Nuclear Power: Climate Change Warrior for the 21st Century
By George A Erickson – email@example.com – www.tundracub.com
Member – Thorium Energy Alliance, Union of Concerned Scientists, former VP – American Humanist Assoc.
As our climate degrades and nations create expensive, short-sighted plans to adapt to catastrophic changes, why not eliminate one of the largest sources of CO2-caused Climate Change? Why not replace carbon-fueled power plants with
Nuclear Power: Climate Change Warrior for the 21st Century
The Industrial Revolution, the genie that delivered the Age of Hydrocarbons and its endless supply of marvels, also had a dark side – a world of melting ice caps, rising sea levels, refugees, resource wars, powerful storms, desiccating droughts and rising acidity that threatens our ocean food chain. However, in less than fifty years, we can slow these trends if we expand the use of updated nuclear power and then enter the Age of Thorium.
A Little Nuclear History
By 1959, the United States already had a design for thorium or uranium-based Molten Salt Reactors (MSRs). Fueled by thorium or uranium dissolved in liquid salt, the MSR had proven performance and safety advantages over conventional, water-cooled, solid-fuel Light Water Reactors (LWRs.) But the LWR industry had already been established, and the MSR was shelved.
There was another reason: The Cold War was heating up, and the uranium-plutonium fuel cycle of conventional reactors was suited to making nuclear weapons as well as nuclear power. However, making a nuclear weapon with MSR technology is impractical and dangerously difficult.
The Seaborg Commission knew that MSRs could generate low cost, abundant electricity while breeding their own fuel and creating much less waste than conventional reactors. Had its recommendations been followed, switching to MSRs would have eliminated much of the fossil fuel-generated CO2 emissions that have created climate change and caused medical expenses estimated in billions of dollars. James Hansen, former head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, says that just our partial reliance on carbon-free nuclear power since 1971 has saved 1.8 million lives that would have been lost due to fossil fuel pollution.
Although Alvin Weinberg of Oak Ridge National Laboratories had proved the superiority of MSRs in hundreds of tests, but the military wanted the weapons-grade plutonium that conventional uranium reactors can be made to produce. In addition, Admiral Hyman Rickover wanted conventional reactors to power his submarines. And because MSRs and thorium were relatively new, the military got their way. Weinberg was fired, and the MSR program was eventually terminated. Since then, almost all of the electricity created by nuclear power has been produced by high pressure, water-cooled reactors that are fueled with uranium pellets – a workable-but-complex process. And, according to Michael Mayfield, head of the Office of Advanced Reactors at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the NRC is “unfamiliar with most new small-reactor [MSR] technology, and has no proven process to certify one.”
That must change. In July, 2013, the U. S. Energy Information Administration predicted that world energy use will increase 56% by 2040 – and most of the increase will come from burning carbon, which will add billions of tons of CO2 to our already damaged biosphere. In addition, a United Nations report predicts that by 2020, acidification from CO2 will severely damage the ocean food chain that provides 20% of our protein.
More recently, Canadian scientists have discovered that the amount of oceanic phytoplankton has dropped by 40 percent since 1950 and continues to drop at one percent per year. This alarming fact just might foretell a catastrophe even greater than global warming.
Why should we care about the fate of these microscopic plants? Because phytoplankton are the base of the food pyramid that sustains all marine life. No phytoplankton = no fish, and the seas become deserts. And that’s not the worst of it. Phytoplankton produce half of the world’s oxygen and absorb the carbon-dioxide that we are spewing into the air.
As ElizabethKolbert noted in her best seller, The Sixth Extinction, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is already 50% dead, and by 2050, shellfish calcification in most ocean waters will have become impossible. According to Kolbert, “New data finds that the rate of present anthropogenic CO2 emissions is greater than the rate of the CO2 emissions from volcanic activity that marked the great extinction 250 million years ago. Then, the world lost 90% of all species.”
Why not expand nuclear power production, which creates no CO2?
Is it really as dangerous as some claim?
The largest obstacle to nuclear power is the misunderstanding of radiation safety. We are bathed in natural radiation from birth to death – about 2/3 from cosmic radiation and elements like radon, and the rest from elements within us, consumer products and medical uses. In fact, our ancestral life forms evolved during times when radiation levels were far higher than they are today. Those life forms evolved efficient ways to repair cell damage caused by radiation, a key survival tool on a planet bathed in radiation.
Radiation from nuclear power plants is just a tiny part of the 1% listed above as “other.”
Radioactive elements naturally decay over time, eventually becoming stable, non-radioactive elements. “Half-life” is the time needed for half of the atoms in a given volume of an element to decay. For potassium-40, this is 1.2 billion years. For the Americium-241 in your smoke detector, it’s 432 years, and for Iodine-131, it’s about 8 days.
Radioactivity is measured by the amount of decay per unit of time. One decay per second is one Becquerel (Bq). One banana has about 15 Bq from its potassium-40. Your smoke detector “emits” about 30,000 Bq.
Radiation dose is the energy transferred by radiation to body tissue. One mammogram = 1 – 2 milliSeiverts (mSv). One dental Xray = .001 mSv.
Natural radiation dose rates vary, averaging 3 mSv/year in the US, 4 mSv/y in Denver, and 7 mSv/y in Finland.
Dose Rates and Health – A massive, single, whole-body radiation dose can severely injure blood cell production and the digestive and nervous systems. A dose over 5,000 mSv is usually fatal, but spread over a lifetime it is harmless because at low dose rates, cells recover. (Consume a cup of salt in one sitting, and you will die, but do it over a year and – no problem.)
Why radiation is safe below 100 mSv/y.
Atomic bomb survivors – The U S exploded two atomic bombs over Japan in 1945, killing 200,000 people. 93,000 survivors have since been studied for health effects. In 55 years 10,423 survivors died from cancer, 573 more than the 9,850 deaths normally expected by comparison with distant residents. However, there were no cancer deaths observed in those who received radiation doses less than 100 mSv. Subsequent UNSCEAR studies of exposed people have proved that below 100mSv, which is well above background radiation levels, it’s not possible to find any cancer excesses.
We are continually exposed to at least 4000 beta/gamma emissions per second, for life, just from K40 in our cells. Fortunately, Mother Nature has been repairing cells for some 3 billion years, whether due to radiation or chemical damage.
Note the absence of data for living near a coal power plant, which would get a 90.
Because (in the 1940s) we knew very little about our cells’ ability to repair radiation damage, (Radiation can break a chemical bond in a DNA molecule, which might recombine improperly to create cancerous cells.), we (unfortunately) adopted the Linear No Threshold (LNT) theory, which assumed that radiation is cumulative, and concluded that any exposure was hazardous. LNT says that the risk is proportionate to radiation dose, even at low dose rates over long times. Unfortunately, LNT doesn’t consider dose rate, and it ignores life’s adaptive response. LNT theory is like the earth-centered solar system dogma that everyone “knew” was true for more than one thousand years.
Hermann Muller, the originator of LNT theory, reported mutations in fruit flies that he bombed with 2,750 mSv, which he called a low dose, though it is extremely high, and to heighten fear of fallout during the Cold War, he extrapolated his results down to well below 100 mSv despite contrary evidence. Muller knew he was wrong, as did several of his colleagues, including a meticulous researcher named Ernst Caspari. We now know that because his correspondence was finally declassified. So why wasn’t Muller truthful? Probably because he opposed the atmospheric testing of nuclear bombs and wanted to frighten the public away from nuclear energy.
Thanks to researchers at MIT, we now know that DNA strands break and repair about 10,000 times per day per cell, and that a 100 mSv/y dose increases this number by only 12 per day. The overwhelming majority of DNA breaks are caused by ionized oxygen molecules from metabolism within the cell, but because DNA is a double helix, the duplicate information in one strand lets enzymes easily repair these single strand breaks.
Double strand DNA breaks occur about once per week per cell, and most are due to intracellular oxygen. Repair centers within cells also fix these breaks, as observed by scientists at Lawrence Berkeley Labs.
Dr. Alex Cannara explains it this way:
“Radiation from unstable isotopes is continually decreasing. That’s what the “half-life” for an isotope expresses. This means that going back in time is going back to higher radiation environments — 8 times more radioactive for Uranium 235 back when photosynthesis made oxygen common in air, and oxidation made elements like Uranium soluble in water. Living things were, back then, even more intimately in contact with these isotopes.
“So how did life survive higher radiation in the past, and how did life survive the increasing oxygen atmosphere, which quickly corrodes life’s hydrocarbons into CO2 and water?
“The answer is simple: Nature evolved repair mechanisms. Each cell repairs proteins or digests badly malformed cells. Each cell repairs genetic material before it’s used or copied for reproduction.
“Thus, Nature has for billions of years, been able to deal with chemical & radiation threats. Today, chemical threats have increased due to human invention, while radiation threats have decreased, unless some unnatural event produces fresh isotopes (e.g., atom bomb testing or Chernobyl).
“Therefore, we should not be surprised by the lack of radiation deaths at Fukushima, and the small death rates in and around Chernobyl.”
In addition, a recent study revealed that nuclear shipyard workers who were exposed to low levels of additional radiation had a 24% lower mortality rate than the non-exposed, and a study of Chernobyl clean-up workers yielded similar results.
Knowing this, it is no surprise that, when steel contaminated with cobalt-60 was used to build Taiwan apartments, which exposed 8,000 people to 400 mSv of radiation over 20 years, cancer incidence was sharply down, not up 30% as LNT would predict. Instead the adaptive response to low-level radiation seemed to deliver health benefits. Unfortunately, despite our now knowing that our cells have amazing repair abilities, LNT still prevails and propagates fear of nuclear industries, including the inappropriate panic and excessive evacuations at Fukushima. LNT has become an ideology “ruled by hysteria and fueled by ignorance.” (Dr. Kathy Reichs)
LNT, though thoroughly discredited, is still riding high, and it explains why thousands of Japanese were needlessly turned into frightened refugees – see above.
Given this information, it seems reasonable that radiation limits should be the same no matter the source, but nuclear plants are held to a 100x higher standard than coal plants, which emit huge amounts of radiation. Even granite buildings radiate more than nuclear power plants.
It is wasteful to invest in “protecting” people from tiny amounts of radiation from the nuclear power industry when the same money could be invested in effective measures to protect people from radon in their homes.
Radiation exposure in reactors is so low that it shouldn’t be an issue, but understanding the basics of environmental radiation is essential.
For example, the ignorance of the media and our public caused a run on potassium iodide tablets on the West Coast right after Fukushima. No media said this was foolish. Pharmacies ran out. As a consequence, people who needed KI for other reasons couldn’t get it, and others who foolishly loaded up on it actually raised their chances of thyroid disease because excessive KI can cause thyroid malfunction.
Advantages of nuclear power.
No other technology produces energy steadily on a large scale and as cheaply with a better safety record than nuclear power. As of 2013, the world’s 400 + nuclear reactors generate about 15% of our electricity. France tops 50% and Finland, currently at 30%, is aiming for 60. The energy density of nuclear power is a MILLION TIMES GREATER than that of fossil fuels – and more so for wind or solar. Compared to fossil fuels, nuclear energy is akin to a gift from the energy gods.
Nuclear reactors are the largest displacers of greenhouse gases on the planet. Given that fact, how can anyone, even my fellow “greens,” oppose nuclear power when the environmental costs of burning carbon-based fuels are so high?
James Lovelock, a patriarch of the environmental movement, begged his friends to drop their objection to nuclear energy: “…its worldwide use as our main source of energy poses an insignificant threat compared with the dangers of lethal heat waves and sea levels rising…. civilization is in imminent danger and has to use nuclear power—the one safe, available, energy source—now or suffer the pain soon to be inflicted by an outraged planet.” (from Power to Save the World – G. Cravens)
In May, 2014, Robert Bryce, writing in BloombergView, noted that “Inside the core of an average reactor, the power density is about 338 million watts per square meter. To equal that with wind energy, which has a paltry power density of 1 watt per square meter, you’d need about 772 square miles of wind turbines – ¾ of Rhode Island….
“Some opponents still claim that nuclear energy is too dangerous. Debunking that argument requires only a look at the facts about Fukushima….
“Here’s the reality: It caused exactly two deaths — two workers who drowned at the plant.
“It was feared that radioactive materials from the plant would contaminate large areas of Japan and even reach the U.S. That didn’t happen. In early 2013, the World Health Organization concluded: ‘Outside the geographical areas most affected by radiation, even in locations within Fukushima prefecture, the predicted risks remain low and no observable increases in cancer above natural variation in baseline rates are anticipated.’”
Finally, consider this – Radiation from commercial nuclear plants in Western Europe and the United States has never killed ANYONE, but we’ve had millions of coal and petroleum related deaths.
What about reactor waste?
Nuclear power plants are required to contain every speck of their waste. If you were to get all the electricity for your lifetime from conventional uranium reactors, your share of the waste would weigh just two pounds – but most of that will be hazardous for 100,000 years. Disposal of this waste has not been solved. Instead, it has been allowed to accumulate at places like Washington’s Hanford Site – a site that Tom Zoellner, the author of URANIUM, called the “most polluted piece of real estate on earth.” Half as big as Rhode Island, the site had one purpose, the manufacture of plutonium for bombs. However, a recent study shows that mixing plutonium-contaminated waste with blast furnace slag and turning it into glass reduces its volume by 85-95% and locks in the plutonium, creating a stable end product.
So what about Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima? Let’s examine them one by one, but first, it’s important to recognize that nuclear plants have been supplying 15% of the world’s electricity, while emitting no CO2, for 15,000 reactor-years of almost-accident-free operation, and second, that the reactors that have powered our navy for more than 40 years have similar histories.
Three Mile Island
In March, 1979, two weeks after the release of the best-seller, The China Syndrome, a partial meltdown of one of the reactor cores (due to coolant pump failure and subsequent operator error) caused mildly radioactive gases and hydrogen to accumulate inside a reactor building. After being filtered through charcoal, the gases were vented. A small amount of contaminated water was released into the Susquehanna River. No one died or was harmed at Three Mile Island. In fact, radiation exposure from Three Mile was less than what an airline passenger would receive on a round trip flight across the U.S. And in the following decades, operator training and safety measures have been greatly enhanced.
During an equipment test in 1986, operators ignored computer warnings, disabled the safety systems and inadvertently exposed the core of the reactor, which had design hazards not present in Western reactors. This negligence led to a hydrogen explosion that released radioactive gases into the atmosphere because the reactor had no containment structure. In contrast, every water-cooled U.S. reactor has a robust, re-enforced concrete containment structure, and the NRC strictly supervises every plant. Chernobyl, which was built by the old USSR, was long judged by American scientists to be dangerous.
Chernobyl was a failure not of nuclear power, but of bad design, poor training and a political system that forbade operators from sharing information about reactor problems. Chernobyl is the only commercial reactor accident where radiation directly killed anyone. Fifty four “firefighters” died from intense radiation. In addition, the Soviet government didn’t distribute inexpensive iodine tablets, which could have protected thousands from airborne iodine-131, which is readily absorbed by the thyroid, particularly in the young. (A body with an abundance of normal iodine is less likely to absorb I-131.) According to a study by 100 scientists from eight U N agencies, “Chernobyl produced an additional 50 deaths over the following 20 years,” a tiny fraction of the deaths caused the use of coal and petroleum.
Tepco’s Fukushima reactors began operation in 1971, and ran without issue for 40 years, generating huge amounts of power while adding ZERO CO2 to our atmosphere.
Following the 2011 earthquake that severed Fukushima’s connections to the power grid, the 18-foot seawall (that Tepco had been told was grossly inadequate – but refused to raise) was swamped by a tsunami. The government could have compelled Tepco to raise the seawall, but did not. (Tepco had also falsified safety reports and lied about inspections.)
Old, deeply weathered Sendai “stones” in the area had been warning for centuries, “Don’t build below the ~150 foot elevation.” Instead, in 1967, Tepco cut 25 meters off of the site’s 35 meter natural seawall to make it easier to unload equipment at the building site, which placed the reactors five meters below the crest of the 2011 tsunami.
Emergency diesel generators located in basements were flooded. Batteries powered the coolant pumps for 8 hours – and then failed. Without coolant, meltdown occurred. Had a reservoir or water towers been built nearby, and space was available, the reactors could have been cooled by gravity-powered water. Reactors 1-4 are now useless, #5 has slight damage, and 6 was unaffected, and is capable of producing power, but it has not been activated, largely due to anti-nuclear hysteria.
The Onagawa nuclear plant, which was closer to the epicenter of the quake, also survived the quake, and its 45-foot seawall easily blocked the tsunami. Onagawa’s reactors were shut down only as a precaution. The tsunami took 20,000 lives, but the Fukushima failure directly took the lives of just two firefighters who drowned.
Nuclear power has been tarred by the Fukushima disaster, but the failure was NOT the fault of nuclear power. It was the caused by repeated corporate lying, record falsifying and penny-pinching, by the lack of government enforcement of seawall height, by building too close to the ocean, and by installing backup generators in easily flooded basements. Blaming nuclear power for Fukushima is like blaming the airplane if the pilot never checks the amount of fuel in the plane before takeoff. When he finally crashes, is it the fault of the plane?
What’s the Fossil Fuel Record?
In 2006, the Sago coal mine disaster killed 12. A few years later, West Virginia’s Big Branch coal mine explosion killed 29. In May 2014, 240 miners died in a Turkish coal mine, but no one seeks to end coal mining. The full list is almost endless – and it is longer every year.
The ash derived from burning coal for power averages 80,000 pounds per American lifetime. Compare that to two pounds of nuclear waste. The world’s 1200 largest coal-fired plants cause 13,000 premature American deaths per year plus hundreds of thousands of cases of lung and heart diseases. Coal-fired plants also expel mercury, radon, arsenic, polonium, uranium, cyanide and harmful particulates while exposing us to 100 times more radiation than nuclear plants– which create NO CO2. In fact, coal ash is more radioactive than any emission from any nuclear plant except post-accident Chernobyl.
Every year, we create and store 140 million tons of coal ash in unlined landfills and tailing ponds. In 2008, five million tons of toxic ash burst through a Tennessee berm (see below), destroying homes and fouling lakes and rivers. Coal plants leak more toxic pollution into America’s waters than any other industry. For example, a June, 2013 test found that arsenic levels leaking from unlined coal ash ponds were 300 times the safety level for drinking water.
When a natural gas pipeline exploded in San Bruno, California, eight people died, thirty-five homes were leveled and dozens more were damaged. Should we abandon natural gas?
In 2010, an Enbridge pipeline ruptured in Michigan, spilling more than a million gallons of tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River. In 2014, the “cleanup” was still incomplete.
BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster killed 11 workers and spilled 20 million of gallons of crude. Prior to that, a devastating explosion at a BP Texas refinery killed 15. And these are the just two of the big oil companies that American taxpayers subsidize with $2.4 billion per year.
In July, 2013, a derailed train dumped 2 million gallons of North Dakota crude into Lac Magentic, Quebec, killing 47 residents while incinerating the center of the town – but that’s just another page in the petroleum tale, like the disastrous Exxon “spill” in Mayflower, Arkansas that received scant notice from a press and public. And in November, 2013, a train loaded with 2.7 million gallons of North Dakota crude went incendiary in Alabama, followed in December by a North Dakota conflagration. 2014 began with another fiery derailment in New Brunswick, Canada. Predictably, few expressed concern, but mention nuclear power or RADIATION, and it’s OH DEAR! OH MY!
If we give nuclear power a score of 1 on fatalities per watts produced, coal is 4000 times worse, and oil gets a 900. Again, NO ONE has died from radiation from commercial nuclear power production in Western Europe or the Western hemisphere because of nuclear power, but more than 2 MILLION DIE EVERY YEAR from the burning of coal and oil.
The cost per kwh of nuclear electricity is less than that of coal, as well as that from wind and solar. One average nuclear power plant constantly generates as much power as 3,000 wind generators, which demand vast tracts of land, kill bats and birds, and are intermittent and unpredictable, which is why wind (and solar) typically yield only about 33 % of their rated capacity.
We should be powering our huge container ships with nuclear power, but we don’t due to the fear of proliferation. However, using MSRs, which are proliferation-resistant, would save
seven million barrels of oil per day while removing 4% of greenhouse gas emissions and replacing their huge fuel tanks with profitable cargo. (Propelling one of our huge aircraft carriers at 27 mph for 24 hours requires only three pounds of nuclear fuel – the equivalent of at least 400,000 gallons of diesel fuel.)
Why do we persist with carbon fuels when six uranium pellets the size of your little finger contain as much energy as 3 tons of coal or 60,000 cubic feet of natural gas – and the pellets create no CO2? Just a fistful of Uranium can run all of NYC for an hour, and the waste products are less than that. The Excel Energy plant at Becker, MN turns 60,000,000 pounds of coal per day into CO2, but just 100 pounds of uranium would do as well while making no CO2.
Why do we plunge ahead with fracking for natural gas when even Louis Allstadt, the former executive vice president of Mobil Oil opposes the practice: “With hundreds of thousands of wells leaking methane, you’re going to exacerbate global warming… The industry is unloading all the costs of what it’s been doing onto the public. Just go out and build miles of levees around New York City and build drainage systems…. We’ll go on producing natural gas and keep the cost low by having taxpayers pick up the cost of dealing with the consequences of global warming. Something has to wake up the public. It will either be education from the environmental movements or some kind of climate disaster that no one can ignore.”
The sediments and bottom water in the world’s shallow oceans and lakes also contain vast amounts of methane (which is at least 20 times more potent than CO2) that is released from frozen soils as the organic matter thaws and decomposes. According to a United Nations report, atmospheric methane levels have never exceeded 700 ppb in the last 400,000 years, but they recently reached 1850 ppb. We must not dither!
How does a conventional, water-cooled, uranium-powered reactor work, and what are its pluses and minuses?
In a conventional reactor, uranium pellets are sealed in hundreds of narrow, 12 foot, zirconium tubes that are housed under 600 degree (F) water at 2700 psi to prevent the water from exploding into steam. Steam generated in a separate heat exchanger powers a turbine that spins a generator to make electricity. Because of the potential for an explosion of the super-heated, pressurized water (which would expand 1000 times) a huge, expensive, immensely strong containment dome encloses the reactor so that steam and other gases cannot escape.)
During fission, reaction waste products accumulate in the pellets and tubes that must contain all the byproducts while in the reactor and for thousands of years thereafter. Other reactions that involve the zirconium rods and the super-hot water can produce hydrogen, which caused the explosions at Fukushima.
As the uranium pellets become contaminated with waste they become inefficient, and must be replaced every 18 months during a multi-day shut-down in which the assemblies are moved by remotely operated cranes to storage pools to keep them from melting and to shield the operators. After a few years, the radioactivity of the spent fuel decreases enough so that it can be moved to dry cask storage, which provides the current long term answer.
If conventional reactors are safe, why switch to Molten Salt Reactors? Because MSRs avoid many of the disadvantages of solid-fuel reactors.
In an MSR, the fuel – uranium or thorium – is dissolved in a liquid fluoride salt, and although fluorine gas is corrosive, fluoride salts are not. Fluoride salts don’t change under high temperatures or high radiation, and they lock up radioactive materials to prevent them from being released to the environment. And yes, an Oak Ridge MSR ran successfully from 1965 – 1969.
Schematic of a Molten Salt Reactor
When uranium or thorium is combined with a liquid fluoride salt, there are no pellets, no zirconium tubes, no water and, therefore, no hydrogen. The fluid containing the nuclear fuel is also the heat-transfer agent, so no coolant water is needed.
Because the molten salt cannot boil until 14OO°C, and MSRs are not water-cooled, they can operate at atmospheric pressure. As a consequence, there is no possibility of a steam explosion to propel radioactive isotopes into the environment, so no containment dome is needed.
As the liquid salt fuel in the core heats up, it expands, decreasing the density of the fuel, which slows the rate of fission. As a consequence, an MSR is inherently stable or “self-governing,” and because the fuel is liquid, it can be easily drained from the reactor as needed. A meltdown like that at Fukushima cannot occur. A “disaster” from an MSR would be measured in square yards, not miles – as with conventional reactors.
Furthermore, in the event of a power outage, a refrigerated salt plug at the bottom of the MSR automatically melts, allowing the fuel to drain into a large-diameter tank, where it spreads out, cools and solidifies, stopping the reaction. In effect, MSRs are walk-away safe. Even if you abandon an MSR, it will cool down and solidify all by itself. Fukushima could not have happened with an MSR.
MSRs can also “burn” 96% of our 68,000 tons of stored uranium waste and consume the fissile material in our arsenal of 9,000 nuclear bombs.
MSRs generate twice as much heat as a conventional reactor, and that heat can be used to createmore power and even desalinate seawater.
So why switch to Thorium-fueled MSRs?
A Lifetime of power in the palm of your hand
A thorium-powered MSR is called a Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor -
LFTR – pronounced LIFTER.
LFTRs are vastly more efficient than a uranium-fueled MSR, and they create very little waste. A thorium-fueled MSR reactor “burns” 99% of the thorium, but current uranium reactors consume just 1% of their fuel. That’s like burning a tiny part of a log while the rest gets contaminated with chemicals you must store for thousands of years.
Because just one pound of thorium equals 1700 tons coal, replacing coal-burning power plants with LFTRs would eliminate the largest source of CO2-caused climate change. Just one pound of thorium – a golf ball sized lump – can yield all the energy a person will ever need, and just a cubic yard can power a small city for a year. Replacing ALL coal, oil and natural gas power production with LFTRs would eliminate about 50% of all man-made greenhouse gas production. From 1977-1982, the Shippingport, PA LWR was powered with a Th – U mix.)
Thorium ore is four times as plentiful as uranium ore and 500 times more abundant than uranium’s fissile U-235 isotope – the useful part. At current consumption rates, uranium fuels can last for decades, but thorium reactors could power our world for centuries. The U S has some 400,000 tons of thorium reserves. Australia and India tie for the largest at about 500,000 tons, and China is well supplied.
We don’t even have to mine Thorium. The tailing ponds at Rare Earth Elements’ processing plants receive, every year, enough Thorium to power the entire planet. 1300 tons of thorium = 61 billion barrels of oil or 600 billion cubic meters of gas.
Waste and storage.
Because of their efficiency, LFTRs create about 1% of the waste that conventional reactors produce, and that waste is hazardous for thousands of years. With LFTRs, it’s a few hundred years. For example, a 1 Gigawatt LFTR, run for 30 years, will produce less than 1000 lbs. of long term waste, and LFTRs can run practically “forever” because they produce enough neutrons to breed their own fuel. Furthermore, the radio-toxicity from LFTR waste is 1/1000 that of solid fuel reactor waste, so geological repositories much smaller than Yucca mountain would suffice.
Transmission line costs and line losses will be reduced.
With no need for huge cooling towers or large containment buildings, MSRs can be much smaller, both physically and in power capacity. Factories, cities and ships could have their own power source, thus creating a more reliable, efficient power grid by cutting transmission line losses that can run from 10 – 20%.
Not surprisingly, the conventional nuclear industry, like the carbon-based industries, has had no interest in MSRs or LFTRS, perhaps for financial reasons, and few elected officials are likely to challenge the carbon industries that provide millions of jobs and wield great political power. As a consequence, thorium technology gets little help from the government, although China and Canada are moving toward thorium, and India already has a reactor that runs on 20% thorium oxide fuel.
After our DoE signed a collaboration agreement with China, we handed over all of our molten salt information through the auspices of Oak Ridge National Labs, U C Berkeley, MIT, and the U of Wisconsin. China has 29 modern Generation III+ nuclear plants under construction or scheduled. In addition, the Chinese Academy of Sciences has allocated $1billion to build LFTRs by 2020. And in Japan, a FUJI design for a 100-200 mw LFTR is being developed by a consortium from Japan, the U. S. and Russia at a cost of just 2.85 cents per kilowatt hour.
How a LFTR works
In a LFTR, the liquid uranium/salt mix circulates through the reactor core, releasing neutrons that convert Th-232 in an outer shell to Th-233. (Thorium 232 cannot sustain a chain reaction, but it is fertile, meaning that it can be converted to fissile U-233 through neutron capture, also known as “breeding.”)
When the U-235 converts Th-232 into Th-233, it fissions, releasing energy while creating Protactinium-233, which decays to U-233, which activates more Th-232. During the process, huge amounts of energy are released. In short, a LFTR turns thorium into uranium, which it thoroughly consumes, producing a tiny amount of short-term waste in the process.
(Illustration from THORIUM: Energy Cheaper Than Coal – by Robert Hargraves)
The half-life of Th-232, which comprises most of thorium ore, is 14 billion years, so it is not hazardous due to its extremely slow decay. In comparison, Th-233 has 20 minute half-life, which makes it INTENSELY radioactive, very short-lived and a fantastic power source.
Summary: Advantages of LFTRs
No CO2 emissions. Not practical for making bombs. Breed their fuel from thorium.
Hugely efficient. Create just 1% as much waste as conventional reactors.
Do not need periodic shut downs because fission byproducts are continuously removed.
Not water-cooled, so hydrogen and steam explosions are eliminated. Well suited to arid areas and countries where water is scarce.
Don’t need huge containment domes because they operate at atmospheric pressure.
The reactor can’t “melt down” because the fuel/coolant is already liquid and the reactor vessel is designed to handle even higher temperatures.
Thorium ore is safer to mine because it is less radioactive than uranium ore.
Thorium 232 is 500 X as abundant as U-235.
Fluoride salts are easier to handle and less corrosive than the supercritical water used by solid-fuel reactors.
LFTRs are highly scalable – from small plants to 2,000 MW plants.
LFTRs could replace all of the world’s coal-powered generators by 2060.
LFTRs will cost 10-15% as much as comparable, solid fuel uranium reactors, allowing affordability to developing nations. They are suitable for modular factory production, truck transport, and on-site assembly.
LFTRs are intrinsically safe because overheating expands the fuel/salt, decreasing its density, which lowers the fission rate.
Loss of power melts a freeze plug, automatically draining the fuel into a tank to cool.
At least 99% of a LFTR’s thorium is “burned”, compared to 0.7 % of the uranium in today’s reactors.
Can’t afford it? There’s plenty of fat in our “defense” budget. We’ve lost $400 billion on worthless F-37 fighter jets and $2 billion PER WEEK in Afghanistan. Our pets consume $50 billion per year. Now add golf, NASCAR and a host of other luxuries that Climate Change should make us scrutinize, and the total will exceed $1 trillion. We only need about $2 billion to build the first modern MSR and about $6 Billion to build an MSR with output of 4.8 GW on an assembly line.
Russia plans to build modular reactors on barges that can be located at coastal cities, making long transmission lines unnecessary.
Rep. Michelle Bachman – Climate Change denier and opponent of nuclear power.
Former governor Sarah Palin – another denier.
Senator Inhofe – “Climate Change is a hoax.”
Rep. Louis Gohmert – “God promised he wouldn’t flood us again.”
It’s tempting to laugh, but these people have constituents who need to be learn about climate change and the need for MORE nuclear power to reduce CO2 production.
In addition, influential organizations like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, having failed to educate themselves on the facts of radiation safety, remain hostile to nuclear energy despite its superior safety record, its ability to displace greenhouse gases and its efficiency.
Even individuals like Helen Caldicott, Amy Goodman and Ralph Nader, who normally deserve respect, have failed to educate themselves about radiation safety, and as a result have unwittingly repeated gross distortions or even falsehoods.
Some even lie. This U.S. government image displays various tsunami wave heights following the record- setting earthquake that damaged the Fukushima reactors, but at least one anti-nuke group claimed that it was a representation of radiation levels in the Pacific.
Why Only Inherently Safe, Mini-Nuclear Power Plants Can Save Our World
by Reese Palley
“By 2050 we will have added 50% to the world population, which will add 50% more CO2 per year than the eight billion tons we are adding now. This will drive the present 390 ppm of CO2 to a tipping point of 450 ppm, beyond which we will have little chance to reverse global warming…. Even more alarming is a release from the National Academy of Science, dated January 28, 2009: ‘The severity of climate change depends on the magnitude of the change and on the potential for irreversibility. The climate change that takes place due to increases in CO2 concentration is largely irreversible for 1,000 years after the emissions stop. Temperatures will not drop significantly for at least 1,000 years.’
“… the prospect of recapturing and sequestering CO2 from the atmosphere is an exercise in futility fueled by stupidity. Once CO2 is released, it will take more energy to reclaim it.
“Unlike our 68,000 tons of nuclear waste, which accounts for just 0.01 % of all industrial toxic waste, there is simply no place to store the billions of tons of CO2 that will spell disaster within 50 years if we fail to act wisely. That 68,000 tons of waste – generated since the fifties – pales beside the same tonnage of waste that is generated EACH WEEK by New York City.
“If we are to survive this mess, here’s what it will take: Restrict population growth. Stop using carbon fuels. Progressively tax energy use. GO NUCLEAR with thousands of on-site MSRs.
“Coal-fired plants consume huge volumes of water that is, in many areas, in short supply. The power grids we rely on can be damaged, if not destroyed, by a massive solar flare. However, if the U. S. were powered with thousands of LFTRs, these risks would be greatly reduced. Small, modular, inherently safe LFTRs can be built on assembly lines at high speed and shipped by the thousands on semi-trailer trucks.”
THORIUM: Energy Cheaper than Coal – by Robert Hargraves.
“The U N cannot solve our energy/climate crises. Ultimately, individual leaders are the key.”
Super Fuel – byRichard Martin.
“For millions of years, thorium has been awaiting the right time, the right circumstances and the right minds to enable it to provide thousands of years of clean, safe, affordable energy. The technology exists, the economics are favorable, and the need is urgent.”
Power to Save the World – byGwyneth Cravens
“The power to save the world does not lie in rocks, rivers, wind or sunshine. It lies in each of us.”
Popular Science – special ENERGY ISSUE – July, 2011
(LFTRs in 5 minutes)
Here’s a link to your Senators’ and Representatives’ addresses. PLEASE USE IT! http://www.usa.gov/Contact/Elected.shtml
Here’s the White House.
George Erickson is a best-selling author, a past V P of the American Humanist Association, a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists and of the Thorium Energy Alliance.
We must do better than this: