While Chris and I attend to making our wives/mothers feel sufficiently celebrated today, here's an interview from the archives that is well worth revisiting. We plan to have Kirk back on in 2014 to inform us of any notable developments in the LFTR space since this interview was recorded.
Kirk Sorensen, NASA-trained engineer, is a man on a mission to open minds to the tremendous promise that thorium, a near-valueless element in today's marketplace, may offer in meeting future world energy demand.
Compared to Uranium-238-based nuclear reactors currently in use today, a liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LTFR) would be:
- Much safer – No risk of environmental radiation contamination or plant explosion (e.g., Chernobyl, Fukushima, Three Mile Island)
- Much more efficient at producing energy – Over 90% of the input fuel would be tapped for energy, vs. <1% in today's reactors
- Less waste-generating – Most of the radioactive by-products would take days/weeks to degrade to safe levels, vs. decades/centuries
- Much cheaper – Reactor footprints and infrastructure would be much smaller and could be constructed in modular fashion
- More plentiful – LFTR reactors do not need to be located next to large water supplies, as current plants do
- Less controversial – The byproducts of the thorium reaction are pretty useless for weaponization
- Longer-lived – Thorium is much more plentiful than uranium and is treated as valueless today. There is virtually no danger of running out of it given LFTR plant efficiency
Most of the know-how and technology to build and maintain LFTR reactors exists today. If made a priority, the U.S. could have its first fully-operational LFTR plant running at commercial scale in under a decade.
But no such LFTR plants are in development. In fact, the U.S. shut down its work on thorium-based energy production decades ago and has not invested materially in related research since then.
Staring at the looming energy cliff ahead, created by Peak Oil, LFTR begs the question – why not?
As best Kirk can tell, we are not pursuing thorium's potential today because we are choosing not to. We are too wedded to the U-238 path that we've been investing in for decades. Indeed, the grants that funded the government's thorium research in the 50s and 60s were primarily focused on weapons development, not new energy sources. Once our attention turned to nuclear energy, we simply applied the uranium-based know-how that we developed from our atomic bomb program rather than asking is there a better way?
This is an excellent and thought-provoking interview. I highly recommend that you also visit Kirk's website and its FAQs to familiarize yourself with the thorium cycle, as I predict we will be revisiting the thorium story again in the future.
Also, we encourage our readers with engineering and nuclear expertise to share their insights in the Comments thread below. We are looking for ways to light the path ahead as we begin to descend down the global energy cliff. Will thorium shine brightly for us?
Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Kirk Sorensen (36m:02s):
Chris Martenson: Welcome to another Peak Prosperity Podcast. I am your host, Chris Martenson. Well, here it is – it's July 2012 and the world faces the prospect of an extremely poor harvest due to droughts in the US, other weather disturbances across the globe… Global coal consumption continues to increase with every passing day, as two new coal-fired electricity plants are brought on line each week. And as the limitations and expense of solar wind and conventional nuclear technologies are illuminated, perhaps it's time to try something new.
Now, as I have said at many points in my writing, presentations, and my book – we don’t really need any new technologies to be discovered. There are in many cases, solutions already on the shelf, that we simply have to get serious about adopting. Now there is one technology up on a shelf that we can take down, dust off, and perhaps give a try – first tried experimentally back in the 1960s. The idea centers on using nuclear materials in a liquid fluoride salt form, instead of a solid form, and specifically using thorium in that fuel cycle.
Today, we’re talking with Kirk Sorenson, a leading proponent for liquid fluoride thorium reactors (LFTR technology) and co-founder of Flibe Energy, dedicated to developing a thorium-based reactor. Now Kirk has been studying thorium technology since 2000 and operates the website www.energyfromthorium.com. Welcome, Kirk.
Kirk Sorenson: Thanks a lot, Chris. I really appreciate the opportunity to be here today.
Chris Martenson: Great. Well, I have certainly received a lot of requests to investigate thorium reactors over the past couple of years and to talk with you in particular. So before we get started on that, can you tell the listeners a little bit about yourself? Your background, your training, your current position?
Kirk Sorenson: Sure, my training is in engineering. I am an aerospace engineer and I have a master’s degree from Georgia Tech. I am working (almost done) on another master’s degree in nuclear engineering from the University of Tennessee. I spent ten years with NASA doing technology development in the Marshall Space Flight Center. Then a year with Teledyne Brown Engineering here in Huntsville, as their chief nuclear technologist, and then last year, with my co-founder Kirk Dorius, started Flibe Energy to develop and commercialize LFTR [liquid fluoride thorium reactor] technology.
Chris Martenson: Oh, fantastic, so this LFTR technology – let’s dive right in. First of all, what are the key problems that we are trying to solve here in the energy space, as you see them?
Kirk Sorenson: We need to drastically reduce the costs of energy generation, while at the same time dramatically expanding its availability to the world. And the number of energy sources that are capable of doing that are really, really few and far between. And then when you whittle it down even further to having energy sources that are dispatchable and reliable, the list gets really short.
To me, it becomes clear that we have to access the energy of the nucleus if we want to have dense, low-carbon, reliable energy. And then the question becomes, what path do you want to take? Do you want to take fission or fusions? I think a lot of people, including myself, were initially enamored with fusion, but found reasons to realize that it was going to stay on the horizon for a long, long time.
Then I, through a series of accidents, learned about a totally different form of nuclear fission power based on thorium that, as you had mentioned, had been substantially investigated in the 50s and 60s by (in my opinion) some of the most brilliant minds in the world and rejected for reasons that I don’t think stand up to scrutiny today. Reasons that were largely political and not technical in nature. So that is why for years I wondered, “Why aren’t we doing this?”
But I was in NASA doing aerospace workm and it just sort of sat on the side until I started that website and began to engage a more global community in this discussion. One thing led to anotherm and it became clear that I needed to be a part of making this happen. And that is why the move to start Flibe Energy last year.
Chris Martenson: Well, great. Let’s start right at the beginning – thorium, now it's an element. It's right there on the periodic table. It's different from uranium, obviously, and we use uranium in how many… maybe 450 nuclear plants worldwide at this point in time. It's a fission-based reaction. What is it about the thorium fuel cycle – first of all, how does thorium get used in the fuel cycle; second of all what advantages does it have over uranium?
Kirk Sorenson: Those are the best questions. The way thorium is used – uranium has two isotopes, one of which is fissile and the other of which is fertile – means it can become fuel, but isn’t fuel initially. Thorium only has only one really naturally occurring isotope and it's fertile. So you need some fissile material with which to start the reaction. But what happens is that the neutrons bombard thorium, and the thorium nucleus absorbs the neutron and turns into Uranium 233, which is fissile – it is a fissile material. And that is really where the magic happens. When Uranium 233 fissions, it gives off enough neutrons to continue the conversion of new thorium into fuel and existing U233 into energy through fission. I know that probably sounds like a mouthful. But this is really where the magic is. It's the only nuclear isotope that does this, in what is called a thermal spectrum reactor. That’s what different about thorium and uranium. It gives off enough neutrons to continue its consumption.
The analogy that I have heard used before – it's kind of like when you go camping and there is wet wood and there is dry wood. You can start the fire with dry wood, and if you get the fire hot enough, you can even burn the wet wood. Thorium and Uranium 238 are both like the wet wood – if you dry them out to the form of turning them into fission material, then you can burn them for energy. But only thorium can do this in a thermal spectrum reactor. Then the basic question – what is a thermal spectrum reactor and why should I care?
All of our reactors today are thermal spectrum reactors. And what that means is that they slow down their neutrons and it makes them much more – they are able to get a lot more energy per unit of fission material and they are a lot easier to control. That’s why we do it that way. Some people have talked about fast spectrum reactors. That’s the way that you can potentially consume uranium more efficiently, but it's the only way you can consume uranium more efficiently. Thorium can be consumed efficiently in a thermal spectrum reactor. So that’s thorium’s basic fundamental advantage over uranium – the ability to be consumed completely in a thermal spectrum reactor.
Chris Martenson: So it's being consumed, and it's going through this process where ultimately it's getting converted into U233, which is then ultimately completing the cycle and renewing as it goes around. So is that roughly right?
Kirk Sorenson: Yes. One way to think of it and this isn’t rigorously accurate, but Uranium 233 is almost like a nuclear catalyst for burning thorium. Because as you burn the U233, you give off enough neutrons to make new U233 from thorium – all U233 comes from thorium.
Chris Martenson: Right, so let’s contrast this with a conventional nuclear reactor – the Fukushima one, which is obviously giving the world a lesson in the dangers of nuclear technology. So this is a solid fuel reactor – they have these solid pellets that are created out of a mixed oxide. They are clad in this zircaloy sheeting to make these rods. In that process, how much of that nuclear fuel is actually consumed, and how much becomes waste?
Kirk Sorenson: From the original uranium ore that you mined out of the ground, you are only consuming about half of 1% of the energy there. And that’s not happening because we are stupid; it's happening because there is a basic limitation. In a thermal spectrum reactor, you can’t make more plutonium from Uranium 238 than you consume – it's just not possible, because plutonium, when it fissions, does not give off enough neutrons to continue the conversion reaction. That is the basic saline difference between it and thorium. In order to get plutonium to perform better, you have to go to a fast spectrum reactor, and that’s what the nuclear industry has been dreaming of for 50 years, but really hasn’t happened, because there are some substantial disadvantages of taking that approach. So thorium’s advantage is that it can be used sustainably in a thermal spectrum reactor.
Chris Martenson: All right, so when we are burning – getting maybe half of 1% of the energy out of the solid fuel reactors, the rest presumably becomes a byproduct waste –
Kirk Sorenson: Yeah.
Chris Martenson: …that you have to deal with, right? You store it as pools and figure out – well, we don’t actually have a plan for it at this point, as far as I can tell.
Kirk Sorenson: We don’t, and let me split it in two waste streams – in the enrichment process where uranium is rich in the first place, five parts out of six of uranium become waste. That is where depleted uranium comes from. That is the uranium where you decrease the amount of Uranium 235 – so right off the bat, there is an 85% cut, so only like 15% of the uranium even makes it into the fuel rods and of that, only a few percent – a few percent at 15%. So that is why it's a really, really poor fuel efficiency, and thorium offers the potential for radically improved fuel efficiency.
Chris Martenson: So give us some numbers – if/when we start using the thorium cycle, how much would actually get converted into energy?
Kirk Sorenson: If we use LFTR technology, if we use the liquid-fueled approach that we’re talking about, we anticipate that we can probably get above 90%. The theoretical limit is about 98.5% that you could actually consume. But it looks like getting into the high 90s is very doable.
Chris Martenson: High 90s from a half of 1%.
Kirk Sorenson: Yeah, exactly. I mean there is almost nothing else in the world that is talking about this level of radical improvement technology. I used to work a lot of solar cells, and 10% to 30% was considered the greatest thing in the world. We are talking from going from a half of a percent to high nineties.
Chris Martenson: And one of the things that I am acutely aware of is – I track world uranium supplies. I know that China is building, I think, thirty-six plants, and with scouring the globe for enough forty-year uranium contracts to be able to fuel those, that was even a stretch. So the idea of, could we possibly replace ten thousand coal-fired plants with five thousand new nuclear plants? – the answer, from at least a resource standpoint right now, has to be no. Tell me about thorium in terms of how much is out there.
Kirk Sorenson: Well, thorium is about three times more common than uranium, to begin with. So there’s the basic advantage that you have. And because thorium only occurs essentially in one form and in one isotope, it's all useable in the reactor. So right now, thorium is basically a waste product of rare earth mining. It's always found with rare earths and known as monazite sands. And in fact, when rare-earth companies are looking for rare earths to mine, they will advertise that they have a low thorium content vein, because the thorium is considered worse than worthless. It's is radioactive – very low level radioactivity, but nevertheless radioactive, and they have to take regulatory steps to dispose of it. So to say it's cheaper than free – there are rare-earth companies that would pay you to take the thorium off their hands.
Chris Martenson: Okay, so there are piles of this stuff sitting around somewhere just waiting to be used?
Kirk Sorenson: Under about twelve feet of dirt in the Nevada test site in the United States, we recently buried about – I think it was 3,500 tons of thorium that had been in a strategic stockpile for fifty years. Back in the 50s when people like Alvin Weinberg were saying, “We’re going to run the world on thorium in the future,” the United States made a farsighted move to stockpile thorium. And then the people that were making thorium into reality got reassigned and fired and so forth, and in the early 2000s, they said, “Well what are we going to do with all this thorium?” “It's worthless, throw it away.” So that is essentially what they did.
So the best thorium mine in the world is sitting under twelve feet of dirt in Nevada right now in nice barrels that would be easily recoverable, isolated, and purified, and so forth.
Chris Martenson: Yeah, that would be a good mine to run. You would probably have a pretty good yield off of that. So talk to me about a thorium reactor – what is it, how does it operate? And then we can talk about maybe its advantages over existing technologies.
Kirk Sorenson: I will talk to you about the LFTR, the liquid fluoride thorium reactor, and that is an example of the thorium reactor. There are a lot of different ways to do it. And not all of the other ways using thorium are nearly as efficient, and that is something I want to point out. If you try to use thorium in an existing light-water reactor, you are going to do marginally better than what we are doing, but you are not going to have these types of radical improvements and fuel efficiency. This is really a consequence of using thorium in the liquid fuel state.
So our company is called Flibe Energy, and it's a little bit of a wink and a nod. Flibe is a chemical nickname for the salt that we use – it's lithium fluoride, beryllium fluoride. So L-I-F-B-E-F – you rearrange the letters and you get Flibe. It's a great solvent for nuclear reactions, because it's very stable at high temperatures and it's completely impervious to damage from radiation because it's a salt. It doesn’t get damaged. There are no crystal lattices to dislocate or anything like that. It's a marvelous material for holding a nuclear reaction in.
So what you do is dissolve uranium and thorium as salts into the Flibe salt and you pump it through a reactor vessel that has graphite in it. The graphite will slow down – it's called moderating those neutrons, slowing them down to thermal energies – and that’s where they have the maximum chance of crossing another nuclear reaction. So within the reactor vessel, that’s where the fission is taking place. It's heating the salt. The salt passes out of the core and into a heat exchanger and it heats coolant salt, which in turn passes outside of the reactor vessel and drives a gas turbine system. So that’s in a nutshell how you turn the energies of thorium into electrical energy.
Chris Martenson: And in this technology then – so we are talking about liquid salt – do we have issues of corrosion or – I am going to start navigating towards, obviously, in a post-Fukushima world, the design parameters and safety parameters of maybe this technology versus other ones.
Kirk Sorenson: Well you have – the salts are very chemically stable. So stable, in fact, that most everything else is pretty unstable as compared to it. And you have to put it in the right materials. You can’t just go stick it in stainless steel. But they developed an alloy at Oakridge called hastelloy, and it's now manufactured by Haynes International in Kokomo, Indiana. I went up there a few months ago and actually saw them making the stuff. Flibe salts with thorium in them do great in hastelloy, and they verified this through the operation of a reactor at Oakridge National Labs. So as long as you choose the right materials and you operate the machine appropriately, corrosion is not a problem.
Chris Martenson: Okay, so we’re operating this thing – there is a fuel cycle going on. At some point obviously, I am certain other isotopes are going to be building up or other actinide products – something is building up at some point, and you are going to have to either replace or refurbish the salt in some way – what does the fuel cycle look like in this thing?
Kirk Sorenson: Well, that is a good thing about the salt. The salt is not damaged by radiation like solid fuel elements are. And so what you need to do is you need to continually add new Uranium 233 – there are actually two salts in the core, core salt, fuel salt that has the Uranium 233 tetra fluoride in it. And then there is a blanket of salt surrounding the Flibe with thorium and tetra fluoride in it. And the blanket salt is absorbing neutrons – some of the thorium is turning into Uranium 233 – it's chemically extracted and introduced to the fuel salt. So the fuel salt is always being refueled from what is being generated in the blanket. And in turn, it's generating neutrons through fission that are turning blanket salt into Uranium 233 fuel.
Fission products do accumulate in the core salt, so periodically what you do is you take the fuel salt and you fluorinate out the uranium and it will come off as a gas – uranium hexafluoride – and that leaves the Flibe, the bare Flibe salt and the fission products. And then you go through a step called distillation where you heat the salt to about 1600 degrees and the lithium fluoride and the beryllium fluoride will boil out of the salt. So you are left with just the fission products.
And that is really how you separate the fission products, which are the true waste from the original Flibe salt and the uranium and thorium. So you keep all the actinides in the reactor. The actinides don’t end up in the waste, the actinides being the thorium and uranium. And you just extract the fission products. That would be about a ton of fission products per year. Most fission products stabilize very quickly. They are intensely radioactive when they are formed, but because they are so intensely radioactive, they’re decaying very quickly. In fact, most decay in terms of a few days. Some take weeks and a few take years. But it's really remarkable, and I spent a lot of time modeling this, it is really remarkable just how fast fission products decay the stability.
Chris Martenson: In this scenario, obviously in the conventional nuclear technology some of those fission products have half-lives that are measured in decades and longer.
Kirk Sorenson: Yes, there are two in particular – strontium 90 and cesium 137 have thirty-year half-lives and they are most of the trouble when it comes to fission products. But as a rule of thumb, ten half-lives and it's gone – so in three hundred years strontium and cesium decay, essentially – they decay away to stability.
Chris Martenson: Right, so when you mentioned a ton of waste per year, obviously you could let that sort of reduce itself over time through half-life decay. But that ton per year – what scale are we talking about?
Kirk Sorenson: That would be if you were running a gigawatt plant for a year.
Chris Martenson: A standard gigawatt reactor.
Kirk Sorenson: A standard plant. Because each plant will burn through about a ton of thorium each year and produce about a ton of fission products. Most of those fission products are stabilized very quickly. For instance, xenon; it's about 15% of the fission products – it stabilizes in about a month.
Chris Martenson: Okay, so we have a ton per year, and compare that to the waste stream off a conventional reactor?
Kirk Sorenson: Well, a conventional reactor also produces about a ton per year of fission products, but most of the waste in a conventional reactor is unburned actinides. About 95% of the fuel is Uranium 238. So it is not consumed, and then you have the 1% Uranium 235 that wasn’t consumed, about 1% plutonium, and some higher actinides – americium and curium – that’s really the stuff that drives the long-term waste management issues is the higher actinides, the stuff called the transuranic – the stuff beyond uranium that really is the headache for long-term waste disposal. In the thorium fuel cycle, you really minimize the production of transuranic entirely, because you are starting on such a lower number. You are starting from 232, instead of starting from 238. So you go through a lot of steps where fission is very likely before you make it to your first transuranic.
Chris Martenson: All right, so you mentioned that was some experimental work done at Oakridge back in the 50s and 60s. So how close did we get to actually seeing a full demonstration of the thorium fuel cycle?
Kirk Sorenson: Well, the full demonstration was actually the next step. They ran an experiment called the Molten-Salt Reactor Experiment in 1965 through 1969. That was mostly about understanding the operations, evaluating material compatibilities and so forth. It was very successful. They shut it down. They appealed to the Atomic Energy Commission for monies for the next step, which would have been called the Molten-Salt Breeding Experiment. That would have shown the complete approach with thorium and making power from thorium and generating electricity.
At that time, the Atomic Energy Commission was fully committed to the plutonium fast breeder reactor, which was cooled by liquid sodium, and they didn’t want any distractions from their plans. So they pretty much arrested with extreme prejudice the research into thorium molten salts. That was really unfortunate, because within just a few years after that, the plutonium program had been canceled by President Carter. And that would have been the moment (about 1977-78) that somebody should have said, “Hey, maybe we made a mistake killing thorium back in ’72; maybe we should go turn that back on again.” But as far as I can tell, that reevaluation never took place.
And the knowledge of what happened at Oakridge really faded further and further into the collective memory. I continue to be amazed at the people I’ve met – these are people who have had long careers in the nuclear industry. They come to me and they say, “Kirk, I have never heard of this before in my life. And it wasn’t until I read those documents on your site that I really believe that this really happened.” In fact, just the other day a gentleman who I have read his work before – very, very experienced and qualified PhD, nuclear engineering for thirty years. He said, “My friends have been telling me about thorium and I knew it was on the periodic table and I never appreciated its advantages for making electrical power.”
Chris Martenson: I guess part of the problem is that in the thorium cycle, you do end up with 233, which – Uranium 233 – which I guess was used as a nuclear bomb core in Operation Teapot in ’55.
Kirk Sorenson: Well we don’t know much about Operation Teapot. We know that there was some U233 and some plutonium in one weapon. We know that that was a test, that it was kind of a dude, it was a fizzle, it didn’t work as good, and it was never followed up on. So I would not call the existence of Uranium 233 a problem. I mean that’s a basic feature in the thorium fuel cycle. Uranium 233 has never been used in an operational nuclear weapon. It has always been highly enriched plutonium and uranium. And there are some real disadvantages to using Uranium 233 for nuclear weapons, and I think that is why it's never been done and never will be done.
Chris Martenson: Right that was the point that I was driving at – that Oakridge had a number of mandates and making electricity wasn’t its sole mandate. So it sounds like the thorium fuel cycle really only has one high and best use, and that’s making electricity. So perhaps it got shelved for reasons that weren’t entirely related to energy.
Kirk Sorenson: Well, we had a huge weapons program going on that was giving everybody a lot of experience with how to enrich uranium and how to chemically separate plutonium. That was – the first two things we learned how to do on the Manhattan Project were those two tasks. So it's not terribly surprising that when we turned our attention to making electrical energy, we sort of went to what we knew, which was highly enriched uranium and plutonium, rather than thorium, which they looked at thorium very early on in the Manhattan Project. The first question was, can you make a bomb out of it? And the answer was, well, theoretically yes; practically no, not really.
Chris Martenson: Yeah, not ideal. Not the best stuff around. So okay, so we have – part of the cycle has been demonstrated; let’s talk about what it would take to get all the way through the demonstration of this at this point. How much of the technology do you believe can be dusted off? Obviously you have mentioned one thing, that the people involved in this have aged, some of them have probably died. So we have maybe lost some of the – well we will have to relearn a few things, is kind of what I am getting here.
Kirk Sorenson: You are absolutely right, and I’ve been in pretty regular contact with the surviving members of the Molten Salt Reactor Program in Oakridge. These are guys that are in their – the young ones are in their late 70s. Most of them are in their 80s, and there could be more, but most of them are dead. So the biggest challenge that faces us is relearning this set of skills that they were in possession of in the 60s and 70s – about two hundred of them. And trying to take the next step – I mean we are really still on the same step as we were in ’72 – which is to build the demonstrator reactor. That’s what we have to go and do.
Chris Martenson: And so what would it take to get that done – time, money, experience…
Kirk Sorenson: Well, I think based on what we’ve got now, as far as technology and codes and software and so forth, I think that task could be done for a couple of hundred million dollars. And if we were fully funded, probably about five or six years. I mean that would be like, “Let’s go make this happen, this is a high priority.” That would be to build the demonstrator. To go beyond the demonstrator to a system that was ready to be sold to make electrical power – probably another five to ten years beyond that.
Chris Martenson: And where are we on that – you started talking about this, as there has been a big increase in interest because of your efforts around that. How close do you think we are to getting the right kind of interest to really go forward with the initial demonstration product?
Kirk Sorenson: Well, one thing that we are definitely doing differently than what was done before is we’re pursuing this as a privately financed venture rather than government research. I thought for a while that perhaps the DOE would take this up or it would be done at government auspices, but it doesn’t appear to be the case. And unfortunately, the DOE has not ever developed a reactor that then went into commercial use since they were created in 1977. So I strongly believe that it has got to be the private sector. That said, though, it's got to be some fairly farsighted investors. This is not like developing an app for your iPhone. This is some serious money and some serious patience. But the payoff potentially is truly staggering. I mean you would have a machine that would be able to meet the bulk of humanity’s energy needs for the foreseeable future. I mean, we are not going to run out of thorium at the kind of efficiencies that we are talking about. And energy itself is about a quarter of the entire planetary economy, and more than that, it's the quarter that makes the other three-quarters work.
So the potential payoff for this is really truly astronomical. It's just that there is a large barrier up front, and so we are searching for farsighted investors, farsighted deep-pocketed investors, to help make this happen and to help pull this dream off.
Chris Martenson: And if we decided to get serious about this, whatever the motivation was – whether people were worried about climate change or national security or whatever the issues happen to be – if the government did get serious about this, give me your best case. Like, I know there is a lot of fudging here, so we are not going to hold you to these numbers, but if we really got serious about it, Manhattan-Project style – this is what our nation is really putting a significant whole percentage portion of its revenues towards – what would happen? How fast could we do this?
Kirk Sorenson: Well, Manhattan-Project style is really interesting because I have read a lot about the Manhattan Project. The Manhattan-Project style is you call up people and you go drop whatever you are doing, you are going to move to a new place, and this is what you are going to work on. I mean if we really did that Manhattan-Project style, we could probably have a demonstrator up and running in two years. But I mean, that is like everybody is working 80-hour weeks, you don’t see your families, and the government essentially has appropriated you out of what you were doing.
Chris Martenson: Yeah.
Kirk Sorenson: But yeah, if you really want to go to that level, we could probably have one going in two years, if you want that kind of seriousness. Because we have the materials, we have the fuels, and we have the knowledge to go forward. But I, for one, really would not want to live under that style of project. I prefer another style, I call the “skunk works” approach. And I used to work at the Skunk Works at Lockheed, when I was younger. And that was, shall we say, a 50-hour week, and you get to live with your family and you get paid. But there is a very serious effort behind it. The government is making available important materials. There are some materials this machine needs, but you don’t buy – like Uranium 233, the government has some. They are either going to let you use it or not. But you don’t get to buy stuff like that, you know what I am saying? energyfromthorium.com
Chris Martenson: Uh, huh. Oh, absolutely. So first of all, if people want to find out more about this, I mean obviously, they can go to your website, which is really, really well done. It's got some just great materials on there. Very easy to step through for anybody in particular who is interested in the technology, more specifically what is really involved in a more technical level. There is some great stuff there. There are some really nice presentations that you have there. But if people were listening to this and said, “You know this sounds like a great idea; I would like to help get this off the ground.” What could they do?
Kirk Sorenson: They can get in touch with us and we can talk further.
Chris Martenson: Okay. And do you feel like – is there any benefit at this point at all – are we even close to wanting to illuminate this and raise it to the governmental levels? Is there any interest there at all at the DOE at this stage?
Kirk Sorenson: We have been continually trying to do that for the last five years. I have made many trips to DC and spoken with people at the House and the Senate, DOE, Office of Science and Technology Policy – always trying to shine the light on this, that yes, it needs to be done. You get a lot of the variety of answers that you might expect – “Well why isn’t industry doing this?” Then we incorporate, we say, “Okay, well we are.” “Well, how come the industry we expect isn’t doing this?” I said, “Well, their market model is based on solid fuel and providing some other fuel services, this is completely different.” There are number of people who say, “Well, gas is cheap, and we don’t have to worry about these things right now.”
Stuff that – we’ve seen gas be cheap and then be expensive and then be cheap and then be expensive. I look at it and I go, “Why don’t we get off this hamster wheel altogether and really achieve energy independence.” Which I am convinced is completely doable. I know it's very fashionable to say we cannot achieve energy independence, and I go, “You don’t know about thorium. You will change your mind once you learn about thorium.”
Chris Martenson: Now, let me ask you this – would thorium – would you imagine that it would be the similar style of plant? So we are going to put two, three, four reactors – altogether we are going to have two to four gigawatts of generating capacity. It’s a thermal plant at heart. So we are going to need big cooling towers, a water source, all of that. Are these similar in design to essentially having the same footprint and having the same water requirements as a boiling water reactor, or…?
Kirk Sorenson: No, they are going to be very, very different. Because the salt operates at such high temperature, and because we are using a gas turbine powered conversion systems rather than a steam turbine. We actually could employ air-cooling on these systems and reject heat directly to air. And that would get rid of the cooling towers and it would get rid of the need to be sited next to a body of water. I mean, all these things become thermodynamically possible when you raise your input temperatures significantly. Water-cooled reactors are really restricted in how hot they can go, because they are restricted by the basic properties of water. They cannot get much above about 300c. These reactors naturally operate at about anywhere from 600-700c, so just from a straight thermodynamics perspective, they already have a lot more potential for high performance than a water-cooled reactor.
I’m from the West originally, and I always wondered when I was younger, why didn’t we have nuclear reactors in the West? And it is because we don’t have big rivers in the West. But a reactor like this, you wouldn’t build them nearly as big. You build them modular so you can build them in a factory and take them where you need to go. The footprint would be much smaller, because you don’t have the worry about or need for an evacuation boundary – massive radiation leaks – basically there is nothing inside this reactor that wants to let go, like a water reactor. Water reactors run under real high pressure. And if you depressurize it and you don’t cool it, the fuel is going to melt down. That is the basic problem in a water-cooled reactor. This reactor doesn’t even have that feature to begin with. It runs at atmospheric pressure; if you lose all power, the fuel will passively shut down. It drains out of the bottom and into a drain tank and is passively cooled.
So the fission products, the ones that you are really worried about, are completely chemically occluded in the salt, particularly strontium and cesium. They are very, very stable fluorides. So it has a completely different approach to just about everything that we do today with a water-cooled reactor. I think that is one of the problems when conventional nuclear folks look at it. They go, “Wow, this is just completely different in every way from I am doing now. It's a brand new machine.”
Chris Martenson: And without the graphite to moderate the neutrons, this thing basically shuts itself down?
Kirk Sorenson: I mean if you just put the Flibe in a pool, it won’t go – it can’t achieve criticality because the neutrons aren’t being moderated. That is another really neat thing about having separate moderator and fuel: If they are taken away from one another, the reaction is completely impossible.
Chris Martenson: Right. And so let’s imagine for a minute we did have a release of the salts form and it's out in the pool. How radioactive is it?
Kirk Sorenson: Well, the salt is very radioactive, but it's going to freeze on contact with the kind of temperature in which our world is made of. And it occludes those fission products in the salt itself. So you wouldn’t want to go near it to pick it up, but there is nothing in it to disperse. It's not in a form that wants to spread out into the environment. So it is basically a hard rock.
Chris Martenson: So we could build these, as you said, in module form, maybe instead of having to have these big giant centralized ones, because there are a lot of reasons for that. But the cooling thing is a big portion of that.
Kirk Sorenson: Cooling is a big deal. And the other thing about light water reactors, their economics get better the bigger you build them. There are certain things in that reactor that really favor a large scale. In our reactor design, there really aren’t parameters that favor really being big or small. I mean the scaling factor is just not nearly as intense. So if you want to say, “I want to build it at 200 megawatts,” you can do that. You can build a 200-megawatt light water reactor, but there are a lot of things that do not scale favorably by doing that.
Chris Martenson: Yeah, your overhead costs are going to kill you on that. All right, so this all sounds very interesting. So I guess the final question is, why aren’t we doing this?
Kirk Sorenson: The question I ask myself every night. Especially as I watch the news and I see all of these problems that are described and I turn to my wife and I say, “You know, all of these could potentially be solved in the application of LFTR technology.” It's just really amazing when you consider the scale of what’s going on. Why aren’t we doing this? Well, I am doing it, and that is about all I can speak for. I am trying to make it happen and I hope others will join me.
Chris Martenson: Well, I really appreciate you picking up the flag and running with it, because it certainly sounds exciting, and there definitely is enough there that we owe it to ourselves, I believe as a nation and possibly as a globe, to investigate it further. Either rule it in or rule it out conclusively. It sounds very intriguing at this point. So if people want to follow you and find out more and potentially even get into contact with you, how would they do that?
Kirk Sorenson: Go to our website, www.flibe-energy.com, and there is contact information on there. We also have the energyfromthorium.com site. It's not part of our company. It's something that I started originally. Facebook and Twitter feeds are out there. So there are a lot of different ways to follow us.
Chris Martenson: Well, thank you so much for your time, Kirk. It's been illuminating and I really hope we can help get the word out.
Kirk Sorenson: All right, my pleasure. Thank you, Chris.