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Kirk Sorensen: A Detailed Exploration of Thorium's Potential as an Energy Source

A form of nuclear energy worth considering
Sunday, May 11, 2014, 3:26 PM

While Chris and I attend to making our wives/mothers feel sufficiently celebrated today, here's an interview from the archives that is well worth revisiting. We plan to have Kirk back on in 2014 to inform us of any notable developments in the LFTR space since this interview was recorded.

Kirk Sorensen, NASA-trained engineer, is a man on a mission to open minds to the tremendous promise that thorium, a near-valueless element in today's marketplace, may offer in meeting future world energy demand.

Compared to Uranium-238-based nuclear reactors currently in use today, a liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LTFR) would be:

  • Much safer - No risk of environmental radiation contamination or plant explosion (e.g., Chernobyl, Fukushima, Three Mile Island)
  • Much more efficient at producing energy - Over 90% of the input fuel would be tapped for energy, vs. <1% in today's reactors
  • Less waste-generating - Most of the radioactive by-products would take days/weeks to degrade to safe levels, vs. decades/centuries
  • Much cheaper - Reactor footprints and infrastructure would be much smaller and could be constructed in modular fashion
  • More plentiful - LFTR reactors do not need to be located next to large water supplies, as current plants do
  • Less controversial - The byproducts of the thorium reaction are pretty useless for weaponization
  • Longer-lived - Thorium is much more plentiful than uranium and is treated as valueless today. There is virtually no danger of running out of it given LFTR plant efficiency 

Most of the know-how and technology to build and maintain LFTR reactors exists today. If made a priority, the U.S. could have its first fully-operational LFTR plant running at commercial scale in under a decade.

But no such LFTR plants are in development. In fact, the U.S. shut down its work on thorium-based energy production decades ago and has not invested materially in related research since then.

Staring at the looming energy cliff ahead, created by Peak Oil, LFTR begs the question why not?

As best Kirk can tell, we are not pursuing thorium's potential today because we are choosing not to. We are too wedded to the U-238 path that we've been investing in for decades. Indeed, the grants that funded the government's thorium research in the 50s and 60s were primarily focused on weapons development, not new energy sources. Once our attention turned to nuclear energy, we simply applied the uranium-based know-how that we developed from our atomic bomb program rather than asking is there a better way?

This is an excellent and thought-provoking interview. I highly recommend that you also visit Kirk's website and its FAQs to familiarize yourself with the thorium cycle, as I predict we will be revisiting the thorium story again in the future.

Also, we encourage our readers with engineering and nuclear expertise to share their insights in the Comments thread below. We are looking for ways to light the path ahead as we begin to descend down the global energy cliff. Will thorium shine brightly for us?

Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Kirk Sorensen (36m:02s):

Transcript: 

Chris Martenson:  Welcome to another Peak Prosperity Podcast. I am your host, Chris Martenson. Well, here it is – it's July 2012 and the world faces the prospect of an extremely poor harvest due to droughts in the US, other weather disturbances across the globe… Global coal consumption continues to increase with every passing day, as two new coal-fired electricity plants are brought on line each week. And as the limitations and expense of solar wind and conventional nuclear technologies are illuminated, perhaps it's time to try something new.

Now, as I have said at many points in my writing, presentations, and my book – we don’t really need any new technologies to be discovered. There are in many cases, solutions already on the shelf, that we simply have to get serious about adopting. Now there is one technology up on a shelf that we can take down, dust off, and perhaps give a try – first tried experimentally back in the 1960s. The idea centers on using nuclear materials in a liquid fluoride salt form, instead of a solid form, and specifically using thorium in that fuel cycle.

Today, we’re talking with Kirk Sorenson, a leading proponent for liquid fluoride thorium reactors (LFTR technology) and co-founder of Flibe Energy, dedicated to developing a thorium-based reactor. Now Kirk has been studying thorium technology since 2000 and operates the website www.energyfromthorium.com. Welcome, Kirk.

Kirk Sorenson:  Thanks a lot, Chris. I really appreciate the opportunity to be here today.

Chris Martenson:  Great. Well, I have certainly received a lot of requests to investigate thorium reactors over the past couple of years and to talk with you in particular. So before we get started on that, can you tell the listeners a little bit about yourself? Your background, your training, your current position?

Kirk Sorenson:  Sure, my training is in engineering. I am an aerospace engineer and I have a master’s degree from Georgia Tech. I am working (almost done) on another master’s degree in nuclear engineering from the University of Tennessee. I spent ten years with NASA doing technology development in the Marshall Space Flight Center. Then a year with Teledyne Brown Engineering here in Huntsville, as their chief nuclear technologist, and then last year, with my co-founder Kirk Dorius, started Flibe Energy to develop and commercialize LFTR [liquid fluoride thorium reactor] technology.

Chris Martenson:  Oh, fantastic, so this LFTR technology – let’s dive right in. First of all, what are the key problems that we are trying to solve here in the energy space, as you see them?

Kirk Sorenson:  We need to drastically reduce the costs of energy generation, while at the same time dramatically expanding its availability to the world. And the number of energy sources that are capable of doing that are really, really few and far between. And then when you whittle it down even further to having energy sources that are dispatchable and reliable, the list gets really short.

To me, it becomes clear that we have to access the energy of the nucleus if we want to have dense, low-carbon, reliable energy. And then the question becomes, what path do you want to take? Do you want to take fission or fusions? I think a lot of people, including myself, were initially enamored with fusion, but found reasons to realize that it was going to stay on the horizon for a long, long time.

Then I, through a series of accidents, learned about a totally different form of nuclear fission power based on thorium that, as you had mentioned, had been substantially investigated in the 50s and 60s by (in my opinion) some of the most brilliant minds in the world and rejected for reasons that I don’t think stand up to scrutiny today. Reasons that were largely political and not technical in nature. So that is why for years I wondered, “Why aren’t we doing this?”

But I was in NASA doing aerospace workm and it just sort of sat on the side until I started that website and began to engage a more global community in this discussion. One thing led to anotherm and it became clear that I needed to be a part of making this happen. And that is why the move to start Flibe Energy last year.

Chris Martenson:  Well, great. Let’s start right at the beginning – thorium, now it's an element. It's right there on the periodic table. It's different from uranium, obviously, and we use uranium in how many… maybe 450 nuclear plants worldwide at this point in time. It's a fission-based reaction. What is it about the thorium fuel cycle – first of all, how does thorium get used in the fuel cycle; second of all what advantages does it have over uranium?

Kirk Sorenson:  Those are the best questions. The way thorium is used – uranium has two isotopes, one of which is fissile and the other of which is fertile – means it can become fuel, but isn’t fuel initially. Thorium only has only one really naturally occurring isotope and it's fertile. So you need some fissile material with which to start the reaction. But what happens is that the neutrons bombard thorium, and the thorium nucleus absorbs the neutron and turns into Uranium 233, which is fissile – it is a fissile material. And that is really where the magic happens. When Uranium 233 fissions, it gives off enough neutrons to continue the conversion of new thorium into fuel and existing U233 into energy through fission. I know that probably sounds like a mouthful. But this is really where the magic is. It's the only nuclear isotope that does this, in what is called a thermal spectrum reactor. That’s what different about thorium and uranium. It gives off enough neutrons to continue its consumption.

The analogy that I have heard used before – it's kind of like when you go camping and there is wet wood and there is dry wood. You can start the fire with dry wood, and if you get the fire hot enough, you can even burn the wet wood. Thorium and Uranium 238 are both like the wet wood – if you dry them out to the form of turning them into fission material, then you can burn them for energy. But only thorium can do this in a thermal spectrum reactor. Then the basic question – what is a thermal spectrum reactor and why should I care?

All of our reactors today are thermal spectrum reactors. And what that means is that they slow down their neutrons and it makes them much more – they are able to get a lot more energy per unit of fission material and they are a lot easier to control. That’s why we do it that way. Some people have talked about fast spectrum reactors. That’s the way that you can potentially consume uranium more efficiently, but it's the only way you can consume uranium more efficiently. Thorium can be consumed efficiently in a thermal spectrum reactor. So that’s thorium’s basic fundamental advantage over uranium – the ability to be consumed completely in a thermal spectrum reactor.

Chris Martenson:  So it's being consumed, and it's going through this process where ultimately it's getting converted into U233, which is then ultimately completing the cycle and renewing as it goes around. So is that roughly right?

Kirk Sorenson:  Yes. One way to think of it and this isn’t rigorously accurate, but Uranium 233 is almost like a nuclear catalyst for burning thorium. Because as you burn the U233, you give off enough neutrons to make new U233 from thorium – all U233 comes from thorium.

Chris Martenson:  Right, so let’s contrast this with a conventional nuclear reactor – the Fukushima one, which is obviously giving the world a lesson in the dangers of nuclear technology. So this is a solid fuel reactor – they have these solid pellets that are created out of a mixed oxide. They are clad in this zircaloy sheeting to make these rods. In that process, how much of that nuclear fuel is actually consumed, and how much becomes waste?

Kirk Sorenson:  From the original uranium ore that you mined out of the ground, you are only consuming about half of 1% of the energy there. And that’s not happening because we are stupid; it's happening because there is a basic limitation. In a thermal spectrum reactor, you can’t make more plutonium from Uranium 238 than you consume – it's just not possible, because plutonium, when it fissions, does not give off enough neutrons to continue the conversion reaction. That is the basic saline difference between it and thorium. In order to get plutonium to perform better, you have to go to a fast spectrum reactor, and that’s what the nuclear industry has been dreaming of for 50 years, but really hasn’t happened, because there are some substantial disadvantages of taking that approach. So thorium’s advantage is that it can be used sustainably in a thermal spectrum reactor.

Chris Martenson:  All right, so when we are burning – getting maybe half of 1% of the energy out of the solid fuel reactors, the rest presumably becomes a byproduct waste –

Kirk Sorenson:  Yeah.

Chris Martenson:  …that you have to deal with, right? You store it as pools and figure out – well, we don’t actually have a plan for it at this point, as far as I can tell.

Kirk Sorenson:  We don’t, and let me split it in two waste streams – in the enrichment process where uranium is rich in the first place, five parts out of six of uranium become waste. That is where depleted uranium comes from. That is the uranium where you decrease the amount of Uranium 235 – so right off the bat, there is an 85% cut, so only like 15% of the uranium even makes it into the fuel rods and of that, only a few percent – a few percent at 15%. So that is why it's a really, really poor fuel efficiency, and thorium offers the potential for radically improved fuel efficiency.

Chris Martenson:  So give us some numbers – if/when we start using the thorium cycle, how much would actually get converted into energy?

Kirk Sorenson:  If we use LFTR technology, if we use the liquid-fueled approach that we’re talking about, we anticipate that we can probably get above 90%. The theoretical limit is about 98.5% that you could actually consume. But it looks like getting into the high 90s is very doable.

Chris Martenson:  High 90s from a half of 1%.

Kirk Sorenson:  Yeah, exactly. I mean there is almost nothing else in the world that is talking about this level of radical improvement technology. I used to work a lot of solar cells, and 10% to 30% was considered the greatest thing in the world. We are talking from going from a half of a percent to high nineties.

Chris Martenson:  And one of the things that I am acutely aware of is – I track world uranium supplies. I know that China is building, I think, thirty-six plants, and with scouring the globe for enough forty-year uranium contracts to be able to fuel those, that was even a stretch. So the idea of, could we possibly replace ten thousand coal-fired plants with five thousand new nuclear plants? – the answer, from at least a resource standpoint right now, has to be no. Tell me about thorium in terms of how much is out there.

Kirk Sorenson:  Well, thorium is about three times more common than uranium, to begin with. So there’s the basic advantage that you have. And because thorium only occurs essentially in one form and in one isotope, it's all useable in the reactor. So right now, thorium is basically a waste product of rare earth mining. It's always found with rare earths and known as monazite sands. And in fact, when rare-earth companies are looking for rare earths to mine, they will advertise that they have a low thorium content vein, because the thorium is considered worse than worthless. It's is radioactive – very low level radioactivity, but nevertheless radioactive, and they have to take regulatory steps to dispose of it. So to say it's cheaper than free – there are rare-earth companies that would pay you to take the thorium off their hands.

Chris Martenson:  Okay, so there are piles of this stuff sitting around somewhere just waiting to be used?

Kirk Sorenson:  Under about twelve feet of dirt in the Nevada test site in the United States, we recently buried about – I think it was 3,500 tons of thorium that had been in a strategic stockpile for fifty years. Back in the 50s when people like Alvin Weinberg were saying, “We’re going to run the world on thorium in the future,” the United States made a farsighted move to stockpile thorium. And then the people that were making thorium into reality got reassigned and fired and so forth, and in the early 2000s, they said, “Well what are we going to do with all this thorium?” “It's worthless, throw it away.” So that is essentially what they did.

So the best thorium mine in the world is sitting under twelve feet of dirt in Nevada right now in nice barrels that would be easily recoverable, isolated, and purified, and so forth.

Chris Martenson:  Yeah, that would be a good mine to run. You would probably have a pretty good yield off of that. So talk to me about a thorium reactor – what is it, how does it operate? And then we can talk about maybe its advantages over existing technologies.

Kirk Sorenson:  I will talk to you about the LFTR, the liquid fluoride thorium reactor, and that is an example of the thorium reactor. There are a lot of different ways to do it. And not all of the other ways using thorium are nearly as efficient, and that is something I want to point out. If you try to use thorium in an existing light-water reactor, you are going to do marginally better than what we are doing, but you are not going to have these types of radical improvements and fuel efficiency. This is really a consequence of using thorium in the liquid fuel state.

So our company is called Flibe Energy, and it's a little bit of a wink and a nod. Flibe is a chemical nickname for the salt that we use – it's lithium fluoride, beryllium fluoride. So L-I-F-B-E-F – you rearrange the letters and you get Flibe. It's a great solvent for nuclear reactions, because it's very stable at high temperatures and it's completely impervious to damage from radiation because it's a salt. It doesn’t get damaged. There are no crystal lattices to dislocate or anything like that. It's a marvelous material for holding a nuclear reaction in.

So what you do is dissolve uranium and thorium as salts into the Flibe salt and you pump it through a reactor vessel that has graphite in it. The graphite will slow down – it's called moderating those neutrons, slowing them down to thermal energies – and that’s where they have the maximum chance of crossing another nuclear reaction. So within the reactor vessel, that’s where the fission is taking place. It's heating the salt. The salt passes out of the core and into a heat exchanger and it heats coolant salt, which in turn passes outside of the reactor vessel and drives a gas turbine system. So that’s in a nutshell how you turn the energies of thorium into electrical energy.

Chris Martenson:  And in this technology then – so we are talking about liquid salt – do we have issues of corrosion or – I am going to start navigating towards, obviously, in a post-Fukushima world, the design parameters and safety parameters of maybe this technology versus other ones.

Kirk Sorenson:  Well you have – the salts are very chemically stable. So stable, in fact, that most everything else is pretty unstable as compared to it. And you have to put it in the right materials. You can’t just go stick it in stainless steel. But they developed an alloy at Oakridge called hastelloy, and it's now manufactured by Haynes International in Kokomo, Indiana. I went up there a few months ago and actually saw them making the stuff. Flibe salts with thorium in them do great in hastelloy, and they verified this through the operation of a reactor at Oakridge National Labs. So as long as you choose the right materials and you operate the machine appropriately, corrosion is not a problem.

Chris Martenson:  Okay, so we’re operating this thing – there is a fuel cycle going on. At some point obviously, I am certain other isotopes are going to be building up or other actinide products – something is building up at some point, and you are going to have to either replace or refurbish the salt in some way – what does the fuel cycle look like in this thing?

Kirk Sorenson:  Well, that is a good thing about the salt. The salt is not damaged by radiation like solid fuel elements are. And so what you need to do is you need to continually add new Uranium 233 – there are actually two salts in the core, core salt, fuel salt that has the Uranium 233 tetra fluoride in it. And then there is a blanket of salt surrounding the Flibe with thorium and tetra fluoride in it. And the blanket salt is absorbing neutrons – some of the thorium is turning into Uranium 233 – it's chemically extracted and introduced to the fuel salt. So the fuel salt is always being refueled from what is being generated in the blanket. And in turn, it's generating neutrons through fission that are turning blanket salt into Uranium 233 fuel.

Fission products do accumulate in the core salt, so periodically what you do is you take the fuel salt and you fluorinate out the uranium and it will come off as a gas – uranium hexafluoride – and that leaves the Flibe, the bare Flibe salt and the fission products. And then you go through a step called distillation where you heat the salt to about 1600 degrees and the lithium fluoride and the beryllium fluoride will boil out of the salt. So you are left with just the fission products.

And that is really how you separate the fission products, which are the true waste from the original Flibe salt and the uranium and thorium. So you keep all the actinides in the reactor. The actinides don’t end up in the waste, the actinides being the thorium and uranium. And you just extract the fission products. That would be about a ton of fission products per year. Most fission products stabilize very quickly. They are intensely radioactive when they are formed, but because they are so intensely radioactive, they’re decaying very quickly. In fact, most decay in terms of a few days. Some take weeks and a few take years. But it's really remarkable, and I spent a lot of time modeling this, it is really remarkable just how fast fission products decay the stability.

Chris Martenson:  In this scenario, obviously in the conventional nuclear technology some of those fission products have half-lives that are measured in decades and longer.

Kirk Sorenson:  Yes, there are two in particular – strontium 90 and cesium 137 have thirty-year half-lives and they are most of the trouble when it comes to fission products. But as a rule of thumb, ten half-lives and it's gone – so in three hundred years strontium and cesium decay, essentially – they decay away to stability.

Chris Martenson:  Right, so when you mentioned a ton of waste per year, obviously you could let that sort of reduce itself over time through half-life decay. But that ton per year – what scale are we talking about?

Kirk Sorenson:  That would be if you were running a gigawatt plant for a year.

Chris Martenson:  A standard gigawatt reactor.

Kirk Sorenson:  A standard plant. Because each plant will burn through about a ton of thorium each year and produce about a ton of fission products. Most of those fission products are stabilized very quickly. For instance, xenon; it's about 15% of the fission products – it stabilizes in about a month.

Chris Martenson:  Okay, so we have a ton per year, and compare that to the waste stream off a conventional reactor?

Kirk Sorenson:  Well, a conventional reactor also produces about a ton per year of fission products, but most of the waste in a conventional reactor is unburned actinides. About 95% of the fuel is Uranium 238. So it is not consumed, and then you have the 1% Uranium 235 that wasn’t consumed, about 1% plutonium, and some higher actinides – americium and curium – that’s really the stuff that drives the long-term waste management issues is the higher actinides, the stuff called the transuranic – the stuff beyond uranium that really is the headache for long-term waste disposal. In the thorium fuel cycle, you really minimize the production of transuranic entirely, because you are starting on such a lower number. You are starting from 232, instead of starting from 238. So you go through a lot of steps where fission is very likely before you make it to your first transuranic.

Chris Martenson:  All right, so you mentioned that was some experimental work done at Oakridge back in the 50s and 60s. So how close did we get to actually seeing a full demonstration of the thorium fuel cycle?

Kirk Sorenson:  Well, the full demonstration was actually the next step. They ran an experiment called the Molten-Salt Reactor Experiment in 1965 through 1969. That was mostly about understanding the operations, evaluating material compatibilities and so forth. It was very successful. They shut it down. They appealed to the Atomic Energy Commission for monies for the next step, which would have been called the Molten-Salt Breeding Experiment. That would have shown the complete approach with thorium and making power from thorium and generating electricity.

At that time, the Atomic Energy Commission was fully committed to the plutonium fast breeder reactor, which was cooled by liquid sodium, and they didn’t want any distractions from their plans. So they pretty much arrested with extreme prejudice the research into thorium molten salts. That was really unfortunate, because within just a few years after that, the plutonium program had been canceled by President Carter. And that would have been the moment (about 1977-78) that somebody should have said, “Hey, maybe we made a mistake killing thorium back in ’72; maybe we should go turn that back on again.” But as far as I can tell, that reevaluation never took place.

And the knowledge of what happened at Oakridge really faded further and further into the collective memory. I continue to be amazed at the people I’ve met – these are people who have had long careers in the nuclear industry. They come to me and they say, “Kirk, I have never heard of this before in my life. And it wasn’t until I read those documents on your site that I really believe that this really happened.” In fact, just the other day a gentleman who I have read his work before – very, very experienced and qualified PhD, nuclear engineering for thirty years. He said, “My friends have been telling me about thorium and I knew it was on the periodic table and I never appreciated its advantages for making electrical power.”

Chris Martenson:  I guess part of the problem is that in the thorium cycle, you do end up with 233, which – Uranium 233 – which I guess was used as a nuclear bomb core in Operation Teapot in ’55.

Kirk Sorenson:  Well we don’t know much about Operation Teapot. We know that there was some U233 and some plutonium in one weapon. We know that that was a test, that it was kind of a dude, it was a fizzle, it didn’t work as good, and it was never followed up on. So I would not call the existence of Uranium 233 a problem. I mean that’s a basic feature in the thorium fuel cycle. Uranium 233 has never been used in an operational nuclear weapon. It has always been highly enriched plutonium and uranium. And there are some real disadvantages to using Uranium 233 for nuclear weapons, and I think that is why it's never been done and never will be done.

Chris Martenson:  Right that was the point that I was driving at – that Oakridge had a number of mandates and making electricity wasn’t its sole mandate. So it sounds like the thorium fuel cycle really only has one high and best use, and that’s making electricity. So perhaps it got shelved for reasons that weren’t entirely related to energy.

Kirk Sorenson:  Well, we had a huge weapons program going on that was giving everybody a lot of experience with how to enrich uranium and how to chemically separate plutonium. That was – the first two things we learned how to do on the Manhattan Project were those two tasks. So it's not terribly surprising that when we turned our attention to making electrical energy, we sort of went to what we knew, which was highly enriched uranium and plutonium, rather than thorium, which they looked at thorium very early on in the Manhattan Project. The first question was, can you make a bomb out of it? And the answer was, well, theoretically yes; practically no, not really.

Chris Martenson:  Yeah, not ideal. Not the best stuff around. So okay, so we have – part of the cycle has been demonstrated; let’s talk about what it would take to get all the way through the demonstration of this at this point. How much of the technology do you believe can be dusted off? Obviously you have mentioned one thing, that the people involved in this have aged, some of them have probably died. So we have maybe lost some of the – well we will have to relearn a few things, is kind of what I am getting here.

Kirk Sorenson:  You are absolutely right, and I’ve been in pretty regular contact with the surviving members of the Molten Salt Reactor Program in Oakridge. These are guys that are in their – the young ones are in their late 70s. Most of them are in their 80s, and there could be more, but most of them are dead. So the biggest challenge that faces us is relearning this set of skills that they were in possession of in the 60s and 70s – about two hundred of them. And trying to take the next step – I mean we are really still on the same step as we were in ’72 – which is to build the demonstrator reactor. That’s what we have to go and do.

Chris Martenson:  And so what would it take to get that done – time, money, experience…

Kirk Sorenson:  Well, I think based on what we’ve got now, as far as technology and codes and software and so forth, I think that task could be done for a couple of hundred million dollars. And if we were fully funded, probably about five or six years. I mean that would be like, “Let’s go make this happen, this is a high priority.” That would be to build the demonstrator. To go beyond the demonstrator to a system that was ready to be sold to make electrical power – probably another five to ten years beyond that.

Chris Martenson:  And where are we on that – you started talking about this, as there has been a big increase in interest because of your efforts around that. How close do you think we are to getting the right kind of interest to really go forward with the initial demonstration product?

Kirk Sorenson:  Well, one thing that we are definitely doing differently than what was done before is we’re pursuing this as a privately financed venture rather than government research. I thought for a while that perhaps the DOE would take this up or it would be done at government auspices, but it doesn’t appear to be the case. And unfortunately, the DOE has not ever developed a reactor that then went into commercial use since they were created in 1977. So I strongly believe that it has got to be the private sector. That said, though, it's got to be some fairly farsighted investors. This is not like developing an app for your iPhone. This is some serious money and some serious patience. But the payoff potentially is truly staggering. I mean you would have a machine that would be able to meet the bulk of humanity’s energy needs for the foreseeable future. I mean, we are not going to run out of thorium at the kind of efficiencies that we are talking about. And energy itself is about a quarter of the entire planetary economy, and more than that, it's the quarter that makes the other three-quarters work.

So the potential payoff for this is really truly astronomical. It's just that there is a large barrier up front, and so we are searching for farsighted investors, farsighted deep-pocketed investors, to help make this happen and to help pull this dream off.

Chris Martenson:  And if we decided to get serious about this, whatever the motivation was – whether people were worried about climate change or national security or whatever the issues happen to be – if the government did get serious about this, give me your best case. Like, I know there is a lot of fudging here, so we are not going to hold you to these numbers, but if we really got serious about it, Manhattan-Project style – this is what our nation is really putting a significant whole percentage portion of its revenues towards – what would happen? How fast could we do this?

Kirk Sorenson:  Well, Manhattan-Project style is really interesting because I have read a lot about the Manhattan Project. The Manhattan-Project style is you call up people and you go drop whatever you are doing, you are going to move to a new place, and this is what you are going to work on. I mean if we really did that Manhattan-Project style, we could probably have a demonstrator up and running in two years. But I mean, that is like everybody is working 80-hour weeks, you don’t see your families, and the government essentially has appropriated you out of what you were doing.

Chris Martenson:  Yeah.

Kirk Sorenson:  But yeah, if you really want to go to that level, we could probably have one going in two years, if you want that kind of seriousness. Because we have the materials, we have the fuels, and we have the knowledge to go forward. But I, for one, really would not want to live under that style of project. I prefer another style, I call the “skunk works” approach. And I used to work at the Skunk Works at Lockheed, when I was younger. And that was, shall we say, a 50-hour week, and you get to live with your family and you get paid. But there is a very serious effort behind it. The government is making available important materials. There are some materials this machine needs, but you don’t buy – like Uranium 233, the government has some. They are either going to let you use it or not. But you don’t get to buy stuff like that, you know what I am saying? energyfromthorium.com

Chris Martenson:  Uh, huh. Oh, absolutely. So first of all, if people want to find out more about this, I mean obviously, they can go to your website, which is really, really well done. It's got some just great materials on there. Very easy to step through for anybody in particular who is interested in the technology, more specifically what is really involved in a more technical level. There is some great stuff there. There are some really nice presentations that you have there. But if people were listening to this and said, “You know this sounds like a great idea; I would like to help get this off the ground.” What could they do?

Kirk Sorenson:  They can get in touch with us and we can talk further.

Chris Martenson:  Okay. And do you feel like – is there any benefit at this point at all – are we even close to wanting to illuminate this and raise it to the governmental levels? Is there any interest there at all at the DOE at this stage?

Kirk Sorenson:  We have been continually trying to do that for the last five years. I have made many trips to DC and spoken with people at the House and the Senate, DOE, Office of Science and Technology Policy – always trying to shine the light on this, that yes, it needs to be done. You get a lot of the variety of answers that you might expect – “Well why isn’t industry doing this?” Then we incorporate, we say, “Okay, well we are.” “Well, how come the industry we expect isn’t doing this?” I said, “Well, their market model is based on solid fuel and providing some other fuel services, this is completely different.” There are number of people who say, “Well, gas is cheap, and we don’t have to worry about these things right now.”

Stuff that – we’ve seen gas be cheap and then be expensive and then be cheap and then be expensive. I look at it and I go, “Why don’t we get off this hamster wheel altogether and really achieve energy independence.” Which I am convinced is completely doable. I know it's very fashionable to say we cannot achieve energy independence, and I go, “You don’t know about thorium. You will change your mind once you learn about thorium.”

Chris Martenson:  Now, let me ask you this – would thorium – would you imagine that it would be the similar style of plant? So we are going to put two, three, four reactors – altogether we are going to have two to four gigawatts of generating capacity. It’s a thermal plant at heart. So we are going to need big cooling towers, a water source, all of that. Are these similar in design to essentially having the same footprint and having the same water requirements as a boiling water reactor, or…?

Kirk Sorenson:  No, they are going to be very, very different. Because the salt operates at such high temperature, and because we are using a gas turbine powered conversion systems rather than a steam turbine. We actually could employ air-cooling on these systems and reject heat directly to air. And that would get rid of the cooling towers and it would get rid of the need to be sited next to a body of water. I mean, all these things become thermodynamically possible when you raise your input temperatures significantly. Water-cooled reactors are really restricted in how hot they can go, because they are restricted by the basic properties of water. They cannot get much above about 300c. These reactors naturally operate at about anywhere from 600-700c, so just from a straight thermodynamics perspective, they already have a lot more potential for high performance than a water-cooled reactor.

I’m from the West originally, and I always wondered when I was younger, why didn’t we have nuclear reactors in the West? And it is because we don’t have big rivers in the West. But a reactor like this, you wouldn’t build them nearly as big. You build them modular so you can build them in a factory and take them where you need to go. The footprint would be much smaller, because you don’t have the worry about or need for an evacuation boundary – massive radiation leaks – basically there is nothing inside this reactor that wants to let go, like a water reactor. Water reactors run under real high pressure. And if you depressurize it and you don’t cool it, the fuel is going to melt down. That is the basic problem in a water-cooled reactor. This reactor doesn’t even have that feature to begin with. It runs at atmospheric pressure; if you lose all power, the fuel will passively shut down. It drains out of the bottom and into a drain tank and is passively cooled.

So the fission products, the ones that you are really worried about, are completely chemically occluded in the salt, particularly strontium and cesium. They are very, very stable fluorides. So it has a completely different approach to just about everything that we do today with a water-cooled reactor. I think that is one of the problems when conventional nuclear folks look at it. They go, “Wow, this is just completely different in every way from I am doing now. It's a brand new machine.”

Chris Martenson:  And without the graphite to moderate the neutrons, this thing basically shuts itself down?

Kirk Sorenson:  I mean if you just put the Flibe in a pool, it won’t go – it can’t achieve criticality because the neutrons aren’t being moderated. That is another really neat thing about having separate moderator and fuel:  If they are taken away from one another, the reaction is completely impossible.

Chris Martenson:  Right. And so let’s imagine for a minute we did have a release of the salts form and it's out in the pool. How radioactive is it?

Kirk Sorenson:  Well, the salt is very radioactive, but it's going to freeze on contact with the kind of temperature in which our world is made of. And it occludes those fission products in the salt itself. So you wouldn’t want to go near it to pick it up, but there is nothing in it to disperse. It's not in a form that wants to spread out into the environment. So it is basically a hard rock.

Chris Martenson:  So we could build these, as you said, in module form, maybe instead of having to have these big giant centralized ones, because there are a lot of reasons for that. But the cooling thing is a big portion of that.

Kirk Sorenson:  Cooling is a big deal. And the other thing about light water reactors, their economics get better the bigger you build them. There are certain things in that reactor that really favor a large scale. In our reactor design, there really aren’t parameters that favor really being big or small. I mean the scaling factor is just not nearly as intense. So if you want to say, “I want to build it at 200 megawatts,” you can do that. You can build a 200-megawatt light water reactor, but there are a lot of things that do not scale favorably by doing that.

Chris Martenson:  Yeah, your overhead costs are going to kill you on that. All right, so this all sounds very interesting. So I guess the final question is, why aren’t we doing this?

Kirk Sorenson:  The question I ask myself every night. Especially as I watch the news and I see all of these problems that are described and I turn to my wife and I say, “You know, all of these could potentially be solved in the application of LFTR technology.” It's just really amazing when you consider the scale of what’s going on. Why aren’t we doing this? Well, I am doing it, and that is about all I can speak for. I am trying to make it happen and I hope others will join me.

Chris Martenson:  Well, I really appreciate you picking up the flag and running with it, because it certainly sounds exciting, and there definitely is enough there that we owe it to ourselves, I believe as a nation and possibly as a globe, to investigate it further. Either rule it in or rule it out conclusively. It sounds very intriguing at this point. So if people want to follow you and find out more and potentially even get into contact with you, how would they do that?

Kirk Sorenson:  Go to our website, www.flibe-energy.com, and there is contact information on there. We also have the energyfromthorium.com site. It's not part of our company. It's something that I started originally. Facebook and Twitter feeds are out there. So there are a lot of different ways to follow us.

Chris Martenson:  Well, thank you so much for your time, Kirk. It's been illuminating and I really hope we can help get the word out.

Kirk Sorenson:  All right, my pleasure. Thank you, Chris.

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30 Comments

pat the rat's picture
pat the rat
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money

$1000.00 a from each owner.

One million owners.

"One billion dollars. 

One coop.

All the money you will need,  why not?

SPAM_Matthew Blain's picture
SPAM_Matthew Blain
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Is It Portable?

I have no problem replacing coal. Terrible stuff.

 

But unless we're talking about some Black Swan batteries of the future - current ones are good for cameras, phones and cordless drills, that's about it - the reach of electricity (with respect to transportation) will remain localised. Can't fly jets, can't move tankers, can't run lorries/excavators/etc on electricity (we need to move stuff around, not just people).

 

4200 planes in the air over the US at the time of 911. Scale is our mountain. Peak Oil will be the future.

 

No doubt.

 

Regards, Matt

jonesb.mta's picture
jonesb.mta
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Flibe Energy

My question is why Flibe Energy is a privately held company? Selling stock would get them enough money to build an LFTR plant, maybe they need more than a stock sale would bring in, for buying our congressional representatives approval. I've held Lightbridge stock since it was Thorium Power and they still haven't built a plant even though they were supposed to have one in partnership started in 2007 with Russia's Red Star. I don't know what is holding them both back as it doesn't appear to be money with Red Star involved. Lightbridge started their agreement with Red Star in 2007 and six years later not a peep about the plant since 2010. I've given up seeing thorium used to generate power in my lifetime, there's too many big money players that are against thorium for whatever reason.

Arthur Robey's picture
Arthur Robey
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The Darth Vader approach.

Lets see, How would Darth Vader approach this problem?

Has anyone else noticed that when we have a problem we always choose an evil option? If we need energy instead of finding the solution that is right under our noses we choose to do something gross.

So we have an energy problem- what shall we do, develop Thorium or something else or go kill millions of innocent people in some far away land and take their oil?

I know, we can frack and poison the soil and the water. Food scarcity? More internal security. Climate change- spread doubt. Electrical energy shortage-burn more coal. Population restless- drugs, debt and  day care to dumb them down.

It is probably the attitude of a class of people that I despise. Those who have the power and the money to actually do something useful, but are too lazy to break some self-referential mirrors. "Oh La. If I just play some meaningless mind game then I wont have to stress my brain with any real thinking."

No? Oh well. It is just paranoid ol' me.

China has a far larger percentage of engineers in the Chinese Politburo than in the "free world." We have an infestation of Lawyers whose only solution is to pass more laws. If the only tool you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail.

If we do manage to solve our energy needs, we will not be out of the woods. We will still have to solve the exponential growth thingy.

Boomer41's picture
Boomer41
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Lack of Awareness

I am a great fan of LFTR, ever since I first discovered it through Kirk Sorensen's site a few years ago. In fact I am so excited about the idea of thorium energy that I talk it up every chance I get.

However, despite Sorensen's efforts, essentially nobody but a very select few know about LFTR. I had never heard anything about it before stumbling across www.energyfromthorium.com. My raising the subject is usually the first time the person I am talking to has heard of thorium never mind liquid flouride thorium reactors. Even a PhD physicist I spoke to on a plane last month had never heard of LFTR.

On the bright side, almost everyone I tell about LFTR seems to immediately grasp what a potentially important technology it could be and they usually ask "why aren't we developing these reactors?".

So having Kirk back on PP is a great idea. The more people who learn about LFTR, the more enthusiasm for the technology, the sooner it will appear on the radar of those who have the power or the means to make it a reality. That can't happen soon enough.

 

Thetallestmanonearth's picture
Thetallestmanonearth
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Let's have a grown up conversation

Let's have a grown up conversation about what we plan to do with more energy if we get it.  If we all agree to curb consumerism, war mongering, pollution and exponential growth and move forward with building a more perfect world then I say let's do it.  Otherwise let's not give more toys to misbehaving children (myself included).

SudburyHardRockMiner's picture
SudburyHardRockMiner
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This Article is RUBBISH!

So on one hand we are facing the end of civilization --- possibly the extinction of mankind (remember - 98% of all ag land is farmed using oil and gas based pesticides - the land is DEAD without them... so how will you feed 7.2 billion people?  How will you keep thousands of spent nuke fuel ponds from exploding???)

But apparently there is a silver bullet at hand --- something we've known about for some time.

 

And you are claiming that we are ignoring this solution to our problems????

 

If thorium made sense venture capitalists would be pouring billions into this --- because whoever makes this a reality will be richer than Gates, Buffet, Zuckerberg, every hedge fund manager on the planet, the King of every oil emirate on the planet COMBINED!!!!

And say the government does not invest because they are beholden to dirty power interests.

Yet how many hundreds of billions have governments invested in other clean energy punts such as solar? 

If this had even the slightest chance of success of course the Fed would be directing hundreds of billions into research (they are printing trillions...)

As we can see some are trying and failing completely http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/jun/23/thorium-nuclear-uranium 

Thorium is like all green energy concepts - PIE IN THE SKY.

Nothing will replace fossil fuels - ever.   We are on the cusp of a collapse because cheap fossil fuels are running out

 

Fracking is the only thing between us and total calamity - and it will not last for long... when fracking peaks --- it's game over

http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2014-05-08/u-dot-s-dot-shale-boom-k...

 

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RoseHip
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Maximizing Opportunities

Having a grow up conversation is only going to perpetuate the mentality that the world's energy situation and all other industries currently rest upon. So what is the mentality of our current systems? As I see it, it rest upon the belief of "managing risks" for human endeavors. Also known as the source code of our consciousness.

If we were to model after nature's teachings then we would build our conscious source code upon "maximizing opportunities" for all life. It could be possible that finding and deploying energy solutions could be like swatting mosquitoes in the jungle. But to do this requires the unimaginable. Which is why I try to imagine it, with all my faculties. However, everything man made lie-ing around has been birthed by risk management and can not be trusted which is why it's just so damn hard.

I really hope we don't make the mistake of forcing one of natures creative energy solutions out of the darkness before it wants to be seen. As the scientific magicians have the power to do it, but they'd be best ready to deal with the unmeasurable, perpetual biases, and the illusions of predictability and the fallout. The best way to be friends with me is to simply ask, forced friendship without asking is just rude!

Rose

Kevin Coulson's picture
Kevin Coulson
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India and China have been working on Thor Reactors for a while

See the Economist article from 12-Apr-2014.  Interesting read.  I will try to learn how to insert links someday.  :)

pgp's picture
pgp
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Its all about Nixon

Nixon gave the USA war in Vietnam, war in Cambodia, Watergate, HMOs then canned Thorium reactor energy research and threw the remnants of the gold standard to the wind.   Did he do anything right besides hand in his resignation?

TechGuy's picture
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"Nixon gave the USA war in

"Nixon gave the USA war in Vietnam"

No. That was LBJ that got us into the Vietnam war. Nixon was terrible but you can't blame the Vietnam war on him. 

"Much safer - No risk of environmental radiation contamination or plant explosion"

False. Thorium reactors will produce long lived radioative isotopes that are just a bad as Uranium. In fact the original Core of the Experimental Thoruim MSR from the 1960's is still not completely decommissioned because its still too hot to handle. A MSR can have a meltdown just like a light water reactor. As as far as explosions: A molten flouride salt coming in contact with water will react explosively.

Thorium mining creates a lot of contaminate waste that ends up polluting water and ground water. The people mining and processing thorium ore face huge health risks. In my opinion, anyone promoting Thorium reactors should be the first to signup to work in a thorium mine!

"More plentiful - LFTR reactors do not need to be located next to large water supplies, as current plants do"

False again. Thorium reactors make electricity the same way Uranium reactors do: with steam turbines. after the steam exits the turbines it needs to be cool so it condenses back into water. Either a cooling tower or a reservor using an heat exchanger is required. A cooling tower just sprays water over a radiator to condense the steam, About half of the spray water that touches the radiators evaporates. 

"Less controversial - The byproducts of the thorium reaction are pretty useless for weaponization"

Also false. In fact the US is missing 75 Kg of weapons grade U-233 produced for the Thorium reactor program back in the 1960's. U-233 is the fuel that is transmuted from thorium in a thorium reactor. Its just deadly to handle because a small amount will be U-232 which emits a very high energy gamma. In 1955 the US detenoted a U-233 bomb.

"Compared to Uranium-238-based nuclear reactors currently in use today, a liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LTFR) would be:"

I think the author meant U-235 based reactors since U-238 is practically inert in Light-water reactors. U-235 provides almost all of the energy produced. In other reactors, heavy water, graphite-pile, and  breader reactors, U-238 is the fertile fuel that is converted into plutonium which is fissile. U-238 is not fissile as does not release any free neutrons when it splits. Only Isotopes with Odd atomic masses are fissile. A fertial fuel is a non-fissible fuel that can be transmuted into a fissible fuel.

Thorium reactors are breeder reactors as the Thorium fuel is also not fissile and must be transmuted into U-233 which is fissile. Also any working Thorium reactor can be converted to produce plutonium if the thorium is swapped with Uranium. Making the arguement that Thorium reactors can't be used producing weapons is misleading if not completely wrong. 

MSR's (molten Salt Reactors) have some major drawbacks which make them impractical. For instance its impossible to visual inspect a MSR since the Salt is Opaque. The salt is very corrosive, abrasive and hydrophilic. In virtually all MSR reactors the salts solidify on the reactor and pipe surfaces which eventual break off and damage the circulation pumps. The Salt also needs to be constantly reprocessed to remove fission products that build up. Several of them act as neutron poisons that prevent fission chain reactors and decrease conversion efficiencies. Servicing and repairing a thorium reactor is very difficult since a small amount of thorium will be converted to the deadly U-232, which releases a 2.6 MeV gamma which is impossible to shield (need about 12 to 15 feet of concrete. Any workers that need to replace pumps, piping will certainly get cancer or other radiation cause diseases.

The last time I read a study on the cost effectiveness of breeder reactors, the price of Uranium would need to rise to about $3K to $5K per Kg. I believe the current market price for Uranium is about $65 per Kg. That would be the equivalent of $4000/bbl oil. The Odds are that the global economy will completely collapse before we get anywhere the prices that make them market competive.

 

 

 

SudburyHardRockMiner's picture
SudburyHardRockMiner
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Don't believe the spin on thorium

When reading this keep in mind the source --- The Guardian - which is a HUGE proponent of Green initiatives....

So if they are dropping a pile of stinking dung on the thorium dream--- you can be well sure this technology is pie in the sky and will NEVER happen.

 

 

China did announce this year that it intended to develop a thorium MSR, but nuclear radiologist Peter Karamoskos, of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), says the world shouldn't hold its breath.

'Without exception, [thorium reactors] have never been commercially viable, nor do any of the intended new designs even remotely seem to be viable. Like all nuclear power production they rely on extensive taxpayer subsidies; the only difference is that with thorium and other breeder reactors these are of an order of magnitude greater, which is why no government has ever continued their funding.'

China's development will persist until it experiences the ongoing major technical hurdles the rest of the nuclear club have discovered, he says.

In his reading, thorium is merely a way of deflecting attention and criticism from the dangers of the uranium fuel cycle and excusing the pumping of more money into the industry.

And yet the nuclear industry itself is also sceptical, with none of the big players backing what should be – in PR terms and in a post-Fukushima world – its radioactive holy grail: safe reactors producing more energy for less and cheaper fuel.

In fact, a 2010 National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) report (PDF)concluded the thorium fuel cycle 'does not currently have a role to play in the UK context [and] is likely to have only a limited role internationally for some years ahead' – in short, it concluded, the claims for thorium were 'overstated'.

'Even if thorium technology does progress to the point where it might be commercially viable, it will face the same problems as conventional nuclear: it is not renewable or sustainable and cannot effectively connect to smart grids. The technology is not tried and tested, and none of the main players is interested. Thorium reactors are no more than a distraction.'

More http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/jun/23/thorium-nuclear-uranium

Bankers Slave's picture
Bankers Slave
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Game of Thrones

Arthur Robey's picture
Arthur Robey
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$100 Billion for research,

And zero revolutions. None, zich, nothing, Nihil.

$100 000 000 000 per year, by the USA alone.

SudburyHardRockMiner's picture
SudburyHardRockMiner
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Don't believe the spin on thorium being a greener nuclear option

Thorium does not work - PERIOD.

"Without exception, [thorium reactors] have never been commercially viable, nor do any of the intended new designs even remotely seem to be viable. Like all nuclear power production they rely on extensive taxpayer subsidies; the only difference is that with thorium and other breeder reactors these are of an order of magnitude greater, which is why no government has ever continued their funding.'

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/jun/23/thorium-nuclear-uranium

Jim H's picture
Jim H
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Sudbury's case against Thorium

I don't really have a horse in this race, but this rhetoric seems overblown to me;

'Even if thorium technology does progress to the point where it might be commercially viable, it will face the same problems as conventional nuclear: it is not renewable or sustainable and cannot effectively connect to smart grids. The technology is not tried and tested, and none of the main players is interested. Thorium reactors are no more than a distraction.'

Clearly Th is not a renewable resource, but that does not mean there is any shortage of it.  From what I understand, there is plenty and in that sense it would be sustainable.  Also, why on earth would a smart grid care from whence it get's it's electricity?  This seems to me to be really stretching hard for negatives, whereas there are clearly many positives in a post-Fukushima world;

Reza Hashemi-Nezhad, director of the Institute of Nuclear Science at the University of Sydney, has focused on the advantages of thorium when used in an accelerator-driven nuclear reactor operating at subcritical conditions. Nuclear waste is less toxic than from a standard reactor. In a lecture delivered last year, he said that thorium fuel is a safe and cleaner source of nuclear energy, that the use of uranium fuel in nuclear power plants is controversial, and that the latter suffers from many disadvantages. "A thorium burning Accelerator Driven Subcritical Nuclear Reactor (ADSNR) avoids many of these problems," he said. "The reactors cannot melt-down, there is minimal production of long lived waste, diversion to military use is very difficult, reserves of thorium are almost inexhaustible and costs are expected to be lower than for uranium fuelled reactors." Additionally, he said, "If an ADSNR is fueled with fissile material bred from abundant natural thorium it can provide the world with an almost unlimited amount of clean and cheap energy."

Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2012-09-uk-cautious-thorium-nuclear-fuel.html#jCp

Bankers Slave's picture
Bankers Slave
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Why on earth

would they give us something that is cheap and abundant. With the move towards pointless renewables at sky high prices, they get to keep us right where they want us, on our knees. Sufficient grid power will be for the privileged only.

Boomer41's picture
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LFTR is proven technology

 

Methinks SudburyHardRockMiner doth protest too much. His statement “thorium reactors have never been commercially viable” is meaningless as no commercial reactors have ever been operated. An experimental reactor operated at Oak Ridge for 15000 hours from 1965 to 1969. After which the Atomic Energy Commission reported:

So far the molten-salt reactor experiment has operated successfully and has earned a reputation for reliability. I think that some day the world will have commercial power reactors of both the uranium-plutonium and the thorium-uranium fuel cycle type.” ~ Glenn Seaborg, Chairman AEC.

However, during the cold war, the thorium reactor was mothballed as the powers that be were not interested in a reactor that did not produce weapons grade material. Alvin Weinberg, who was director of Oak Ridge until 1973 and championed the thorium reactor was forced out by Hyman Rickover who wanted plutonium for bombs.

There is no major theoretical reason why a LFTR should not be commercially successful. The only thing standing between us and thorium power is an engineering project to bring the 1960s experimental design up to modern standards by the incorporation of methods and materials which have been developed since then.

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Gold and Lead

And there's been this theory around for centuries that lead can be turned into gold --- but unfortunately that has never been commercially feasible either.

What we are facing is the end of civilization --- and you are going to tell me that there is a solution waiting in the wings that will save the day --- yet nobody is pursuing this?

 

Kirk - the NASA engineer tells us this is because governments are wedded to dirty energy --- including nuclear.

Well Kirk ---  what about the billions the US has wasted on solar?   Likewise the Germans have poured billions into solar.  So have the Chinese.  So has Spain.

So your comment that governments don't want clean Thorium because it is clean is total bunk.

Give your head a shake before you make such innane comments.

 

And in case you hadn't noticed --- we are in the end game of an OIL CRISIS --- as in the end of cheap oil is destroying growth and will collapse civilization.    Even if thorium were to prove feasible - it does NOT solve the oil crisis.

You can't pour thorium based pesticides and fertilizers on crops to make them grow.  You can't put thorium into an engine to lubricate the moving parts.  etc etc etc....

Governments know this - venture capitalists know this ---  and THOSE are the reasons why they are not investing in R&D of this nature.   It is a complete and total waste of time --- it would solve nothing even if it were to be feasible (which it is not)

Nothing can replace oil.  NOTHING.

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Why?

Why would they give us a cheap energy source if it was available?

In case you hadn't noticed the global economy almost collapsed in 2008 because oil went to $147 a barrel.

QE by the trillions is the response to that --- it keeps the hamster on the wheel a while longer. 

What we are facing is the end of growth due to high energy prices - end of growth means the collapse of civilization --- and the death of billions.

Might I suggest those are some good reasons why 'they' would want to replace oil with a cheaper energy source (and btw - thorium - even if it were feasible could NOT replace oil)

 

HIGH PRICED OIL DESTROYS GROWTH

According to the results of a quantitative exercise carried out by the IEA in collaboration with the OECD Economics Department and with the assistance of the International Monetary Fund Research Department, a sustained $10 per barrel increase in oil prices from $25 to $35 would result in the OECD as a whole losing 0.4% of GDP in the first and second years of higher prices.  http://www.iea.org/textbase/npsum/high_oil04sum.pdf

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Snooze...

It seems almost daily 'the next big thin' in terms of energy is announced.... recall how the Japanese were going to capture frozen gas from the ocean depths not long ago?

 

Still waiting for that to happen. 

 

As for thorium this theory has been around for 60 years now --- and how much of the global energy supply is produced from thorium?

Hint - starts with Z and ends with O.

 

 

And of course thorium cannot replace oil --- and expensive oil is the problem

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three observations about thorium

#1: Thorium won't replace oil.  Unless we get a cheap PEM stack (cheap electricity can produce cheap hydrogen which COULD replace oil - eventually) and/or cheap battery technology.  Then thorium *could* replace oil.  So could wind power, actually.  If you have too much wind electricity, just generate hydrogen instead, store it, and use it in your home/vehicle.  But only if the PEM stack or the battery is cheap enough.

#2: According to the publication he referenced, the issue is one of proving out the fuel cycle.  And given there are decades of experience with the uranium cycle, there are a number of unknowns with Thorium which will take a long time to prove out.  Known unknowns, as a certain Sec Def once said.  Utilities being risk averse beasts, and the UK (the author of said publication) not having any Thorium, they basically aren't interested.

#3: For nations like India who don't have Uranium and are worried about the supply being cut off due to geopolitics, the Thorium option looks really attractive.  They *are* interested and will likely move forward just because of that.

 

 

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This isn't about oil...

Let's not mix the topics up.  Thorium is about creating electricity, and is not being touted as a replacement for oil on this site.

It is being held up as an area we might wish to explore as a nation, or even as a species.

If the alternative is to continue to burn coal and natural gas for electricity or come up with a nuclear alternative like thorium LFTR technology, then I am all for seeing if there's something there.

The only other alternative is to propose that we do without electricity and that's going to be a hard sell.

Nobody can really make the argument that thorium reactors won't work for technological or commercial reasons because we simply don't have the data in hand as we've not yet tried.  Given the choice of spending a trillion to bail out banks or a few hundred billion to prove out thorium, my priority would be 100% weighted towards thorium.

But to repeat myself, electricity and oil are not interchangeable energy sources and therefore have almost nothing to do with each other at this stage of the game.  

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Sterling Cornaby
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: Sep 6 2012
Posts: 152
Thorium energy and then 'sort of off topic'

Sorry this got so long.

I really like this website; there are always lots of insightful comments (It is hard for me to find time to contribute! I wanted to say my two cents days ago!)  The energy issues we are facing absolutely fascinate and scare me.  Peak oil type information is what let me to peak prosperity.  Energy has been the key to life for eons, it is the key to our present civilization (and its undoing), and energy is the key for civilization to exist the future.

I am in the camp that thorium needs more exploration.  I have no idea if it is viable, but I do believe it is worth humanity’s time to invest in people that believe in it and want to try; the cost is not unreasonable.  Our civilization is malinvestment right now.  We invest far more money in 20-30 miles of mega-highways in cities (which is debatably useful) or in maintaining banking cartels (utter complete waste) then in things that have real value. 

 

I will be broadening my discussion beyond just thorium. There is so much we can do in the “energy” realm; I have really gotten to see a lot on this the last month:

·         Earthships day long Talk by M. Reynolds in Salt Lake City

·         MRS Conference (Material Research Society) in San Francisco

·         Local Gardening Festival

 

Earthships— An individualistic, and self-empowering solution to energy issues.

I went to an earthship ‘biotecture’ day long presentation by Michael Reynolds --- it was beyond fascinating.  This guy has real solutions to provide people with their true basic needs, what people really really need energy wise in their homes. Check out the documentary garbage warrior for the flavor. 

This guy has figured out how to make ‘living’ homes that passively take care of heating, water, sewage and some food needs from what nature provides naturally to the home.  They need no inputs of utilities; these are independent cells. --- This is completely counter culture and counter ‘normal business’. 

 One quote I wrote down was this, which I believe captures a bit of the essence of the entire day:

“We build homes that shed the water delivered right to a home by nature and discard it. And then we turn around and build multi-million dollar city wide utilities projects to bring water to that same home!” –Michael Reynolds

These homes are a zenith of freedom; a home that provides you what you really need gives you the freedom to do what else you need.  He is giving a smaller talk in Colorado June 14 for just 2 hours if you are interested.

This is the type of energy thinking that has to be invested in to save our civilization in the future.  I have so much I more I would like to say about this.  One last thing; you can build a basic one room one for ~$15k; in a "pocket of freedom" area in the US, you can build one at about 1500 sqft for roughly ~200k; includes all the bells and whistles that the government makes you add. 

 

MRS (Material Research Society) Conference

I went the MRS (Material Research Society) conference --- about half of this conference is devoted to ‘energy’ problems (solar cells, batteries, fuel cells, etc).  There was a lot of good information about energy problems and potential solutions as well.  I bought a fascinating text book on energy and materials “Fundamentals of Materials of energy and Environmental Sustainability”, that I would suggest if you are into the nuts and bolts of what is going on in material science that are desired in our world, and to see what leading scientists are focused on. (Sideways note:  Materials define history---iron age, bronze age, silicon age; materials are worth our attention)

The sad thing for me was, for all that was going on it was on the ‘normal business’ side of the coin; we (the scientists) solve the problems, companies implement the solution and society pays for all it.  Being in this world I know too well that most stuff –though not all-- is hype that gets you the next grant; rinse and repeat.  Energy is a side show to the real business of the day of getting the next grant; it makes me sad. 

I am a bit afraid a potential thorium solution will have to run this fairly standard gambit.  You need “super hype” to get the funding, and then if you ever get the funding you have to continue to generate “super hype” to maintain funding.  Real solutions take second stage; and I see this backlash to this ‘grant maintaining’ culture in these comments.  The hype in science stuff gets too high, and sets of many peoples lie detectors.

This is the world we live in where large sums of resources are needed to try to do something.    

 

Local Gardening Festival

Sorry, I kind of lied in that this does not entirely tie into the energy issue, but it has been rolling around in my head with these other two lately, other than we need energy (food) to survive and our food system is a crazy fragile collectivist system (like everything else).  One speaker really enjoyed was Caleb Warnock; a very passionate and knowledgeable gardening guru. (He has a few books out, such as the Forgotten Skills of Self-sufficiency used by the Mormon Pioneers).  His ideas seemed to mesh well with the ideas presented by M. Reynolds earthships.

He started out with a history lesson about war or victory gardens during WWI and WWII.   He pointed out that during WWI, the us still had ‘victory gardens’ going years after the war.  Why? Then he showed an image, from the same time period, of Eastern Europe house without shingles, the people had eaten them because they had nothing else; they needed food.  That is why the victory gardens continued after the war.  He then pointed out that our world has only about 5% the variety of the domesticated vegetables/herbs/plants that we had 100 years ago (thank you Monsanto).  Also, we are the absolutely least prepared people that our civilization’s thousands of years of history in dealing with our own food needs; and that a “zombie apocalypse” will happen again, such as they did in WWI and WWII, and we are woefully ill prepared (I would agree).  He also stated that we do not have enough heirloom seeds in the entire US to feed just the people in Utah. 

Anyway he, with a few others, are on a mission to save seeds and learn the skills to propagate them, which is a extremely important work in my mind.  I picked up 40 or so types of seeds he brought that he found very conducive to growing in Utah (40$ well spent I think).  He is also focused on year round gardening; he eats from his garden in January from stuff growing under the snow.  He is also into “profitable” gardening, which he separates from ‘hobby’ gardening, meaning he spends less on the garden then he would getting food at the grocery store.

 

 

Finally ending...

 

Nice thing is that I(we?) still have time some time, I can use the time I do have wisely and not waste it away. I will learn all I can today, I got my fruit trees growing and my garden growing today.  Maybe someday in the future I will be in an earthship, growing my own garden and producing my own seeds (like Caleb), in a resilient community, and getting to do a little science stuff as well.  I(we) got to get there somehow.    

 

one last thing, loved the video post "field of Poppies" banker slave.  Thank you

CaptD's picture
CaptD
Status: Bronze Member (Offline)
Joined: Jul 2 2012
Posts: 32
Misleading promotions by the thorium nuclear lobby ==> Continue

Misleading promotions by the thorium nuclear lobby

 

I am not impressed by the claims of the thorium nuclear lobby.  Their sales pitch would have us believe that thorium nuclear reactors are some kind of clean safe alternative to the current dangerous nuclear technology, based on uranium or plutonium as fuel.

Not true. Thorium  reactors have safety and environmental hazards, as does every part of the toxic nuclear fuel chain. The thorium lobby believes in this fantasy of the “nuclear fuel cycle”  -  meaning that by some magic they provide a way in which some toxic products of nuclear reactors, – plutonium and enriched uranium, now play their part in kicking off the thorium fission.  And it’s supposed to be all clean and lovely.

The mainstream, established nuclear lobby allows the thorium dream to persist only because the thorium dream offers some hope for the economically failing nuclear industry to hang on.

The thorium lobby on Twitter, regularly attacks me  as being “in the pay” of the coal lobby, among other imagined offenses. Their ludicrous pretense is that if one is against nuclear power, one must be for coal power.- Christina Macpherson

 

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CaptD
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Posts: 32
Oil will keep getting ever more expensive as its usage changes

I agree with you about Thorium not being the answer and also that Oil will be needed for many things for many years to come, but that said, I see Solar (of all flavors) being used to generate electricity, to power our eVehicles and/or create electrical storage that can be used when the sun is not shining to do many of the things that Oil is currently being used for!

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UrbanHillbilly
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Posts: 1
I've been looking for good

I've been looking for good arguments against the LFTR, or whatever they're calling it these days.

 

"Much safer - No risk of environmental radiation contamination or plant explosion"

This is the first I've seen mention the volatility of Fluoride salt.  A lot of Plutonium breeders have used Sodium around water with no incident, but I do find this rather scary.

As far as shorter lived waste, they mean that it doesn't produce Plutonium and other Actinides,  90% of Light Water Reactor waste is potential fuel and 10% highly radioactive, shorter lived waste.  A LFTR produces just the 10%.

To me, the big deal is that it does not keep its fuel in Zircalloy tubes.  This is the Achilles' Heel of all current solid fuel reactors.  This material deteriorates at relatively low temperatures.  They can't even heat water enough to make efficient use of a steam turbine.  Even worse, the fuel rods have to be kept under water for 10 years before they cool off enough to expose them to the air.  With a LFTR, you can just dump the fuel mixture in a nice nickel-steel drum and simply leave it be.

"More plentiful - LFTR reactors do not need to be located next to large water supplies, as current plants do"

The reactors can operate at temperatures where they can heat inert gasses to run turbines.  This is preferable, as it is much more efficient than steam.  I have to say that this isn't a valid criticism.

 

"Less controversial - The byproducts of the thorium reaction are pretty useless for weaponization"

These reactors breed U-233 very slowly, at best.  In fact, some plans call for the reactor to never break even at all, and depend on waste Plutonium from Light Water Reactors for fuel.  This is referred to as an "Actinide Incinerator."  This can be taken as a plus or a minus, because the Plutonium in LWR waste, while highly contaminated with heavy isotopes of Pu, can also be used to make a bomb.

"Compared to Uranium-238-based nuclear reactors currently in use today, a liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LTFR) would be..."

The unpopularity of nuclear power in recent decades has caused the price Enriched Uranium to plumit.  India uses Heavy Water Reactors that run on natural Uranium, so the cost of fueling their reactors is even lower than in the US.  India lacks great U reserves so they are beginning to use these reactors to breed U from Th, so there is at least one really big nation that is concerned that the supply of U is not endless.

It is the efficiency of the Thorium cycle that is most seductive.  It is the only reactor that breeds and burns all its fuel in the Thermal Spectrum.  Uranium reactors use only about 1% of the potential fuel, unless you're talking about Fast Spectrum reactors, and then the fuel has to be enriched to at least 20% U-235.  The Russian Lead-Bismuth submarine power plant fuel has to be enriched to 30%, which puts that fuel into the neighborhood of that which powered Fat Man.  This is why nobody likes Fast Breeder Reactors.

It needs to be noted that reprocessing LWR waste is against national policy.  If nuclear waste were to be reprocessed, the difference between the efficiency of a LFTR and a LWR would be insignificant.  Since our government is bent on a "once through" cycle, wasting 99% of your potential fuel seems illogical.  Should there be a renaissance in Uranium fueled power plants, the price of Uranium will go up accordingly, so I cannot agree with this criticism, either.

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khinnenkamp
Status: Member (Offline)
Joined: Sep 2 2014
Posts: 7
Thorium Energy

I think Kirk is on the right track and I support his efforts. Develop thorium for energy. There seems to be no contest for efficiency, safety and feasibility. Let's do it!

Something that also makes too much sense for our government to adopt (or allow), hemp. Hemp seed is a super food, high in omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids in the right proportions. High in protein and fiber as well as high in vitamins. So, naturally something this good for us has to be illegal, right?

If we grow hemp for fiber and for paper, we can let the trees stand. Hemp slams wood on a paper yield per acre basis, and is renewable, and can be grown over and over on the same plot of land without harm. It doesn't need the harmful chemicals to grow either. 

In Canada and Europe they are building homes out of hempcrete. One builder called it a no-brainer. Hempcrete provides R25 insulation for a 12" wall, and petrifies over time to be stronger than concrete, and it is 1/6th the weight.

Any one of these uses is important enough for us to grow hemp and cultivate it for industrial and commercial purposes. Now recently we have found another. Hemp can be easily and cheaply be turned into carbon nanotubes to replace expensive graphene. Studies are underway to develop hemp into super capacitors to be used in batteries.

And of course hemp can be turned into clean bio fuels and biodegradable plastics. If we used hemp based plastics instead of oil based plastics, we could stop contributing to the plastic pollution that is gripping the earth. Who doesn't think that is a great idea? Apparently our government. This information is not new, but apparently we ignore the good ideas and let our corrupt government serve the corporate interests to the detriment of us all. It is time to wake up and expect better from our leaders.

 

 

 

 

 

 

khinnenkamp's picture
khinnenkamp
Status: Member (Offline)
Joined: Sep 2 2014
Posts: 7
Thorium for energy, hemp for future

There is another answer to our problem, but the US government and the UN have gone to the trouble to make sure we can't have it. What is it? Hemp. Hemp is one of the most nutritious plants on the planet. Hemp seed oil is high in omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids, protein, fiber, etc. Hemp can also be turned into clean biofuels, fiber, hempcrete (R25 for a 12" wall), fashion, biodegradable plastics, paper and thousands of products. Growing hemp is good for the soil, does not need pesticides and requires less irrigation than most any crop. 

If this information is new to you, it shouldn't be. It has been written about many times before. It has been stated that it was probably the first agricultural endeavor of man. "I don't know if hemp will save the planet, but I know it is the only thing that can." Jack Herer, the Emperor of Hemp. 

Hemp contains only .3% THC, so it can't get you high. Yet, our government managed to make it illegal world wide in order to protect petrochemical business, the timber (for paper) business and cotton business. If you don't know the story, read the Emperor Wears No Clothes, by Jack Herer. http://jackherer.com.

The article in the Guardian you posted is critical of Thorium reactors, but stops short of saying they won't work. This reminds me of the argument for cannabis medicine that keeps coming up by critics. "Cannabis hasn't been proven to cure cancer in large clinical trials." However, it has been proven to reduce tumors in mice more than once. The normal progression then is to study it in dogs, then humans. I'm sure that there would be no shortage of humans lining up to be tested when the alternative is to go the path of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, neither of which is a sure thing albeit FDA approved. It is very convenient to say that cannabis has not been proven to cure cancer when the government itself stands in the way of the research that could prove things one way or the other. 

So, I think the jury is still out on LFTR. If we spend some research dollars on it, get the bright minds to figure it out, who knows? And if we lift the ban on hemp world wide, perhaps there can be a future for those who come after us.

khinnenkamp's picture
khinnenkamp
Status: Member (Offline)
Joined: Sep 2 2014
Posts: 7
Thorium for energy, hemp for future

There is another answer to our problem, but the US government and the UN have gone to the trouble to make sure we can't have it. What is it? Hemp. Hemp is one of the most nutritious plants on the planet. Hemp seed oil is high in omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids, protein, fiber, etc. Hemp can also be turned into clean biofuels, fiber, hempcrete (R25 for a 12" wall), fashion, biodegradable plastics, paper and thousands of products. Growing hemp is good for the soil, does not need pesticides and requires less irrigation than most any crop. 

If this information is new to you, it shouldn't be. It has been written about many times before. It has been stated that it was probably the first agricultural endeavor of man. "I don't know if hemp will save the planet, but I know it is the only thing that can." Jack Herer, the Emperor of Hemp. 

Hemp contains only .3% THC, so it can't get you high. Yet, our government managed to make it illegal world wide in order to protect petrochemical business, the timber (for paper) business and cotton business. If you don't know the story, read the Emperor Wears No Clothes, by Jack Herer. http://jackherer.com.

The article in the Guardian you posted is critical of Thorium reactors, but stops short of saying they won't work. This reminds me of the argument for cannabis medicine that keeps coming up by critics. "Cannabis hasn't been proven to cure cancer in large clinical trials." However, it has been proven to reduce tumors in mice more than once. The normal progression then is to study it in dogs, then humans. I'm sure that there would be no shortage of humans lining up to be tested when the alternative is to go the path of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, neither of which is a sure thing albeit FDA approved. It is very convenient to say that cannabis has not been proven to cure cancer when the government itself stands in the way of the research that could prove things one way or the other. 

So, I think the jury is still out on LFTR. If we spend some research dollars on it, get the bright minds to figure it out, who knows? And if we lift the ban on hemp world wide, perhaps there can be a future for those who come after us.

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