Review of “Superfuel”
Growing up in Oak Ridge TN in the ‘60s, terms like “homogeneous reactor,” “molten salt reactor” and “breeder reactor” were frequently used, although I couldn’t have explained them at the time. Research into nuclear power became the mission of Oak Ridge National Labs after the war under the direction of Alvin Weinberg.
A few years ago, I came across a guy on FB named Charles Barton Jr, an addiction counselor by training and a stalwart advocate for thorium molten salt reactors. His dad had done some pioneering work in the ‘50s on the technology. We became Facebook friends and I learned a little about molten salt reactors. Then, I happened to mention that we had rooftop solar and he started attacking me. Turns out, he wasn’t a reactor geek, he was a thorium tribalist, and any form of green energy other than thorium molten salt reactors was a betrayal and an adversary of his dad’s legacy. I had to block him.
Charles Barton Jr makes a couple of cameo appearances in “Superfuel,” a book about thorium nuclear power by Richard Martin. Martin is a journalist, not a scientist or an engineer. As a result, the writing is very good and doesn’t get bogged down in technical detail.
The dominant nuclear reactor technology on earth today is uranium solid fuel light water reactors or some close variant. How this came to be is a story at least as much about politics as about science. Martin uses the hero and villain trope here, with Weinberg as the hero and Adm. Hyman Rickover as the villain. Even their personalities fit their roles.
One thing I learned in reading this book is that current light water solid fuel uranium reactors only use a tiny fraction of the fissionable uranium during their lifetime. This leaves a lot of long-lived radioactive “waste.” It turns out that molten salt reactors are one way to recover much more of the energy from this “waste” and turn it into a smaller volume with a shorter half-life.
This book was published in August 2013. A lot has transpired in the world of nuclear power since then.
A forgotten war technology could safely power earth for millions of years
Feeling you, but could not get that link to fire.
Maybe Bill can fix the link. If you copy and paste the URL into your browser, it should work.
Thanks for the fix. Awesome thorough great article and the comments on this thread have captured and framed the major points. We lost a lot of time on not developing what we most need for energy in a ever more demanding world of changing climate and some form of breeder that minimizes waste and maximizes fuel must be sought.
Molten salt reactors were trouble in the 1960s—and they remain trouble today
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists – June 2022
… Here’s a key concern: Materials used to manufacture molten-salt-reactor components must maintain their integrity in highly radioactive and corrosive environments at elevated temperatures. The corrosion is a result of the reactor’s nature, which involves the use of a fuel consisting of uranium mixed with the hot salts for which the reactor is named. As anyone living near a seashore knows, chemically corrosive salt water eats most metallic objects. …
Read your link. This is mostly covered in the book I reviewed, since most of the beefs in your link date from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. We’re now in the third decade of the 21st century, and your link doesn’t seem to be aware of that. There is more research on thorium reactors than just Oak Ridge, which can be found by Google if you’re interest and don’t want to read the book.
Ultimately, yes, thorium molten salt reactors are not risk-free. Neither are solid fuel light water reactors, and we have lots of real-world experience with their problems. But wind, solar, hydroelectric and geothermal cannot replace the world demand for energy currently being met by coal, oil and natural gas. And commercial fusion is always 30 years in the future. If we are to unmoor ourselves from carbon, some form of nuclear power is essential.
‘some form of nuclear power is essential’ – I believe that is very likely.
One keeps hoping for ‘thermonuclear’ power, which is always right around the corner. However, nuclear disasters with fission reactors keep happening, and the exhausted-fuel/reactor teardown/disposal problems with fission reactors need much more attention.
Actually, as a fraction of total reactor hours in operation, nuclear disasters with fission reactors are very rare. WRT fuel exhaustion, reactor teardown and waste disposal, thorium molten salt reactors appear to be superior to uranium solid fuel light water reactors.
Nuclear Disasters · 5. Three Mile Island Nuclear Accident · 4. Windscale Fire Nuclear Disaster · 3. Kyshtym Nuclear Disaster · 2. Fukushima Nuclear Disaster. 1. Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster
Untold environmental damage, radiation-related disease, environmental damage that will last thousands of years.
Worse in some disasters than others, fortunately.
But, all in all, less horrific perhaps than what has been and will be wrought by green-house gas pollution.
Has anyone gotten a molten salt reactor with any fuel to work for any length of time? There were experimental units in the 1950s and 1960s, but as best I can tell, it’s all been research and design since with no serious prototyping since then. There seem to be a few industrial processes that use molten salt technology to heat things in metallurgy, but it’s not common. Molten salts involve a lot of heat and corrosive materials, so engineers try to avoid them when they can.
If our goal is nuclear power, we want to be able to demonstrate reliability, practicality and safety. Pushing several tricky technologies at once is harder than just pushing one. Molten salt reactors might be much better than water cooled reactors or liquid sodium cooled reactors, but engineers have a lot more experience with water cooling. If you want to show off that you can juggle knives safely, don’t try to do it on a unicycle on a high wire over a visiting school group.
I’m pretty positive about smaller modular reactors because one of the few nuclear power success stories has been the US Navy with its nuclear submarines and air craft carriers. Construction Physics had a good overview of the reactor program’s history, and the companies developing small modular reactors seem to have learned something from the Navy’s success. It also means that it may be possible to adopt alternate fuel and cooling systems within a modular framework.
You’ve put your finger on the core of the problem. You can’t perfect what you haven’t tried, and Rickover pushed solid fuel light water reactor technology. You can read the book to get the answers to most of your questions. You can also google the various companies developing thorium molten salt reactors, and the pilot plants being built in China.
It is said that ‘The Boiling Frog’ theory is untrue.
That does not really seem to be the case.
Nuclear reactors are distrusted because of ‘incidents’ that require heroic action promptly.
They are dealt with immediately at enormous expense.
That has not happened with green-house gas environmental issues.
People do have a lot more air-conditioning than they did fifty years ago, though.
(I do remember a horribly cheesy sci-flick from when I was a kid, about a monstrously disfigured creature from the future who was sent back in time to warn us about the coming horrors of nuclear power, but was too horribly scary to be paid attention to.)
Obviously, people accumulate great wealth & the extraordinary political power that comes with it simply by exploiting natural resources, have been doing so for centuries, and those people resist any efforts that threaten their economic well-being.
You might say that ‘the dinosaurs had it lucky.’
The existential danger to human civilization from global warming isn’t the heat and flooding (although both are already occurring), it is the resource wars that will break out as humans living in uninhabitable places fight for their lives (they already are in the ME).
Nuclear power of some sort *must* be in the mix to replace carbon, since it addresses the intermittency of wind and solar (and now, it appears, hydroelectric). But renewables can’t do anything about the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere and being released by the melting of permafrost and methane clathrates. The only hope for humanity is some mix of geoengineering and carbon capture.
Alternatively, human society shrinks itself down to a size that is more manageable.
Like something out HG Wells’s Time Machine, maybe.
Probably will not happen gracefully, however.
The great thing about being mortal is that none alive today will have to experience this process. Maybe. If they’re lucky.
It will be violent and bloody.
I’m 67, so will likely be dead before the resource wars begin in earnest. But I tremble for our children and grandchildren. They will be around to see it.
I have seen some concerns expressed lately about what it would be like to have a stellar-class object (i.e., a ‘wandering star’ ) pass through our solar system. Presumably that would take care of any loose ends.
My children have sworn off having children of their own, fortunately.
An interesting aspect of ‘nuclear power’ is that it also involves digging fuel out of the ground, i.e. a relatively scarce resource that is therefore valuable, and also dangerous to process, for those who do the processing. And, those resources only get more valuable as they grow scarcer.
For uranium, yes. Thorium is pretty abundant in the earth’s crust.
Thorium is radioactive and can be stored in bones. Because of these facts it has the ability to cause bone cancer many years after the exposure has taken place. Breathing in massive amounts of thorium may be lethal. People will often die of metal poisoning when massive exposure take place.
Thorium – chemical properties
The time required for a radioactive substance to lose 50 percent of its radioactivity by decay is known as the half-life. The half-life of thorium- 232 is very long at about 14 billion years.
EPA facts about thorium
Breathing massive amounts of smoke from coal-fired plants may be lethal. Metal poisoning from exposure to coal ash may be lethal. As we’re seeing now in Kentucky, massive amounts of water can be lethal.
Thorium occurs naturally. So does fluoride in drinking water. Both can be deadly in high enough amounts.
The dose makes the poison.
You might also point out that with a 14 billion- year half-life, thorium is just not that radioactive, so what’s to worry about?
If you are afraid of ionizing radiation, be sure never to travel in an airplane or get X-rays or a CT scan.
Also too, sunlight can induce cancer, and the half-life of the sun is way longer than your natural live will be.
Indeed, it seems we are all required to live dangerously.
That’s the thing about living: you could die from it. Eventually you will.
Most Americans are innumerate and therefore have no meaningful understanding of risk. Your risk of dying from thorium exposure is objectively much smaller than your risk of being injured or killed in a traffic accident.
many people who think they are not innumerate have no meaningful understanding of risk.
Those who know more about Thorium than I do realize that ‘natural’ Th-232, the abundant form of it, is so stable it is practically not even radioactive. To be useful, it has to be turned into Th-233 first.
That may not be a big problem, but it is still a problem.
Natural thorium, the Th-232 variety being most abundant by far, is so slightly radioactive that it is practically useless, barely dangerous.
But since it can be turned into much more radioactive Th-233, not only does it become much more useful, it becomes much more dangerous.
It is misleading to suggest otherwise.
One day, ‘The Cloud’ just went away…
It’s 1468. Why Does the Village Priest Have an iPhone?
NY Times – Nov 11, 2019
… April 1468: The arrogant, newly ordained Christopher Fairfax is journeying (on horseback) to the remote Wessex village of Addicott St. George to perform a burial service, that of the village’s priest, Father Lacy. …
… the dead priest’s secret, a stash of forbidden ancient artifacts that includes 21st-century pound notes and an iPhone. The heart of the matter is revealed: We are not in the Wessex of 550 years ago but 850 years into the future. …
(A review of ‘The Second Sleep’ by Robert Harris.)
The Wikipedia article below is generally favorable on using Thorium for nuclear power, in that it has advantages over Uranium.
Thorium-based nuclear power generation is fueled primarily by the nuclear fission of the isotope uranium-233 produced from the fertile element thorium. A thorium fuel cycle can offer several potential advantages over a uranium fuel cycle—including the much greater abundance of thorium found on Earth, superior physical and nuclear fuel properties, and reduced nuclear waste production. One advantage of thorium fuel is its low weaponization potential; it is difficult to weaponize the uranium-233/232 and plutonium-238 isotopes that are largely consumed in thorium reactors. …
(A thorium atom has 90 protons, and has 31 isotopes with differing numbers of neutrons.
Thorium-232 has 142 neutrons and hardly ever decays, but if it is bombarded with neutrons, it can become Thorium-233 by accepting one of those neutrons, becoming fissile, as they say.)
Wiki is not an objective, let alone omniscient, source. Citing a few “favorable” aspects, does not render meaningless the unfavorable aspects. Not least of which is leading us to the fantasy that we can keep increasing “energy demand” without destroying ourselves.
Some poisons are “less lethal” than others, but taking enough of any of them will get the job done.
As well as a meaningful understanding of risk, human beings suck at being continuously and reliably disciplined in their management of risk. Fukushima was a disaster just waiting to happen. We really want to build all power plants, not just nuclear, away from faults and floods. We have a nuclear power plant in VA too near a fault and we had a coal-fired plant flood fifty years ago.
Nuclear is just better at raising the ante on risky bets. The problem with climate change is that the fear of nuclear power plant disaster is based on past experiences of other human beings making it visceral and real to us whereas the fear of climate change is only supported by the testimony of fossils from extinct species which were climate changed to death by no fault of their own. Either we will learn to manage risk or our bones will speak the truth to the next technologically endowed species to inhabit our planet.
what you say is true, but we don’t need climate change to detroy the planet. Habitqt loss will do the job. General pollution, or plastic pollution specifically will do the job.
And we don’t have to wait to see it happening. People I know, not elite liberals, can see it happening right before their eyes.
And, as we see in a place not far away, it doesn’t even take “denial” or lack of education to rationalize our way into being completely stupid.
The normal limitations of human intelligence are problem enough, but give a man a degree in “science” and he will discover “a fools errand” on his own.
I used to say, when I was one, that over the door of the “science” building where I spent most of my time it should be written “In this building are seven wise men, and an elephant.”
well, i wish i han’t read the whole thing (this post and comments).
it seems “nothing else will do” except to meet “increasing demands for energy.” nope, not a chance we could learn to live with less demands for energy. not even on the table.
so we will all go together when we go. or
” We became Facebook friends and I learned a little about molten salt reactors. Then, I happened to mention that we had rooftop solar and he started attacking me. Turns out, he wasn’t a reactor geek, he was a thorium tribalist, and any form of green energy other than thorium molten salt reactors was a betrayal and an adversary of his dad’s legacy. I had to block him.”
there is a lesson in this, but not likely anyone will learn it. they have their own rationalizations.
Back in the Fifties, the USAF was going to build nuclear-powered strategic bombers carrying the enormous H-bombs we had back then, in flight more or less permanently. Sort of like the flying of version of the USN’s nuclear submarines.
Eventually, cooler heads realized that having flying nuclear-reactors was not really such a good idea, especially of the molten-salt variety I guess. The USAF had to be satisfied with ICBMs and missile silos all across the Great Plains.
One of the institutionalized methods of energy conservation is the increased use of plastics for packaging food and drink. To properly process plastic waste would use more energy.
Energy conservation would be much easier if people were born old, weak, and partially crippled instead of so young and frisky and full of ambition.
I don’t know. I have always found it easy to conserve energy because it is the same as saving money, which I did not have or want. Nor did I have much interest in plastic toys, but I have to admit that plastic packaging escaped my notice, On the other hand saving money lent itself to not buying things wrapped in plastic, and I was always enough of a miser to save my plastic bags so I didn’t have to buy new ones.
I am not bragging here, just suggesting that insane overconsumption is a learned trait. We can live without it quite easily and pleasantly. Nor, I am afraid, are the old immune from the love of childish toys. Certainly not after a lifetime spent in desperate pursuit of more of them to fill the empty place in their souls.
For those who care about such things “souls” does not necessarily refer to some imaginary “religious” entity. It is easier to see a soul than it is to see an “atom.”
Unless you are a Behaviorist. In which case you see but do not see.
I was struck by your internal contradiction here.
“I am… just suggesting that insane overconsumption is a learned trait.”
“…Unless you are a Behaviorist. In which case you see but do not see…”
In any case, behaviorism denies the role of innate and instinctive impulses in human behavior which lent to Skinner being both so aware when he was correct and so oblivious when he was wrong. That is why my behavioral understanding is tempered by Desmond Morris biological evolution from lizard brains flight or fight all the way to breeding bird brains feathering their nests with shiny things. Not seeing and not learning are ubiquitous human characteristics which make life much simpler albeit far more risky.
Thorium As Nuclear Fuel
All the points you’re making are in the book. I recommend you read the book, as it not only mentions those points, but discusses pros and cons. There are risks with uranium-fueled reactors too. There are risks with coal-fired power plants too: negative externalities associated with mining, greenhouse gas emissions and coal ash storage. Nobody is saying thorium molten salt reactors are risk-free.
It is a fools errand to expect the world to go back to living without air conditioning and heating, traveling on foot or horseback and relying on muscle power to plant and harvest food and build buildings. And old white people who lived most of their lives with the benefit of cheap energy who now tell others they should do without and just live with the consequences of profligate energy use that they enjoyed need to check their privilege.
The greenhouse gases that will destroy human civilization are already in the air and destroying human habitats. Even if we reverted to pre-industrial energy consumption, the gases wouldn’t dissipate for 100 years. Meanwhile, billions will starve. The only way to avert this bleak scenario is to implement some form of global geoengineering (which has plenty of risks) and/or carbon capture.
When Roman civilization ‘declined & fell’, did folks reckon that would be the End of Everything? Turns out it wasn’t. This time could be different.
Make way for the Ewoks and the Morloi.
I would prefer co2 sequestration, geothermal power, wind power, hydro power over additional forms of nuclear power, is all. I am hopeful about fusion, if it can be done safely. Hopefully our descendants will figure it out before it’s too late.
In the meantime, maybe we have to reduce our energy needs.
Carbon capture isn’t a form of energy, it’s a form of CO2 mitigation. Presently, it’s nowhere near global scale. Wind, and to a lesser extent hydro, suffer from intermittency, and together with solar and tidal, won’t replace coal, gas and oil. Nowhere close, and as the global population increases, demand increases. Fusion is and always has been 30 years in the future. Here in the real world, there is no substitute for nuclear.
I’m a big fan of conservation, and relative to my American peers, have done so all my life. For example, we just started our 10th year of rooftop solar, replacing many tons of coal in a state where 70% of electricity is generated by coal. But I just came back from a combined grocery and PO trip and there was a BMW parked next to my Honda that had its engine running to keep the AC on while the owner was grocery shopping. And don’t get me started about the prodigious waste of energy represented by cryptocurrency. My conservation is just paying for other people’s waste.
Back in the day, I was a big fan of Cold Fusion.
These days, I’d settle for the Hot kind.
A hot read…
A scary but hopeful novel about climate change
Bill Gates – June 6, 2022
(Reviewing ‘The Miinistry for the Future’ by Kim Stanley Robinson.)
A major plot point in Ministry for the Future is the use of small on-site nuclear power plants in Antarctica to provide freezing water/ice to hold glaciers in place, preventing them from sliding into the ocean & raising water-levels world-wide. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
We have a lot of CO2 in the atmosphere, more than ever it is said, and it needs to get mitigated.
Methane is worse, but methane doesn’t persist as long as CO2 does.
Methane has a large effect but for a relatively brief period, having an estimated mean half-life of 9.1 years in the atmosphere, whereas carbon dioxide is currently given an estimated mean lifetime of over 100 years. (Wikipedia)
Methane is more than 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere. Over the last two centuries, methane concentrations in the atmosphere have more than doubled, largely due to human-related activities. (EPA)
Kim Stanley Robinson’s Guide to Keeping the Doomsday Glacier Hanging On
(Actually, the process he suggests is to drill down through Antarctic glaciers down to the base rock beneath, pump melt water out leaving ice in contact with rock again, stopping their glacial slide into the sea. Power provided by on-site nuclear plants of the latest technology – molten salt? The water removed is left to freeze on the surface of the ice. Could work in Greenland also?)
“We have a lot of CO2 in the atmosphere, more than ever it is said, and it needs to get mitigated. Methane is worse, but methane doesn’t persist as long as CO2 does.”
Indeed. And deforestation and loss of ocean phytoplankton, two forms of biological carbon capture, are in retreat. Which is why we need a crash program for global anthropogenic carbon capture. Geoengineering would blunt atmospheric global warming regardless of the gas.
Note that methane is ‘flared’ when it is released during oil-drilling. This is what one can observe all over the US southwest & elsewhere. It looks horrible, but it is better to release CO2 – which results from the methane burning – than the methane itself. Because methane is a far worse greenhouse gas than CO2. But the CO2 lasts far longer. Bad!
But there apparently is plenty of methane released elsewhere.
Including bovine flatulence!
LOL! Good thing, since “cold fusion” was an artifact.
“it’s a fools errand” “the only way” “everything has risks” “geoengineering” “carbon capture”
“living without air conditioning” “living without heating” ” horseback riding” “relying on muscle power” “old white people” “billions will starve”
“the only way”
Fortunately, the future of planet Earth does not depend upon our discussion here at AB. Joel is not far off though. I want to see Climate Change: The Facts presented by Richard Attenborough and featuring James Hansen among others. Warming warning, Hansen has gone all in on nuclear power. He has been in the trenches fighting this battle longer than anyone else that I know of and although he started off closer to your side, then he ended up where Joel is now. I was for nuclear power as the principle alternative to carbon-based fuels back when Carter and the liberals nixed breeder reactors. Cross discipline expertise is wonderful even if rarely appreciated.
On Earth Day (2020), Arizona PBS will premiere a compelling new documentary, “Climate Change: The Facts,” presenting scientific evidence of the impact of global warming. The program also examines possible solutions to the crisis, including the latest innovations, technology and actions individuals can take to prevent further damage. The one-hour special, hosted by natural historian Sir David Attenborough (above), premieres Wednesday, April 22, at 7 p.m. on Arizona PBS.
“Climate Change: The Facts” brings together leading climate scientists who explain what might happen if global warming increases 1.5 degrees. Experts examine the consequences of rising temperatures on ice sheets, fragile ecosystems, developing communities and extreme weather events. Personal accounts of California wildfires, extreme coastal flooding in Louisiana and increasing temperatures in Australia paint vivid pictures of these devastating effects.
“In the 20 years since I first started talking about the impact of climate change on our world, conditions have changed far faster than I ever imagined,” said Sir David Attenborough in “Climate Change: The Facts.” “It may sound frightening, but the scientific evidence is that if we have not taken dramatic action within the next decade, we could face irreversible damage to the natural world and the collapse of our societies. We’re running out of time, but there is still hope.”
The program warns of potential tipping points that could trigger further catastrophic events, such as methane gas escaping from melting lakes in the arctic. While these scenarios are discouraging, the program also inspires individuals to take action and make a difference. Experts offer hope that changes can be made in the next decade to reduce CO2 emissions and limit further damage. These include increased advocacy, advances in alternative energy technologies and innovative solutions to capture existing carbon dioxide.
Researchers from around the world provide global context to the crisis in “Climate Change: The Facts.” Featured experts include Dr. James Hansen, former director of NASA Goddard Institute for Science Studies; professor Naomi Oreskes, science historian at Harvard University; professor Michael Mann, climate scientist at Penn State University; Richard Black, director of the UK Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit; professor Andrew Shepherd, climate scientist at The University of Leeds, Sunita Narain, director general of India’s Centre for Science and Environment; and Greta Thunberg, Swedish teenage climate advocate and Nobel Peace Prize nominee.