Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Thorium Rising, Murkowski Conceding

Lisa murkowski Every few months, a reporter hits upon nuclear fusion  - or a fraud involving nuclear fusion – and that may set up a brief uptick in attention paid to fusion and it enthusiasts. Another nuclear energy topic that springs forward every now and again is thorium and its potential as a complementary or replacement fuel source for uranium. No question it has such potential.

This story in the Telegraph (U.K.) aims to make the case, but sways a bit under a heavy yoke of grievance and conspiracy:

After the Manhattan Project, US physicists in the late 1940s were tempted by thorium for use in civil reactors. It has a higher neutron yield per neutron absorbed. It does not require isotope separation, a big cost saving. But by then America needed the plutonium residue from uranium to build bombs.

And:

You might have thought that thorium reactors were the answer to every dream but when CERN went to the European Commission for development funds in 1999-2000, they were rebuffed.

Brussels turned to its technical experts, who happened to be French because the French dominate the EU’s nuclear industry. "They didn’t want competition because they had made a huge investment in the old technology," he said.

Love to see that French report. I think the French actually had a response similar to the British:

The UK has shown little appetite for what it regards as a "huge paradigm shift to a new technology". Too much work and sunk cost has already gone into the next generation of reactors, which have another 60 years of life.

And will run very comfortably on uranium, I should add. Thorium is (probably) much more plentiful than uranium, but uranium won’t be exhausted for at least a couple of generations and likely more. Thorium will wait for its day in its usual silvery way.

Which I know is a little too glib. Thorium’s strengths are not to be doubted, but the British have it about right – the uranium fuel cycle is well understood, the thorium fuel cycle less so and switching one to the other implies large cost. So does pursuing thorium and uranium-fueled plants simultaneously.

That may keep much of the progress on thorium lab-bound or on the hunt for opportunity. Read the article for a good bit of hard core advocacy – including a call for President Barack Obama to host a new Manhattan Project around thorium – and visit Lightbridge, renamed last year from Thorium Power and a good source of information. Another don’t miss: Kirk Sorensen’s Energy from Thorium blog, which is anything but glib about Kirk’s favorite element.

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Squeakers have been the rule this primary season and no election has been “squeakerier” than the one between Republicans Sen. Lisa Murkowski and challenger Joe Miller up in Alaska. It was too close to call after last Tuesday, but Murkowski has now conceded.

If you follow Congress, you develop an appreciation for lawmakers who learn the subject matter of their committees and legislate intelligently – Murkowski fit that profile. She has been very friendly to nuclear energy, which, considering there are no commercial plants out her way, speaks to the seriousness with which she takes her position as ranking member on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee.

That’s not a start at a political obituary because Murkowski is a consequential public figure and will doubtless continue in some form of public service. Beyond that, appreciation and support are two different things – I’m neutral as to who represents Alaska in the Senate – that’s for Alaskans to decide.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

12 comments:

SteveK9 said...

The kicker with regard to thorium is the commitment of India to use it. India may abandon these plans and just go with imported uranium, but if they stay behind thorium, then at least it's potential may be demonstrated long before 'several' generations.

Pete said...

Shippingport, Indian Point-1 and Fort St. Vrain all ran on thorium, at least for part of their service lives. Everything old is new again.

Thorium? Yes Please. said...

Thorium is green like uranium, and is yet cleaner and also sustainable. LFTR can utilize thorium sustainably, and is the right direction to go.

Brian Mays said...

Hmm ... Green? I always thought that thorium is silvery white and metallic-looking, like uranium.

friend2all said...

Lisa Murkowski will always be synonymous with the very best in the tradition of the US Senate. It is hard to see how the Country will be in better condition without the mature vision and skillful leadership, particularly on energy issues, of Lisa Murkowski.

Thorium is better nuclear technology for power generation. The advantages of Thorium in fluid fuel molten salt format will one day win it a more prominent place in power generation.

Josh said...

Does thorium have a higher neutron yield? I thought it was lower, which meant thorium reactors would need to be actively maintained at criticality.

Kirk Sorensen said...

Thorium's fissile derivative, uranium-233, has a higher neutron yield per absorption of a thermal neutron than any other fissile nuclide. Pu-239 gives off more neutrons (~3) per fission but only fissions in about 2 out of 3 absorptions. U-233 gives off about 2.5 neutrons per fissions but fissions ~90% of the time per thermal absorption. That's the real magic of U-233/thorium. There's enough neutrons from thermal fission to sustain the conversion of thorium to U-233 to energy.

friend2all said...

Graph of Neutrons Produced vs. Incident Neutron Energy for Pu-239 and U-233
http://bit.ly/9vx1xa

In the presense of fast neutrons, U-238 can be bred to Pu-239 most efficiently.
In the presence of thermal neutrons. Th-232 can be bred to U-233 most efficiently.

Jason Ribeiro said...

Maybe I'm reading between the lines incorrectly, but I don't quite understand the attitude from many in the nuclear world that the uranium cycle is "good enough". Why be so easily satisfied when things could be a whole lot better with more innovation? Where would Intel be if it said "our micro transistors are small enough, we don't need to innovate further"? If things can be done better, faster, more efficiently, and more economically then businesses make more money. Yes, there is risk and time involved but the payoff is immense.

If Barack Obama understood the potential and felt the passion of the Thorium advocacy community, I do believe he would set a national priority to research the LFTR.

Philip said...

Jason - to answer your question:

Some people in the nuclear industry and elsewhere believe that the emission of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses through the burning of coal and other fossil fuels is an issue which urgently needs immediate remediation.

The U fuel cycle is in place and ready to deploy right now, today. The reactor designs are ready to go for mass production, the fuel cycle is a known quantity. Long term experience of U based energy is a completely known quantity.

Th holds great promise, and there surely should be research in that direction. I don't think people are saying that U is 'good enough forever' as much as they are saying it is 'good and ready to deploy right now'.

Brian Mays said...

Jason Ribeiro: "Where would Intel be if it said "our micro transistors are small enough, we don't need to innovate further"? If things can be done better, faster, more efficiently, and more economically then businesses make more money."

The transistor is over 60 years old. The integrated circuit was developed over 50 years ago. The designs have improved over the years, but they rely on the same basic technology.

Similarly, the reactor designs offered for sale today are better, more efficient, and more economical than the designs that were built a generation ago.

Comparing computer electronics to power generation equipment is comparing apples to oranges. Consumer goods in the electronics business are disposable -- their lifetime is on the order of several years. Power plants are a durable good -- the current plants will last 60 years or more, the next generation will likely last longer than that.

Thus, the perceived rate of change in the two sectors is completely different, which is why so many false analogies are drawn between the two.

"If Barack Obama understood the potential and felt the passion of the Thorium advocacy community, I do believe he would set a national priority to research the LFTR."

Why does it require the President of the United States to make any progress with this design? If the technical benefits are so freak'n obvious, then why hasn't some private company started some serious R&D to turn this bare-bones concept into a workable, sellable product? According to the "thorium advocacy community," they would make a killing, no?

Personally, I suspect that the hypothetical benefits put forward by these armchair reactor designers are rather overstated. While thorium is a promising fertile material that deserves some serious consideration, today the thorium advocacy community is more of an internet cult than anything else. Why the president should take notice of this is beyond me.

Jason Ribeiro said...

@Brian, I'm not trying to make a comparison between the nuclear industry and the electronics industry, I was only using it as an example of an industry that seems to have cultivated an attitude for continual product improvement. For that reason, right or wrong, many gravitate toward using it as an example of dramatic improvements made through innovation and as such it is used as comparison for many things, not just the power industry. Nonetheless, I accept your point in their differences.

As for the President taking note of Thorium's potential - maybe he doesn't need to take note, maybe he does. I wish it could stand on its own two legs and take off just as well. But at the rate nuclear energy is moving in the USA so far, it might be optimistic to see 1 or 2 new plants completed by 2018. I hope I'm wrong, I'd just like to see America build things worth building again.