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The 21st Century Energy Solution: Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor

By mgcohode Dec 05, 2013 1325 Words

The 21st Century Energy Solution: Liquid Flouride Thorium Reactor Recently the spotlight has been set on renewable energies to assist with weaning off of greenhouse gas emissions, solving issues with energy independence, and to exploit their inherent renewability. Unfortunately our technology is not quite up to speed economically with our wish to rely completely on renewable energy, thus many non-renewable energies are recognized as viable options to power our economy (Fraser, 2011). The United States’ current position on diversifying with non-renewables consists of oil, natural gas, coal, and the less spoken of, nuclear power. Nuclear power is the process by which a reactor contains a slow explosion called fission, which gives off a positive net amount of energy that can be harvested. Of course the social stigma around nuclear is so strong that even if there were an undiscovered completely safe type of nuclear power plant, justifying the complex science would be challenging. After events such as Fukushima, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island, the vast majority of society believes nuclear energy is nothing more than a death wish. Contrary to popular belief, a safer alternative in nuclear energy has been discovered and has been gaining popularity over the past few years despite the recent tragedy in Japan (Sorensen, 2011). Though newly rekindled, the non-mainstream nuclear power known as Molten Salt Reactor (MSR) was discovered in the 1960’s and had been proved to be a very attractive option to the more popular Light Water Reactor (LWR). It all began with nuclear physicist Alvin Weinberg, who would graduate from the University of Chicago soon become research director at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). Weinberg was given the freedom to experiment with designing multiple types of nuclear reactors including the prominent LWR’s that are in commercial use today. Subsequently Weinberg had noted the potential danger of a LWR and moved on to designing a safer nuclear power technology that he would end up supporting for the rest of his life. His research team at ORNL created a fluid fuel in a MSR, opposed to the traditional solid fuel in LWR’s, in order to decrease the pressure and overall danger of the system. To Weinberg’s delight, although this prototype MSR had corrosive issues because of the salt involved, Weinberg deemed this technology far more superior to LWR. Furthermore, the worst part about current hatred for LWR’s is that although it can be a dangerous process, the technology is revolutionary and its power has potential that we are seriously unaware of. For now with our current state of knowledge about nuclear power combined with our world’s predicament with how we generate power so ineffectively, MSR’s must be and should have always been the government’s number one priority (Sorensen, 2011). This specific type of nuclear reactor is certainly on the minds of at least China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, South Korea, and Australia (Furukawa, 2008). Since these countries showed interest at least by 2008 it can be assumed that they are already in the process of construction. An example for our worst-case scenario would be for the United States to simply stand back and watch as the rest of the world capitalizes on the best power generating technology known to man. A technology that of course the United States developed and had in operation fifty years ago, but the idea simply faded away. As the majority of the US would like to go green, it may not be too early to claim the MSR as green nuclear power. Nuclear reactors do not emit greenhouse gases taking care of one of the three major concerns with the future of energy. Though observing an entire life cycle of Thorium and materials to make the power plant, there are transportation emissions involved. It turns out however, that Thorium is extremely accessible in the US as it is already mined concurrently with other rare earth minerals but is typically discarded for lack of utility. The United States has somewhere in the order of 15% of the world’s total Thorium stockpile at around 15 million tons (Bonometti, 2008). Even if we were to run out of Thorium, the Moon has even greater amounts that by the time we begin to hit peak Thorium it will surely be so far in the future that extracting moon materials would not be a challenge. As an investor this further assures a safe bet, but what is so safe about the LFTR design is that a meltdown or explosion is so much more unlikely to occur than in LWR systems. Since the carrier of thorium is a liquid, liquid fluoride, it allows standard pressure at high temperatures. Traditionally, in LWR, water had to cool down the solid fuel since it couldn’t handle the high temperatures because of high pressure, which had always been a fine line behind meltdowns (Sorensen, 2011). In the LFTR, the system can naturally correct an over heated system by melting a frozen salt plug at the base of the system to enter into an emergency cooling tank. If LFTR technology has already been proved, proved to be safe, proved to be powerful, and proved to be available and cheap, then why doesn’t the world run on it? The technology itself seems to be a bit mysterious itself or maybe doubtful since it has already been ignored once before. What it comes down to is the timescale that nuclear reactors had been created. Back at Oak Ridge Laboratory where Weinberg had designed nuclear power he first designed the LWR, which happened to be more dangerous, but nevertheless reported his results. Quickly academics and politicians alike were astounded by the amount of power that could be generated through nuclear fission. Academics such as Weinberg understood the dangerous design of the LWR and proceeded to design safer alternatives, hence the MSR. Politicians on the other hand, had deadlines to meet, people to please, jobs to create, and the LWR went commercial. There is even a specific phone call between President Nixon and a California LWR director expressing swift actions to commercialize the technology before elections (Sorensen, 2011). As Weinberg fought the Nixon administration to stop continuing with LWR’s he was soon fired from the Oak Ridge Lab and so did the MSR department. Thus many scientists have since seen and admired his work and have finally had reason to express its various benefits once the inevitable failures of LWR ensued, for example, Fukushima. In addition, it is important to note how resultant issues with LWR nuclear plants in the past have all been due to the intrinsic difficulty with handling a solid fuel at its required high pressure for fission to take place. In other words, none of those accidents would have happened if they would have simply listened to their founder, Weinberg, and chose to go with an MSR design. As the public is informed with this somewhat difficult science I imagine it will take about as long to understand the difference in types of nuclear reactors as it did for the majority of the population to understand the science behind the greenhouse effect. This is based on the fact that the same oil and coal industries will be threatened along with ill-educated environmentalists who will viciously support only renewable energy.

Works Cited
Bonometti, Joe. "The Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor: What Fusion Wanted To Be." Lecture.GoogleTalk. 20 Jan. 2012. Youtube. Google, 18 Nov. 2008. Web. 20 Jan. 2012. Engel, J. R. "Energy Citations Database (ECD) - - Document #5352526." Office of Scientific and Technical Information, OSTI, U.S. Department of Energy. Oak Ridge National Lab, 19 Feb. 2009. Web. 02 Feb. 2012. .

Furukawa, Kazuo. "A Road Map for the Realization of Global-scale Thorium Breeding Fuel Cycle by Single Molten-fluoride flow." ScienceDirect, 4 Mar. 2008. Web. 25 Jan. 2012.. Fraser, Nicholas. "Re-thinking New Zealand’s Energy Policy: The Case for LFTR." New Zealand Government, 2011. Web. 25 Jan. 2012..

Sorensen, Kirk. "The Thorium Molten-Salt Reactor: Why Didn't This Happen (and Why Is Now the Right Time?)." Lecture. GoogleTalk. 20 Jan. 2012. Youtube. Google, 16 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 Jan. 2012.

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