Podcast

Kirk Sorensen: The Future Of Energy?

An update on the potential of LFTR power
Sunday, June 18, 2017, 1:20 PM

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

Thorium reactor schematic

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).

Transcript: 

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.

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29 Comments

richcabot's picture
richcabot
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Picture too rosey?

Other writers on the web cite several problems with Thorium, the worst of which is that it does produce weapons components.  See https://www.quora.com/What-are-the-cons-of-thorium-nuclear-energy

Several postings there assert that U233 is a byproduct of the LFTR and that this is an unstable fuel with explosive properties comparable to Plutonium.  Supposedly bombs built with U233 can't be stored for years safely but can readily be used soon after construction.  It is also claimed that the LFTR design produces U233 with minimal additional purification or separation required.  

cmartenson's picture
cmartenson
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Quite solvable, really
richcabot wrote:

Other writers on the web cite several problems with Thorium, the worst of which is that it does produce weapons components.  See https://www.quora.com/What-are-the-cons-of-thorium-nuclear-energy

Several postings there assert that U233 is a byproduct of the LFTR and that this is an unstable fuel with explosive properties comparable to Plutonium.  Supposedly bombs built with U233 can't be stored for years safely but can readily be used soon after construction.  It is also claimed that the LFTR design produces U233 with minimal additional purification or separation required.  

It's not a 'byproduct' but U233  *is* the fissile component of the LFTR design.   That's the substance actually being 'burned' (fissile target).

Also, the U233 being produced is also riddled with U232, which renders the whole thing rather unusable from a variety of standpoints:

Because the 233 U produced in thorium fuels is significantly contaminated with 232 U in proposed power reactor designs, thorium-based used nuclear fuel possesses inherent proliferation resistance.

232 U cannot be chemically separated from 233 U and has several decay products that emit high-energy gamma radiation. These high-energy photons are a radiological hazard that necessitate the use of remote handling of separated uranium and aid in the passive detection of such materials.

(Source)

So if you are gong to use this as a bomb material your first challenge is just handling the stuff because the U 232 contamination means you are in the presence of a strong gamma emitter.  First this burns you up close, second devices containing U 232 can be detected from a long ways off.  So no smuggling a device in on a container ship is pretty much out of the question.

But the big problem is that the stuff doesn't make a good bomb even if it's pure, but a slight contamination with U 232 renders the bomb a dud:

[The gamma emitting properties of U 232]  makes manual handling in a glove box with only light shielding (as commonly done with plutonium) too hazardous, (except possibly in a short period immediately following chemical separation of the uranium from its decay products) and instead requiring complex remote manipulation for fuel fabrication. The hazards are significant even at 5 parts per million. Implosion nuclear weapons require U-232 levels below 50 ppm (above which the U-233 is considered "low grade";

(Source)

All things being equal, and having to choose between burning the remaining coal for electricity vs solving for how to secure LFTR facilities, I'll take the security problem.  We know how to solve that.  Nobody can solve for dispersed mercury, CO2, and leveled mountaintops.  

LesPhelps's picture
LesPhelps
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The Road Not Taken

I never knew that our nuclear power industry was based on submarine nuclear power plants.

"Things run by committee (congress), are not run very well."

It appears, from a quick search of thorium LFTR news, that China and India are taking this technology much more seriously than is the US.

Jefferson Bramlett's picture
Jefferson Bramlett
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30 hour work week.

I am a small scale organic farmer (6 acres mixed vegetable CSA farm) and work about 80-90 hours per week. I was harvesting radishes for the CSA after harvesting carrots while listening to this episode. It always strikes me as funny when people start talking about automation and robots taking over and us humans aren't going to have much to do for work. When the conversation turned to "maybe we will need to reconsider the 40-hour work week," I had to laugh. What 40 hour work week? I guess maybe in urban areas robotics will rule, but in the countryside, there is much to do. I'm starting to think that the urban mentality still can't comprehend the fact of severe limits. I am faced with limits every day. We have a 92-member CSA and are always struggling to produce enough food on a weekly basis to fill the shares. I'm always up against limits of my own stamina, the fertility of the ground, water resources, and especially time. If there is a robot that can do my job, it will need to be very good at hundreds of tasks, multi-tasking, and figuring out what is most important, since we are always in triage mode, always up against limits. Anyway, I think people are in for a rude awakening and I'd say get ready for an 80 hour work week of crawling in the dirt weeding, digging, and hoeing when the cities become uninhabitable. It is called Peak Prosperity, and it isn't a 30 hour work week.

Helix's picture
Helix
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Thorium? AGAIN?? 

Thorium? AGAIN??  Really???

I'm not going to hold my breath on this one.  The history of thorium reactors has been -- how can I put this politely? -- a lot of smoke and not much fire?  Actually, not even all that much smoke until lately.

The world contains exactly one working commercial thorium reactor; the Krakrapar-1 reactor in Gujurat, India.  Oh, wait, that is actually a converted uranium reactor.  Oh, wait some more!  At the moment, it's not operating due to, uh, "technical difficulties."  For some reason, the pressurized water lines have developed leaks despite being replaced only six years ago.

LFTRs in particular have some pretty intimidating technical "challenges" that tend to temper enthusiasm for their theoretical advantages.  In addition to the challenge of starting them up -- which generally requires the services of a conventional nuclear fuel -- let's think about what happens to a liquid salt (liquid above 300 degrees C or so, that is) when the heat goes off.  While we're at it, let's think about the corrosiveness of a salt operating at those kinds of temperatures.  And that's just the tip of the iceberg.  Irradiated plant, toxic byproducts, the notorious problems associated with any kind of breeder reactor, ...  Suffice it to say, there are reasons that a power generation system with the kind of promise suggested by Mr. Sorensen has not been brought on line, and those reasons have nothing to do with it not producing bomb-grade material.

Of course, the technical issues may in time be solved.  The problem is that no one has come up with solutions that are even remotely economic.  By now it is common knowledge that even conventional nuclear plants would not be operating without massive public subsides.  But if you think conventional nuclear power plants are expensive, you might want to prepare yourselves for some serious sticker shock when it comes to building and operating one of these suckers.

My guess: best case they'll be demonstration reactors and perhaps used for remote military installations.  Americans are already used to dumping trillions of dollars down that particular rat hole, and military bases tend to be off-limits to the public forever, so "clean up" can be -- ahhh, what's the term? -- "quick and dirty?"  As for facilities that will produce power for ordinary civilians, I'm not holding my breath.

GerrySM's picture
GerrySM
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Thorium dead in the water

For some reason, the pressurized water lines have developed leaks despite being replaced only six years ago.

Yes, if you read the reports on this you can see that there was even back in the Oak Ridge days a lot of metal cracks in all metal surfaces exposed to the fuel salt. The cause of the embrittlement was tellurium - a fission product generated in the fuel. There were suggestions of possible fixes, but nothing was certain. Just one more big question mark. Oak Ridge was instructive on many levels. The decommissioning brought up several intractable problems too. Supporters say these problems can be solved in theory, but it's just another uncertainty in what would be a VERY expensive process. Meanwhile renewable energy is racing away with the prize. I'd like to see Chris interview someone from the wind, sun, water, geothermal sectors, where workable solutions exist.

cmartenson's picture
cmartenson
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Racing away with everything...except the prize

GerrySM wrote:
Meanwhile renewable energy is racing away with the prize. I'd like to see Chris interview someone from the wind, sun, water, geothermal sectors, where workable solutions exist.

I'd like to see some numbers please. Begin with base load and then move on to intermittency.

I've covered all of these issues in depth and while I am a supporter of alt-energy, it has yet to live up to the hype.

EROEI analyses show solar to be a lot less than favorable, and even as good as wind might be, we still don't have anything remotely close to grid scale storage worked out. And, no, a demo project in southern CA doesn't cut it.

Nuclear has a possible role and just because we haven't spent anything recently on coming up with new designs and such is not the same thing as saying that the issues are insolvable.

That's all we're exploring here. Seems to me that the detractors of Thorium saying that some details from the 1960's remain sketchy is grasping a bit. I trust that metallurgy, design, and technology have processed somewhat in since the 1960's.

I also trust that eventually the US and Europe will have to buy the next gen nuclear designs from China and/or India. Hopefully the dollar still has some value then and we're not bartering shiploads of grain or something.

Mots's picture
Mots
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Meanwhile renewable energy is racing away......

GerrySM
thank you very much for your thoughtful insight and observation.  

You are absolutely correct, as solar has good EROEI is "favorable" and quite good already and is getting even better rapidly.  A lot of the  advances have come and continue to come from the same industry that gives us advances in semiconductor chip technology.

Furthermore, the main demerit constantly trotted out by detractors ("the  grid scale storage problem!") is chimerical for two reasons: 1. the future is NOT favorable for expensive over regulated large grid scale management (a technical-political civil war has started over this (utilities want to keep and harvest their legally mandated captive audience vs. local production and use which is inherently lower cost and superior); and 2. most (probably 90%) of the total energy used in the home can be easily shifted to sunlight hours of operation.  Cheap batteries can handle the rest.

I have reviewed the statistics on this at diygrid.net and find that all water heating (30% of total energy) can be sunlight only, air conditioning can be mostly sunlight only, cooking can be mostly (I use solar electric to cook after 8 AM or maybe a little later if it is raining) etc. A little modification of HOW we use solar (run dish washer and washing machine in afternoon) removes the "grid scale storage!!!!!!" problem..

All major changes in society come from technology advances and result in behavior changes.  The old burn-carbon-on-demand lifestyle where we are encouraged to flick on a switch anytime day or night for our fun and their profit, will give way to a extremely-cheap-abundant-energy-during daylight lifestyle.  And, by the way, rain and overcast conditions are handled by using more very cheap solar panels in parallel, which is easy if the grid is direct current.  Works for me. 
 

LesPhelps's picture
LesPhelps
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Jefferson Bramlett wrote: I
Jefferson Bramlett wrote:

I am a small scale organic farmer (6 acres mixed vegetable CSA farm) and work about 80-90 hours per week. I was harvesting radishes for the CSA after harvesting carrots while listening to this episode. It always strikes me as funny when people start talking about automation and robots taking over and us humans aren't going to have much to do for work. When the conversation turned to "maybe we will need to reconsider the 40-hour work week," I had to laugh. What 40 hour work week? I guess maybe in urban areas robotics will rule, but in the countryside, there is much to do. I'm starting to think that the urban mentality still can't comprehend the fact of severe limits. I am faced with limits every day. We have a 92-member CSA and are always struggling to produce enough food on a weekly basis to fill the shares. I'm always up against limits of my own stamina, the fertility of the ground, water resources, and especially time. If there is a robot that can do my job, it will need to be very good at hundreds of tasks, multi-tasking, and figuring out what is most important, since we are always in triage mode, always up against limits. Anyway, I think people are in for a rude awakening and I'd say get ready for an 80 hour work week of crawling in the dirt weeding, digging, and hoeing when the cities become uninhabitable. It is called Peak Prosperity, and it isn't a 30 hour work week.

Ever read Thoreau's "Walden Pond?"  He strived to reduce his needs, rather than increase his output.

Thoreau wrote:

It is not necessary that a man should earn his living by the sweat of his brow unless he sweats easier than I do.

Jefferson Bramlett's picture
Jefferson Bramlett
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Response to Les Phelps

Indeed I have thought of that. We were able to purchase our 15 acre farm property for $190k because it didn't have a house on it. It is zoned EFU, Exclusive Farm Use. Oregon law requires that any property zoned EFU earn $85k for two years in a row, or 3 out of 5 years, in order to build a dwelling on it. This law was designed to protect farmland from being developed into subdivisions, etc... So the $85k per year has been our goal and we have met it for two years in a row now. So yes, now that we can potentially build a house, the question is how to afford it. Even though the farm grossed just over $100k last year, my wife and I only draw $600/month each from the business, meaning I'm making about $1.50 or so an hour. So yes, we would love to downshift our hectic life to a saner one, but the way forward is unclear. Good problems to have I guess.

LesPhelps's picture
LesPhelps
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Jefferson Bramlett
Jefferson Bramlett wrote:

Oregon law requires that any property zoned EFU earn $85k for two years in a row, or 3 out of 5 years, in order to build a dwelling on it.

Land of the free...

Mark_BC's picture
Mark_BC
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I don't know much about

I don't know much about thorium reactors other than what I read on internet site, usually by what seem to be overly starry eyed believers. It seems good technically. There are engineering challenges that i'm sure could be solved with enough funding and determination. Based on what I've heard it would be ... better than any of our other sources of energy, even if all the rosy praise turns out to be less than accurate. 

My issue with it is not that it wouldn't  be a better way of harnessing energy than the way we do it now, but that many seem to think it would provide a solution to our environmental problems. I'm sure those at peak prosperity are not so naive to believe that but I think the majority of people would. 

We are nearing ecological limits of the planet and more energy, even if it's made cleanly, won't increase it. 

Historically, no new energy source has usurped consumption of a previous energy source, except maybe crude oil put the whale oil industry out of business. Coal is up, oil is up, natural gas is up, biomass, they are all up. It is not reasonable to think that if thorium gained traction that it is going to DISPLACE the traditional fuels: it will just add to them, as justification to promote further economic growth. Consumption of fossil fuels will not drop until their price becomes high from scarcity. Unfortunately there is still a LOT of coal left to make electricity. 

And ultimately, thorium only produces electricity. Coal already does that cheaply. That is what it is up against. I believe that electricity was the same price a hundred years ago as it is today (can some confirm?) accounting for inflation it has never been cheaper.  That is what thorium is up against. 

Also, after the western world sinks into social decay after the financial transition, I'm not too sure how societies will manage to construct and maintain such high tech centralized infrastructure. 

But, i'm all for thorium reactorss, I hope we see the results many tout. I just don't think they will provide any substantial relief from our predicament unless societyy recognizes that economic growth must stop, and reverse. 

GerrySM's picture
GerrySM
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Yoxa's picture
Yoxa
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Impressive
Quote:

 15 acre farm property ... grossed just over $100k last year

That is impressive.

I'd be very interested to hear more about what you do to achieve that, lessons learned, etc..

cmartenson's picture
cmartenson
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The big problem is growth
Mark_BC wrote:

My issue with it is not that it wouldn't  be a better way of harnessing energy than the way we do it now, but that many seem to think it would provide a solution to our environmental problems. I'm sure those at peak prosperity are not so naive to believe that but I think the majority of people would. 

We are nearing ecological limits of the planet and more energy, even if it's made cleanly, won't increase it. 

This is, of course, why thorium, or alt-energy won't "solve" anything.   As long as humans do not recognize that we are a part of, not apart from, nature and its ecological limits, then there's no such thing as a "solution."

In fact, I fear a new energy solution as much as I want one.  No...I think I fear one more because so far we've not shown that we have any clue about how to effectively regulate ourselves, with each other and with nature.

Perhaps, with a big enough "reset" a new awareness might dawn, but as it is now the brain-stem crowd is in charge, and I can't see how a big new source of energy would fix that.   Worse, it would only reinforce the wrong lessons.

PaulJam's picture
PaulJam
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Amen

Amen Chris.

As individuals, we can do a lot of internal work (meditation or spiritual practices oreinted towards generating realization of the mystical dimensions of life) to alter our neurology in ways that makes it more likely that one could modulate the brain-stem drivers of our behavior that, through collective and synergistic action of individual actors, has brought the life support systems of the planet on which we depend on to the brink.  If our collective behavior – and hence our trajectory, is unaltered, the earth will change in ways will be impossible for humans to adapt to a scale any larger than a small fraction of the current planetary human population load. 

While these spiritual practices can be profoundly influential at the individual level, the notion that enough people in the world are going to be able to do enough of this kind of work to make a difference in our overall planetary trajectory is on par with the kind of magical thinking so appropriately excoriated elsewhere on this website.

Brain-stem impulse drivers of our planetary crisis need to be regulated by cultural normative mechanisms so that they are deeply encoded in a culture’s rituals and ways of life.  For us humans, it’s the only thing that has ever worked over a longer time scale.  In contrast, our culture’s current set of values, norms, and mythology values, enables, and encourages the amplification and expression of these brain-stem impulses.

In this sense, an unlimited source of cheap and clean energy would be a disaster, because our culture would run amok with it well beyond where we already are.  The longer we put off humanity’s inevitable downscaling, the poorer the planet will ultimately be in terms of richness and diversity of life – including human life.

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cmartenson wrote: Mark_BC
cmartenson wrote:
Mark_BC wrote:

My issue with it is not that it wouldn't  be a better way of harnessing energy than the way we do it now, but that many seem to think it would provide a solution to our environmental problems. I'm sure those at peak prosperity are not so naive to believe that but I think the majority of people would. 

We are nearing ecological limits of the planet and more energy, even if it's made cleanly, won't increase it. 

This is, of course, why thorium, or alt-energy won't "solve" anything.   As long as humans do not recognize that we are a part of, not apart from, nature and its ecological limits, then there's no such thing as a "solution."

In fact, I fear a new energy solution as much as I want one.  No...I think I fear one more because so far we've not shown that we have any clue about how to effectively regulate ourselves, with each other and with nature.

Perhaps, with a big enough "reset" a new awareness might dawn, but as it is now the brain-stem crowd is in charge, and I can't see how a big new source of energy would fix that.   Worse, it would only reinforce the wrong lessons.

 

In a sense, we need another near infinite energy source to clean up the pollution we have already released to date.    However, unless we are very wise with that energy it will be another deadly bargain.   Growth is probably coded directly into our genes.   It will take a lot to overcome this.

 

 

 

 

TechGuy's picture
TechGuy
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: Oct 13 2008
Posts: 351
Re:Thorium dead in the water

Yup, and actinides removable was never figured out. Xenon isn't the only neutron poision that needs to be removed.

 Kirk's Recommendation of using CO2 for coolant, turbine working gas is also flawed since CO2 is corrosive, especially at high temperatures. 

A Thorium MSR is a very elaborate Rube Goldberg machine.Nuclear power needs to be simple to be safe and reliable. The more complex the more problems and the more risks. A MSR is not safe from a meltdown.

I think the only cost effective Thorium reaction would be a heavy water reactor like the CANDU. CANDU reactors just use tubes where new fuel enters one end, and spent fuel exits the other side. no need to shutdown the reactor to remove spent fuel and no need of complex systems to extract the fuel from the molten salt. The only hurdle is the cost for heavy water. Yes, CANDU reactors can be fuelled with Thorium.

Another factor that Kirk avoided is the mining and smelting Thorium ore. Its basically a death sentence for the miners and the who is going to pick up the clean up costs for all the pollution created from mining and smelting? My guess is the Kirk would never voluteer to work in a Thorium mine. Next time you run into a Thorium reactor supporter, ask them if they are willing to work in a Throrium mine.

That said Nuclear power is dead. It takes too much capital, about a decade or more of construction to build about 1GWth, and way too much red tape. Currently the Vogtle plant construction is stalled do to a $2 Billion cost overrun and the bullder, Westinghouse has filed for bankruptcy.

http://www.powermag.com/southern-company-could-delay-plant-vogtle-decisi...

There is a 50% chance that the project will get cancelled which is a good thing in my opinion. We need to start decommissioning all of the operating power plants ASAP. with the US economy buried in debt and aging population we need to have a have these plants shutdown, so that when the global economy collapses or there is a nuclear war that the planet isn't made uninhabitable by plant meltdowns.

" I'd like to see Chris interview someone from the wind, sun, water, geothermal sectors, where workable solutions exist."

Intermittent power systems cannot replace base load power plants. Based upon articles I read years ago, the grid can only support about 7% of intermittent power before become vulenable stability problems. Intermittent power systems would need to be coupled to storage systems to avoid stability issues,which are the achilles heel since they are very costly. The only way solar & wind can be practically be used, is at the individual level where the household makes major adjustments to the way they use electricity. (ie apply the bulk of their energy consumption when the sun is shinning or when the wind is blowing). Most people are at work during the peak solar production hours and thus can't readily take advantage unless they apply automation (ie start cloths washer on timer).

Another issue is that a Solar install is between $10K and $50K (depending on size). Something like 50% of the US population does even have $1K for an emergency fund. Thus, Solar power is unobtainium for the masses. Only the top 10% to 25% of the population can afford Solar. As more people head into retirement and as good paying jobs disappear (automation, outsourcing, etc) the pool of people able to afford alternative energy systems is shrinking. Also a lot of people live in apartments where Alternative energy installs are not pratical due to the lack of surface area to install panels.

As far as geothermal there is no where near enough capacity and usually the sources of geothermal energy are very distance from deman areas.Perhaps geothermal production can be doubled or tripled but its still not going to make a dent in fossil fuel consumption.

Finally any power transistion is going to cost trillions and the West is drop dead broke. Western economy are dangling on a frayed string with QE and rock bottom interest rates. A majority of gov'ts and business are using credit to keep operating. This is completely unsustainable and doomed to fail. I just hope that dozens more plants are shutdown before the collapse or war begins. I doubt all of them will get shutdown in time, unless there is a plant meltdown in the US that triggers mass public outrage.

TechGuy's picture
TechGuy
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Posts: 351
Yoxa Asked: "That is

Yoxa Asked:

"That is impressive.I'd be very interested to hear more about what you do to achieve that, lessons learned, etc.."

Not so impressive since his net after expenses was only about $14K a year. and earned about $1.50 per hour of labor.Farming is a difficult business. The capital costs are very high (land + equipment), lots of hours (probably about 12 days and weekends). Most people lose their shirts running small farms. Farming is probably even worse than running a resturant business. If you want to do farming. do it for your own personal needs, but not for income.

 

 

TechGuy's picture
TechGuy
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Posts: 351
Jefferson Bramlett Wrote: "If

Jefferson Bramlett Wrote:

"If there is a robot that can do my job, it will need to be very good at hundreds of tasks, multi-tasking, and figuring out what is most important, since we are always in triage mode, always up against limits."

FWIW: Automation applies to controlled enviroments when the process to complete a task is dead-on the same over and over. Automation isn't reducing job hours, its eliminating jobs. For instance automation is likely to replace 1/3 of all american workers, thus reducing the working hours by 1/3. Those that still have jobs will still be working 40+ hours. The jobs getting replace are in retail (kioks & self-checkout  instead of cashiers) and office (IT, Legal, Sales, Accounting, etc).

 That said some automation will come to farming, but its not cheap and still likely to require frequent maintenance, just like existing ag. machinery. The push for ag automation is because the lack of farmers. less than 2% of the population has any involvement in food production and the average age of US farmers is about 60 years. Either in the future, machines will need to do more of the work, or people will have to eat a lot less :). Still I think maintenance is not going away. Still need to grease joints, Sharpen/replace blades, Replace damaged parts, clean gunk, etc. No Ag machine is going to be maintenance free.

I think we will see more automation in the form of semi-robotic tractors that automate seed drilling, cultivation, applying fertializer, etc, on a well mapped out field. However I am not sure if this can be applied to fields that are not consistant of have too many curves that would be difficult for the machines to track properly. There will be some advancement in harvesting equipment such as fruit pickers, but to justify the cost for picking machines, the costs for fruits would probably need to double. Its far cheaper to higher a group of undocumented workers that to buy & maintain a $750K to $1M mechanical picker, that probably is a lot slower than a human. 

 

sand_puppy's picture
sand_puppy
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Apr 13 2011
Posts: 1658
Path to Growth is to Move Off Planet

A race could continue to grow if it is able to move off planet, something that Arthur Robey has long been talking about.

Energy, raw materials and room are available.  But not on the surface of Earth.

I'm not that trilled by being an early colonizer of an asteroid or nearby planet.  But some might be.  Like those who left "civilization" in the late 1700's to explore and settle the wild west.

Jefferson Bramlett's picture
Jefferson Bramlett
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Posts: 3
Reply to Yoxa

Hi Yoxa. Our website is www.pitchforkandcrow.com. There is a lot of info on it. Thank you.

KugsCheese's picture
KugsCheese
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Jan 2 2010
Posts: 1411
Output Heat

Milwaukee had a coal-fired power plant (recently converted to NG) that sent its output heat to many buildings in downtown Milwaukee as free heat including older apartment buildings.  If you drive in from South on 94 and approach the exit for downtown it is the two-tower plant West of 94.  You may use Milorganite; it is produced from Milwaukee sewage.  Drive over Hoan Bridge by that big tower and open window when plant is operating.

KugsCheese's picture
KugsCheese
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Jan 2 2010
Posts: 1411
Re: Racing Away With Everything...Except The Prize

Instead of constant bailouts it would be better to use some of that money to fund moon-shots for new nuke designs.   Pick 3 and fund proof of concept.   2 will probably fail but 1 will be the moon-shot.  Instead we bail out the cronies CONSTANTLY.   CITI was given over $2T in latest estimates including both FED and Taxpayer money.

Yoxa's picture
Yoxa
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Joined: Dec 21 2011
Posts: 250
I remain impressed
Quote:

 Not so impressive since his net after expenses was only about $14K a year

On my planet, to produce $100K+ worth of food on an acreage that size is impressive. The mortgage that might be owing on said acreage is a separate matter.

It's common for new entrepreneurs to plow every nickel back into the business that they can. They take small paychecks, so personal cash flow is indeed tight, but their equity / net worth grows as equipment is acquired, clientele increases, borrowed funds are repaid, and so on.

So $14K net after expenses is only part of the story.

I remain impressed. smiley

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GerrySM's picture
GerrySM
Status: Member (Offline)
Joined: Jun 20 2017
Posts: 8
Chris, please interview Arnie Gundersen

Arnie is a real expert on nuclear energy, Chris. Are Gundersen and Martenson from the same part of Europe originally?

Part One: Economics Of Nuclear Power with Arnie Gundersen

Part Two: Economics of Nuclear Power with Mycle Schneider

Nuclear expert Arnie Gundersen on nuclear power vs alternative energy technologies

More here

 

Robinson's picture
Robinson
Status: Bronze Member (Offline)
Joined: Apr 29 2009
Posts: 37
The emotions of the nuclear energy

when the people try to talk about alternative energy, they talk with much emotion about nuclear energy.  To take decisions, we need to set apart the emotions and see the facts.

Cornelius999's picture
Cornelius999
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: Oct 17 2008
Posts: 357
Free Energy

Fascinating book due out by Reinout Guepin on Viktor Schauberger who as a forest ranger discovers free energy in 1920s Austria by observing water.
The Nazis and then the Americans force him to help them develop flying saucer engine and then the H-bomb with his implosion technology!
The title is " One Eye in the Land of the Blind - the Rediscovery of Aether ". Not Fiction.

shastatodd's picture
shastatodd
Status: Bronze Member (Offline)
Joined: Oct 16 2010
Posts: 49
physics
Cornelius999 wrote:

Fascinating book due out by Reinout Guepin on Viktor Schauberger who as a forest ranger discovers free energy in 1920s Austria by observing water. The Nazis and then the Americans force him to help them develop flying saucer engine and then the H-bomb with his implosion technology! The title is " One Eye in the Land of the Blind - the Rediscovery of Aether ". Not Fiction.

 

This is the second law of thermodynamics:

You cannot create more energy in a system then enters the system.

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