The Clear Thinking Over Energy
Abundant Energy is Prosperity — Without Energy is Slavery!
How the federal government has destroyed free market energy production by blocking the advancement of safe, affordable nuclear energy.
A few questions to jump start your mind into clear thinking over energy:
- What is driving the choice of Middle-East oil over our own domestic sources?
- The environmentalists seem to hold more power than the rest of us.
- The federal government subsidizes solar, wind and other ridiculously expensive “alternative” energy sources.
- Why is nuclear energy looked upon as “evil” when not a single person has died from it in the United States?
- We are burning our food supply (corn) to make ethanol for gasoline additives, as it costs more to produce than the savings in energy it is supposed to give to gasoline.
Federal regulators have not allowed the United States to develop our plentiful petroleum resources. The Bakken reserves in Idaho could contain as much as a trillion barrels according to some studies. Off-shore drilling is highly regulated in many places, and shut-down in other areas of known reserves. We are restricted in the Gulf after the BP spill. But, Communist Red China has promised to work with Cuba and drill in our “back yard” while we idly sit back and watch.
What rights do the Executive Branch have to dictate in these matters where no powers exist?
There are other options. Thorium is a safe, abundant nuclear fuel.
What if there is another nuclear material besides Uranium that is safe, abundant and cannot be proliferated for use in weapons?
You most likely do not know much about Thorium, Element 90. I have some limited knowledge in this field, just enough to explain what you need to know in order to make my point how the government has totally screwed us by suppressing nuclear energy.
This subject may seem somewhat complicated. But, once you accept a few concepts about Neutron chain reactions causing heat and water temperature vs. pressure, understanding it is not that difficult.
- I will give the history that led to enriched Uranium-235 reactors becoming the standard.
- I will explain the major problems with the current Uranium-235 based nuclear power industry, including its risks.
- I will inform you about another nuclear fuel that is safe, abundant, clean and affordable.
After understanding the risks and negative issues associated with the current Uranium-235 based power plants, you will see the beauty of using Thorium. You will see the other advantages of Thorium reactors and wonder why our federal government has gone to such extreme measures to prevent nuclear power from advancing beyond a 1940’s technology.
1. The fundamental reason why enriched Uranium-235 reactors for power generation became the standard
The “High Pressure Light Water, Enriched Uranium-235 Reactor” is a byproduct of the weapons program from the Manhattan Project. Uranium power generation technology was “borrowed” from processes learned while developing the atomic bomb.
Natural Uranium contains two important isotopes, Uranium-235 and Uranium-238. Only Uranium-235 will “fissile”, or burn. However, for a chain reaction to occur and sustain itself, the raw Uranium must be enriched to increase the Uranium-235 component above 0.7% found in nature. Once the Uranium-235 concentration is high enough, free Neutrons from Uranium-235 can cascade through the material to split other atoms, and keep the chain going. The terminology is known as, being in a “critical mass state”, sustaining Neutron generation. Neutrons are the particles within the atom’s nucleus that produce the heat in a reactor.
Enrichment must produce 3-5% Uranium-235 concentration in order to be classified as a power plant grade fuel. Once the enrichment process has produced a fuel grade U-235 concentration, the fuel pile is functional, where one neutron will split apart nuclei in adjacent atoms to create two neutrons, these two make four, multiplying upwards, and “running away” if not controlled.
Becoming “critical” causes the biggest issue with High Pressure Light Water reactor design. The “critical mass state” must be tightly controlled. The critical state is necessary for Neutron generation to produce the heat that runs the turbines. If critical mass is not there, no heat is created for the turbines. Too many Neutrons, the fuel core goes into melt-down from overheating. The fundamental operation of a Uranium power plant lies in this extremely delicate “balancing act” of keeping the fuel core in a “critical mass” state for power generation, but not go “sub-critical”, and no power.
Uranium-235 enrichment is a very complex and costly process that requires the efforts of large governmental contractors to operate the enrichment facilities. All nuclear fuel sources are under control of the federal government.
Even though the enrichment process was very costly and time consuming, the process was known and understood. Therefore, this understanding is what drove the development of Uranium based reactors.
2. The problems with the Uranium-235 High Pressure Light Water nuclear power plant reactors
I am going to really simplify what must occur for a properly functioning Uranium reactor to operate and remain safe. Several basic things must occur to produce thermal heat to drive a turbine, and to kept the reactor fuel core from running away by becoming over critical:
- The fuel core of an Uranium reactor must be kept cooled in order to keep the core from melting down. This is accomplished by surrounding the fuel core with an extremely high pressurized water blanket.
- Water serves two very important functions. It takes the heat away from the fuel core. It also moderates the Neutron flow, slows them down into the “thermal range” for maximum heat generation as they find other Uranium-235 ready to be split. “Fast” Neutrons do not have the same statistical opportunity to split another Uranium-235 as Neutrons that are “slowed down”. One must remember that Neutrons are the source of a reactor’s heat. And, they are what splits other Uranium-235 atoms, keeping the chain going.
- The reactor must maintain the proper placement of the “control rods” in the fuel core in order to adjust Neutron adsorption. Neutron adsorption regulates the level of the chain reaction, and therefore controlling the heat generated within the fuel core. The control rods are the mechanism to shut-down the reactor.
- A very heavily constructed containment vessel must be built to contain the fuel core and the water blanket at an extremely high pressure of 200 atmospheres. High pressure keeps the water from boiling off. This super heated water transfers heat away from the fuel core to the secondary heat exchanger for making clean, safe steam to drive the turbines that generates the electricity.
Because water boils at 212 degrees, it must be pressurized at 200 atmospheres in order to transfer the extreme quantities of heat away from the fuel core without flashing to steam. A very heavily constructed “containment vessel”, designed to operate at pressures of 200 atmospheres is necessary to contain the high pressurized super-hot water, thus keeping the water in a liquid state. Several backup cooling systems are in place in case the plant itself looses the ability to control cooling. Other backup systems are in place to make sure the “control rods” are inserted into the fuel core to stop the neutron flow.
A major concern with the light water nuclear plant focuses on what to do with the fuel waste products. It takes a degree in nuclear chemistry to explain what happens at the end of the enriched U-235 burn out. For simplicity, let’s just say that the interaction of the Neutrons with the fuel core material causes a transmutation into dangerous waste products that have extremely long half-lives which must be safely stored away.
Finally, all nuclear power plants require many acres of real-estate to house the elaborate containment vessel and to house the very large cooling towers. They require access to lots of water to remove the waste heat for cooling and recycling the spent steam from the turbines. Nobody wants these plants in their back yard! The fear of nuclear contamination if the plant ever blew up makes it difficult to find a suitable site to build the plant.
3. Let’s talk about Thorium, and how it solves many of the problems over using Uranium that I have described above.
- First, I will begin with a little history in the research on Thorium as a material in a nuclear reactor.
- Then I will focus on the politics of 1970’s.
- Finally, I will describe the technical and safety advantages in making a case for Thorium
Oak Ridge National Laboratories in the early 1950’s actually built a working Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor which they tested for six years. The physics and the chemistry were proven.
The scientists at Oak Ridge understood the negative issues using enriched U-235 as a fuel. However, there were two diverse directions at play. Some were pushing for the development of what is called the “fast breeder reactor”. A smaller group was advocating the Thorium reactor design based on liquid salts as a coolant instead of a high pressure water vessel.
The fast breeder reactor gained favor because it had the ability to take the nuclear waste from the “spent fuel” stockpiles and burn it as fuel. This is what they advocated and sold to the powers at the top, in particular President Richard Nixon. The first prototype plant was to be built in California, Nixon’s home state. Politics dominated the science in the final decision.
The Thorium project was dropped and forgotten. All funds went to build the fast breeder reactor. With all the fuss over the fast breeder reactor, it has gone nowhere. It experienced a meltdown in the first plant. Other proposed plants were cancelled by Congress. The Three Mile Island accident, plus pressure from the environmental movement has made the construction of nuclear power plants too expensive with too many regulations, taking too long to build.
So, here we are today. The government’s choice of Fast Breeder Reactor technology now dead in the water since 1978. The Thorium project shutdown and forgotten. We are still operating the old plants from a 60 year old design. This is another example of Unclear Thinking from central planners.
The technical case for Thorium as a nuclear fuel
How does the Thorium reactor differ from Uranium?
- Instead of using high pressure water as a moderator to slow down the neutrons into the thermal mode, the Thorium design uses liquid fluoride salt as a coolant and moderator to slow down the neutrons into the thermal region.
- Because liquid fluoride has a much higher temperature range than water (700 – 1000C), a Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) can operate at normal room pressures.
- Because the liquid fluoride salts operate at such higher temperatures, it is possible to use a gas turbine instead of a steam driven turbine. No large cooling towers are needed to cool down the turbine gas.
- No fuel fabrication costs are needed for Thorium vs. complex and expensive enrichment needed for Uranium.
- Thorium is much more plentiful than Uranium. It is estimated that 10,000 years of known Thorium supplies exist world-wide. It is everywhere.
- Fluoride salts are chemically stable and impervious to radiation damage.
- Because no containment vessel or cooling towers are needed, a Thorium LFTR plant can be scaled down to fit into a something as small as a shipping container. These can be placed anywhere to eliminate the need for power line distribution.
- The Thorium reactor has the potential to burn existing nuclear wastes from Light Water Uranium Reactors.
- Thorium, unlike a U-235 fueled core, almost completely burns thereby leaving very small amounts of dangerous radioactive byproducts with a half-life of 300 years vs. Uranium waste lasting 10,000 years
- The excess heat from the LFTR Thorium reactor can be used to create Hydrogen for use in Hydrogen fuel cell cars. This Hydrogen, plus the CO2 in the air can be used to make diesel fuel. This waste heat can also be used to desalinate sea water.
Two Major points in the Thorium vs. Uranium discussion
- For safety concerns with a Uranium reactor, it takes much engineering effort to control the operation of a High Pressure Light Water Enriched reactor in order to keep it safe from running away into melt-down. This type of reactor is not something you can walk away from without disastrous results. The design of this reactor is to ensure all safety measures work to prevent a disaster. If the safety measures fail, the reactor blows up. Uranium power plants take constant care to prevent a disastrous blow-up.
- With a Thorium reactor, safety concerns are completely opposite from a Uranium reactor. It takes an engineering effort to keep a Thorium reactor continuing to operate, as it has no tendency to “run away”. It is likely to just shutdown on its own if you walk away from it. The design is to keep it working. Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor power plants take constant care to keep them running.
Bullet Points to Favor Thorium
- It is safe. It cannot blow up!
- It is scalable down to a shipping container size, allowing it to be placed anywhere
- It “fizzles”, or burn up 90% of its fuel supply, leaving little dangerous radioactive waste
- Waste material can be used for medicine and other usage
- Thorium reserves are unlimited and everywhere. We will never run out
- It has the potential to burn existing Uranium waste stockpiles
- Waste heat can be used to create Hydrogen and diesel for cars, and desalinate sea water
- Electricity from Thorium will be cheaper than coal
- Thorium based power plants create no greenhouse gases for those who care
Footnote: Two of the biggest corporations in the United States have exclusive rights to make Uranium fuel pellets in refueling the Uranium reactors (General Electric and Westinghouse). Lobbying pressure is exerted to keep these old style reactors as the primary source for nuclear power.