Saturday, May 16, 2015

Thorium Nuclear Reactor Not the World Savior

Subtitle: Archibald Writes Wrong on Thorium

A recent article on Watts Up With That, WUWT (see link) sings the praises of thorium-fueled nuclear power plants as the savior of the world.  The article is by David Archibald, "a visiting fellow at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C."  

Mr. Archibald could not be more wrong in his assessment - with one small exception, see end of this article. 
Thorium molten salt reactor schematic
source: Idaho National Lab

As written in several articles on SLB, nuclear power in any form is hopelessly uneconomic, impractical and unsafe.  see link, and link, and link.   As a result, almost full subsidy from government is required for any nuclear plants to be constructed and operate  (see link). 

Mr. Archibald opines that fossil fuel will disappear "soon" and only thorium-based nuclear power will be available.   He states that solar and wind will be unable to provide power, especially economic power.  

He states that a 250 MWe thorium power plant would be the basis for new plants.  This suffers from the same economy of scale problem that plagues small nuclear reactors (see link).   He further makes the mistake of using overnight (estimated) cost for the fully installed cost of a plant.  He uses $3,246 per Kw for overnight cost and a plant size of 250 MWe, then states the installed cost is $800 million each.   The fact is, as written on SLB (see link), major industrial projects require far more costs than just overnight cost.  The costs associated with material and labor inflation over time, and interest on construction loans can easily double or triple the overnight costs.  Construction schedules, or time to construct, typically stretch far beyond initial estimates, with actual time from start to startup being 8 to 10 years or more.  

Now, as to what Mr. Archibald got right.  He correctly stated that coal will run out.  His timetable is off by a couple of centuries, but he is correct that it will run out.  As earlier stated on SLB, the facts that coal will soon run out, and coal presently provides almost one-half of the world's electricity present one of the biggest challenges of our times.  Perhaps, it is the single biggest challenge.  

The alternative to coal is not nuclear, as Mr. Archibald states, but the vast amounts of free, renewable, zero-pollution, reliable power provided by ocean currents, solar, and wind with appropriate energy storage.  Note carefully, though, that ocean current power needs no storage.  (see link

I have not read the comments on Mr. Archibald's article at WUWT, but they are sure to be entertaining.  And for the most part, very wrong.  

Roger E. Sowell, Esq.
Marina del Rey, California
copyright (c) 2015 by Roger Sowell


davidgmills said...

As a fellow attorney (retired) and thorium advocate for a number of years, I can only say your information on thorium is sorely lacking and your opinion seriously misplaced. David Archibald is not a good source of information on this issue. He may mean well, but he is not considered to be any kind of authority on the issue.

The best source is thorium's leading advocate in the US, Kirk Sorensen, an ex-NASA engineer. He is the individual credited with bringing back interest in thorium reactors after learning about Alvin Weinberg's thorium project at Oak Ridge in the 60's and 70's.

Most of the critics on the internet are absolutely clueless about thorium and it's history and its potential. All seem clueless as to the process when you read their articles. So for you to site internet critics shows your own failure to do diligent research.

Read everything you can find on the internet by Kirk Sorensen or view any number of videos of his numerous talks (TED and universities). Get up to speed. Kirk will walk you through it. I can't begin to do justice in a blog post.

China is committed to making a liquid fluoride thorium reactor and will have one by 2020. It will be a game changer for the world. They will take Alvin Weinberg's design and Oak Ridge and go commercial with it. When Kirk put most of Oak Ridge's data on the internet, it was the Chinese who got excited and committed.

To bad for us. We should have done it in the 70's, but we hitched our wagon to uranium and light water reactors rather than thorium and liquid salt cooled reactors.

Perhaps since you are associated with the petrochemical industry, your lenses are colored. ( I grew up in Texas, went to law school there, and my first job as an attorney was working for Exxon, so I understand the basis of the bias).

This is the best video compilation of Kirk's early talks TED and Calgary and his explanation of how he rediscovered thorium.

Roger Sowell said...

Mr. Mills: First, I highly recommend that you read my earlier article on Thorium-based nuclear power, "Thorium MSR No Better Than Uranium Process" that was article 28 of 30 in my series "The Truth About Nuclear Power." see link

That article 28 is based on the Idaho National Laboratory publication, which I hope you will agree is sufficiently authoritative.

Second, and for your information, I have read extensively on thorium-based power, as well as many other forms of nuclear power. I wrote on many of these in my Truth About Nuclear Power series. I am very familiar with the writings and talks of Mr. Sorensen, whom you mentioned in your comment. I can only say that he is a very good speaker. He is wrong on many points, and of course omits the critical points that doom the process to failure.

Third, you suggest that my background as a process engineer in petroleum and petrochemicals has colored my judgement. I certainly hope so, as it appears that only seasoned process engineers can appreciate the dangers associated with a very hot molten salt of radioactive materials constantly eating away at the metal container, pumps, piping, valves, and heat exchanger tubes. We process engineers have first-hand experience with the results of corrosion, leaking tubes, and other such events in process plants. For nuclear advocates, such as yourself, to suggest that the MSR thorium plants will operate safely is completely naive.

I again invite you to read my Article 28, linked above. Thorium-based processes have almost zero hope of ever being safe or economic, and for the reasons given in that article. You mentioned the Chinese effort, an effort that I follow. It is perhaps instructive that the Chinese care little at this point for either safety, or economics. It is quite apparent that the Chinese are about to learn some most important lessons in the fundamentals of process engineering: molten salts corrode metallurgy very quickly, and things go very badly very quickly when they corrode.

davidgmills said...

I am not going to waste a lot of time with commenting. I read your link. There are two obvious mistakes you make right out of the gate, which as I said earlier, tell me blatantly that you have not done your homework.

The first is that LFTR's will have to be huge. Absolutely wrong. They were designed to be small, that is their biggest advantage, they will stay that way, because they can be built in factories on assembly lines and keep costs down.

Second, they will not use steam for generation.

If you had watched the video in full I cited, you would realize just how wrong these two statements you made are.

On the issues of corrosion, perhaps you would find it interesting to listen to a video with some of the engineers who actually ran the MSRE at Oak Ridge. They did not think that either the issues of corrosion or Tritium were insurmountable, in any way, even back in the 1970's:

Thorium's biggest problem, it seems to me, is getting people to actually seriously study it.

Roger Sowell said...

Mr. Mills, I also will not waste my time in any further response to you. You clearly are not an engineer, and have fallen victim to the smooth-talking nuclear proponents.

As to the large size, you have apparently no appreciation for the law of economy of scale. I suggest you read up on this. Small nuclear plants cannot possibly hope to be economic. If the reverse were true, every nuclear plant would be very small at this time. You should read my article on Small Modular Reactors, which is article 8 in the Truth About Nuclear Power series.

As to the steam as a working fluid, it matters not what the working fluid is. You should consult an experienced process engineer to explain such things to you. In essence, if a working fluid other than water-steam were economic and practical, it would be used in power plants. As I also explain in the article 29 on High Temperature Gas Reactors, a gas for working fluid also has insurmountable problems. And for the record, yes, I am quite familiar with the natural-gas-air working fluid that is used in the Brayton cycle of a gas turbine power plant. That point is adequately addressed also in article 29 of the Truth About Nuclear Power article.

The corrosion issues are but one of the many fatal flaws in the thorium molten salt process about which you sing the praises. Perhaps future material scientists will develop a material that can properly hold up for 40 or more years against the heat and corrosive nature of molten radioactive fluoride salts, and the incessant vibrations, and the occasional earthquake, and the routine thermal shocks of periodic cool downs and heating up cycles. That is all the material needs to do.

Finally, many hundreds of experienced process engineers agree with my writings and conclusions on nuclear power. They can see the obvious flaws in every design that has been advanced thus far.