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Safe nuclear power has been available for decades as a result of the 1960s molten-salt reactor (MSR) research & operations at ORNL in Tenn.

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Executive summary

 

JFK asked for and got a report from the Seaborg Commission (October 1962, http://tinyurl.com/6xgpkfa) on how to stop burning valuable/polluting coal, gas & oil, and how to build lasting nuclear power so that by 2000 we'd have all US power (700GWe est.) generated by safe, emissions-free reactors that bred their own fuel internally, that created little waste, and that solved world water needs -- all effectively as 'renewable' as solar power.
 
Anyone wishing to address our now tragic environmental dilemma needs to read at least a few pages of that report.  Had it been followed, the invaluable research & development at Oak Ridge National Labs (ORNL) from 1954 to 1974 would have eliminated most of the CO2 & pollutant emissions burden that we, all industrialized countries, now lay upon billions of innocent people around the world -- people who had little part in creating unnatural climate change, sea rise, ocean acidification, etc.
 
Decades ago, other reports about the effects of unnatural carbon emissions on economies & climates were also given to Congress and our admninistrations.  These concerns go all the way back to papers by Nobellist Svante Arrhenius in 1896 and 1905* -- even before we burned just a fraction of the 3 cubic miles of oil equivalent per year we now do.  But, effective solutions weren't funded. 
 
China, realizing the unsustainability of their combustion power sources, has this year begun to exploit our bureaucratic gridlock & what ORNL did**.  The Chinese Academy of Sciences has allocated $1B to apply our now public R&D and deploy operational, Thorium-fed, molten-salt breeder reactors (LFTRs) by 2020.  Various other countries and organizations around the world have similarly agreed that our passed-over inventions & operational successes merit new life.  A new NGO has even been created:  www.the-weinberg-foundation.org/
 
And, there are other established groups, promoting what we could have already achieved...
 www.thoriumenergyalliance.com   www.itheo.org    www.energyfromthorium.com
 
There are nations beyond China, that realize there are true renewable energy sources, not just subsidized, land/sea-hungry fads***.
 
The environmental reason for considering nuclear power is that it has high power density -- little land or material is needed to produce many times the wattage that burning fuels produces -- about a million to one better, in fact.  Coal is exceedingly damaging to the world and people, just in its extraction.  Burning it for power not only emits about 2lbs of CO2 per kilowatt-hour of raw thermal output, it emits mineralized pollutants entrained by Nature within the coal itself -- sulphates, oxides, volatiles (Mercury, Radon...), etc.  Coal ash is actually a good source of Uranium, but an extreme environmental burden for disposal.
 
Present LWR (light-water reactor) generation provides high power density but is extremely inefficient in fuel use -- wasting >99% of mined Uranium.  And, because it depends on a rare Uranium isotope (235U), fuel production itself is energy intensive.  These realities led nuclear science toward making fission fuel within a reactor itself -- breeding.  Our LWR fleet also produces much waste, partly because solid fuel assemblies are used, and cannot stay in a reactor long enough to consume all the fission fuel they hold.  The other source of waste was not originally waste at all -- Plutonium was needed for weapons.  Plutonium and other elements heavier than Uranium (the transuranics) are made (bred) by neutron capture within a reactor.  This is no longer desired, certainly not for commerical power plants.  Yet this is part of what happens inside present, solid-fuelled power reactors that aren't intended to breed & use fuel internally -- wastes thus increase.
 
LWRs were the first patented reactor designs and the first available for use in naval vessels.  The influence of the industrial nuclear capabilities that supported the Manhattan Project and Cold War weapons needs is largely why LWRs existed beyond what the Seaborg Commission envisioned. 
 
The MSR, however, was designed to do three main things:  a) operate safely (perhaps in aircraft); b) reduce wastes & allow breeding; and c) increase overall thermal efficiency:  http://tinyurl.com/ye6leml
 
That the head of ORNL reactor development at the time (Alvin Weinberg) also shared the patent for the LWR suggests that the LWR was not considered a completed technology for safe civilian nuclear power...
 
The Molten Salt Reactor Adventure, H. MacPherson, Nuclear Science and Engineering: 90, 374-380 1985;

The Proto-History of the Molten Salt System, A. Weinberg, Journal of Accelerator and Plasma Research ISSN 1225-9896, Vol. 2, No. 1, 1997;

The First Nuclear Era, the Life and Times of a Technological Fixer, A. Weinberg, AIP Press, 1994.
 
To make an MSR a breeder, some 'fertile' element simply needs to be added to the salt mix.   Fertile elements can be transmuted (bred) into fissile elements by capture of a slowish (thermal) neutron.  The neutron is readily available inside the reactor core, from a previous fission event.  Add Thorium or natural 238Uranium (99% of Uranium from ore) and the reactor now makes new fissile fuel from each fertile atom.  The reactor makes only as much fuel as it needs to run its thermal load, and all fuel & fission products stay in the reactor fluid, or are removed as liquids/gasses -- no need for spiking of solid fuel with extra fissiles to compensate for neutron hogging gasses, such as Xenon.  What goes in after readtor start is simply benign Thorium or Uranium salt.  What comes out naturally are elemental gasses that can be stored or sold.  And, what can be chemically processed out are all the various medically-important radio-nuclides, such as 213Bismusth or 99Miolybdenum -- all increasingly in short supply.
 
So the inventors of the LWR knew better was possible and did it -- the MSR Experiment ran one such 6MW reactor for 4 years at ORNL, uneventfully.  A wonderful natural property of salts is that they expand as temperature rises & contract as it falls.  If a salt contains atoms looking for neutrons to split or breed them, cooler salt will be denser, making it more likely a neutron will find such an atom -- so the reactor will heat up if its load (turbine...) has extracted more heat from the salt, returning it cooler to the core.  Or, if the load hasn't taken much heat, the salt coming back to the reactor will be hotter & less dense, making fission events less likely.  The MSR throttles itself to its load.  The simple design is now referred to as "walk-away safe", meaning passive, natural mechanisms control power output and can cause shutdown of fission when needed.  ORNL operators of the MSRE could go home for a weekend by simply turning off a fan that kept a salt drain plug solid -- the plug melted and all the reactor salt left the core for cellar storage tanks.  Fission stopped.
 
MSR safety also stems from lack of pressure -- LWRs heat water to higher temperatures than water boils, so must do it under very high pressures >60 atmospheres.   This means an LWR must have a containment about 1000 times the size of the reactor's water volume itself, and capable of holding an explosive steam release of over 100 atmosphers.  That's an expensive, big structure with expensive plumbing.  An MSR runs at atmospheric pressure and only has pumps to move the liquid salt between a core and heat exchanger.  There's no need for emergency core cooling, which not only adds cost, but hurts overall thermal efficiency.  And, salts are extremely stable, so that non-gaseous fission products remain trapped (e.g., as fluorides) even if the reactor's plumbing ruptures.
 
MSR efficiency is higher because it delivers molten salt above 700 degrees C, rather than water at about 330 degrees.  The higher the working fluid's temperatiure, the more thermal energy can be extracted by a subsequent thermal engine, such as a gas turbine.  So MSRs run at efficiencies equal to the best fossil-fuelled plants, while LWRs are limited by water properties and run at about 30% efficiency.  So, a de-commissioned LWR could retain its containment, but have its innards replaced by perhaps 3x capacity MSRs.
 
Today, Thorium-fluoride salt can be the fertile 'fuel' for the MSR breeder called LFTR (Liquid Fluoride Thermal Reactor) & cost very little -- Thorium is a waste product of rare-earth mining & fluorination is a standard industrial-chemistry process, already used for Uranium fuel processing as well.  So a LFTR has use of an input 'fuel' that's 4x as abundant as 238Uranium, costs almost nothing, and avoids >99% of the waste produced (Plutonium & transuranics) when natural, 238Uranium is used as the fertile input.  The fissile bred from Thorium is 233Uranium, which long ago decayed from Nature.  It also improves reactor efficiency because it fissions more readily than 235Uranium, now used in LWRs.  Some LWR fuel, however, has included Thorium, but it retains issues of solid fuel's entrapment of undesired fission products.
 
This proposal wishes to engage several related actions aimed at continuing ORNL & other MSR research & development to the point of implementing a demonstration ~100MWe-scale LFTR in the USA before 2020.  Work will necessaily include more than engineering.  This proposal is fully aware that nuclear power is a difficult topic for some, so a key part of the needed work is to be perfromed by experts in related social, politica, environmentall & economic issues, as viewed by the geneal population.  In other words, this proposal includes tasks for facilitating acceotabce of the technology by any individuals & organizations.
 
-----------
* http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Svante_Arrhenius
   www.globalwarmingart.com/images/1/18/Arrhenius.pdf
 
** http://www.energyfromthorium.com/pdf/
 
*** "Sustainable Energy – without the hot air", David J.C. MacKay (free download);
       "A Cubic Mile of Oil", H. Crane, E. Kinderman & R. Malhotra, Oxford University Press, 2010;
       "The Nuclear Imperative", J. Eerkens, Springer, 2010.
 

 
 

Team

 

Dr. A. Cannara, 650-400-3071;  cannara@sbcglobal.net; (others to be named later).

Selected university scientific research groups known to have related interest in nuclear technology.

Specific university research groups with interest in public policy, environmental/energy issues, economics, business law, political science & public psychology.  The purpose of non-reactor research is to determine the most effective ways of explaining MSR/LFTR advantages to members of the public, members of Congress, media, environmental organizations & non-scientific members of administrative organizations that will hols sway over the print & bureaucratic issues surrounding research & policy development & funding.  The bureaucracies include DoE & NRC, whose funding & actions are Congressionally cicumscribed.

Advocates, such as:  iTheo.org, ThoriumEnergyAlliance.com, the-weinberg-foundation.org/

Participating corporations, in & out of the USA.  This will require a structure for intellectual-property protection, as well as disposition of any costs & revenues ascribed to each participant.  This, in itself, is a project that an economic team will attend to, perhaps in novel ways, and will proceed in parallel with engineering & political work, as particpants are recruited.

 

What

 

The issues around present nuclear power systems, based on solid fuel & delivering heat by water to low-temperature turbines is not what JFK & Congress were advised to continue -- by 2000, we were to have breeders & no more utility LWRs.  And, in 1965, ORNL under Weinberg, designed & operated the MSR, specifically intended to provide safe, efficient, compact nuclear power & the ability to use Thorium as input -- no dangerous fuel to corral or dispose of.  This is what the Chinese & others are now running with.  Due to Cold War politics, we're behind in using our own inventions & the world is far behind on emissions reductions -- reductions that would not all now be necessary if we had indeed proceeded to deploy breeder reactors, like MSR/LFTR, when we had the opportunity.   Millions around the world have been endangered by our delay.  If we act now, more need not be endangered.
 
There's hope that Congress & the administration will work together & support a stable energy future for us & the billions we've put at risk.  Now, we must move ahead, as this proposal advocates.
 
This proposal can be fulfilled by group actions of cooperating individuals, businesses & institutions.
 
Group Actions...
 
1) Establish cooperating groups of engineers & researchers who will concentrate on specific tasks proposed below, yet be actively in communication across groups to speed realization of the proposal's main goal -- MSR/LFTR prototype operation by 2020.  This involves working to recruit individuals as well as universities & interested corporations.
 
2) Educate media, administrators & politicians on all important details of this proposal, including technicalities of MSR/LFTR & their social & environmental implications.  Here, "social" includes everything from the economic to the psychological.  This & the Attitude-Study Group must work closely.
 
3) Study attitudes of the general public, media, relevant politicians & administrators regarding environmental & energy issues, focussing on nuclear power perceptions & the potential benefits of MSR/LFTR.  This & the Education Group must work closely.
 
4) Establish industry concerns & competition that may be offered by the existing nuclear industry, especially by those in LWR fuel-cycle businesses & plant operation.  This includes industry-funded groups, like EPRI.
 
5) Establish DoE's realistic plans for MSR in Gen-IV and determine what is needed to increase their support now.  And, if a program were to be funded, what would the scope of their research be, whether done at DoE facilities or by outside contractos.
 
6) Work with Congress to pass a Th-Rare-Earth bill that will free Thorium from its currnt interference with RE companies & allow it to be properly handled for future fuel use.  This will likely also require work with administration officials.
 
7) Study the ORNL archive** & other relevant sources to establish a plan for engineering & scientific work that needs sufficient characterization for design, prototyping & regulatory definition.  This will involve some contact with DoE & NRC, perhaps even with IAEA & US Representatives.
 
8) Establish the detailed functional chemistry for LFTR operations, including all aspects of salt, fuel & fission-product management.  This is a more focussed area than 7) and includes economic aspects of fluid management & possible salable products.
 
9) Define how participating businesses can work under this proposal with proper legal protection for intellectual property brought into this effort & for fair future economic benefit. 
 
10) Secure funding & site(s) for subsystem & prototype construction -- 9) is closely reated to this.
 
11) Construct a plan for both group actions & prototype development through initial operation & performance evaluation.
 

12) Document everything.

Others are acting on tasks like these now.  If we fail to proceed seriously, others will service the world market for efficient, safe nuclear power & fresh water. 
 

 

 

Why: Rationale for the proposal

 

The report to IPCC Copenhagen (Fall 2009) made clear that global CO2 emissions had by then placed at least 160 million people in danger of loss of land, livelihood, food & life, even if emissions were reduced by 4% per annum. beginning January 2011, and achieved equivalent of 1 ton CO2 per capita per annum by 2050:  http://download.copenhagendiagnosis.org/default.html (p51, 1st edition).

The result of that warning was no action.  Instead of any reduction, emissions increased by 5% in 2010.  In addition, ocean acidification began to evidence itself in Nordic waters, causing defrormastions in organisms that form the base of oceanic food chains around the world.  Since 70% of human food protein comes from the sea, this may well portend a far more disatrous & proximate effect of emissions than climate change or sea rise.  In any event, the need to eliminate greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions is today critical:  http://tinyurl.com/2a7lswe  http://tinyurl.com/3cw4rkc

Since our energy production worlwide now generates tens of giga-tons of GHGs, we are clearly far away from the <9Gt 2050 target for a population of 9 billion.  The challenge is to deploy an operational, zero GHG-emission, full-scale (1GWe) power plant every week from now until 2050.   Only high power-density technologies can hope to meet this requirement.  It indeed would have been met by 2000, had the 1962 AEC report been followed.  We are thus today, hundreds of giga-Watts behind in the US alone.

There are only 3 sizable 'renewable' energy sources on Earth -- efficiency, solar & nuclear.   Engineers & environmental organizations easily advocate the first two, specifically, distributed generation (DG) for solar on existing structures.  Those sources build a robust power grid, without large transmission losses & without environmental impacts or sensitivity to climate change -- for example, wind-power suffers all those disadvantages & consumes fossil fuels for processing ~700 tons of material per installed MW peak (~1/3 MW average).  China has already begun experiencing negative climate-change effects on some wind 'farms', and they can't move them to follow the wind.

Wind/wave/hydro are derivatives of solar input and are developed at very low efficiency, so direct solar PV or hot-water DG is far more efficient, sustainable, and improving as others can't.  Tidal is gravitational in source, but only exploitable in very limited realms.  Geothermal is nuclear energy seen as heat, just as from any radioactive-decay generator or a nuclear reactor -- the source of geothermal heat is, in fact, ~60% due Thorium's slow decay in Earth's core.  Biofuels of any kind fail to meet environmental safety & sustainability requirements, because of land, water & nutrient demands & economic stress -- corn-ethanol subsidies, for instance, more than doubled worldwide corn prices, driving worldwide hunger higher. 
 
And, the reality is that biofuels net less than 1% of the sunlight energy incident on their source crops, while consuming many times more water than petroleum fuel production.  In  ciontrast, solar DG nets >20%, with improvements to >40% clearly possible.
 

If we're to achieve 1GWe clean new power per week, it can only be done with power sources of density near that of fission -- several GWHr/lb of fissile material.  And, if this is to be done safely & cheaply, fuel processing & waste must be reduced by orders of magnitude below the amounts associated with solid-fuelled, LWRs today.   This, of course, was part of the logic behind the 1962 recommendations to JFK & Congress. 

Only fission-fuel breeding, via Thorium or 238Uranium can approach the fuel-cost need.  Only breeding from Thorium in molten salt can meet safety, cost & waste requirements, while providing many thousands of years of sustainability.  And, LFTRs find fuel as easily on the Moon & Mars as on Earth.  Fission's energy was, after all, stored within new heavy nuclei by supernovae shocks billions of years before our Sun existed.  We have, in effect, nuclear 'batteries' charged with amazingly dense mechanical & electromgnetic energy just awaiting our wise exploitation by fission.   In LFTR, a neutron, slowed by a Carbon (graphite) moderator, is called a "thermal neutron".  It moves at a few miles/second -- just right.to fission another nucleus or to breed a Thorium atom into a 233Uranium atom (picture below).  The reaction continues as long as there's enough fertile Th & fissile Uranium (233U or 235U) in the salt.

Only high-temperature reactors can operate at thermal efficiencies competitive with our best combustion plants.  MSR/LFTR systems are exactly of that class and can drive turbine systems using intert gasses for superior safety, eliminating the need for cooling water taken from the environment.  The Brayton Cycle is a fully gas-turbine cycle, allowing standard, multi-stage tuirbine generators which exhaust to ambient air rather than bodies of water.  This means that MSR/LFTR plants can be placed anywhere & can deliver waste heat to processes such as desalination & fuel production from atmospheric Carbon & Hydrogen (CO2 & water):  http://tinyurl.com/28pcvns  http://tinyurl.com/25mgqkd

An ongoing concern with present LWR power is radioactive waste disposal.  The MSR/LFTR has no spent fuel, because nearly every atom of fissile material is consumed inside the reactor.  The Jaopanese FUJI Project, for instance, indicates that a full, 1GWe LFTR, run for 30 years, would produce under 100 lbs of wastes that could not be sold for medical or other uses.  And, its production of Plutonium would be under 10lbs, most usable by NASA for missions neyond Mars.  These are 4% and 0.1%, respectively, of the waste left by an LWR over the same period.   And if mining waste were included, the benefit of LFTR use would rise by orders of magnitude.

Finally, valuable products, not available otherwise, are part & parcel of LFTR operation & chemistry.  For exasmple, 213Bismuth only arises in the final decay stage of 233Uranium, and it forms an essential anti-cancer agent when linked to antibodies.  A similarly critical medical isoptope is 99Molybdenum, which is used for millions of body scans each year.  More general needs for Tritium & 3Helium are limiting fusion science & Homeland Security.  All such isotopic products are in shortening supply due to their sources n older reactors now reaching end of life.  An MSR/LFTR makes these easily, and its liquid fuel allows chemists to work with their favorite substances -- liquids & gasses.

Liquid fuelling not only makes a better, safer reactor, it makes a more efficient & profitable one as well -- a 1GWe MSR can make about $4M worth of Tritium per year.

 

How: Feasibility of proposal

If more detailed models or spreadsheets are useful in demonstrating your proposal’s feasibility, please send them to rjl@mit.edu, and they will be reviewed and linked to your proposal.
 

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things, because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old order of things, and lukewarm defenders in those who may
do well under the new.” – Niccolo Machiavelli.

Machiavelli often gets a bum rap -- he was in fact a learned, serious student of man and cared for mankind. His words above just signal his awareness & sharing of real human weaknesses.  We’re the species with both opposable thumbs & obdurate minds – the “not invented here” syndrome, for instance.  Or, the "If it's so good..." question -- answered by reminding the questioner of how well governements work & asking the person to look at his/her very modern phone/computer keyboard & explain:  "QWERTY...".  Why MSR was defunded in 1974 in favor of bombs then gets a response like:  "Typical!"

So, this proposal's tasks will meet every class of interest & concern:  scientific, business, environmental, financial, political & psychological -- see the What section above.

Overall global economic and environmental governance framework...

As a nuclear-energy initiative, this falls under the IAEA and international treaties.  Because the MSRdesign has already operated at ORNL ro several years, the technology itself is stable & well understood, even with regard to detailed chemical processes** -- "Fluid Fuel Reactors", Addison-Wesley, 1958 and "Molten-Salt
Reactor Chemistry", W. Grimes, 1969.  The regulatory standards, however, will be different from those now imposed by NRC & duplicated in most of the world.  This is an expensive task for US DoE or other foreign regulators.  The economics of MSR/LFTR technology is itself much better than that for present LWRs, matching fossil-fuelled power easily, especially if fossil-fuel emissions, extraction costs & waste are fully accounted for.  Present estimates are at or below the standard estimate for coal-fired power of $2/Watt:  "Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors". R. Hargraves & R. Moir. American Scientist, July-August 2010.

Mechanisms for financing required investments...

This is a continuation what DoE's Gen-IV MSR reactor effort has designated as desirable.  The Gen-IV class includes 5 other reactor types, variously related to advantages of both molten salt and fuel breeding.  However, only one (not MSR) has significant, funded effort ongoing.  Thus funding will require specfic DoE & Congressional approriation, if work is to be done by the US givernment.  Other sources are actively being sought by groups who may wish to assist with this proposal.  Thus it may well be that resulting progress will occur across country bounds, with various business & researcher involvement.  Organizing this is one of the main actions listed for the proposal to move forward.

Role of new energy technologies and technology transfer...

Most significant technology is in the public domain, as represented by the ORNL archives.**. However, there's great opportunity for physical & chemical R&D investment, to optimize MSR/LFTR efficiency & materials and to modularize oprations that are part of overall system management.  These include fuel & salt chemistry, product extraction, optimizing reactor architecture & the power module driven by core fluid (e.g., turbine design choices).  Much industrial-grade processing gear supports an operating MSR.

 Political, educational, or media interventions that can facilitate the transition...

These tasks are key to fulfillment of this proposal & have been assigned as specific actions to groups of indviduals, at universities & companies, expert in conveying new technology to varied audiences.  Despite the fact that the MSR is decades old, it's still "nuclear power" and that in itself raises a broad set of questions and sensitivities.  Since the clear goal of Weinberg's ORNL group was safe nuclear power, and the operating result of their work realized much of that goal, the technology indeed has vaklidity that can be conveyed to any audience, even if they're not happy with the present state of commercial nuclear power around the world.

 

Vision of the future under this proposal

 

VisionAbundant power & water anywhere on Earth that lasts for millennia.   (That we already successfully addressed much of the technology 40 years ago helps).

Future directions for US reactor research are dependent on the DoE’s Advanced Reactor Program, specifically the 6 Gen-IV choices for R&D -- MSR is one of these.  It's also dependent on Congressional funding of NRC staffing to develop new regulations & specifications for new reactor designs.   Moving these processes along is part of this proposal's purpose.  However, the rest of the world doesn’t sleep and needs power and water at least as much as we do (e.g., China builds a new city the size of Chicago every several months).  So, given China’s recent (March 2011) announcement of clear plans to follow on from ORNL’s MSR research, we may well see India, Brazil and others quickly follow, particularly those countries advantaged in Thorium. 

The tragic events in Fukushima Japan, in fact, augur for new directions in nuclear-power-system design, as advised in 1962.  Perhaps the US Congress & DoE will change course & emphasis enough to accelerate the Gen-IV MSR plan.  It will serve all countries well to quickly move to LFTR demonstration projects.  Economists often talk about our world’s imbalances (food, water, energy, incomes…). Access to
abundant power & water is an agreed-upon key to bettering those imbalances.

Any country embarking on the MSR/LFTR path, will accrue benefits to all levels of society.  In paticular, the range of science, engineering, chemistry & other technical jobs inevitably expands -- education in nuclear technology that's largely stagnant now suddenly becomes vibrant, attracting young people into good educations & jobs designing & building systems that will be seen as vital to human society.  The construction & management of new power systems for new purposes beyond generation will offer remarkable business & employment opportunities.  And, to serve all these new/expanded needs, universities will experience their own growth.  Overall, this proposal offers huge societal benefits.

At the practical, population-needs level, the ability to deploy power & desalination everywhere, at costs less than coal, has revolutionary benefits.  We know the cultural benefits of reliable power, but water is now in such shortening supply atound the world that its availability may be more imortant.  Consider that Pakistan & India share the Indus Basin, which provides food & water to both countries.  Pakistan dislikes India's dam construction in the region.  Both countries are nuclear powers.  If water became an inexpensive issue, peace might become more realistic in the region -- any region.

The societal benefits of environmentally safe, abundant, cheap, lasting power, via MSR/LFTR, seems likely to be as important a human discovery as any.  It certainly appears to be a necessary part of sustainable living as world population continues to grow.

 

 

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