BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

No, really ... there ARE "safe nukes"!

As regular readers know, pretty much every month I get some book or another from the “Early Reviewer” program, and, generally speaking, I'm usually content to deal with whatever the “Almighty Algorithm” doles out to me from the books I've requested. However, a month or so back, there was a book that I didn't win that I'd really been interested in reading, Richard Martin's SuperFuel: Thorium, the Green Energy Source for the Future. I figured “what the heck?”, dug up the contact info for the publishers (the good folks at Macmillan), and shot off an email requesting a review copy, which they kindly provided. So, this represents a slightly new (or something of a “mashup”) way of my coming to read a particular title.

I'd been interested in Thorium since reading about “4th generation” reactors in Peter Diamandis' Abundance, and was particularly interested in the “green energy” angle for my Green Tech Chicago blog, so I was quite eager to jump into reading this.

The author is a noted science writer, with credits in a number of high-profile publications, as well as being the “editorial director” of a research firm that provides in-depth analysis of global clean technology markets. While this might have been more involving had it been penned by one of the individuals actually engaged in Thorium development, his research into the subject appears to have been quite expansive (although he didn't seem to have caught wind of the laser/Thorium system that has been recently in the news).

SuperFuel is structured largely on the threads of particular individuals, and their relationships to the development of Thorium as an energy source. It starts with Kirk Sorensen, who Martin had met in 2009 while working on an article for Wired. In 2002 Sorensen had encountered a book Fluid Fuel Reactors which had totally engaged him in this new area of research … leading him to begin the Energy from Thorium blog. He is used as a springboard for Martin to introduce a lot of technical detail comparing various types of reactors, and in-depth descriptions of several designs that would make use of Thorium, all of which have advantages over current systems. I wish I could grab a particular paragraph in this, but I'd have to pull pages on LTFRs (Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors) to put the system into context, so here are just a few highlights regarding the reactors and Thorium:
It is abundant, In fact, used properly, it's effectively inexhaustible. …
It requires no special refining or processing beyond purifying it from the monazite ore in which it is most commonly found. …
It's no good for making weapons. In fact, it's not fissile at all. …
… reactors based on thorium … consume far more of the latent energy trapped inside the fuel, vastly reducing or even eliminating the problem of nuclear waste. …
Because the core is composed of a molten salt with an extremely high boiling point, it operates at atmospheric pressure …
LFTRs … generate fission products {with} half-lives … measured in dozens of years, not thousands.
LFTRs are impervious to sudden overheating …
{T}hey can run indefinitely. The reactions in a LFTR produce enough excess neutrons to breed their own fuel. …
LFTRs are 200 to 300 times more fuel efficient than legacy reactors. They are safer, simpler, smaller, less expensive to build. …
No rational from-scratch approach to nuclear power would build anything else, yet we are burdened with … unsafe uranium reactors that produce tons of long-lived nuclear waste. … How did this happen? Why were thorium-based molten salt reactors abandoned when they showed such promise at the dawn of the atomic age?
That question moves the book to the next set of protagonists, Alvin Weinberg and Hyman Rickover, along with Weinberg's mentor, Eugene Wigner.

Weinberg and Wigner were involved in the Manhattan Project, specifically in the drive to produce Plutonium for the atomic bombs. However, “Weinberg had come to believe that liquid fuel thorium reactors would transform the nation's energy supply” and had managed to develop a proof-of-concept installation. Unfortunately, between the race for the bomb (against what was perceived as Germany's program), and the post-war chess game with the Soviets, a system that did not produce bomb-making materials was unwelcome in the military-controlled nuclear niche:
National defense requirements imposed three basic limitations on Weinberg and the others who sought to develop a peacetime nuclear power base: All scientific data relating to nuclear technology was classified, severely restricting information flow. Innovation in nuclear power was subservient to the maintenance of superiority in the arms race; of premier importance was ensuring a sufficient supply of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium … Finally, reactor development … was channeled into programs that would directly benefit military operations – meaning, in the first case, submarine propulsion.
Which brings in Admiral Rickover, and the ascendency of the pressurized water reactor. The issue that the Navy had with the liquid sodium reactors was that sodium reacts explosively with water and “the Navy had the best plumbers in the world” and “they knew how to design and operate pumps, bearings, and valves to transport water, including water at high pressure required for a nuclear reactor inside a submarine.” So, the now-dominant PWR system became established “not as a commercial power plant, and not because it was cheap or inherently safer than other reactors, but rather because it … lent itself to naval propulsion” despite the U.S. having designs for Molten Salt Reactors using plentiful, and far safer, Thorium as fuel as early as 1959.

How did this get so derailed? Well,
The original nuclearati almost all trained at Rickover's feet. Single-handedly he had established the foundation for the nation's civilian and military reactor development. … His power unchallenged, Rickover set about building a nuclear power industry in his own image. And that was the problem. Rickover's authoritarian style of leadership, his intolerance of dissent, and his valuing of efficiency over creativity and open discussion all bled into the roots of the nuclear power establishment. … Rickover … undermined and eliminated potential … competing nuclear programs … the field of nuclear engineering is only now recovering from Rickover's single-minded view of the technology.
While the nuclear power industry in the U.S. is locked into a PWR model, both India and China are rushing ahead to develop Thorium-based nuclear plants. Of course, nuclear power has been a big “scare” item in the Western press, and the fear of all things nuclear has been deeply engrained in the U.S. population … a situation not improved by Fukushima disaster.

Martin paints a very dire picture (comparing it to the collapse of the Roman Empire) for the U.S. if we don't move forward with Thorium power. In the last part of the book he details what he sees as a necessary action plan for developing fourth-generation reactors based on the LFTR system … spelling out costs and timelines, all of which seem entirely plausible if we can get past the fears and the institutional intransigence of the current nuclear industry. You can sense the author's frustration in looking at a way of generating power that not only is safe, affordable, and can even clean up the stockpiles of waste from previous plants while producing electricity for the planet essentially forever, but which is being ignored, belittled, and demonized in the country that developed it.

If you have an interest in “green energy”, or future technology in general, you really should pick up a copy of SuperFuel. Even though this was in the “early reviewers” program, the book has been out (in hardcover) for a while, with the paperback edition new this August. I'm guessing that you should be able to find that “wherever books are sold”, but the online big boys have it for a bit under cover (and the new/used guys have new copies for about half off). Obviously, moving to Thorium would make sense for the whole world, but as a species how much sense do we have?

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Tags: book review
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