The Thorium Molten-Salt Reactor: Why Didn’t This Happen (and why is now the right time?)


>>For our presentation today from Kirk Sorensen,
the founder of Flibe Energy. Kirk has been a promoter of energy from Thorium for a long
time as [INDISTINCT] energyfromthorium.com where pretty big community of amateurs and
experts from around the world that had been contributing to the community effort to define
what would be the optimal Thorium reactor, nuclear reactor which generates electricity
from Thorium. This is a technology that’s been around for a long time since, shortly
after World War Two. It was matured well up until early 1970s and then, and then kind
of suddenly ended in favor of the liquid-metal fast breeder reactor which then also ended.
And Kirk will give us a talk today and explain kind of what went wrong, why it stopped, why
it–how is this been done. You know, if it’s such a great idea, why aren’t we doing it?
And their actions have very good reasons for that and maybe other reasons are cost and
then, maybe we should start doing it again. So, please have Kirk Sorensen.
>>SORENSEN: Thank you very much, Chris. I’m very glad to be here at Google today and given
another Tech-talk. I always enjoy coming and been a part of these things. The question
that I’m going to try to answer today is one that I’m often asked as I give presentations
on Thorium. In fact, I’m almost always asked this question which is, “Kirk, Thorium sounds
like a great idea. It sounds like it’s a good technology, why didn’t this happen?” We
are Flibe Energy a new company to develop liquid fluoride Thorium reactor technology.
We’re following the vision of Alvin Weinberg. He was the director of Oak Ridge National
Lab from the 50s to the 1970s and he had a vision of how we could use Thorium to advance
beyond the current constrains of our society in terms of fossil fuels, hydro power and
existing nuclear technology. One of the amazing parts about his vision was how this could
transform not only the US economy but many other places in the world. Some of which don’t
have the resources that we have in terms of fresh water or arable land. This is a vision
he had of how Thorium reactors could be used to desalinate water, grow crops in desert
areas and to some of us like caught terraforming the earth, but to really truly change the
economic balance of the world. Weinberg’s vision on the other hand, was brought to an
end in the early 1970s and that is really the subject of the talk today. There really
were three options for nuclear energy at the dawn of the nuclear era. There was Uranium-235
which was fissile form of Uranium. This was the form of Uranium, they could actually be
utilized directly in a nuclear reactor. Most of the Uranium was the Uranium-238. This had
to be transformed into another nuclear fuel called Plutonium before it could be used.
And then there was Thorium and in a similar magnitude reining 238, it also had to be transformed
into another nuclear fuel, Uranium-233 before it could use in a reactor. There were some
significant differences though between these three fuels. As I mentioned, Uranium-235 could
be used directly. The other two had to be transformed and that meant, they needed two
neutrons to be consumed, one to transform them and one to fission them. And in order
for this to be a sustainable process, you have to know what will they emit more than
two neutrons when they fission. And the answer was, “Yes, they did.” In fact, all three of
them emitted more than two neutrons when they fission. Here was Uranium-235, Uranium-233
admitted about two and a half neutrons per fission and Plutonium with fission with almost
three neutrons per fission. So, it would emit the most neutrons when it fissions. So, the
first answer was yes. All three of the fuels gave off enough neutrons to sustain their
consumption of reactor. But there was more to the story, this is a busy graph and I apologize
in advance for it. But it tells the story of much of our nuclear history. And what it
shows is, Plutonium doesn’t emit enough neutrons when it isn’t being fission by
fast neutrons in order to continue the conversion of future Uranium into Plutonium to continue
its breeding. It has to be fissioned by fast neutrons in order to do this. On the other
hand, Thorium and Uranium-233 produce enough neutrons in both thermal and fast fission
to continue the utilization of that fuel. I call it the Threshold of Two, and it’s not
just about how many neutrons they emit, but how many neutrons they emit even accounting
for absorption. Because they don’t always fission every single time they’re hit by a
neutron. Uranium-233 and Plutonium-239 of those two in thermal neutrons, only Uranium-233
crosses the Threshold of Two. In fast fission on the other hand, both Uranium-233 and Plutonium-239
crossed the Threshold of Two. So, it would seem, what we just want a fast reactor. We
don’t want a reactor that uses slow down thermal neutrons, we want a fast reactor because–then
we will great confidence that we will be able to sustain the consumption of nuclear fuel.
Well, there’s a powerful disincentive to doing it this way and it has to do with what are
called, Cross-Sections. These are mathematical way of describing how likely it is that a
nuclear reaction will proceed and they the form of areas, quite literally in area someone’s
called “a barn” which is, 10 to the minus 24 square centimeters. This is a really, really,
really small unit to variat. But this is the unit that nuclear engineers used to describe
how probable a nuclear reaction is. This is the cross-section of Uranium-233 to a thermal
neutron. By comparison, this very, very small circle right here is the cross-section of
Uranium 233 to a fast neutron. So, it’s not hard to see which one is more likely to have
a fission reaction. A thermal neutron is far more likely to cause the fission reaction
than a fast neutron. So, the advantage now seems to be for the thermal reactors. This
is a general feature of almost all nuclear materials that their cross-sections are much
larger to thermal neutrons than they are to fast neutrons. Here we see the cross-section
of Plutonium. It’s huge in the thermal spectrum and it’s very, very small in the fast spectrum.
And that means that Plutonium is much more likely to have a nuclear reaction to a slow
down neutron than to a fast neutron. So again, why consider a fast reactor? Well, it’s because–look
at these red regions. Those regions indicate the probability that the neutron will be absorbed
but not cause a fission, that it will simply just be absorbed. You can see that, that probability
is about 10% for Uranium-233 in the thermal. But if we were to magnify that cross-section,
significantly by factor of 500, you could see that, that probability becomes much smaller
in the fast spectrum. A fast neutron if it is absorbed almost always will cause a fission.
This is significant for Uranium-233 but it’s much more significant for Plutonium 239. It
will absorb a neutron about one-third of the time and not cause a fission. But in the fast
spectrum, it will almost always cause a fission. So, to make sure that we cross that Threshold
of Two, it was necessary to build fast reactors that would use Plutonium. On the other hand,
it was conceivable that you could build thermal or fast reactors that would use Uranium-233.
This uncertainty was not particularly appearing at the time. They wanted to move out in directions
that they felt very confident it. So, the United States began to pursue a fast breeder
reactor. In 1951, they build the experimental breeder reactor one in Idaho. This was a fast
breeder reactor. This was a reactor that was going to not slow down neutrons but use fast
neutrons to convert Uranium into Plutonium and to breed from it. This was actually the
first reactor to generate some power. It lit four little light bulbs and ultimately generated,
I believe several hundred kilowatts of power. But it shows how early the United States was
moving out on the fast breeder reactor. It was followed by the experimental breed reactor
number two, which was also a fast breeder reactor much larger this time. It made 62
megawatts of thermal power. Industry got excited about the potential for making breeder reactors.
This was actually a commercial reactor, The Enrico Fermi Breeder Reactor in Monroe Michigan.
They began working on this reactor in 1957 and it achieved criticality in 1966. But shortly
after it achieved criticality, they had a melt down at the Enrico Fermi Reactor where
the reactor was damaged and shut down. At this time, Alvin Weinberg and his colleagues
at the Oak Ridge National Labs were working on Molten-salt Reactors. These were reactors
that didn’t operate in the fast spectrum. They operate to slow down neutrons and they
predominantly were interested in using Thorium and Uranium-233. Weinberg wrote an introduction
to a series of papers that were published in a nuclear journal in 1969. And these are
some of the words that he used and I’ve always found it very interesting how careful and
measured he was with his utilization of language. Because he knew that most of the effort of
the country was on the fast breeder reactor and very little in comparison was on the Molten-Salt
Reactor. And he said, “The prevailing view holds that the liquid-metal fast breeder reactor
is the proper path to ubiquitous permanent energy. It is no secret that I, as well many
of my colleagues at Oak Ridge, have always felt differently. When the idea of the breeder
was first suggested in 1943, the rapid and the efficient recycle of the partially spec
core was regarded as the main problem. Nothing that has happened in the ensuing quarter century
has fundamentally changed this.” So, Weinberg begins to lay out the scenario that physics
hasn’t changed and unless you can rapidly reprocess nuclear fuel, you won’t be able
to realize the benefits of the breeder reactor. He then goes on to offer an alternative to
the prevailing view. The successful breeder will be the one that can deal with the spent
fuel or the spent core most rationally either by achieving extremely long burn up or by
greatly simplifying the entire recycle step. We at Oak Ridge, have always been intrigued
by this latter possibility. It explains our long commitment to liquid fuel reactors, first,
the Aqueous homogenous and now the Molten-salt. So, he presented a different scenario, how
they could use fluid field reactors to achieve the overall goal of the efficient utilization
of nuclear fuel. And the series of papers that followed in this were some of the first
discussions in the nuclear literature about the potential of the Molten-salt reactor.
It was not well-known. The moneys that had been appropriated in order to research the
different breeder reactor types are listed in this graph and I found this graph, thanks
to a book that had been scanned into Google books. Thanks. So, project started by my good
friend, Chris Eucare here, so I greatly appreciate–this is one of the many things I’m sure people
have done with your work. Numbers are one thing, so I took it and threw it in a spreadsheet
and made a nice graph. The red line shows the expenditures on the fast breeder reactor,
and this graph only begin to 1968. At that point, the United States had already built
several fast breeder reactors. We’re looking at 75 to nearly a hundred million dollars
in 1968. It’s very hard to see the green line for the Molten-salt breeder reactor technology,
it’s extremely low and then ultimately, it was cancelled and briefly resurrected in 1975
and then cancelled again. So, on a scale of the appropriations that were made to the fast
breeder reactor, you’ve just about can’t see the appropriations that were made to the Molten-salt
breeder reactor. In June of 1971, President Richard Nixon made a speech where he talked
about the need for the fast breeder reactor. He put the United States on record that this
would be a top national goal. Now, we don’t have any video from the speech he gave that
day. But later on in that day, he called Representative Craig Hosmer from California to tell him about
the speech about the breeder reactor.>>Yeah.
>>Calling for Craig Hosmer, sir. Ready?>>HOSMER: Oh.
>>NIXON: Okay.>>HOSMER: Mister President?
>>NIXON: Since you missed our meeting when we had–on a breeder reactor, you know…
>>HOSMER: Okay.>>NIXON: …I wanted you to know that we
sent a message today, Craig but then I just told Zigler that–I told Zigler to tell the
press that there’s a by part [INDISTINCT] that you and [INDISTINCT]
>>HOSMER: All right.>>NIXON: …had been bugged me about it.
The one thing I wanted to tell you too is that, I–Holified was there last night at
the [INDISTINCT] Club thing, and I–and I have told the people around here–now, this
is got to be something we play very close to the vest, but I’m being ruthless on one
thing, any activities that we possibly can, should be placed in southern California in
this field. And also, in the saline water field.
>>HOSMER: Correct.>>NIXON: You know, we need the jobs. We need
to sum up those air passed workers. Now, we got some–we’re going to do a couple of new
things on water for example, and I have decided to throw one big plant in southern California.
I mean, you know, a big one of these implementing it, if you know what I mean, is…
>>HOSMER: Right, right.>>NIXON: …it’s just a question how big
the plant is. But in this energy field, I told Dr. David and of course, Seaborg and
the rest that we do it. So, on the committee, everytime you have a chance, needle them,
say, “Where is this going to be?” Let’s push the California thing. Can you do that?
>>HOSMER: Incidentally, Mister President…>>NIXON: Yeah.
>>HOSMER: …I am so delighted that you released $16 million on the improvement if the enriching
complex. I bet that handles the bad…>>NIXON: Right.
>>HOSMER: …political problem for us.>>NIXON: Right. Good, good. Well, they told
me you were interested in it, and I said, “Well, if Hosmer is for it, I’m for it.”
>>SORENSEN: All right. Let’s pause there. You can tell just a little bit from listening
to Nixon’s words that, the fast breeder reactor was viewed by him and probably some others
in administration as something that they could use to economic advantage for the people of
southern California to get it. Nixon was from California, Hosman was from southern California,
Holifield, Chet Holified who ran the–joined the committee on atomic energy was also from
California. And I think some of the phrases in this–in this phone call is very interesting.
I’m going to be ruthless on this. We’ve got to play this very close to the vest. It’s
about jobs, if you’re for it, and I’m for it. It doesn’t lead me to believe that the
President was seriously considering alternatives to the fast breeder reactor. Another past
that could’ve been taken. It was focused on what can we do right now to get jobs back
home to the–the folks are going to support us in re-election. Well a few months later,
Nixon was at Hanford, Washington which is the side of many of our nations earliest nuclear
energy facilities. And he was also giving a talk on the significance of the breeder
reactor. And again, note the economic potential that he puts in front of people during his
talk.>>NIXON: That is why I made an announcement
on June the 4th, one that didn’t get of course the enormous publicity of the announcement
of the journey to China, one that didn’t get the publicity of my announcement of the economic
policy to deal with the problems of inflation and unemployment in this country. But one
which in terms of the future of the country maybe in long term, long range terms even
more important in some respects and that is, at the United States was going to go forward
in building a breeder reactor. Now, don’t ask me what a breeder reactor is, ask Dr.
Slazenger, but don’t tell, I’m not to tell you because unless you’re one of those PHDs,
you won’t understand it either. But what I do know is this, that here we have the potentiality
of holding a new breakthrough and the development of power for peace, and that means jobs, jobs
for this area but jobs and power for hundreds from millions of people all over the world.
>>SORENSEN: Jobs, job is what it was all about. And this area that Nixon was talking
to in Hanford, Washington, this was a very well-educated area. A lot of the people in
the back in there probably had PHDs in nuclear engineering and knew exactly what a breeder
reactor was. But Nixon was emphasizing the economic benefits to them of his announcement
that there was going to be a breeder reactor.>>NIXON: All of this business about breeder
reactors and nuclear energy and the stuff is over my–that was one of my poorest subjects,
Science and I got through it, but I had to work too hard. I gave it up when I was about
a sophomore.>>SORENSEN: Well, maybe it might have benefited
our country a little more if Nixon had been able to ascertain the different values of
different types of a breeder reactors and why one might have an advantage over another.
But nevertheless, the US was now firmly on the course of making the breeder reactor,
a national priority. Nixon emphasized it in his State of the Union Speech. He then emphasized
it in another message to congress, the democratic and republic in party platforms in 1972 both
included the fast breeder reactor as a national priority. Now, this is about the time when
Weinberg’s story with the Molten-salt reactor begins to intersect this much larger story
of the breeder reactor and the congressional support behind it as well as the presidential
support. Testimony given in September of 1972, they noted that the US government would be
expected to cover cost overruns on the breeder reactor and the development cost would go
over $700,000,000. At this point, industry had already committed $200,000,000 then your
dollars to the breeder reactor effort. Representative Craig Hosmer, who was the fellow on the phone
call that we heard earlier, said that “If cost targets were missed, I for one don’t
intend to scream and holler about it.” It’s not hard to see that they could see great
economic benefits occurring to their area of the country if the breeder reactor program
was to go forward. In that same month, the atomic energy commission issued WASH 1222,
which was an evaluation of Weinberg’s Molten-salt breeder reactor. It was highly critical of
several technological issues that had been encountered during the development of that
idea, more importantly though, it almost completely ignored the safety and economic improvements
possible through the use of the Molten-salt breeder reactor technology. Weinberg himself
had a meeting which Chet Holified and Milton Shaw of the Atomic energy commission in 1972.
We don’t know exactly when this meeting took place. Our only record of it is contained
in Weinberg’s book, his autobiography, The First Nuclear. Here’s what he said, “I found
myself increasingly at odd with the reactor to the vision of the Atomic energy commission.
The director at the time was Milton Shaw. Milt was cut from the Rickover cloth, he had
a singleness of purpose and was prepared to bend the rules and regulations in achievement
of his goal.” Why would he feel this pressure if he has the president and these congressional
folks pushing for the fast breeder reactor? “At the time, he became director, the atomic
energy commission had made the liquid-metal fast breeder reactor, the primary goal of
it’s reactor program. Milt tackled the LMFBR project with Rickoverian dedication: woe unto
any who stood in his way. This caused problems for me since I was still espousing the Molten-salt
breeder.” Milt was like a bull, he enjoyed congressional confidence so his position in
the AEC was unassailable. And it was clear that he had little confidence in me or Oak
Ridge. After all, we were pushing Molten-salt not the fast breeder, more than that, we were
being troublesome over the question of reactor safety. And that was another aspect that was
getting Weinberg into trouble. He had invented the pressurized light water reactor that formed
the backbone of the reactor technologies that were being developed in the country at that
time. Here’s a picture of some of the pressurized water reactors. His work on the Thorium reactor
led him to believe that a significantly higher level of safety was possible. And this–in
large part was because the Thorium reactor operated low pressures whereas, water-cooled
reactors operated the high pressures. So, he was beginning to bring these issues up
in support of the Thorium reactor, but it didn’t have that effect. Congressman Chet
Hollifield was clearly exasperated with me and he finally blurted out, “Alvin, if you’re
so concerned about the safety reactors, then I think it might be time for you to leave
nuclear energy.” But I was speechless, but it was apparent to me that my style, my attitude
and my perception of future were no longer in tune with the powers within the AEC. And
I think this was a very sad moment in the history of our country and probably in the
history of the world because an entire direction of potential development was being ended at
that moment by a not well thought out comment by Congressman Holifield, who was very powerful.
Weinberg looked at this fairly philosophically when he wrote his autobiography in 1994. And
He said, “I look back in these events, I realize that leaving Oak Ridge was the best thing
that could have happened to me. My views about nuclear energy were at variance with those
of the AEC congressional leadership. After all, it was I who had called nuclear energy
a Faustian bargain, who continued to promote the molten-salt breeder. So, Weinberg’s pursuit
of Thorium appears to have had a great deal to do with why he was fired from his position
at Oak Ridge in the atomic energy commission. And it’s not hard to see when you stack up
the forces that weren’t supportive of the fast breeder and that effort, the money, the
industrial backing, the confidence they had and here is Weinberg trying to push something
different, why they would attempt to truncate his work. The [INDISTINCT] that was in January
of 1973, Oak Ridge was directed by the atomic energy commission to terminate the development
of the molten-salt reactor. April of that year, Nixon went into reiterate his commitment
to the fast breeder, saying it would extract 30 times more energy from Uranium than light
water reactors and it was highest priority target for nuclear resear and development.
We weren’t the only ones pursuing the fast breeder reactor. In August 1973, the Phenix
reactor in France achieved critically. So, we had real competition in this area and I
think it had something to do with the zeal the United States felt to become preeminent
in this field. But then something else happened in 1973 that was far more significant. The
Yom Kippur war started, it led to the OPEC oil Embargo. Suddenly, the United States,
their supply of oil was cut back tremendously. There were long lines, gas stations, people
were having to alternate days when they could buy gas, people were–somebody’s not able
to get to work, enormous amount of economic activity which truncated. Nixon felt great
pressure so, he announced project independence which was a plan to make the United States
energy independent by 1980. This involved building many fast breeder reactors, many
conventional reactors, new oil drilling, new refineries, new coalmines, all kinds of things
to make the United States independent in energy supply. He promoted these in talks before
congress but then in March of 1974, the oil Embargo ended and pressure reduced to implement
project independence. But something else happened that was very significant in 1974. India detonated
a nuclear weapon that had been built from Plutonium separated from natural Uranium and
a heavy water reactor. This was a very significant event in the history of how the United States
approached nuclear power because they became quite fearful, the Plutonium that could be
separated from Uranium in reprocessing facilities would be able to be used in a nuclear weapon.
And there are many arguments why that is not feasible in conventional light water nuclear
reactors, but there are also other arguments on how changes on how you would put fuel through
a reactor could lead to, so called Weapons Grade Plutonium, rather than what we call,
Reactor Grade Plutonium which is not suitable for nuclear weapons. The entire fast breeder
program was partially built on the assumption that separated Plutonium would be available
from the light water reactors that we had already built. If we were able to take that
Plutonium out, we would be able to start these fast breeder reactors because they required
significantly more nuclear fuel to turn them on than a light water reactor did. And that
had to do with those relative cross-sections I showed, how big the Plutonium cross-section
was in the thermal reactor versus how small it was in the fast reactor. That’s why it
takes so much more fuel to start a fast breeder reactor for the same electrical power rating
than a thermal reactor. Nixon resigned in 1974 and Gerald Ford became the President.
He put some changes in place for the atomic energy commission, splitting it into two new
divisions, the nuclear regulatory commission and the energy research and development administration
which would go on to become the DOE. The joint congressional committee in atomic energy lead
by Chet Holifield was abolished, the balance of power which changed when Ford came in,
in 1974 and made these changes to the AEC and to the congressional committee. But Ford
still supported the fast breeder reactor. He mentioned it in several of his speeches
including in State of the Union Address. He increased funding for RND for the fast breeder
reactor. And he highlighted how the fast breeder reactor could be used to extend Uranium resources
for centuries. As the 1976 election approached though, it was very close between Jimmy Carter
and Gerald Ford. Jimmy Carter wanted Uranium reprocessing to be abolished. He did not want
it to take place. Only about a week before the election, on October 28th, 1976, Ford
took Carter’s position. He said, “We are not going to reprocess Uranium anymore. We’re
not going to separate Plutonium,” and he highlighted the risk of proliferation as one of the main
reasons why he was making this decision. But it’s almost certain that pressure from Carter
and an attempt to improve his potential to win the 1976s election had to have something
to do with it. At that time, the proposal was to build another fast breeder reactor.
This time in Tennessee, very close to Oak Ridge on the Clinch River, so this was the
proposal that was before the nation as Jimmy Carter became the President in 1977. And Carter
was not a supporter of this fast breeder reactor. He considered that the fast breeder reactor
and its concentration had something to do with the lack of technology development and
solar energy. He blamed the focus that had been on the fast breeder reactor. He called
our society a Plutonium society that would use the fast breeder reactor. In April, he
reiterated Ford’s ban on reprocessing. So, not too much of a surprise, Ford had basically
assumed Carter’s position, Carter’s says, “Yes, we will continue that as National Policy.”
He also calls for a cut back and funding for the Clinch River breeder reactor. However,
he announced a new energy plan, focused less on petroleum and more on coal. He said, “There’s
no need to enter the Plutonium age by licensing or building a fast breeder reactor such as
the proposed demonstration plan at Clinch River.” And again, he blamed the emphasis
on the breeder reactor for slow progress made in the progress of solar power. Surprisingly,
Carter knew a thing or two about Thorium. And the reason he did is because at this time,
Admiral Rickover was working with his neighbor reactors branch to load a Thorium Dioxide
Uranium-233 Dioxide core into the shipping port reactor. Carter was able to turn the
switch that turned the first and only Thorium breeder reactor in US history on. Several
times he mentioned how–we wanted to try other approaches to breeder reactors than Plutonium,
specifically light water breeder reactors using Uranium. But then, a meltdown happened
a Three Mile Island, public confidence in nuclear energy in particular the light water
reactor really went down. Even after Ronald Reagan was elected and lifted the ban on commercial
reprocessing, no reprocessing plans were built. In 1982, the shipping port reactor which had
been running for five years at this point on the Thorium, Uranium-233 core were shut
down. And when they examined the fuel, they found that there was 1% more fuel in the reactor
than there was when they started. This proved finally a Thorium breeder reactor was possible
in a thermal spectrum. It had actually been done. It wasn’t a Thorium molten-salt reactor,
but it was a true Thorium breeder reactor. Another consequence of the decision not to
reprocess nuclear fuel meant that we had to have a new strategy for the long-term disposal
of Plutonium. Previously had been assumed that Plutonium from light water reactors would
be sent to fast breeder reactors but without that, we need to know what to do. And so President
Reagan sign in the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, which continues to be the law of the land
till this day, and led to things like the [INDISTINCT] repository. The funding that
went into the fast breeder reactor surprisingly peaked even after the United States had made
the decision not to continue with reprocessing. And even under the Carter years, from 1976
to 1980, you can see funding levels for the fast breeder were very high. So, this was
a reactor type that dominated the long range planning of the United States for many, many
years. The atomic energy commission saw Plutonium as a sure bet in the fast breeder. It could
cross the Threshold of Two. There wasn’t uncertainty there. There was a degree of uncertainty with
Thorium. They invested early and heavily in the fast breeder reactor, despite failures
and meltdowns, and industry got involved with hundreds of millions of dollars of investment.
In 1971 Nixon, made this the US strategy, how are we going to go forward? It was going
to be based around the fast breeder, and shortly thereafter, Weinberg was fired and the molten-salt
reactor program was cancelled. Before it cancelled the fuel processing program and Carter extended
that ban, without fuel reprocessing, the fast breeder was not a viable candidate anymore.
And nobody as far as we know in DC ever revisited the question of, “Was it a mistake to cancel
the molten-salt reactor effort?” Should we have gone back and said, “You know, now that
we’re not going to do the fast breeder, maybe we should’ve done the molten-salt breeder
reactor.” In all of my studies, I have not been able to find any indication that, that
ever took place, that there was a true revisiting of that decision to shut down and a rethinking.
The team that worked on this at Oak Ridge disbanded and dispersed. And over the decades
that fall the notch was totally forgotten. So now, here we are in 2011 asking, “Why is
now the right time for the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor, which is the modern form
of the Thorium molten-salt reactor originally proposed?” We know that we need much more
energy at much lower prices. And we have to do this with a much lower impact on the earth’s
environment. We know that we’re facing severe challenges from global climate change, melting
of glaciers, rising sea levels, changing weather patterns. We need to reduce the amount of
carbon dioxide we’re putting into the atmosphere dramatically. There’s tremendous uncertainty
amongst the public about nuclear power because of the events of Akushima Daichi, even though
no one was killed there. The coverage and the tone that it took has made people question
the safety of nuclear power, primarily the light water reactor to be able to have a different
technology that doesn’t have some of the risks of operating high pressure fluids and reactors
that have the capability to have meltdowns. It’s significant. Our alternatives in the
form of fossil fuel caused tremendous environmental degradation, not just in mining and processing,
but also to our atmosphere, transporting these fuels. It’s not cheap to build electrical
power transmission lines either. So, even if we wanted to build renewable energy sources
dispersed in a wide variety of places, they would face challenges in order to get transmission
lines built from here to there. To give you an idea of just some of the things we do in
our high-tech online society today, this is a picture of a data center for Facebook that
has been built just a hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle in Sweden. It consumes
a hundred and twenty megawatts of hydro power, has 14 backup diesel generators to provide
40 megawatts of emergency power. It costs $760,000,000. This is one of the largest solar
installations in the world. It’s sited on a hundred and eighty-five hectares of land.
It provides 20 megawatts of peak energy for 15 hours a day at $420,000,000, or about $33
a watt. That’s six to seven times what it cost to put other power transmission in. So,
this is in Spain and the data center is in Sweden. So, here is an example of a customer
that has a dense power demand that wants continuous power, no interruptions and it’s in frozen
Sweden and here is a diffused power supply in Spain. So, to run this building of those
solar power systems, we’ll need at least six, but we need more because these plants can
only provide power for 15 hours a day. So, we’ll need probably 10 or more of these sites
to run one of these data centers. Plus, we’ll need intercontinental transmission lines to
get power from a place like Spain, that’s nice and sunny, to a place like Sweden that’s
frozen. Is this what’s going to happen? Probably not, probably what will happen is something
more like this, where a dense power supply in the form of coal. This is the prettiest
coal plant I’ve ever seen in my life. This is in Germany. But it provides 1600 megawatts
of continuous power by burning lignite coal. Look at that, we could run 13 of those data
centers with one of these coal plants. Sounds great right? Well unless you’re the environment.
If we try to use expensive intermittent and alternative energy, it’s not going to be the
answer. Most populations, most people on earth can’t afford unsubsidized alternative energy.
It’s just too expensive. What they’ll go towards is cheap, reliable, dirty energy. That’s not
a viable answer for the world either. But it’s the one that will be taken because most
people don’t have alternatives. We believe natural, inexpensive, and abundant Thorium
is the answer. This is the material that is dense enough and reliable enough to provide
the energy that the world needs, but the machine to make it work is the key. Why molten-salt?
Because molten-salt is the only one of the four potential coolants in the reactor that
can run at both high temperature and low pressure. It also has a remarkable feature because of
the properties of molten-salt. In the event of an emergency, the fuel could be drained
into a passively safe, passively cool configuration. This is something that you can’t do with a
solid-fueled reactor. Finally, the advantages of the molten-salt reactor are significant,
inherent passive safety through having fluid fuel and operating at low pressure. You can
operate at high temperatures, which means you can get high thermodynamic efficiencies.
Your fuel preparation costs are very low and there’s no fuel fabrication cost. Fluorides
also tried to be an excellent chemistry match with Uranium Thorium Fuel Cycle. They’re chemically
stable and they’re impervious to radiation damage. That enables us to achieve unlimited
fuel burn up and continuous recycling of the material from core to blanket. Uranium-233
is highly unsuitable for weapons diversion because of contamination with Uranium-232.
And it’s easy to down blend it in an emergency. Now, we do have challenges. These salts could
be aggressive towards most metal construction materials. It requires special materials to
avoid being corroded by the salt. High temperature operation is also both a blessing and a challenge.
But I think the fact that the technology base is largely stagnated for 40 years is our single
greatest challenge towards going forward, and also the unknown nature of this within
the nuclear community. It’s very different than what we do today with water cooled Uranium
fueled reactors. They are the basis for today’s regulatory environment. And so, there will
be a great deal of education needed for this technology to go forward. But I think it has
great potential because of these attributes. And five energy aspires to be the world leader
in the design, development, and manufacture of these liquid fluoride Thorium reactors.
Thank you very much.

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100 thoughts on “The Thorium Molten-Salt Reactor: Why Didn’t This Happen (and why is now the right time?)

  1. Sounds to good to be true. Safer, no Plutonium or depleted Uranium byproducts to deal with so what's the rub? Obviously someone's ox is being gored by this technology and is preventing its implementation. I wonder who it is? All Nixon wanted was votes. Carter, besides being a peanut farmer, was a Nuclear propulsion officer on US Navy Submarines and knew a thing or 2 about the subject. Admiral Hyman Rickover was the driving factor behind Navy nuclear propulsion. Much back round information is needed for any of this to make any sense.

  2. Among the overlooked problems with thorium reactors – they require a uranium reactor to start a thorium reactor. So thorium reactors come with all of the risks and issues of a uranium reactor as well as the thorium reactor challenges that must be solved.

  3. He is looking at the world through government-colored lenses and should cease that. He spends much time on the story of how & why the government stopped its lab from working of LFTR (after having started it). He should rather say that the gov't worked on LFTR technology back when for a defense application and it worked well but the gov't exercised its prerogative to stop working on it. (Name-dropping and blame-assigning of Nixon, Rickover, Holifield, Ford, Carter, etc., is unnecessary.) It wasn't that the technology was bad; it just wasn't deemed the better fit for the government's primary responsibility, to provide national defense. Industry at the time was lazy or uninformed and just followed gov't's new technical direction rather than take the baton on LFTR. Now we (and other firms) want to take the baton on LFTR, this time with private funding. Knowing that he who pays the piper calls the tune, we want no gov't funding. Here's why we think we will make LFTR work well and be profitable. Here's what we plan to do. Please consider investing in us.

  4. Jugheaded arrogance. Unless and until we can get fusion technology up and running, atomic energy is just a long-term deal with the devil. One our descendants will ultimately have to write the check for.

    Check out The Emperor Wears no Clothes by Jack Herer for some other ideas on energy production. For as goofy as the cover of the book is, it is also one of the best cited books I have ever read. Any claim made has a citation to a published study.

  5. The main reason it didn't get put into use, there is no byproduct that can be used to make nuclear weapons.

  6. I keep envisioning molten salt, which has frozen in the pipes. OMG. At least it won't be contaminated with Tritium.

  7. So Nixon not only fucked up the space programme and war on drugs but he also destroyed our chances to combat global warming early???

  8. I used to think thorium reactors were a good idea. I still think they’re better than the light water breeder reactors in ubiquitous use today, but there’s a vastly superior technology that has already been proven: Integral Fast Reactors — killed by Democrats for purely political reasons. https://youtu.be/Sp1Xja6HlIU

    Everyone is shrieking and whipping up public hysteria about climate change, and the whole argument is senseless. Just replace all electrical power generation with IFRs, use the cheap, clean, safe, abundant energy to produce hydrogen to replace carbon-based fuel, and watch carbon emissions drop to essentially zero.

    So, it doesn’t matter whether carbon emissions are causing climate change or not. Just end them, and still have plenty of cheap, clean energy. End of climate change “crisis”…which explains why it won’t happen. Politicians need the phony crisis to make themselves seem important, and to grab more power to control people’s lives and freedom of choice.

  9. Nothing much has happened in the last 8 years that I know of. I heard that the Chinese were fooling around with it a little bit but nothing else.

  10. Kirk, your relentless advocacy for this technology has been heroic, and there are a ton of people who appreciate it, and want you to succeed in realizing this sane re-definition of a practical standard for safely utilizing the 'king of all fossil fuels'.

  11. After Trump was elected I sent him my first letter so that it would arrive at the WH on Jan 20, (Inauguration Day.) The letter had one word sprawled across a landscaped page in 110 point font. The single word was "THORIUM!" My second letter included 100 global problems that THORIUM could solve, #1 on the list, Global Warming #2 Hunger #3 Energy Independence, etc., etc., etc. Still hoping to hear back, probably after 2020 re-election when he won't need to answer to the oil barons.

  12. this guy is one of them fast talking city boys, always trying tosell me soemthin, they drive up in their convertibles really smily like and try to get me to sign sumpin. Now, if I were a college boy, with a sheepskin on my wall, a whatcha call it, with nuclear engineer or physicist degrease like I would have a smart ass or two up my sleeve but heck Im just a simple man. My daddy said son, just grow turnips and dont chase women and you'll do alright. But he was wrong.

  13. Where is an operating thorium reactor so we can do a Cost Benefit Analysis on it? .. Answer – No where. ..

  14. Solar/wind power not usable until such time we come up with a storage method that is not batteries. A modern coal power plant is super clean and safe.

  15. Molten salt is being developed in China now and the West has purposely ignored thorium only they are using solar energy to heat water.

  16. The dangers of fast breeder reactors are very scary and a scared public is more easily controlled (terrorism).

  17. Only problem with this is the WGW / CC claim at 30:34.
    The most important reason to move forward with LFTR is public safety .

  18. If you can remember a guy who ran microsoft he also founded a company called Terrapower. This is why Thorium will not happen in the next 100 year's.

  19. Maybe we can get it together in thorium development. It is above in every way except , giving the powers that be,who need the the by products for bombs and war. Let's move on with the intelligent way. Bravo-keep going forward!

  20. Nuclear Energy. Once something has become contaminated with radiation it has to be disposed of. UNTIL we come up with a way to safely dispose of contaminated equipment such as clothing, tools, walls, containers, water, metals of all shapes and sizes and the nuclear fuel itself, we cannot move forward into the future of nuclear energy. Oh sure, the government has built a subterainian containment tunnel but it will eventually contaminate the rock around it which will in turn move out in all directions. Those kind of contamination level events cannot be ignored so there has to be a new way in dealing with radioactive contamination. I have read an article that states that the radioactive process can be stopped with near absolute zero temperatures. But what can be done with it at that time? Or is this just another dead end study? We cannot allow this planet to become a nuclear wasteland unsuitable for life.

  21. You'd think China and Japan would be building Thorium power plants like crazy but not. I wonder why. It's probably a pipe dream.

  22. Very informative thank you.And clearly if we had put more effort into nuclear energy we would be better off because with competition things always proceed better and more efficient.Think on this is as much effort was put into reactor tech as cell phones we would be exploring mars by now because the tech aspects lead to all sorts of designs.

  23. Well simple, becasue google is an evil monster and anything it touches turns into a corrupt, degenerate pile of shit.

  24. Nuclear fission is the death sentence of our present day attempt at civilization. "Scientists" don't bother to tell you that they are dumping the radioactive waste (just like the Oil & Gas industry, Big chemical -Pharma, and military), into the Oceans, landfills, and atmosphere. We do not have a "climate change" problem, we do not have a "global warming" problem, we have a pollution problem. I am tired of the elaborate distractions, and the obvious lies coming out of the mouths of these pigs. Google? Do any of you know who this power mad uncle ray is?

  25. You either fell for the 'Climate Change' hoax, or you are complicit. You became another nobody at that point.

  26. PERFECT AS THORIUM IS A WASTE PRODUCT IN THE MAKING OF STEAL TO WIT MILLIONS OF TONS GOING INTO LANDFILL SITES, WHAT A REAL WASTE OF A VALUABLE RESOURCE …SCREW SOLAR ENERGY AND IS A SCAM 🤷‍♂️😳🤔😎🇺🇸🇺🇸🇺🇸

  27. Imagine a car that rusts so fast, it will rust to nothing just as you make the last payment. WOULD YOU BUY THAT CAR UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES? how about if it was really fast, comfortable, or maybe capable of hauling big loads? Still, it would have constant cost issues, and then trying to get rid of the contaminated equipment is a disaster in and of itself.

  28. Why would anyone invest billions of dollars in thorium?

    When for a few thousand dollar, you can purchase Solarpanels and have free energy for the rest of your life!

  29. Why would anyone invest billions of dollars in thorium?

    When for a few thousand dollar, you can purchase Solarpanels and have free energy for the rest of your life!

  30. Very sad – a scientis giving a talk does not even know the lie of global warming.

    Google "The IPCC Quietly Admits Defeat" and download/read the IPCC compiled reports which proves there has been no global warming. The UN even met to vote to consider if they would keep pushing the non-scientific agenda. The IPCC is the UN's own committee originally made to prove global warming as fact by data aquisition. It failed. Read it for yourself. The media pushes it still for the money it makes (think just how many people have to pay for an emissions test annually), and allows for more government controls on industry etc.
    Quit being suckered by nonsense science.

  31. Republicans want to Wage War, Democrats want a Third World Population, Zombies Don't Care… things have to change…
    Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors !!

  32. Nothing like playing to your audience. He's at Google so of course these MFR will save the planet from global warming. Utter nonsense of course unless it's your religion so even then I do not apologize, it's a false god.

  33. The reason there are no Thorium reactors or Thorium powered cars is that you need to put more energy in than you get out to make it work

  34. 8 years and not a thing done. Our dipshit politicians are too busy blabbering about empty russia conspiracies to use the trillions of dollars they steal from us for anything useful.

  35. fukushima, their were deaths. The area is costing billions to clean up, entire villages had to be evacuated and are still radiated. Not important? Tossed with the remark, "no deaths".

  36. I wouldn't believe anything google has to say about anything, their track record speaks for itself, pure b s.

  37. One thing in particular he said is that it is unsuitable for weapons production. You can’t make a bomb from it.

  38. Does anyone really need to tell you why this technology was abandoned by Big Power Companies. Your electric bill could be half what it is today.

  39. Molten salt is highly reactive if it is exposed to moisture. It also doesn't have a negative coefficient of reactivity, which makes it inherently unstable.
    The main reason MSBRs weren't pursued was primarily because of safety concerns and reliability.
    Thorium Breeder Reactors would be great, but it should be cooled by pressurized water, not molten salt.

  40. Thorium is a radioactive chemical element found in nature as thorium-232. It is found primarily in the rare earth mineral monazite but can also be found in euxenite and thorianite. Thorium is found more abundantly in the Earth's crust than uranium and only occurs naturally in an oxidized form.

    Monazite – It is often found in placer deposits. India, Madagascar, and South Africa have large deposits of monazite sands.

    Euxenite – It is found in many locations worldwide, notably its type locality in Jølster, Sunnfjord, Norway.[2] Other locations include the Ural Mountains of Russia; Sweden; Minas Gerais, Brazil; Ampangabe, Madagascar; Ontario, Canada; and in Arizona, Wyoming and Colorado in the US.[4]

    Thorianite – Usually found in alluvial deposits, beach sands heavy mineral placers and pegmatites.

    Sri Lanka – In stream gravels, Galle district, Southern Province; Balangoda district; near Kodrugala, Sabaragamuwa Province; and from a pegmatite in Bambarabotuwa area.

    India – Reported from beach sands of Travancore (Kerala).[15]

    Madagascar – Found in alluvial deposits of Betroka and Andolobe.[16] Also as very large crystals from Tôlanaro (Fort Dauphin); at Andranondambo and other localities.

    Russia – In black sands of a gold placer on Boshogoch River, Transbaikalia, Siberia; in the Kovdor Massif by Kovdor, Kola Peninsula; in the Yenisei Range, Siberia.

    United States – reported from Easton, Pennsylvania; black sands in Missouri River, near Helena, Montana; Scott River, Siskiyou County, California;[17] black sands in Nixon Fork and Wiseman districts, Alaska.[18][19]

    Canada – Reported with uraninite in a pegmatite on Charlebois Lake, east of Lake Athabasca;[20] Uranon variety reported from pegmatite and metesomatized zones in crystalline limestones from many locations in Quebec and Ontario.[21]

    South Africa – Occurs with baddeleyite as an accessory in carbonatite at Phalaborwa, Eastern Transvaal.[22]

    Democratic Republic of Congo – Kasaï region[23]

  41. It seems the molten salt reactors were rejected because they didn't produce weapons grade plutonium. Can any expert an historian comment. The point, was it more than just the economic potential for S CA?

  42. The DOE studies on thorium reactors state that the main route of fission by thorium reactors produces 1/4 the Plutonium of conventional Uranium fission per joule of power produced. Due to its high burnup capabilities, being re-cyclable maybe 100 times, the amount of plutonium per burnup is maybe 1/400th of conventional reactors per unit mass. The conflationary tactics of the nuclear industry are well in evidence with thorium marketing. Per JOULE, which is the only valid metric, 1/4 as much Plutonium is produced as with conventional plants. That waste, like all the other plutonium waste, is dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years. Other thorium routes exist and they produce some really nasty, high level waste.

  43. As smart as he is, he is embarrassingly ignorant of the IPCC "climate change" hoax.. I thought he was a scientist.

  44. And perhaps it would get more fluoride out of drinking water, since that's the commonly accepted disposal means of an unwanted industrial byproduct from the aluminum, fertilizer, and iron ore manufacturing process. Synergistic strategy.

  45. We should have gone 100% nuclear power decades ago. France is over 80% nuclear power plants. Zero carbon emissions, 4 to 10 times the electricity than coal. Only 3 major accidents, only Chernobyl had fatalities. 3 mile island was a maintenance issue and Fukushima was due to natural disaster.

    Fact Check: The “gas crunch” was never about OPEC and the Yom Kippur war. It was about oil refineries saving oil reserves for UNLEADED GASOLINE.

  46. Google's view on the law: If we can do it we do it despite what the law says!!!
    Google's view on people's privacy: People have no privacy!!!
    Google's business model is based on violating the privacy of the people!!!

  47. There is one simple reason we will keep uranium here maybe thorium for others. Plutonium is it, all else does not matter. Yea they want to give thorium to those they don't want refining uranium.

  48. Richard Nixon now runs hell. After a short conversation Adolp Hitler bowed the control of hell to Richard Nixon on principal alone.

  49. EXPOSURE TO GASSES FROM THE DECOMPOSITION OF FLUORIDE PRODUCTS IS DEADLY.

    ALSO: they put enough fluoride in the water already .. we dont need to poison the ground any more than it is now.

  50. I think the only reason this has not been done is because they cant figure out what to do with all of the toxic soup that is sitting in the nuclear plants right now. They probably will put it in our water supply like everything else. Those power plants were built for short term use, time has expired long ago to retire them. All of them leak.

  51. Explain the difference between a fast breeder reactor and a sodium reactor. Explain why there less waste in a thorium reactor. Make your case clear or your going no place.

  52. Lie Of Nuclear & Now the Nuclear Greed Killing ALL THE EARTH Nuclear LIE YOUR A LIE Now Japan 3 Nuclear Melt Downs Still Killing NO WAY BACK You ASS

  53. THIS IS WHERE THE PROPAGANDA STARTS IN THE SCHOOLS…Shit Head tell you that man-made nuclear isotopes mimic organic compounds…in our body…Cancer epidemic you've been lied too

  54. So Like I Know ITS A NUCLEAR END ONE WAY OR THE OTHER The Math Said So You Should try It 700tones Of Nuclear Wast @ Each Killing Unit Of 94 sites with multiple reactors… All the isotopes left over from the Bomb testing it's all still here leaking out into the environment…. An industry of built on lies & Greed Always fails & Kills ALL Your Cancer Comes

  55. I will give you one reason not this and why a deuterium FUSION Reactor. Watch this https://www.ted.com/talks/taylor_wilson_yup_i_built_a_nuclear_fusion_reactor?utm_campaign=tedspread&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=tedcomshare

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