Thursday, January 08, 2015

Thorium molten salt reactors to go into production by 2020

When most people think of nuclear power, they think of thousands of barrels of waste that no one can touch or do anything about. They look for ways to keep the waste out of their backyards. They think of crusty old domes near their homes or freeways that could go off any day now.

As mentioned before in several articles on this blog, I'm a big, big fan of thorium as fuel for nuclear reactors. The thorium molten salt reactor has been demonstrated as a very safe technology back in the 60s by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Note that back then, there were zero private enterprises investing any time or effort in thorium as a fuel for power plants. Instead, a lonely team in a government agency took up the challenge and made a few megawatts for their own use. I find it very interesting how innovative some government agencies can be, NASA in particular.

It seems that more than a few people have noticed that effort back in the 60s and are now replicating it. If you've been exposed to this video of Kirk Sorensen touting the virtues of the thorium molten salt reactor, you may have also found his company, Flibe. The video is 5 minutes of your time and well worth the watch. In a nutshell, the thorium molten salt reactor could give us the clean energy we need now at a fraction of the cost and about 1% of the waste of the uranium light water reactors we've been using since Nixon pointed us in that direction.

Now it seems, a company is developing modular, shipyard construction of thorium/uranium power plants that use molten salts for fuel. Better still, they believe that they can make power cheaper than coal, the power source of choice among developing countries. Those developing countries have 1400 coal power plants in the works each delivering about a gigawatt of power. That is a whole lotta carbon going into the atmosphere if they go through with their plans.

What company is doing this? Martingale with their ThorCon reactor. They are developing a thorium molten salt reactor that is built in modules, helping to reduce the costs of construction. Instead of building a powerplant that is designed to last for several decades, they are making the components easy to replace and upgrade.

One really nice feature is that the design is walk-away safe. If the reactor overheats, the fuel drains into a cooling tank. The entire safety system is passive, so that even in the worst case scenario, there is no meltdown to worry about. The fuel is already liquid and the reactor is designed to remove the fuel from the reactor, automatically, without human intervention if something goes wrong.

Martingale plans to bring its first reactor to market by 2020. That is a short 5 years away. To put this in perspective, we have enough thorium on the planet that we're just not going to run out of it in our lifetimes. Kirk Sorensen estimates that thorium could power our civilization for 5,000 years. That could bring about a lasting peace without the endless fighting over oil. Why? Thorium is rather evenly distributed around the globe save for a few large deposits here and there. Bonus: 1 ton of thorium replaces 30 billion barrels of oil.

If thorium power is widely adopted, much of our demand for coal and oil would disappear. Cars would become electric and the Arabs and Israelis can both take a hike. We could focus on other things like, oh, I don't know, building a thriving middle class? Using some of that energy to remove the carbon from the atmosphere? How about water desalination? A universal recycler?

This is a revolution in the making. It will take time, and it can be done with no new technology. Every feature of this modular reactor is a known quantity since it's been done before. One other thing I like about Martingale is that they believe in public disclosure to provide for rapid improvement of the technology.

Like I said before, I don't believe in the gloom and doom about global warming. I believe that we are capable of powering our civilization and restoring our planet to the way it was when we found it (mostly), for our children and their children. Avoiding or reversing global warming is no longer a question of technology, it is a question of political will.
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