Nuclear power and earthquakes. How to make it safer and better.

The earthquake that hit Japan on March 11 caused enough damage to at least 11 of Japan’s 55 nuclear reactors that they will have to be repaired before power production can resume. Three reactors are so badly damaged that they are releasing short term radioactive gases. Three reactors have suffered a significant hydrogen explosion from released gases from exposed and overheated fuel rods and much secondary damage has occurred.  Three reactors are now in a stage of a partial meltdown, they will never be restarted again and the radiation poisoning the environment will last for millennia. In addition there was a fire in the spent fuel compartment of a fourth reactor releasing much radiation.

This is the problem with Uranium based nuclear power generation. These particular reactors are of the GE Mark-1 type, the design is from the 60’s, and there has been complaints the safety updates and inspections have been falsified. They were designed to withstand a 7.0 earthquake, further reinforced by the Japanese to an 8.2 earthquake. The tsunami wall around the complex was built 30 feet high, but the tsunami was 39 feet. Be that as it may, the tsunami took out the backup generators and the earthquake was severe and sudden enough that some of the SCRAM-rods could have been jammed. Time will tell what the failure mode really was. We seem to have a significant safety problem with nuclear power.

Is there a better way? Let us look at the history of nuclear power. Fission from Uranium 235 was confirmed in  1938 and fission from U-233 was discovered in 1942. During that time WWII was raging, and the Germans had a head start with many superior nuclear scientists. Some had fled to the U.S. but many remained. Germany had captured Norway and there was excess hydroelectric power available in Rjukan so they started to manufacture heavy water. When they had made a whole railroad container car of heavy water , the “Heroes of Telemark” managed to sink the ferry it was transported on and the German program was set back, probably by a year.

Meanwhile in the U.S. the Manhattan Project was going on. They used brute force to separate out enough U-235 out of natural Uranium. Copper was in short supply so they could not get enough to make all the electromagnets necessary for the separation. Not to worry they availed themselves of the silver in Fort Knox, making the best magnets the world has ever seen.

Germany capitulated May 5 1945, but not Japan and on August 6 the first nuclear bomb was dropped, changing life as we see it forever. The nuclear nightmare had started. In the 50’s the Oak Ridge ‘boys’, (the laboratory, not the quartet) proved that nuclear power from Thorium was a realistic power source, but then the nation was more interested in making plutonium for nuclear bombs, and thorium based reactors did not produce enough bomb-making material. So Thorium was mothballed and the Uranium based reactors won the day. Thus the military industrial complex gained virtual monopoly on nuclear power, and that is why we are now in a terrible fix trying to promote nuclear power.

Sweden started a heavy water project but the light water reactors proved more economical and the development cycle much faster thanks to the military applications un US. India refused to join the nuclear proliferation treaty so they were shut out of access to enriched uranium and light water reactor technology. What to do? They built a heavy water reactor that uses natural uranium instead. The beauty of that process is that it produces even more plutonium than what is possible with light water reactors. So they built their nuclear bomb, pretending to promote peaceful nuclear energy. What if we instead had said: “Forget the bombs, go with Thorium instead?” Would there be any difference?

Thorium is four times more abundant than Uranium, and is found as a byproduct when mining rare earth and heavy metals. It is radioactive, but not more than the background radiation found everywhere. It is at the “banana level”, about as radioactive as bananas. Thorium is completely safe from terrorists, it cannot be used for anything sinister.  You only need very small quantities to fuel a reactor, and since it is a by-product it can be bought for the price of refining it, about $40 per Kg.  There is enough Thorium around to produce power at today’s level for over a million years.

Thorium can generate electricity at a cost of about 4 cents/kWh, even when all regulatory  requirements are satisfied. It generates 0.01% of the long term waste products of a Uranium reactor, and can even consume some of the waste-products from uranium based production. There is no risk of boil-overs since the fuel is already molten and at atmospheric pressure.

Sounds too good to be true? Let us take a look at the thorium reactors and see what they seem to promise.

1. Cheap and unlimited raw material.

2. Produces electricity at a cost of about 4 cents per kWh.

3. 0.01% waste products compared to a Uranium fast breeder.

4. Radioactive waste lasts max 300 years instead of a million years.

5. Can deplete some of the existing radioactive waste and nuclear weapons stockpiles.

6. Produces Plutonium-238 needed for space exploration.

7. Does not produce Plutonium239 and higher used in Nuclear bombs.

8. Produces isotopes that helps cure certain cancers.

9. Earthquake safe.

10. No risk for a meltdown, the fuel is already molten.

11. Very high negative temperature coefficient leading to a safe control.

12. Atmospheric pressure operating conditions, no risk for explosions.

13. Scales beautifully from small portable generators to full size power plants.

14. No need for evacuation zones, can be placed in urban areas.

15. Rapid response to increased or decreased power demands.

16. Lessens the need for an expanded national grid.

17. Russia and China is starting up a Thorium program

18. India has an active Thorium program.

19. Lawrence Livermore Laboratories is developing a small portable self-contained Thorium reactor capable of being carried on a low-bed trailer.

20. The need for a Yucca Mountain nuclear storage facility will eventually go away.

Obstacles in the path of Thorium reactors.

1. They are fast breeder reactors and fast breeders have a bad reputation for potential risks. The political resistance is enormous.

2. The military industrial complex (GE, Westinghouse, etc. ) has an enormous investment in Uranium based light water reactor technology. They would like to keep it that way.

3. The NRC is nearly impossible to move forward.

4. The political power landscape will change. Thorium based nuclear power is best left to regional control, and the world body trying to control all aspects of power generation would have a much harder time establishing total control.

5. Electricity will to a lesser degree be produced from coal, leaving the coal states with less clout.

Where do we go from here? India has for a long time been the only serious developer of Thorium based nuclear energy, a program that has been languishing too long since it has zero military applications, Thorium power produces 0.01% of the nuclear waste of conventional nuclear power, Thorium is abundant in Australia, India and the U.S. She should encourage cooperation on this type of nuclear energy. Thorium based generators can be made safe from earthquakes in a way no other nuclear energy can. Even though Thorium reactors are fast breeder reactors they are inherently stable and can be placed on barges in rivers. They are also superior in adapting to variations in power need, in short: we are way behind in developing the nuclear power for the future.

All of us should read up and try to understand the Thorium process and be ready to give a reason why we should not abandon nuclear power but change direction in this critical time. We need a new “Manhattan project” for energy. This time all the silver in Fort Knox will not save us, for we have lost the ability to do it by using brute force. Instead we will have to take a decentralized approach, developing small to medium size Thorium reactors near centers of power consumption. This will lessen our dependence on the National Grid, a grid that is vulnerable to terror attacks. Thorium reactors are not vulnerable to attacks, they can be neutralized and shut down with gravity alone, the one force that is always there.

Eleven reasons to switch to Thorium based Nuclear Power generation.

Eleven reasons to switch to Thorium based Nuclear Power generation.

1. Cheap and unlimited raw material. There is enough Thorium around for many millennia, and not only that, it is a byproduct of mining heavy metals and rare earth metals The price is the cost of refining it, about $40/Kg.

2. 0.01% waste products compared to a Uranium fast breeder. The Thorium process has a much higher efficiency in fission than  the Uranium process. See the figure below.

Note the Plutonium in the Thorium cycle is Pu-238, which is in high demand.

3. Radioactive waste lasts max 300 years instead of a million years. Initially a Thorium reactor produces as much radioactivity as other nuclear reactors, since that is what generates the heat by converting mass to heat, but the decay products have a much shorter half-life. See the figure below.

4. Can deplete some of the existing radioactive waste and nuclear weapons stockpiles. Thorenco LLC is developing a special reactor to purify spent nuclear fuel. This thorium converter reactor is designed to transmute and to “fission away” the heavy transuranic metals, the “nuclear waste” that the world’s fleet of 441+ light water reactors produce in spent fuel. This waste is about 4-5% of the volume of the fuel rods. It is composed of neptunium, plutonium, americium and curium. These transuranic elements are radiotoxic for very long periods of time. Thorenco’s technology fissions the plutonium and irradiates the transuranics causing the heavy metal elements to fission or to become lighter elements with much shorter decay periods. The thorium fuel cycle provides the neutrons as does the reactor grade plutonium. Nuclear power becomes more sustainable because the volume of the spent fuel from the uranium plutonium cycle is reduced by up to 95%. More importantly, the storage time for the residue from the recycled thorium fuel is materially reduced. This will have to be stored for less than 1% of the time needed for the storage of the untreated transuranics.

5. Produces Plutonium-238 needed for space exploration. WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate gave final passage to an energy and water spending bill Oct. 15  2009 that denies President Barack Obama’s request for $30 million for the Department of Energy to restart production of plutonium-238 (pu-238) for NASA deep space missions. The House of Representatives originally approved $10 million of Obama’s pu-238 request for next year, but ultimately adopted the Senate’s position before voting Oct. 1 to approve the conference report on the 2010 Energy-Water Appropriations bill (H.R. 3183). The bill now heads to Obama, who is expected to sign it. NASA relies on pu-238 to power long-lasting spacecraft batteries that transform heat into electricity. With foreign and domestic supplies dwindling, NASA officials are worried the shortage will prevent the agency from sending spacecraft to the outer planets and other destinations where sunlight is scarce. Thorium reactors produce PU-238 as a “free” byproduct.

6. Does not produce Plutonium239 and higher used in nuclear bombs. The higher Plutonium isotopes are about as nasty as they get, and need expensive protection against terror attacks, and need to be stored for a very long time.

7. Produces isotopes that helps cure certain cancers. For decades, medical researchers have sought treatments for cancer. Now, Alpha Particle Immunotherapy offers a promising treatment for many forms of cancer, and perhaps a cure. Unfortunately, the most promising alpha-emitting medical isotopes, actinium-225 and its daughter, bismuth-213, are not available in sufficient quantity to support current research, much less therapeutic use. In fact, there are only three sources in the world that largely “milk” these isotopes from less than 2 grams of thorium source material. Additional supplies were not forthcoming. Fortunately, scientists and engineers at Idaho National Laboratory identified 40-year-old reactor fuel stored at the lab as a substantial untapped resource and developed Medical Actinium for Therapeutic Treatment, or MATT, which consists of two innovative processes (MATT-CAR and MATT-BAR) to recover this valuable medical isotope.

8. Earthquake safe. Thorium reactors have a very simple and compact design where gravity is the only thing needed to stop the nuclear reaction. Conventional Nuclear reactors depend on external power to shut down after a SCRAM, where poison rods fall down to halt the reaction.  The next figure shows the concept of a Thorium reactor.

The idea is to empty the fissile U-233 core through gravity alone. Since the fuel is already molten, it can run out like pig-iron into cooling heat exchangers with  water supplied thru gravity alone.

As we can see the reactor hardened structure is compact, and can be completely earthquake and tsunami proof. What can be sheared off are the steam pipes and external power, but the shutdown can complete without additional power.

9. No risk for a meltdown, the fuel is already molten. The fuel in a Thorium reactor is U-233 in the form of UraniumFluoride (UF4) salt that also contains Lithium and Beryllium, in its molten form it has a very low vapor pressure. The salt flows easily through the heat exchangers and the separators. The salt is very toxic, but it is completely sealed.

10. Very high negative temperature coefficient leading to a safe control. This is another beauty of the molten salt design. The temperature coefficient is highly negative, leading to a safe design with simple and consistent feedback. What does that mean?  It means that if temperature in the core rises, the efficiency of the reaction goes down, leading to less heat generated. There is no risk for a thermal runaway. In contrast, Chernobyl used graphite moderated Uranium , and it suffered a thermal runaway as the operators bypassed three safety circuits trying to capture the last remaining power during a normal shut-down. The reactor splat, the graphite caught fire and the rest is history. Five days later two nuclear installations in Sweden shut down their reactors due to excessive radiation, but it took a while before they could figure out what had happened. First then did the Soviets confess there had been an accident.

11. Atmospheric pressure operating conditions, no risk for explosions. Materials subjected to high radiation tend to get brittle or soften up. Thorium reactors operate under atmospheric conditions so the choice of materials that can withstand both high temperatures and high radiation is much greater, leading to a superior and less expensive design.  There is no high pressure gas buildup and the separation stage can be greatly simplified.

Many of the pictures are from a slide presentation given by David Archibald in Melbourne Feb 5 2011. He posted it “for the benefit of all” which I have interpreted as waving the copyright of the pictures

http://wattsupwiththat.com/2011/02/12/david-archibald-on-climate-and-energy-security/

Next installment:  Eleven more reasons for Thorium https://lenbilen.com/2012/02/15/eleven-more-reasons-to-switch-to-thorium-as-nuclear-fuel/

Energy from Thorium. Save 500 Million from the Budget now!

Here is an idea on how to save money that comes from the Thorium community on how to save more than 500 million dollars in the federal budget and energy, scientific and medical benefits as a bonus.(1)

The situation:  The Department of Energy has 1400 Kg Uranium-233 stored at Oak Ridge National Lab. They are in process of downgrading it to natural uranium by downblending it with depleted uranium. They need 200 tons of depleted uranium to do the task, rendering it unusable for anything.

The decommissioning was approved in 2003 and to date 130 million has been spent, but the actual downblending hasn’t even started yet.

Proposal 1. Sell it to India which has an active Thorium nuclear reactor program. There it can be used as a fuel producing an estimated 600 million dollars worth of electricity. India is building full scale Thorium reactors. India would be an ideal partner for cooperation in future of nuclear power generation.

Proposal 2. Stop the decommissioning immediately. Build our own Thorium Nuclear Reactor and over time get 600 million dollars worth of electric power and 45g of Plutonium-238. We are out of Pu-238 and can do no more planetary exploration satellites (3).

All  deep space satellites all had Pu-238 power sources. Only Russia has Pu-238 left, and the U.S. is banking on getting it for a friendship price. In addition there are significant unique medical applications in treatment of cancer that can be obtained by radiation from byproduct of the Thorium process. Below are pictures of the Thorium process and what a Thorium Power plant might look like. (4)

 

 

 

(1) http://energyfromthorium.com/

(2) http://conclave.intoday.in/conclave/conclave2011.php

(3) http://www.satnews.com/cgi-bin/story.cgi?number=598732652

(4) http://wattsupwiththat.files.wordpress.com/2011/02/archibald-ncc-5th-february-2010.pdf