Imagine a form of nuclear energy with greater output and virtually no safety issues.
Such is the promise of liquid flouride thorium reactors (LFTRs), and we've had several past interviews with thorium expert Kirk Sorensen to discuss their potential:
- 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
Kirk returns to the podcast this week to update us on the current state of thorium power. The bad news is that it still remains a theoretical concept; no operational reactor has been deployed yet — even as a prototype. But, as Kirk details, we have good "line of sight" on the science to build one — so, at this point, the limiting factor is mostly funding. In a world of privately-funded space travel, such a gating obstacle shouldn't remain for long.
This is one of the "bright spots" in the technology universe that offers real promise for addressing many of the challenges presented by our global addiction to depleting, pollutive fossil fuels.
Of course, perhaps humanity gaining access to an abundant source of cheap, hi-yielding energy may not be the best thing at this point — as it will enable us to extract and consume the rest of the world's depleting resources (key minerals, water supplies, developable land, etc) at a much faster rate…
Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Kirk Sorensen (47m:15s).
Chris Martenson: Welcome everyone to this Peak Prosperity podcast. It is June 15, 2017. I am your host, Chris Martenson. The world has pinned so much of its future hopes and dreams on making a smooth transition to alternative energy. This means mainly solar and wind power. Now, of the two, wind power has the very best economics; and, more importantly, energy returned on energy invested profile.
Now, given this and all of the headlines you have probably read about the huge and massive inroads that wind power has made. I have a pop quiz for you. In the last full year of data that we have available to us, which is 2014. It's a little old. But, that's our last full year of data. Rounding to the nearest whole number, what percentage of the world's total power was supplied by wind? Was 20 percent, ten percent, or five percent?
Actually, a trick question, and the answer is actually zero percent. That's because wind actually supplied just under 0.5 percent of total world power in 2014, so rounding to the nearest whole number. It brings us to zero. Now, this year we can expect that number to climb to one percent, I guess. But, the point I'm making here is this.
The world and all of its various geopolitical balances and economic activities require energy, lots and lots of energy. Now, where we source that from, it matters a lot. It is past time to get serious about how we are going to replace finite fossil fuels, hundreds of quadrillions of tasty-tasty fossil fuel BTUs with something else. Now, I happen to think that nuclear power is generally, and thorium reactor specifically can and should be a very serious part of that conversation.
I first began to take seriously this idea of thorium reactors back in 2012, when we had on this program Kirk Sorensen, a proponent of thorium reactors. Kirk began his work with thorium while working as an aerospace engineer at NASA. In 2010, he left NASA to work as the chief nuclear technologist at Teledyne Brown Engineering.
In 2011, he founded flied Flibe, F-l-i-b-e, a company focused on developing modular thorium reactors. Now, as I have said at many points in my writing and my presentations, my book, heck – every chance I get. We do not need any new technologies to be discovered. There are solutions already on the shelf that we have to get serious about using. Maybe they need some development. But, they are there.
Welcome back to the program, Kirk. I can't wait to talk to you about this really important subject.
Kirk Sorensen: Thank you, Chris. It is great to be back. I really enjoyed talking with you in the past.
Chris Martenson: Well, myself as well; and so, let's start here. I did open with this idea. As excited as people are about alternative energies, when we really don't confuse ourselves between the difference between electricity and power. Because a lot of times you see these headlines that say Costa Rica supplied a hundred percent of its power with alternatives. Not the case. They supplied a hundred percent of their electricity for a period of time.
But, when we look at the total power mix, all of the things that power our societies, alternative energies are still really small percentages of the overall mix. We're going to have to begin making much larger in-roads. Let's talk about nuclear. I know a lot of people are tickely, particularly after Fukushima and maybe for other reasons. Who seem to think nuclear is dead in the water at this point and time.
I happen to think it has got to be an important part of the mix going forward. Where do we start on this? Let us start with nuclear itself. Certainly, the industry seems to be in trouble at this point and time. We have had bankruptcies and a lot of concerns about the waste that comes out of the late boiling reactors. Where are we going to put that stuff? It's an aging industry at this point and time. What is your take on the nuclear industry at this stage?
Kirk Sorensen: You have assessed it correctly here. We are at a point where many changes are going on. I feel like some of the notions that people like me have been putting forward for many years; and have been considered radical are now beginning to become more mainstream in thought. That the future will not necessarily be based around water cooled solid fueled reactors.
The issues that associate with that in the public's mind primarily are safety and waste. That is somewhat unfortunate. Because the nuclear industry really does have an admirable safety record. I can only contrast this with pretty much every other energy generation technology; including wind and solar.
That said though, nuclear has a unique ability; and I'm sure the media gets a lot of credit for this – to terrify huge segments of the society in ways that no other energy source seems quite capable of. For that reason alone, people have come to associate a nuclear fear with it; which is really unfortunate.
There is also this issue of nuclear waste. The thought that these reactors are producing waste that is dangerous. It will have to be sequestered for human activity for periods of time that seemed beyond their comprehension, thousands, even tens of thousands of years. It is not hard to see why people would think why are we using this energy source that seems to create long-term problems?
It seems to have a safety issue associated with it. To me, the answer is very simple. It is because nuclear energy alone has an energy density millions of times greater than the chemical energies that we currently run our society on. This is because in nuclear energy, we are releasing the energies that bind together the nucleus of the atom. Those energies are millions of times stronger than the energies that bind together the electrons of the atom.
Those are the energies that are released in chemical energy systems like fossil fuels, or digestion, or combustion, or anything along that way. More importantly, there's nothing in between. There is no thing that we're going to do that's going to have a thousand times improvement or something. It is a step function to go from chemical to nuclear. I see it as a moment of societal evolution when we truly realize the benefits of nuclear energy.
Now, we decided long ago to pursue a particular direction in nuclear energy that was recognized from the outset. It had safety concerns. It had a much larger waste production than had to be done. We are now reaping, I think, the consequences of having made that choice about 60 years ago.
There is an opportunity now to say, "Let's back up in our minds a little bit and look at some of the other nuclear technologies, namely thorium, and namely liquid fuels that didn't have these potential problems; and were known like you said, from the very beginning." They were known about in the 1940s, of the dawn of the nuclear age. To say isn't it time to consider some of those technologies? The advantages that they could bring to these problems that we see before us now. Because it really doesn't look like our current suite of nuclear technologies is going to be appropriate for us in the long haul.
Chris Martenson: Now, let's talk about some of that history. Because I don't want to maybe cast judgment here. Because people made different decisions once upon a time. But, as I look back and understand the nuclear industry in the United States, it's a two-pronged story. One, we get power from nuclear. Two, we get weapons from nuclear.
Those were conjoined for a long period of time. If you could just break down for people. When we say nuclear, it is not just one thing. It's not like when we say gasoline. That's a thing, right. Nuclear has a lot of different ways that it can be pursued. It has a lot of different reaction cycles. If we could just start to parse this out so people can understand that this is somewhat complex territory. But what are the big pieces when we say nuclear? What are we talking about?
Kirk Sorensen: Yeah. Let me try to break that out. Let me perhaps correct the misconception here. Actually, there is no example in the United States with one that really deserves an asterisk. The exception of one that deserves an asterisk next to it of when we used a reactor to make material for weapons and electrical power.
Actually, what happened was just the opposite. In the beginning reactors existed only to do one thing. That was to make plutonium for nuclear weapons. The energy of the reaction was simply thrown away. These were the big reactors that were built after World War II at the Hanford Reservation in Washington, and also at the Savannah River plant in South Carolina. Because people were aware that this enormous expenditure of money was going forward to make material for nuclear weapons; and yet energy was just being thrown away.
There was a real effort in the early 1950s amongst industrialists who thought, "My goodness, this should not be the case." We should create dual purpose nuclear power plants. Tthey could do both. They started. They tried to do this. They got together. They built a nuclear power plant in Michigan called the Fermi 1 plant. It was a fast breeder reactor. It was originally intended to make material for nuclear weapons and nuclear power simultaneously.
It had a very unique design. That is not what ended up really being the predominant form of nuclear energy in the country. The predominant form of nuclear energy in the country came from the work of Admiral Rickover, who was trying to build a reactor to power a submarine. It had certain limitations on it. It had be very small. It had to be very compact. It had to utilize highly enriched uranium.
He built that reactor successfully in 1953. Then, the decision was made. We are going to build larger power plants based on that design. This decision was widely opposed by the scientific leadership of the nuclear community even in 1953, for the reasons we just talked about; safety, waste, and so forth.
But, it was pushed forward because there was a strong need, particularly by the Eisenhower administration, to show that we were using atoms for peace. That we were actually doing something with nuclear energy other than making material for nuclear weapons. They built a reactor in Pennsylvania called the Shippingport reactor. It was the first one to produce power for the grid. It was very expensive, though.
It was not a competitive power generator. But based on that initiative, there was a belief within the utility community that the path had been chosen. We were going to use pressurized light water reactors with solid fuel as the nuclear reactor of the future, even though these reactors did not make material for nuclear weapons. That was how a technological lock down took place that has been widely documented and also widely lamented.
That put us in this scenario where we were building a submarine reactor on the land for the next 50 years. This is what we have today in the United States. We have approximately 100 of these land based submarine reactors producing electrical power. But, they also produce a lot more waste than you would like to see. They are only getting about one half of one percent of the energy of that uranium fuel that is loaded into them out as useful energy.
Most of that material ends up as waste. That is unfortunate. It's a fundamental drawback of that particular implementation of nuclear. That is kind of how things happened. There was an initial push for reactors that made plutonium for weapons.
There was a pushback, saying no. We also needed reactors that could do both. But that wasn't what actually happened. What actually happened was Rickover's submarine reactor got put on the land. It became a fleet of civilian power generating reactors.
Chris Martenson: Here we are with those hundreds plus reactors. Some of the criticisms around them is the waste. Some of this waste has to be buried for 10,0000 year or more. It is very hazardous stuff, because of the the waste products. Again, we're talking about a fission reaction and nuclear material. It starts a fission reaction. Things, the atoms get split apart. Some of those are relatively harmless byproducts. Some are very harmful byproducts.
In that solid waste from that solid fuel you end up with - useful energy comes out. A lot of waste gets left behind. Then, you have to do something with that. Most of that waste right now is actually stored on-site at a lot of these reactors. Because we don't have a long-term repository designated yet. I think the Yucca Mountain thing has stalled as far as I know. Waste is a problem, and also the design of these things that they operated at very high pressures. If something happens, as we saw in Fukushima, when they couldn't cool them appropriately.
There were builds up of pressures, and sometimes explosive gases. I don't even know what happened with reactor 3. I think it torched with ... quite exothermically. But anyway, there was a vast release of material into the atmosphere at that point and time. What I would like you do Kirk is talk about that. This is a design. But there are lots of other possible designs out there. There are a lot of other ways to skin the nuclear cat. I would like to start peeling those back, so that we can understand that decisions made 60 years ago are not the same ones we might make today.
Kirk Sorensen: Yeah. Let me start with where we are now. Because that's the best way to understand where we could be. The choice to use pressurized water was a very intelligent choice for a nuclear submarine. Because pressurized water was a material that could actually slow down neutrons in the smallest space. It led you to the smallest and most compact reactor.
In a submarine, emergency coolant is available everywhere, because you are in the ocean. There is no real worry about – am I going to run out of coolant? That's not going to happen. The challenge came when that submarine reactor was moved onto the land where you were no longer immersed. You didn't have emergency coolant everywhere.
Another choice that was made. They had to deal with the fact that water and the nuclear fuel were not chemically compatible. They had to put a material between them called a clad. It and it was made of a zirconium alloy. This clad protected the water from the uranium and the uranium from the water. Well, that zirconium alloy at a particular temperature will exothermically react with water. This is one of the things that happened at Fukushima.
It's essentially that metal turning into a ceramic, zirconia. It rips the oxygen off the water. It leaves hydrogen. The hydrogen can explode. That's what we saw there. Choices were made in terms of material compatibility that we would not exactly go, "Wow, that was a great choice." One of the things that I find very, very exciting about the kind of reactors we're working on at Flibe is the materials choices from the beginning reflect choices that are chemically stable with one another.
We use three things in the reactor. We use a nickel alloy. We use graphite. We use fluoride salt. All three of those exist in a state of material compatibility with one another. They touch each other. They contact one another. They don't have any possible reactions. That's very, very important. By making different choices on coolants; and making different choices on fuels, you can eliminate categories of problems that exist in today's reactors that simply can't exist, because now you have taken away the thing that made it happen.
Chris Martenson: Well, let's talk about thorium as a nuclear fuel just to get everybody on the same page here. Because when we say nuclear, people are thinking uranium or maybe plutonium. Thorium, first, what is thorium? What is a thorium reactor as your company Flibe is imagining it?
Kirk Sorensen: Okay. Thorium is a naturally occurring material. It is about three or four times more common than uranium. If you were to go outside and pick up a rock, very likely, there is thorium in it. There's probably some uranium, too. It could be detected with a Geiger Counter. It has a very long half-life, about 14 billion years. It is responsible for the majority of the heating that takes place inside the planet earth.
This is the heating that keeps your core molten, and that drives the magnetic field, and that drives plate tectonics. I am fond of saying geothermal energy is just thorium with a bad heat exchange. Thorium is nothing unnatural. In fact, it is very natural. The heating from the radioactive decay of Thorium is quite frankly, what has kept our planet livable for many billions of years.
Now, you mentioned waste a little bit earlier. Why do we get such poor utilization of uranium? Is it because we're not intelligent people? Or, we are not trying very hard? No. There are some physical limitations to using uranium. Part of the problem is there is a small fraction of uranium that is fissile. There is a much larger fraction of uranium that is fertile; meaning, it can be converted to a nuclear fuel.
When we talk about nuclear waste, really the waste isn't the materials that have been fissioned. It is the materials that absorb neutrons and became long-lived materials like plutonium. That is unburned fuel. Today's reactors make plutonium as they consume uranium. But, they don't make enough plutonium to make up for the uranium they consume. That is why they can only obtain that small fraction of energy release. That is why the waste contains the plutonium, the 26,000 year half-life that dictates isolation in the biosphere of many tens of thousands of years.
Ideally, you would want a reactor, if it didn't make plutonium. It could burn up all of the fuel. That is what Thorium lets you do. Thorium, properly utilized, will produce enough new fuel to compensate for the fuel that is consumed. The fuel that is used in thorium reactor comes from thorium. It is called uranium-233. It does not occur on earth. But, you can make it by bombarding thorium with a neutron. It becomes uranium-233. Then, as uranium-233 is consumed in the thorium reactor, it emits neutrons; and most importantly, enough neutrons to continue the conversion of as much or more thorium into new uranium-233 SEUs.
By utilizing thorium in this manner, you can consume essentially all of the thorium while not making any of the long-term waste, or any of the plutonium, and so forth; and by having all of the material chemically processed and recycled. That's really at its heart, the essential benefit of thorium. You have to have a system, though, that is capable of executing these chemical processing systems, and these recycling systems. That can utilize thorium correctly.
That is where this salt based technology really shines. This was recognized by Alvin Weinberg, who was the head of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the one 1950s. He saw that this salt based technology that they were working on was going to be the right technology to make it possible to utilize thorium. He supported it.
Chris Martenson: Demonstration reactors got stood up back then. The basic idea here is that existing in a liquid, salt form; which is a very hot and molten salt, but in a liquid salt form. You have a reaction that's basically cycling from thorium to uranium-233, which gets consumed. It liberates heat in a fission process. If you run that long enough, you end up with consuming nearly all of the fuel that you put in.
Kirk Sorensen: Yes.
Chris Martenson: – Instead of that 1.5 percent, you mentioned for conventional. Or, what we would call a conventional nuclear reactor. We might be burning 99 percent. That's part one. Part two is that because it's in a liquid salt form, it's circulating. You have the opportunity to do processing on it live while it's going.
If there are products, developing waste products, you would have the opportunity to remove those and keep this continuously operating without having to take the whole thing apart; and lift all the fuel out; and put new fuel in on a regular basis. As regular basis as we would see in a typical nuclear reactor. Then, I guess the final point is that all of this is basically operating at what we would call normal temperatures. I'm sorry, pressures.
Kirk Sorensen: Normal pressures – normal pressures….
Chris Martenson: Yes, much more pressures.
Kirk Sorensen: High temperatures but normal pressures….
Chris Martenson: Yes. Because of that, if there was say a pipe springs a leak. It doesn't go… It would go shooting off and spraying stuff everywhere. You might have something drip on the floor. Is that a fair assessment of roughly how this design is conceived at this point?
Kirk Sorensen: Yeah. The most important part is that low pressure. That's a big differentiator between this and the water coolant. Water has to be brought up to very high pressure in order to prevent it from boiling. Even then, it can't go much higher than about 300 degrees Celsius before you reach a point of just what's called super criticality. That's why we have to operate water cooled reactors at a high pressure. It is basically inevitable. Why do you have to operate a high temperature?
That has to do with converting the heating energy of the reaction into power. That is general to all power systems. It doesn't matter what it is; solar, wind, coal, gas, whatever. We have to run at high temperatures. High temperatures are unavoidable. That has to be in there. But high pressures are avoidable. We can design systems that are based on coolants. That don't have to run at high pressure.
The beauty of the salt is it doesn't have to run at high pressure because it's so chemically stable. It doesn't undergo any reactions. It doesn't have any pressure to worry about. It can hold vast amounts of thermal energy. You don't have to pump as much of it around to move a certain amount of power. These are the aspects that Weinberg and his team discovered in the 1950s, that made him think. “Why yes, this is a good good fit with the thorium fuel cycle. If we were to go and attempt to utilize thorium using this technology, it should work out very well.”
You mentioned the waste products. The most common fission product of a fission reaction is xenon, which is a gas. It is very easy for this xenon to absorb neutrons. That is a problem with all of the reactors. Xenon just really, really wants to absorb neutrons. That hurts the reaction. It takes some of the neutrons out of the reaction that would otherwise be helping it to proceed. In a liquid fuel, it's effortlessly easy to get the xenon out of the liquid fuel. It comes out just like fizz out of pop.
That most important waste product that you would rather see come out of your reactor is easily removable. Xenon rapidly stabilizes to a non-radioactive form in about 30 days. It's not a long-term waste hazard. In fact, it's actually a rather valuable fission product. That's another example of how the description you made of the system is very accurate. It is able to correctly and simply process the fluids while it is operating that allow the thorium system to operate at peak efficiency.
Chris Martenson: This is fascinating. Because when I did some basic research on this, thorium is a very common element. I don't even know how to begin calculating this. But, it looks like it would be safe to say there are thousands of years of fuel sort of lying around. If we were to begin using this technology, assuming we didn't want to….
Kirk Sorensen: It would be safe to say there are billions of years a few fuel life in the ground.
Chris Martenson: Alright. I wanted to be extra safe. I guess. This clearly is something that could have a really important to play. But let's cast back. I am really interested in what happened. Weinberg has got this dream. I assume, from what I have read, he really understood just how. He modeled this out.
He said this could be a really important fuel source and energy source for humanity; thinking at all of the way through to how you could cluster centers of habitation around individual reactors with fertilizers and farming, yeah, all kinds of stuff. He had a dream. It seems pretty compelling. It didn't go anywhere. Why not?
Kirk Sorensen: Well, the answer is fairly simple and a bit damning; which is that, as I had mentioned, an industrial consortium had formed in the early 1950s around the notion of dual mission reactor where it would produce power and plutonium simultaneously. This was the fast breeder reactor; which was built at the Fermi 1 reactor outside of the Detroit in the early 1960s.
The man behind this was an industrialist named Walker Cisler, who ran Detroit Edison. I am actually very impressed with what he did. Because he assembled an industrial consortium. He got, at the time, humongous amounts of money from the various groups. There was tremendous inertia to go forward on the fast breeder reactor into the '60s. The Fermi reactor was built. Unfortunately, it underwent a meltdown in 1966, and really dashed his dreams.
But nevertheless, so much industrial work had gone into that technology. But, the Atomic Energy Commission decided, okay, we are going to make building the fast breeder reactor our national energy goal. They enshrined that in the mid-'60s despite the failure of the Fermi 1 reactor. They poured enormous resources into this. They viewed Weinberg's work on the thorium reactor as an undesired competitor to the fast breeder reactor. He was receiving paltry amounts of funding from the Atomic Energy Commission, whereas the fast breeder was receiving amounts on the order of a hundred times greater.
He argued that we really ought to continue with several designs just in case one of them doesn't work out. They didn't look at it this way. They looked at it like we don't want to distract congressional leaders or funding sources with the multiplicity of opportunities. We just want to concentrate everything on the thing that we are advocating, uber alles. They killed his work in 1972. But, his warnings were very prophetic. Because the fast breeder reactor ran aground politically in the late 1970s under the Carter administration.
It was canceled. It was briefly revived under Reagan, only to be canceled again in 1983; which would have been a very good time to say, my goodness. Since we didn't end up building the put plutonium fast breeder reactor, perhaps we ought to go back and think much more seriously about this thorium reactor that was advocated as recently as ten years ago. But it does not appear that was the case.
By this point, Weinberger was out of power. I think a lot of the people that had worked so hard for it were just tired from the fight. I have searched with great diligence to try to find any evidence of an effort to resurrect technology in the early '80s. I have talked to people that worked on the program. Everybody just said they didn't want it; and so we didn't do it.
Chris Martenson: Yeah. The oldest story in the book. I had an opportunity to be presenting it to a group of people from NASA awhile back in working with them on an effort to envision the next 100 years. Of course, I brought up thorium as a concept. Because when I give my little song and dance about where we really are in the energy story, and what would you propose. It's like well then, what would you propose. I say, well thorium. It's interesting that of these NASA engineers and audience, most of them, their heads just tip sideways. They had never heard the term before –
Kirk Sorensen: Clearly, I did not succeed –
Chris Martenson: – In an energy standpoint.
Kirk Sorensen: – In my efforts at NASA to promulgate the notion.
Chris Martenson: A big organization, what can I tell you? But, it's still relatively unknown. Now, I was interested, however, that in between the time we talked last, and now, the Electric Power Research Institute did a study. It performed a technology assessment on this idea of a molten salt reactor, specifically the liquid fluoride thorium reactor, the LFTR or, the LFTR. Talk to us about first, who is the Electric Power Research Institute? How credible are they? Second, what did they find when they took a look.
Kirk Sorensen: Well, the Electric Power Research Institute is essentially the research arm of our utility structures in the United States. For many years, they had separate R&D organizations. After a blackout that took place I think in the '70s. This is sort of the origin story of EPRI. There was a belief that my goodness, we need to come together. We need to do joint research. We need to make sure things like this never happen again. If you want to do research in the utility sector, EPRI is the place you go.
They speak for the industry. We were fortunate through a utility contact at Southern Company to be able to undertake this study of the LFTR under the auspices of EPRI. That ran from about 2014 to about 2015. It was an initial look at the LFTR concept. I participated heavily in this and so did Vanderbilt University; and so did the Southern Company.
Essentially the results were it looked very promising. Now, the amount of time and effort that was undertaken on the study was modest by anybody's standards. But, compared to anything that had been done since the shutdown of the Weinberg effort in the '70s, it was by far the most substantial effort that had been undertaken on the thorium molten salt reactor since then; really and within the United States, I should say.
The results were no showstoppers. It looked like the technology was straightforward. It could be developed into an operational system. A great deal more engineering was required. But, it appeared to have the attributes and the capabilities; responsiveness, safety, economy, and compactness, and affordability that the utility industry was looking for. I was very pleased to see that make its way into the final report.
Chris Martenson: Let's paint the picture, then. If somehow funding happened and we progressed forward. Obviously, there is new development and scaling. Things that have to happen. But, what would a LFTR plant look like? What would its footprint be? How quiet would it be? What sort of concerns might people have living near one? All of those things, because every power source; let's be clear about this.
Every power source has pros and cons. Even the wind towers, people don't want to live near them because of sonic issues with the noise that comes off of them. Or, the fact that the big blades do kill a lot of birds, or whatever. There are pros and cons of everything. Paint the picture first, Kirk. What would it be like to be near one of these plants?
Kirk Sorensen: To stand next to an operating LFTR, you would be hard pressed to tell that you were standing next to anything other than a normal modest sized industrial building. Probably, your your main tip-off that something was different about the plant would be the security you would see around that building.
You would probably see double layer of fencing with razor wire on top. Something would say well, this doesn't look like my normal building, because I can't walk up to it. The security would probably be your biggest sense that this was not just like any other industrial building. Because other than that, you wouldn't have much indication that anything was going on in there out of the ordinary. It would not be a particularly tall building. It certainly wouldn't be anywhere as tall as the plants we have now. Nor would you see the large cooling towers that you typically associate with large nuclear power plants.
You might see a row of the kind of smaller forced draft cooling towers that you typically see as refrigeration units in any large building. You would see more of them. If you were somebody of more of a mechanical engineering bent, you might think, "Well, my goodness, they have got quite a refrigeration load in here." That essentially would be your only indication that there was anything any different about that building than any other industrial building that you had seen before. You might hear a low hum. But, that's about it.
Inside that building in essentially a mainly underground silo would be the rear reactor; which would be operating and undergoing these fission reactions; and driving a gas turbine. The gas turbine would be based on a closed cycle of high pressure carbon dioxide. It is very, very efficient. It is about half again more efficient than the kind of steam turbines we are using today. You might also see a switchyard outside of the building with electrical connections coming to it.
That would also be something. You could think well, maybe there is a substation here. Or, perhaps there is some sort of power distribution here. But, that would be what you would see. As far as from a safety perspective, or a zoning perspective, there would be no difference between that and any other building. If you drove perhaps a half a mile away from the plant, you would see anything at all. There would be no large towers. Nothing visually on the horizon that would obstruct your view, that would cause you to think that you had been anywhere near a very powerful power plant.
Chris Martenson: These LFTRs, they operate very hot as I understand it, maybe 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. You were talking about using CO2 as the driving force to turn a turbine. There has got to be waste heat, still. What happens to the waste heat in this story?
Kirk Sorensen: The same thing that happens in any typical industrial facility where you see these large cooling systems that are associated with refrigeration. About half of that waste heat is just blown up into the air. I mean, you would not see any visible structures that didn't look identifiable to you from common experience. The waste heat would not be anything particularly out of the ordinary to what you would be looking for in a large building.
Chris Martenson: Of course, if we started to get more clever; I have learned that waste heat is actually an inappropriate term. That these co-gen plants, the co-generation plants have been put in now. that the so-called waste heat is anything but. It's a valuable byproduct. It is used to heat buildings, and sometimes drive industrial processes, and something. It is one of the reasons that in my own small local town in Greenfield, Massachusetts.
They were talking about putting in a a biomass plant. In their design, they are like, yeah. We are going to have to put all of these big cooling towers up. Because we have all of this waste heat. They didn't design in that they were going to use that excess heat for anything. They were going to have to cool it with river water.
That, I think, was one of the main reasons that design got shot down. It was because they were still thinking of the excess heat as waste heat. That's like, a lot of people said, yeah. That's not modern thinking at this point and time.
Kirk Sorensen: Yeah. If that same plant that I had mentioned was close to a coastal area, then you wouldn't even do that. You would be desalinating seawater with that as you mentioned; waste heat inappropriately so termed. You would be producing a large amount of fresh water from what would otherwise be a waste product. Even that system could be utilized for great value.
You had mentioned earlier the idea of clustering habitation around these things. If you happen to be in a more remote place or a cold climate, you would most certainly want to have underground piping that was moving that, again, the poorly mentioned waste heat to heat buildings. This is very common in Europe and in Asia where they will make sure that what would otherwise be waste heat from industrial processes is used for space heating, and building heating, and house heating. Then, you don't have to go and spend electricity or natural gas doing jobs that can be done with what would otherwise be a waste product.
Chris Martenson: Alright. Let's talk about how this gets done then. One of the critiques I read, it boils down to this. The science is easy, maybe; but the engineering is hard. Where are we in this story? What would be required to really advance this thinking to the next level, to really drive this further out a proof of concept into something we're actually using? Because I would love to live near one of those buildings compared to any other energy source I currently know about.
Kirk Sorensen: I would, too. It would be a far less obtrusive energy source than any other energy source you know about. It would not emit anything that would dirty the air. It would not be visually obstructive. It would not make noise. It would not be subject to the weather; sometimes working and sometimes not working.
It would work day and night, 365 days a year. It would be a very attractive facility to have other industrial activities nearby. Whether that's a data center. Or, whether that's a housing development, or a variety of other things. Yes, there are engineering challenges. I am an engineer, full disclosure. I spent my career developing technology.
I am of two minds of this. When I consider what the LFTR can do in terms of global energy demand and global energy production, I consider the engineering challenges unbelievably modest. When I contrast that with how would we power the world using solar energy, or wind energy, or conventional nuclear, or a host of other things? I go, my goodness, this is orders of magnitude, and easier to do than that.
Nevertheless, I get up every day. I go to work on the engineering challenges of the system. Some of them are challenging. But, I don't see anything yet that I don't think will not yield to sufficient manpower and engineering time on the problem. Our own efforts, of course, are more modest than I would like them to be. I would like to have a much larger team of engineers working on the problem.
That is as a strict function of the funding level that we have. We are entirely privately funded. We don't receive any government funds. We go basically as fast as we are funded. If we had more funding, we could go a lot faster. An awful lot of my time unfortunately is spent trying to go find that funding that enables us to do the engineering. It can happen just as fast as the engineering takes place. The engineering takes place just as fast as the funding can be obtained.
Chris Martenson: That is a very typical story. Now, when I was in China awhile back, the director of the National Grid had just released a study that said, "Hey, we're pretty sure we can do this alternative energy thing." We'll put the wind towers where the wind is, though. We will call that the Arctic Circle. We will put the solar where the sun is. We will call that the desert regions.
All we need is a grid to sort of get electricity from point A to point B. They had ran some numbers and decided that 50 trillion. That would be about what it would take to begin to seriously power the world in this way. Again, there is the co-location problem of having the power source; which would be the wind up in the Arctic Circle or latitudes for instance. Then, piping that to where it actually would be used. Excuse me, just one second.
Alright Jason, and pick from here. Then, piping that energy and electricity to where it is actually being consumed. 50 trillion, that is just a gigantic number. If we're going to try and power ourselves through what we would call a global re-scaled alternative infrastructure. I think that number is pointing to the same thing you're pointing to; which is that when you really think through the engineering of what it is going to take to replace quadrillions of BTUs by other means.
You look at the existing path we're on. It seems insane to me that we are not also pursuing with at least some vigor the path that you're pursuing and other different old nuclear technologies as they are currently understood. It just seems insane to me.
Kirk Sorensen: Yeah, absolutely. When I think about what you have just described. A system to accommodate the fact that the wind and the solar energy are not where the people are. Fifty trillion to try to move that electricity around. Then, I think of the fact that the amount of thorium that it would take to provide all of the energy, all of the energy you would use in your entire life is about the size of a small marble. It would fit in your pocket. It would cost a few cents. Do you realize? What should we be moving around? Should we be trying to move electricity? Or, should we be trying to move thorium?
Because it is a whole lot easier to move a globally significant amount of thorium around than it is to move these electricity sources or the electricity from these sources to the places where the people need it. A small, you have seen these plastic totes that you tend to put your blankets or your old clothing in. A plastic tote filled with thorium would power a city for a year. How easy would that be to move around rather than trying to build transmission towers to move electricity around?
The thing about transmission systems, and sort of the dirty little secret is that people hate to see transmission lines just about as much as they hate to see anything else. They don't want to see a power plant. They sure as heck don't want to see transmission lines. They are very unpopular to build, and site, and get installed. It is a dirty little secret of the people who are advocating wind and solar, uber alles that we will require a vast new transmission infrastructure to do that.
To make matters even worse, most of the time that transmission structure will go very underutilized, if it is built. It will not be carrying its full load of electricity day in and day out. It will be operating at a tiny fraction of what it is designed to do, because of the nature of the intermittency of wind and solar. These are enormous enormous financial expenses that will have to be laid out across the world to realize what many people consider to be the dream of a wind and solar powered world. I think of it as a nightmare.
Chris Martenson: Let's talk about how this actually gets done, then. Obviously, funding helps. Is there any traction at this point in time? Is there anything my listeners can do to help to begin nudge public money in this direction? Is there any public money? Is there any hope of it? Is anybody focusing on this? Is there anything here that can be done besides raising simple awareness and hoping something good comes from that?
Kirk Sorensen: Well, Chris, I spent ten years at NASA doing technology development on public money. I developed some very strong opinions during that time; namely don't do technology development on public money.
Chris Martenson: Alright.
Kirk Sorensen: It seems like a great idea. It seems like free money. But, the reality is when you factor in all of the strings, and all of the delays, and all of the uncertainties, and all of the changes in political winds, it turns out to be a bad idea. I proceeded with my company along the assumption that it is generally a bad idea to pursue public funding for these sorts of things.
I know this is not a popular opinion among many other people. In fact, I have butted heads with more people than I know. But, I also come back to I have had the experience of doing technology development on public money. I do not care to repeat it. This is why we are charting a path like this. What can your listeners do to help?
Well, that depends entirely on their own personal interests, wealth, and risk profile. There is probably somebody listening to this right now that could do an awful lot to change the story on this. I would love to talk to him or her.
But, I don't think that a public strategy of development is ultimately going to win out. It may make short-term gains. But in the long run, it always runs on the rocks of a change in administration or a change in strategy. Or, this fellow wants blue instead of purple. It just doesn't work out.
Chris Martenson: Interesting, and well it's certainly…. I mean, if we were going to put another trillion to bailing out bankers; or, maybe a few billion into LFTR technology; still, I think I would choose the latter over the former. But with that, it is still – it's very exciting. Always exciting to talk to you.
Kirk Sorensen: Then would that you were in charge, Chris. Would that you were in charge…..
Chris Martenson: I know. Yeah, but not this year. At any rate, thank you so much for your time today. This is just fantastic. I want to let people know more about this. I want to direct people to your excellent work as much as possible. Where would people go, if they were interested in finding out more and helping to support this?
Kirk Sorensen: We are always trying to add resources, and understanding, and insights to our website at Flibe dash energy dot com, F-l-i-b-e dash energy dot com. I would also invite people to get in touch with me directly at my e-mail Kirk F Sorensen, K-i-r-k-f-s-o-r-e-n-s-e-n at Gmail dot com. Particularly, if you want to know more about this; or if you think that you might be able to help. Please mention that you heard about it on Chris's podcast.
Chris Martenson: Well fantastic, thanks for that. Thank you for your time today. Really thank you for pushing this idea. From my standpoint, wow, we need to begin getting very serious about how we're going to begin transitioning. I think that to the extent people are hoping that Elon Musk is going to magically solve this with a few like extra electric cars on a percentage basis tossed into the mix.
They have not really thought this through. Of course, that is what we're trying to do it Peak Prosperity is add the big numbers, and make sense of it all. Take a squinty look at it all and say, "We're going to have to begin doing things very differently than we have in the past." Out with the old and in with the new, or in this case, in with old, which happens to be new. With that –
Kirk Sorensen: Well said and well said.
Chris Martenson: Thank you much for your time today, Kirk.
Kirk Sorensen: Thank you very much Chris. I appreciate it.