten Salt Reactor concept. Dr. Leblanc says that a basic uranium-burning fluid-fueled reactor would be so efficient that even a uranium cost increase to $500/kg would only increase the price of the electricity produced by about 0.2 cents per kilowatt-hr (presentation text).
His line was “Come for the thorium, stay for the reactor.”
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