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Kirk Sorensen: An Update On The Thorium Story

China sprints while the West slumbers
Sunday, August 31, 2014, 11:54 AM

Two years ago, we interviewed Kirk Sorensen about the potential for thorium to offer humanity a safe, cheap and abundant source of energy.

He is an active advocate for developing liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR) technology, the details of which were covered in our earlier podcast: A Detailed Exploration of Thorium's Potential As An Energy Source. That interview concluded with Kirk's observation that the West could have a fully-operational LFTR reactor up and running at commercial scale within a decade, but it won't, because it is simply choosing not to prioritize exploring its potential.

But that doesn't mean other countries are ignoring thorium's promise.

Kirk returns this week to relay what has happened in the thorium space since our last conversation. The East, most notably China, is now fully-mobilized around getting its first reactor operational by as soon as 2020. If indeed thorium reactors are as successful as hoped, the US will find itself playing catch up against countries who suddenly hold a tremendous technology advantage:

I can give you a great update because I was at a conference in Nashville just two weeks ago and one of the representatives from the Chinese Academy of Sciences was there. He gave a presentation, showed us where they were at, what was going on. It was really clear to me that they are making tremendous progress. I saw pictures of test loops. I saw pictures of lithium separation cascades. I saw pumps and heat exchangers and fuels and all manner of things under development.  It was clear to me what I was looking at was hundreds and hundreds of researchers at work building stuff. Things are really happening; things are really going forward.

It was pretty sobering. Here were several of us Americans in the room talking about what we would like to do, what we would think about doing. And I have to admit I was kind of upset that here we were chatting and yapping and there they were doing. So it is very much going forward and making impressive progress. Their latest schedule that I heard at this meeting was a small two megawatt thermal reactor by 2020. It would not have a power conversion system, but it would still be the first molten salt reactor somebody has turned on since 1969.

It turns out the Chinese actually had a molten salt reactor program in the early seventies. And they were unable to develop the proper nickel alloys to contain the molten salt. And so they shut the program down around 1976 not long after we did. We, on the other hand, had developed that nickel alloy and successfully demonstrated it at Oak Ridge during that molten salt reactor experiment. Now of course they have kind of come in from the cold as far as technology exchange. They know what we did and they showed a number of samples of various nickel alloys they are developing for this program. So that is not a problem for them anymore. They have gotten past that challenge.

And they see the advantages of using thorium in the molten salt reactor to be able to produce high temperature, high quality heat not just for electricity generation but also for industrial processes or hydrocarbon generation, desalinization, a lot of different things. They are excited about it. They are going forward essentially on all fronts with nuclear. They want light water reactors, fast breeder reactors, gas cooled reactors, molten salt reactors. There is almost nothing that they are not doing in the nuclear space and putting serious resources on it. And again, I just cannot help but contrast what we are not doing in the United States to what they are doing. It is pretty humbling.

They made a decision that they are going to treat this like a priority. They're going to go make it happen. And we in the US have not, do not.

Not only are they moving out aggressively with nuclear but they are moving out aggressively trying to lay hands on fossil fuel resources all over the world. I mean, the Chinese are not messing around with energy. I think they have internalized the message: Energy is the master commodity. Everything else depends on energy. And if you do not have an energy supply that is reliable and sustainable, you are putting your entire nation at risk. We in the United States—sometimes I think we are cursed by abundance and options. We have so many things we could do that it makes it hard for us to decide what we will do. And we are just sleepwalking through this problem.

Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Kirk Sorensen (42m:55s):

Transcript: 

Chris Martenson: Welcome to this Peak Prosperity podcast. I am your host, Chris Martenson. As we scan across the world landscape, and whether our focus is on looming freshwater shortages or maybe ocean acidification from CO2 in the atmosphere or the vast consequences of picking over the dregs of the fossil fuel revolution as we scrape off mountaintops or frack enormously long wells for relative peanuts per well of eventual production, one thing is clear: The fossil fuel energy predicament is severe. And you know what? The growing global geopolitical tensions are another sign of that as well. Now, back in 2012 we had on this program Kirk Sorensen, a proponent of a new type of energy production, I should say, that could remedy many of the issues on that dire opening list. That energy source would come from the use of thorium, a mildly radioactive and very abundant element.

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 simply have to get serious about using. Today we are again talking with Kirk about the liquid fluoride thorium reactors, or L-F-T-R or LFTR technology. He is a cofounder of Flibe, F-L-I-B-E which is an acronym, I think, from fluorine and lithium and beryllium. Flibe Energy is dedicated to developing a thorium-based reactor. Welcome back, Kirk.

Kirk Sorensen: Thanks a lot, Chris, happy to be back.

Chris Martenson: Great. We have linked to the prior podcast that you and I had for a deeper background into the thorium technology for those interested. But just to set the stage, briefly tell us what is the thorium fuel cycle and how is this reactor technology proposed to work?

Kirk Sorensen: Great question. The kind of reactors we use today we are burning a small amount of natural uranium called uranium 235 and it is naturally fissile—in other words you just hit it with one neutron and it is going to release energy. The main difference between what we are proposing and the kind of reactors we use today is it takes two neutrons to release the energy from thorium. One neutron converts the thorium into another isotope called uranium 233 and the next one fissions it. And fortunately in the release of energy it also releases enough neutrons to keep the cycle going, so it is sometimes referred to as a "breeder reactor" or a breeding cycle.

The advantage here is that once the reactor is started with a small amount of fissile material—and this could come from any of a number of different sources—the reactor then just consumes this abundant natural thorium, which is about three times more common than uranium.

It is a basically different process than what we do today, and much more sustainable—not just because thorium is so much more abundant but because of the efficiency of which the thorium has to be utilized in the reactor. And so that really separates it. in addition, the thorium technology is best realized when it is used in what is called a "molten salt" reactor, which uses salts of lithium and beryllium as the solvent or the basis in which the nuclear reaction takes place. And these types of reactors, which were demonstrated in the nineteen sixties at Oak Ridge National Labs in Tennessee—they have superior safety and performance advantages. They run a high temperature, which is good, but low pressure, which is also very good. And they are very easy to refuel and to purify. But the research was discontinued in the early seventies because of competition with a fast breeder reactor program that was favored in the US and has really languished ever since.

Chris Martenson: Well, one of the criticisms that was leveled in response to the first podcast you and I did was—people will come and say, “You know, there’s never been a commercially viable design of a thorium reactor. It’s never happened. Therefore there must be something wrong with it.”

Kirk Sorensen: Well, having been a student of the history of technology, that is a criticism that is easy to level against any new idea. The first person to do it obviously is the first person to do it, and somebody did not do it before. Everything I see shows that there is a very attractive business opportunity that is available out there by utilizing thorium as an energy resource. And it seems to be lining up—both the thorium and the molten salt reactor technology seem to be lining up with a lot of needs that we are facing in this country. You touched on earlier in the beginning of the podcast about our never-ending need for more and more clean energy.

We are also facing a lot of issues and situations in the nuclear space in our country regarding our nuclear fuel cycle, waste management, lack of enrichment capability, and concerns about accidents, all of which could be addressed and mitigated by this technology. So just because someone has not demonstrated it before does not mean it cannot be done. I am an engineer, I look at the physics and the situation, the technology, and make my assessment as to whether it can be done or not.

Chris Martenson: Well, now the truth is there were a couple, two, I do not know how many but I think two, operating thorium reactors for a period back there in the sixties, where there not?

Kirk Sorensen: Well, there have been two small molten salt reactors, one of which operated just for a short period of time in the 1950s. The other one operated much longer from 1965 to 1969. They were intended to begin to demonstrate the basic principles that would lead to a thorium reactor. They did not use thorium in those reactors but they were moving in that direction. There have also been several solid fuel reactors that have used thorium. The Fort St. Vrain reactor, which was a gas cooled reactor, used thorium in its fuel. So did the Indian Point reactor in New York and its fuel load was thorium. There was a demonstration of a thorium-uranium 233 fuel cycle done at the shipping port reactor in Pennsylvania—that was a light water reactor—in the late 1970s. So none of these reactors individually represent the complete example of what I am talking about. But all of them were pieces of the technology demonstration.

Right now we have a situation where economically we have been able to be very wasteful with our uranium inventories and use only a tiny fraction—less than half of one percent—of the energy contained in the uranium. But if we want to look in the future where we are going to rely on nuclear for far greater percentages of our energy supply, we have to be able to use nuclear fuel more efficiently than we are doing now.

Chris Martenson: Well, let us talk about that efficiency for a second. You might throw a few hundred tons of uranium into a reactor, get a gigawatt back out, how does thorium compare in terms of that overall amount of material needed and the amount of energy produced?

Kirk Sorensen: Yes it is something where it really is hard to make an apples to apples comparison. Because what we have today, we burn uranium 235. We burn the small amount of material out of a much larger mass of uranium. When you are talking about a thorium reactor you, by definition, have to use the fuel more efficiently because it is a breeder reactor. You have to go and preserve that initial amount of fissile material you started the reactor with. And so it is not as if we can go from one percent to ten percent or twenty percent or fifty percent. It is almost like you have to go from less than one percent efficiency in uranium to ninety plus percent efficiency in thorium. It is just the physics of how the machine runs. Because, as I mentioned in the beginning, thorium needs two neutrons to release its energy. And so that is how you have to make these machines run so that they are always producing sufficient neutrons to keep the thorium consumption going.

Chris Martenson: Now, there is a very laborious, difficult process separating out that 235 from the far more abundant 238 matrix that uranium comes in. Is there any similar process for thorium?

Kirk Sorensen: Well, there has to be an inventory of fissile material with which the reactor is started, and that might be 235, that might be uranium 233, which a small amount exists in the US. And it might also be—if we decide to use it to destroy our plutonium inventory. So there are a lot of different options for starting it. But once the reactor has been started it does not require that complicated enrichment process you just mentioned. And that is really important because I do not think a lot of people realize the United States, although we developed the technology for uranium enrichment back in the 1940s, again at Oak Ridge, we have almost completely left the market in this area.

There was a large facility in Paducah, Kentucky where the United States enriches uranium and that was shut down last year. And there were several ideas of how to replace that enrichment capability with facilities in Ohio and these really have come to an end. GE was going to use lasers to enrich them and that has come to an end. And I am really worried because we are still running a hundred reactors in this country, more than any other country in the world, and they all require uranium enrichment. And yet we have essentially shut down most of our enrichment capability. And who has got most of the enrichment capability in the world? The Russians do. You have to cross your fingers that political situation is going to stay stable enough for us to import enriched uranium. Otherwise we are just not going to have sufficient enrichment capability to keep our existing machines running. So it is yet another reason to go let us look at a future technology where we are not going to need this enrichment.

Chris Martenson: Well, there was a big source as well that deviates slightly where it was the Megatons to Megawatts program where we were using decommissioned warheads from Russia and feeding that reactive element of U235 that we pulled from that into our reactors over here. So—

Kirk Sorensen: Exactly, and that program has come to an end. Yes, that program came to an end last year before all these new political tensions sort of flared up again. And probably all for the best that it came to an end because it probably would have been ended under the current situation we are in. So yes, the import and down blending of Russian highly enriched uranium was artificially acting like a bunch of enrichment capabilities. It was really enrichment that the Russians did decades ago that we were essentially using now. That is over, and so now we are really kind of facing the full force of the reality of our lack of preparation. And again, to me it is another argument to go and say, "Okay, we can either build N enrichment plants and try to get on top of this again or we can try to move towards technology that is not going to need it."

Chris Martenson: Well, that would be enriching specifically? Because my understanding is the United States is well past peak of uranium production, and the remaining reserves that we might have are fairly low grade. But they are not—I do not know that they are enough to justify, at least from a private setting, if I am a company and I am looking at the landscape, I am not sure if I would look at the United States' native sources of unenriched uranium ore and say, "Hey, that is enough to justify building one of these enormously expensive plants." Is that true or have I missed something?

Kirk Sorensen: Well, the United States pretty much always was importing uranium from other countries. We were importing it here, enriching it, uranium 235, and then exporting it to—both to our own plants and to places around the world. There are a lot of countries that rely on US sourced enriched uranium. For instance, I went to South Korea last year. They have an agreement where they get all of their enriched uranium from the United States. I also went to United Arab Emirates, to Dubai, and they are building reactors there of South Korean origin but still also relying on US enriched uranium supply. So it is not just our own country that we are threatening by dropping the ball on enrichment—it is South Korea and the UAE and probably others as well. So I sort of feel the pressure tightening on doing something about our nuclear situation. And looking at the future I go, "Well, wouldn’t it be better to try to get onto this thorium technology where we are not going to need this uranium enrichment to that degree?" Obviously we have still got a hundred reactors. But trying to make a logical plan for the future.

Chris Martenson: All right, so let us talk about safety for a minute because for anybody who is paying the slightest bit of attention, Fukushima just continues to, pardon the pun, to leak information out about just how bad that thing was. Recently we discovered something that I was convinced of years ago right when I saw the reactor three explosion, TEPCO admitted that the primary containment vessel was breached and that the secondary containment vessel blew. And now they admit that they have found particles of that inner reactor core at least over a hundred kilometers away. So that was a really exothermic reaction, rather dramatic. And so as we wander over to the idea of a thorium reactor, I have read some criticism that say, "Yes, it is producing stuff but it still is producing U232 as a byproduct (half-life 160,000 years), technetium-99 is in there, iodine-129, all of these with very long half-lives. Talk to us about the eventual waste that is produced and the risks that might be contained in that.

Kirk Sorensen: Yes, and let us kind of have perspective here. First of all, nobody has been killed by the Fukushima accident. It is something that I think is really milked by the news media because it stokes fear in people. But we have natural gas explosions, we have oil pipeline explosions, we have cars derailing, we have all these things going on all the time that are killing scores and scores and scores of people. And yet there is so much attention placed on Fukushima. I just really want to get it off my chest that I think it is just completely out of whack with the real risk level. That said, it is a bit of a not-secret in the nuclear community that the reactor design used in Fukushima, a GEBWR Mark-1 had a pretty sorry containment design on it. And you can find memos going all the way back to the early seventies saying there is a lot of ways this thing can go wrong. And sure enough it did at Fukushima. And the thing that we have to remember in the United States is we have quite a few GEBWR Mark-1s in our nuclear fleet. I think of our hundred reactors about thirty of them are of that design.

Chris Martenson: Yes, I live about ten miles from one, fifteen.

Kirk Sorensen: And they do not have a particularly robust containment. And now we know if you turn off the emergency power, four days later you are going to get a hydrogen leak and potentially you could have a hydrogen explosion. Now there are ways to deal with that that were not done by TEPCO. But nevertheless the other thing to remember, too, is it is really, really easy to detect radionuclides that have gotten out somewhere. I mean, they are so tiny but they are so easily detectable that we can detect amounts of material that are far, far, far, far, far below the threshold that is going to cause us any risk. So when you say "we found pieces of the core hundreds of kilometers away," so I go, "Great, good for you. Does that pose any risk to the people that are there? Or are you just sensationalizing the fact that you found something?"

And then going to the next point you made: Every fission reaction is going to cause the creation of a certain family of materials; they are called the fission products. They include technetium-99, they include iodine-129. Several of these have half-lives measured in the hundreds of thousands of years. The radioactivity of something is inversely proportional to its half-life. So something that has a really long half-life has a really low radioactivity. So people do not think about it that way. They think, "Oh, this is going to be deadly for hundreds and hundreds and thousands of years." Actually the longer the half-life, the less risky something is to you. In the event of a nuclear accident the thing that is the most dangerous, by far, is iodine-131 which has a half-life of eight days. Why is it dangerous? Because it has a half-life of eight days. That means it is very radioactive. But it also means it is going away very quickly.

The difference between the thorium approach that I am advocating with the molten salt reactors—the LFTR concept, lithium fluoride thorium reactor—is that it does not produce long lived transuranic waste. This is stuff like plutonium, americium, curium, stuff that is formed when the fuel does not burn. It does not produce that long lived waste. It does produce the fission products but by and large you would be amazed how rapidly they decay away. You named off the one or two that do not decay away rapidly, namely iodine-129 and technetium-99. And to give you an idea how harmless technetium-99 is: People all around the world ingest a much more radioactive form of technetium-99 called technetium-99m that only has a six hour half-life. They do it for medical procedures and then they simply excrete the technetium-99 into the water supply. So it is not a big deal. We have hospitals all around the world where people are intentionally ingesting this material and then just urinating it out into the municipal water supply. So technetium-99, not a big deal.

Iodine-129, also not a big deal because of the long half-life. I read an analysis done by a friend of mine who is a health physics person. He said, “You know, if you ingested nothing but iodine-129 till the day you die, it would still never even harm your thyroid.” People I think get mixed up because they think of iodine-129 and they have heard of iodine-131, which has the eight-day half-life, and they go, "Uh-oh, I have heard this iodine stuff is really bad." Well, iodine-131 yes, that is really bad, but iodine-129, harmless, it is not going to hurt you. So you have got to—I know I sound like I am getting in the weeds here, but you have got to kind of see all these different pieces to understand the real risk going on.

Chris Martenson: Well, I will tell you the risk that we focused on at my site. I wrote a fairly long report around radioactivity because I do think there is a lot there that needs to be clarified and there are a lot of misconceptions. Radioactivity itself does not concern me all that much. Particulate contamination does. I mean, it is the difference between taking polonium-210 and rubbing it all over your skin and you are fine, but ingesting a pinhead size of it and you are done, right? Because that has to do with the nature of the alpha particle itself—very harmless on the outside, deadly on the inside depending on the substance we are talking about. So what I care about with the Fukushima disaster is not the radioactivity per se, but it was the particulate contamination that can get released. Because that stuff can be—I would not want to live in a particulately contaminated zone personally, right?

Kirk Sorensen: Yes, there is three things that came out of the Fukushima site that are really of concern. The first one was iodine-131. With its eight-day half-life, very dangerous. But it is also the easiest to mitigate against by taking potassium iodide. Basically you flood your body with non-radioactive iodine. Iodide only has one isotope naturally. It is iodine-127. Basically you flood your body with iodine-127 and you do not ingest it. So you can mitigate against that.

The two longer term risks are cesium-134 and cesium-137; 134 has a two-year half-life; 137 has a thirty-year half-life. So the 134 is more radioactive. It is going away more quickly. The 137 has got a longer half-life. Cesium tends to bind to things because it is an alkaline metal. It essentially forms salts. It is a really chemically reactive substance like sodium or lithium.

And that is really—when they are going on and saying, "Oh this site is contaminated by Fukushima," they are finding cesium. The iodine is all gone. Everything from Fukushima in terms of iodine is long since gone. Iodine-131 has all decayed away. There is not a speck of it left. But the cesium is going to be around for a while. So in the event of an accident you really do not want a reactor design that is going to release cesium.

Now, does the LFTR make cesium? Yes, it makes a cesium just like the light water reactors. The difference is in the fluoride salt cesium is stable. In fact it is incredibly stable. It is a stable salt called cesium fluoride. In oxide fuel, which is what we have in today’s reactors, cesium is volatile and that is why when you overheat oxide fuel and you get a meltdown the cesium becomes—it can be liberated into the environment which is what happened in Fukushima.

With the fuel that is used in a liquid fluoride reactor you can take the fuel out and dump it on the ground outside and the cesium is not going to get away because it has formed this super stable cesium fluoride salt. So you have got a chemical situation going on inside the reactor that is binding the most dangerous radionuclides from releasing. Both cesium and strontium both form very, very stable salts in the LFTR and do not want to volatilize or get out into the environment.

Chris Martenson: Well, let us say you had a—just mind game here—there was a LFTR reactor in place at Fukushima and it loses all of its power. What happens?

Kirk Sorensen: It loses all of its power? There is a drain tank underneath the reactor and the fuel inside the reactor, which is liquid, is kept from that drain tank by a frozen plug of salt. So you lose all the power, that frozen plug of salt melts, the fuel drains out of the reactor into the drain tank, freezes solid, end of story. No any further intervention required. What happens in a LFTR is exactly the opposite of what happens in these solid fuel reactors. There is solid fuels, we do not want it to overheat because we do not want them to melt and release their fission products. The LFTR, the fuel is already liquid and it is liquid at higher temperatures. It freezes and holds up its fission product. So it is a completely different outcome. No intervention would have been required. No off-site radionuclide released.

Chris Martenson: Just a big tank of frozen salt that you have to figure out what to do with.

Kirk Sorensen: Big tank, well, what you do with it is you go thaw it, pump it back in the reactor, and turn the reactor back on. Remember the Fukushima plant survived the earthquake. They survived—the earthquake was way beyond what they were designed for. They survived the earthquake. The damage that occurred to the plants was the damage that occurred after the cooling system was lost. The fuel overheated and that is what generated the damage to the reactor plant. So it is important to remember that the plants themselves survived the reactor accident very well.

Chris Martenson: Yes, it was the loss of power. And that is actually honestly the thing that concerns me the most around our own plants here in the US is that loss of power. Again I mentioned I am, as the crow flies, ten, fifteen miles from one of these GE designed plants. So what I am concerned about is in 2012 apparently there was a Carrington class event that missed us by a week. If we were one percent further along in our orbital rotation around the sun we would have been whacked by something pretty serious. And nobody knows what the effect of that could be. But just sake of argument if there was a sustained two month loss of power in a region of the country as a consequence, that could be a very difficult situation because those plants need to be continually cooled. And if they lose power then you need your diesel backup generators to run. If you lose power in a sustained way in a region, you might run out of diesel fuel or the diesel generators might have gotten whacked, too.

That to me was an unacceptable risk. And I am not comforted that we do not seem to have a solid plan in place in this country that says, "Here is how we would deal with a sustained outage caused by one of these coronal mass ejections." Which sounds like one of these whacky things, but we had one in 1859 and apparently we missed one that was even more intense than that in 2012 by a one percent rotational turn of chance in our orbital cycle.

Kirk Sorensen: To be honest Chris, if we have a Carrington event, nuclear power is the least of our problems. We have got so much bigger—we are going to be so much more in trouble from the Carrington event than that. But hey, I hear you. I live twenty miles away from three BWR Mark-1s at the Browns Ferry Plant right on the banks of the Tennessee River. They are the three plants in this country that are the most similar to Fukushima. They were built at the same time by the same company of the same design. And I am twenty miles almost due east of them. So I know that if something—I really hope that TVA is staying on top of all their safety with that. The thing to do is move towards designs eventually that do not have these limitations. And I think a LFTR is an example of one of these designs. There are others as well. NuScale is working on a reactor that has a tremendous amount of inherent safety, a lot of other people are as well.

I like the LFTR because the safety that you can build in does not compromise the performance or the price. It actually works right hand-in-hand with it. And also remember, people were building these GE Mark-1s back in the seventies, they did not think they were going to be running them for forty or sixty years. They figured you'd probably run these for thirty years and you'd replace them with something way better than that. So a lot of the decisions that were made forty years ago were made in an environment where they did not anticipate we would do all the dumb things that we actually did.

Chris Martenson: Yes. I agree that we will have very large problems if a Carrington event comes. But I would hate to have a meltdown reactor as an addition to that. I would feel better if I was not around the particular reactors that are here.

Kirk Sorensen: The thing—one of the good sides about the Fukushima incident is the mitigations to protect these Mark-1s are not particularly complicated. Number one: Do not knock out your diesels. [laughter] Number two: Keep your diesels fueled. As long as you circulate the water through the core after shutdown everything is going to be fine. Remember, when the tsunami hit Fukushima, reactors had already been shut down for an hour and they had been cooling for an hour. And believe it or not that first hour is the most important hour when it comes to cooling. You lose most of your fission product inventory. It decays away in that very first hour after shutdown. What happened in Japan was a once in a thousand year event that was compounded by a really dumb design of putting diesel generators in the basement. Go to your local plant say, "Where are your diesels? Do you have them on the roof or something like that?" That would be a lot better.

Chris Martenson: Absolutely. All right, so I like the idea of safety but let us talk about maybe bringing this into reality. Now the last time we talked you said that the Chinese were starting what appeared to be an aggressive program of research and development on a thorium reactor. They had hired a bunch of PhDs maybe numbering over a hundred. There was funding involved. And you had mentioned that they had a plan, which sounded aggressive, of having a pilot developed by 2020 if I recall the stories correctly. What can you give us as an update on their efforts?

Kirk Sorensen: Oh yes, I can give you a great update because I was at a conference in Nashville just two weeks ago and one of the representatives from the Chinese Academy of Sciences was there. He gave a presentation, showed us where they were at, what was going on. It was really clear to me that they are making tremendous progress. I saw pictures of test loops. I saw pictures of lithium separation cascades. I saw pumps and heat exchangers and fuels and all manner of things under development. So yes, I mean, they are—

Chris Martenson: Not schematics but actual pictures?

Kirk Sorensen: No, well, the schematics and actual pictures. But I mean it was clear to me what I was looking at was—I was looking at hundreds and hundreds of researchers at work and building stuff. Things really happening; things really going forward. It was pretty sobering. And here were several of us Americans in the room talking about what we would like to do, what we would think about doing. And I have to admit I was kind of upset that here we were chatting and yapping and there they were doing. So it is very much going forward and making impressive progress. Their latest schedule that I heard at this meeting was a small two megawatt thermal reactor by 2020. It would not have a power conversion system, it would just essentially be—but that would still be the first molten salt reactor somebody has turned on since 1969.

It turns out the Chinese actually had a molten salt reactor program in the early seventies. And they were unable to develop the proper nickel alloys to contain the molten salt. And so they shut the program down around 1976 not long after we did. We, on the other hand, had developed that nickel alloy and successfully demonstrated it at Oak Ridge during that molten salt reactor experiment. So I found it kind of interesting that it was that new technology advantage that allowed us to do it and then not to be able to do it. Now of course they have kind of come in from the cold as far as technology exchange. They know what we did and they showed a number of samples of various nickel alloys they are developing for this program. So that is not a problem for them anymore. They have gotten past that challenge.

And they see the advantages of using thorium in the molten salt reactor to be able to produce high temperature, high quality heat not just for electricity generation but also for industrial processes or hydrocarbon generation, desalinization, a lot of different things. They are excited about it. They are going forward essentially on all fronts with nuclear. They want light water reactors, fast breeder reactors, gas cooled reactors, molten salt reactors. There is almost nothing that they are not doing in the nuclear space and putting serious resources on it. And again, I just cannot help but contrast what we are not doing in the United States to what they are doing. It is pretty humbling.

Chris Martenson: Well, why are they doing that do you think?

Kirk Sorensen: Because they have chosen to. They made a decision that we are going to treat this like a priority. We are going to go make it happen. And we in the US do not—we have not, do not.

Chris Martenson: Is it because you think the Chinese see the energy landscape like I do which is that fossil fuels are finite and becoming more difficult to come by and—

Kirk Sorensen: Oh I know they see that. And not only are they moving out aggressively with nuclear but they are moving out aggressively trying to lay hands on fossil fuel resources all over the world. I mean, the Chinese are not messing around with energy. I think they have internalized the message: Energy is the master commodity. Everything else depends on energy. And if you do not have an energy supply that is reliable and sustainable, you are putting your entire nation at risk. We in the United States—sometimes I think we are cursed by abundance and options. We have so many things we could do that it makes it hard for us to decide what we will do. And we are just sleepwalking through this problem.

Chris Martenson: Well, we also have a bad habit of telling ourselves stories. I have run into politicians and thought leaders and corporate leaders who all tell me very assuredly that fracking has completely eliminated peak oil. I'm like, "Guys, it delayed it by a small amount but if you understand fracking at all you know that, too, is a finite resource." Fracked oil is supposed to peak in the year 2019-2021 depending on who you believe according to our own government. I mean, that is tomorrow in the world of energy transitions.

Kirk Sorensen: Oh exactly, exactly and what we have got now is—we should say our prayers every night in gratitude for fracked gas and fracked oil because it has held off the day of reckoning. And if we were wise we would be using this bounty to help us prepare for the next stage. But unfortunately we are not wise.

Chris Martenson: No. So I was researching thorium a bit and I found that Norway apparently has tried thorium, but in a conventional reactor. How does that work and how is their experiment going?

Kirk Sorensen: Yes, what they are doing in Norway is kind of analogous to what happened to that shipping port reactor that I mentioned earlier where they are using solid oxide fuel like we use in today’s reactors. They are loading it into water cooled, pressurized reactors and testing it out. And it is an example of where thorium can make a little bit of a difference but it does not make that radical difference. And the reason why is because you are not really running the reactor as a breeder reactor. You are essentially replacing the—we talked about the enrichment of uranium earlier. That is when you change the percentage of the valuable U235 to the less valuable 238. If you are not breeding, all you are doing with those kinds of thorium reactors is you are replacing essentially worthless uranium-238 with worthless thorium. It makes a little difference. It stretches out the fuel cycle a little longer but it is not a radical improvement.

I know the guys that are working on this in Norway; we go to the same conferences. We go to dinner when we are there. I say, “Hey, I love you guys but, you know, I kinda think you’re wasting your time," you know. And they are like, “Well, hey Kirk, you listen up. There’s four hundred reactors in the world that use fuel this way and there’s no reactors in the world that use fuel the way you are talking about so we’re, you know, we’re goin’ after those reactors. We’re goin’ after the ones that are built that need fuel now.” Fine guys, but uranium is cheap and what I am talking about is a radical change. It is an absolute step, quantum step forward. And yes, it is not in existence today. We do not have it today. That is not stopping me. We have got to go and make it happen because the path we are on now is not sustainable both in the nuclear sense, the fossil fuels, take your pick. We have got to get on sustainable energy paths. And that is why I feel so strongly about using thorium in the LFTR is that is a sustainable energy path. It is a path that if we develop the technology, we build the reactors, we are going to be able to keep that thing running for thousands, tens of thousands of years because of the abundance of the thorium and the lack of a need of enrichment.

Chris Martenson: Yes, that is a great point I probably should have brought up much earlier. Given the abundance of thorium, knowing what you know about the designs, given the fact that we are probably going to grow our energy use slightly, there is somewhere—how much thorium is there in terms of years of energy production?

Kirk Sorensen: Allan Weinberg did a calculation in 1959 based on the thorium in the crust of the earth mined to a reasonable depth. Assuming seven billion people, which is about the world population right now, living at a western standard, which we are not at now but let us assume they are at a western standard of energy consumption. His estimate of the thorium reserve was thirty billion years. Which puts it at about six times longer than the sun has left.

So I do not worry too much about are we going to run out of thorium. We also have convenient maps of thorium on the moon and mars and asteroids. It is really, again, for the same reason it is easy to find Fukushima fragments far away from the site, it is easy to find thorium on other planets. It tells you it is there.

So running out of thorium is not an issue. And the beauty of getting to the LFTR technology—like I said before, there is not really an in-between between going to this half a percent energy efficiency and going to ninety plus percent energy efficiency. It is going to be a step function. It is going to be that kind of thing because the technology does not lend itself to increment. You are going to go from not breeding to breeding and it is just going to be absolutely revolutionary as far as energy consumption goes.

It is a future I believe in so strongly I am working towards it and I just want to sound the alarm, do not mean to say alarm, but sound the alarm to the world that, "Hey, come on, let us wake up, guys. Let us go make this happen." Other people are doing it. The United States—we have discovered every part of this. We really, really ought to be at the forefront.

Chris Martenson: Well absolutely. And let me talk about one other part of this. How about freshwater? Coal plants, natural gas fired power plants, conventional nuclear plants, all consume a large amount of freshwater in their thermal cycle. Is that part of the LFTR technology, too?

Kirk Sorensen: Every power conversion system has to reject the waste heat to the environment. And one of the things that a lot of these other plants have in common is they use steam turbines. And steam, it is not very complicated. We have known about it for two hundred years or so. You boil the steam at high pressure, you flow that steam through a turbine where it blows down and releases that pressure, turns the turbine. And then you have got to condense the steam back into water, and that is where you use a lot of that cooling water. It is not that we consume it; we consume the coldth out of it. Coldth is not a word; warmth is a word but coldth. [laughter] But that is really what we want out of the water. We do not want the water; we want the cold out of the water. And using steam cycles and condensers, you put a lot of water through that system.

Now when you look at something like a LFTR that runs at much higher temperatures you have some different options for how to make electrical power. And one of the most attractive is to use gas turbines instead of steam turbines. So you can look at gas turbines. With gas turbines now potentially you can air cool those systems rather than water cool systems. And that gets me pretty excited because I am originally from the west where it is pretty arid. We do not have Tennessee Rivers out there. And we also do not have big nuclear reactors and same reason why. If you want to deploy nuclear energy to places where you do not have a whole lot of water resources then you have really got to go to a high temperature reactor that can use air cooling. It changes the game and it makes nuclear accessible in a lot of places it is not accessible now.

So let me tell you something else that is really cool about the gas turbine. Let us say you are next to a body of salt water where you have a ton of water but it is not fresh water. You can use the salt water to cool that gas and at the same time generate desalinated water. With today’s reactors we cannot use the waste heat for desalinization. You can consume some of the electricity you produced to run a reverse osmosis system or something like that, but you cannot use waste heat for it. And using waste heat would be really attractive because we have a lot of it. Today’s reactors, two-thirds of the thermal energy they generate is rejected as waste heat. In the LFTR it would be a lot less. It would only be about half of the thermal energy generated would be rejected as waste heat, and that waste heat, if you were next to a body of salt water, could be used to desalinate water. So I think that in the longer run, I mean, we talked about what are the great resources? Well, they are energy and water. You have got to have those two, probably not even—probably water and energy is the proper order for those two things.

And this is a machine that can make both of them from this very abundant, very low cost thorium fuel once it has been started.

Chris Martenson: Now you mentioned that the Chinese were interested in that desalinization aspect of this technology. Overall, did they feel—how would you gauge their hopefulness for getting this technology up and running and right.

Kirk Sorensen: Well, the guy who was giving the presentation was your quintessential engineer. He was betraying no emotion, and on top of that of his—I do not want to criticize his English because it is a whole lot better than my Chinese. But let us just say he did not wax expressive about the possibilities like I am prone to do. [laughter] But it was clear in his presentation that desal and high temperature fuel production and remote location in low water environments—all of those were very much on their radar and very strong drivers for their investment in this technology. Which right now is on the order—I have heard—on the order of about four hundred million dollars a year they are putting into this. Which from my perspective is just enormous amount of money, but from the perspective of governments it is chump change. We will waste more money than that before we will finish this conversation today.

Chris Martenson: [laughter] Absolutely and maybe it will just prop the stock market up for ten minutes or whatever they do with the money these days. So let us talk about your own efforts then. So here you are, you are in the United States, the putative—or no, the actual discoverer of this technology. You have got a company just out there trying to drum up support for this. How is it going?

Kirk Sorensen: It is actually going really well. We signed a contract with an engineering firm here in Huntsville to support work they're doing with a large utility here in the southern US. So we are funded to work and develop this tech—I mean, it is not an enormous amount of funding but it is good to be getting paid to do what you want to do anyway. So we are moving forward. We are making friends. We are getting this technology information out to all the right people, people who could really build and develop these kinds of reactors. And I just could not be happier about where we are right now.

No government involvement. This is all being done with private funds. All being done with both companies and utilities, but it is all the right people you want to be working with. These are companies that have experience building and operating nuclear reactors so it is not theoretical for them. It is something that they understand and they realize what they are getting into. So it gives me a great deal of comfort when I am showing designs to people who have all this nuclear experience and they are nodding their head going, "Gah, I did not realize your technology could do things like that. We'd kill or die to be able to do that kind of stuff right now with our existing plants."

Chris Martenson: Well fantastic. So this is actually a really important story and I really do hope that our country wakes up and gets out of its little sleepwalking act and decides to get serious about all this. If people want to find out more about this and your work where would they go?

Kirk Sorensen: I always send you to the website. I have to admit, though, it is getting a little long in the tooth. I am the one that keeps it up and I am just so busy working on these efforts with the companies and utilities that I have to admit I am not keeping it up as good as I should. Another great resource is a fellow named Gordon McDowell. He is a Canadian filmmaker and he has just been a great help in getting talks, particularly ones that I have done at different conferences, out there on the web, on YouTube. So I would just Google "Gordon McDowell." YouTube, another great resource. I do try to keep up on the Flibe Energy, that is Flibe-Energy.com. I do try to keep up the media page which has links to articles, presentations, podcasts, I am sure I will be putting this one on there just like other ones we have done. And that is good for people—I find people really like videos, podcasts. They like to be able to watch or listen to things on the go. So all those resources are there for that. And email me if you have questions, [email protected]. And I will try to answer if I have the time. I cannot promise much, though. [laughter]

Chris Martenson: All right. Well, Kirk, I love your energy, love your passion, love the vision on all of this. I am actually really hoping that my country takes a run at this and Europe hopefully is going to take a harder look at this, too, because it is really clear where we are in this energy story. It is astonishing to me, the data points that just continue to flood in, whether it is declining output from the oil majors who are spending more than they have ever spent to get that declining output. When we look at where we really are in the coal story and the grades of coal that we are burning and the environmental effects of all of that—there is just so much that says listen, we need something new here.

And to the people that keep telling me that, "Oh we are going to alternative energy our way to this," I just—a pencil and a napkin is sufficient to go, "Look, no matter how fast we grow our wind and our solar at this point, when we are talking quadrillions of BTUs you have to have something that can really start to bite into that." It is clear that we are not going to—to me anyway—that we are not going to alt energy our way to anything but a fairly disruptive sort of an approach. So with that, thank you so much for your time today. And thanks for all your efforts to keep this live and hopefully rejuvenate it.

Kirk Sorensen: Thanks so much, Chris, I really appreciate the opportunity to come and talk today.

About the guest

Kirk Sorensen

Kirk Sorensen is a founder of Flibe Energy and currently serves as President and Chief Technical Officer. Kirk has been a public advocate for thorium energy and liquid-fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR) technology for many years. He founded the weblog “Energy From Thorium” which has been the platform for the international grassroots effort to revive research and development of fluoride-based reactors. Prior to founding Flibe Energy, he served as Chief Nuclear Technologist at Teledyne Brown Engineering and with their support has pushed advance consideration of thorium. Previous to that, Kirk worked for ten years at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center spending the last two of those years on assignment to the US Army Space and Missile Defense Command.  Kirk has briefed many senior military and civilian decision makers on LFTR technology and its compelling advantages, including its potential use in portable modular reactors for the US military. Kirk graduated with a Masters of Science in Aerospace Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology where his research specialties included hypersonic aerothermodynamics and multidisciplinary design optimization. He also graduated with a Bachelors of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Utah State University and is currently completing an advanced degree in Nuclear Engineering at the University of Tennessee under Dr. Laurence Miller. Kirk has been a prominent advocate for thorium energy with regular speaking engagements and media interviews including Google Tech Talks, Thorium Energy Alliance conferences and the recent International Thorium Energy Organization conference in London, England.

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6 Comments

Mark_BC's picture
Mark_BC
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: Apr 30 2010
Posts: 482
Interesting topic, I never

Interesting topic, I never really understood much about the thorium reactors. It’s not our saviour though since all it produces is electricity when what we really need is liquid hydrocarbons. There is apparently lots of coal left which is one reason why electricity is so cheap – I believe cheaper than it has ever been on a true inflation adjusted basis. This is what nuclear will have to overcome, the cheap electricity brought on by coal. Maybe if a lot of the existing nuke plants get mothballed then we may see electricity rates rise. But nuclear will always have to deal with the EROEI issue like anything else. If it’s hovering below 10 I just don’t see how it’s going to be able to stand on its own. Add in all the fossil fuels that are needed to build the plants, not to mention the electrical infrastructure to feed it into the aging grid, and the fact that fossil fuels are going to be getting more expensive, it doesn’t help out nuclear’s prospects.

And running these plants requires a somewhat cohesive society with educated people. I’m not sure that will be lasting much longer in the US, once the dollar dies and things fall apart. It would be like trying to build and run a nuclear reactor in Liberia. That’s the problem with big centralized energy providers – the rest of society has to be cooperative and in line with it, or it won’t work. In that sense the smaller scale backyard energy provided by solar may be more effective. But I welcome thorium as another potential energy source along with wind and solar. We should be doing everything we can to promote it since we have no other choice at this point.

hidden-in-sight's picture
hidden-in-sight
Status: Member (Offline)
Joined: Aug 31 2014
Posts: 2
Tycer's picture
Tycer
Status: Platinum Member (Offline)
Joined: Apr 26 2009
Posts: 610
Aldous Huxley is grinning

We in the United States—sometimes I think we are cursed by abundance and options. We have so many things we could do that it makes it hard for us to decide what we will do. And we are just sleepwalking through this problem.

Aldous Huxley is patting himself on the back.

Anyway, great interview. Thanks. Let's hope China is successful quickly.

Phaedrus the younger's picture
Phaedrus the younger
Status: Bronze Member (Offline)
Joined: Aug 21 2013
Posts: 68
Informative!

Good topic. Starting to hear more about thorium but from a handful of people. 

I was surprising to hear that thorium is 3x more abundant than uranium.  (Seems pretty high up on the periodic table to be that abundant.)    Having said this, 3x uranium doesn't seem like a huge supply given that we've chewing through uranium quickly.   I suppose the huge differential in efficiency between thorium and uranium will make thorium punch far above uranium's weight (232.04 vs  238.02  cheeky)

The question is whether a working prototype will ever see the light of day.

Also surprised at Kirk's strong downplay of Fukishima debacle.  Wouldn't want to swim, fish, visit the area for a few eons...

 

Dwig's picture
Dwig
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: Mar 5 2009
Posts: 141
Two reservations

A couple of things occur to me:

  • As Mark_BC points out, the viability of thorium (or any other energy source) is fundamentally limited by EROEI, which is being all but ignored in evaluating many technologies.  This is crucial these days, since the ROI numbers of our old reliable fossil fuels are low and declining, and I haven't seen any reports of a new energy source much above 10:1.
  • I think, if it turned out that thorium is really a cheap, reliable, long-term energy source, it would be a long-term disaster.  Remember the 3d "E": environment?  We are still fouling our environment in multiple ways (climate change is just one); an energy source that would underwrite a continuation of BAU for several more decades would make the ultimate peak and decline massively worse than it will be otherwise (that is, severe collapse).  Our children's and grandchildren's best hope is that we'll soon be forced to move to an energy-decline-appropriate economy, lifestyle, and society (since there seems to be no chance that we'll do it voluntarily). It'll still be a rough ride, but they'll have a better chance if we start earlier rather than later.
tonyhen's picture
tonyhen
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Joined: Jan 24 2015
Posts: 1
thorum

Oliver Tickell* says - But the key point here is that neither thorium, nor the LFTR, nor the uranium it produces, are intrinsically resistant to facilitating the proliferation of nuclear weapons. If LFTR designs are ultimately proven and become widespread, the selection of LFTRs as a means of producing fissile material would be an entirely rational choice for states either wishing to acquire nuclear weapons capabilities, or to increase their stock of nuclear weapons at much lower cost, and with much lower risk of detection, than using conventional technologies. As such, the technology itself would not prevent nuclear proliferation. That would only be possible with a frequent and rigorous inspection regime.

*Oliver Tickell is an author, journalist, and campaigner specializing in environment, energy, and health issues. He is based in Oxford, England.

 

Do you agree Kirk - I ask as someone seeking a ban of nuclear weapons and, nuclear power because of the link to weapons and the irreducible toxic waste. Like your site by the way.

Tony

 

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