A Silver Bullet?

I can’t remember the last time I stood in a room full of people concerned about climate change that was so full of optimism.

That would be the launch party of a new foundation devoted to promoting the advancement of thorium. Why would we want that?

The idea is to create a new generation of nuclear reactors based on the element thorium, as opposed to the uranium used to produce nuclear power today. Thorium, its advocates claim, is beneficial not only because it’s far more abundant and widely distributed in the Earth’s crust than uranium; in addition, liquid-fluoride thorium reactors (LFTRs) could theoretically be much smaller, much cheaper and much safer than conventional nuclear reactors. The waste they produce would remain dangerous for a far shorter period and, crucially, couldn’t be used to create nuclear weapons. As a bonus, these fourth-generation nuclear plants could even burn up the dangerous plutonium stored in existing nuclear waste stockpiles, using it as a fuel.

So, with prospects for a global climate treaty all but dead (for the foreseeable future), which has a better chance of succeeding first: a thorium breakthrough or a true scale-up of renewables that can meet our voracious energy needs?

29 Responses to “A Silver Bullet?”

  1. Matt B says:

    To me, the pursuit of throrium reactors is as logical as food irradiation. Given how successful that has gone, I will bet a couple house payments that the winning answer to your question is….neither.

  2. Tom Fuller says:

    I’ll be more optimistic than Matt B. I think we’ll move forward on both.

    I’ll even go further. I think both will work, and we’ll be faced with an embarrassment of riches regarding zero or low emission energy options. 

  3. BBD says:

    It’s interesting to recall James Hansen’s take on the question Keith poses.

    In his  open letter to President Obama Hansen writes: (emphasis added):

    “Energy efficiency, renewable energies, and an improved grid deserve priority and there is a hope that they could provide all of our electric power requirements. However, the greatest threat to the planet may be the potential gap between that presumption (100% “soft” energy) and reality, with the gap filled by continued use of coal-fired power.

    Therefore it is important to undertake urgent focused R&D programs in both next generation nuclear power and carbon capture and sequestration. These programs could be carried out most rapidly and effectively in full cooperation with China and/or India, and other countries.

    Given appropriate priority and resources, the option of secure, low-waste 4th generation nuclear power (see below) could be available within a decade. If, by then, wind, solar, other renewables, and an improved grid prove that they are capable of handling all of our electrical energy needs, then there may be no need to construct nuclear plants in the United States.

    Many energy experts consider an all-renewable scenario to be implausible in the time-frame when coal emissions must be phased out, but it is not necessary to debate that matter.

    However, it would be exceedingly dangerous to make the presumption today that we will soon have all-renewable electric power. Also it would be inappropriate to impose a similar presumption on China and India. Both countries project large increases in their energy needs, both countries have highly polluted atmospheres primarily due to excessive coal use, and both countries stand to suffer inordinately if global climate change continues”.

    http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/mailings/20081121_Obama.pdf

  4. Tom Fuller says:

    BBD, I hope people read Hansen’s statement and promulgate it widely. He is absolutely correct that renewables will not be available on a large scale in the short term. And I am probably the biggest fan of renewables on this thread. Well, at least so far.

    SolarCity just won a government contract to put solar panels on 168,000 military houses. This will double the number of houses that have solar panels. There are 69.7 million detached single family homes in this country.

    Solar power is getting put up on many commercial roofs and an awful lot of schools and churches, and it’s all good news.

    But California, which has one of the better databases regarding solar installations, does not to my knowledge show a zipcode that has more than 10 solar roofs on it. And California is more than half the national market for solar.

    We got a ways to go, yet. 

  5. Eric Adler says:

    BBD,
    Thanks for the link. Hansen devotes a lot of space to a discussion of Thorium reactors in the second half of his article, and really convinced me that it is something worth pushing very strongly.
     

  6. Eric Adler says:

    The real story is that China is probably going to outdo the US in the development of this new technology.
    http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/02/china-thorium-power/

  7. Tom Fuller says:

    #6, who cares? Not me. If they develop intellectual property of their own, maybe they’ll start paying us for ours. We can horse trade.

  8. Eric Adler says:

    @7,
    It is conceivable that we would have to purchase reactors from them, as would other countries. I would rather see the US lead in this area.  China  currently leads in Wind and Solar manufacturing.
     

  9. intrepid_wanders says:

    Another good type of power plant to get into the mix (while waiting for the “Silver Bullet”) is a waste recycler:
    http://www.technologyreview.com/energy/24549/page1/

    GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, one of the world’s biggest providers of nuclear reactors, says it has an alternative to burying nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, the proposed waste repository that the Obama administration has said is now “off the table.” Based in Wilmington, NC, GE Hitachi wants to use nuclear waste as a fuel for advanced nuclear power plants, significantly reducing the volume of waste and the length of time that most of the waste needs to be stored.”

     Could fix a lot of nasty waste we have built up over the decades.

  10. Stu says:

    I’m a thorium fan. This is one energy source that could really bridge the political energy divide and offer real solutions to a bunch of energy problems that we currently face. Thorium reactors can be small, but they will be able to pump out lots of energy. Presently, I imagine the terms ‘nuclear’ and ‘green’ will be perceived by many to be simply oxymoronic. Overcoming this perception will be a challenge. 

     

  11. jeffn says:

    Great stuff! As for Hansen’s letter, it is pretty obviously true. Note, however, that this was evenore obvious back in 1988 when renewables were more expensive and less efficient. Hmmm, now who was it that blocked nuclear power in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s? Rick Perry?

  12. Jarmo says:

    Thoriu will no doubt be developed, as well as the feeder reactor technology. Both will use up the existing nuclear waste (over 90% of the fuel rods fissionable material is not used but ends up stored as waste).

    However, there is a gap of 30-40 years before both are available in quantity. Today’s projects are pilots, not a solution to our energy needs.

    What’s the problem in building conventional físsion plants as a stopgap? Operational time 50 years and the waste ends up being burned in the plants of the future. The technology is available right now.

  13. harrywr2 says:

    @6,
    The challenges of Molten Salt Reactors are similar regardless of whether they are fueled by Uranium or Thorium. To be commercially viable both will need to be built using high temperature corrosion resistant alloys.
    At the moment it would appear the US is spending it’s research money on the high temperature corrosion resistance issues.
     
     
     

  14. BBD says:

    #12 Jarmo
    What’s the problem in building conventional físsion plants as a stopgap? Operational time 50 years and the waste ends up being burned in the plants of the future. The technology is available right now.


    That would be my question to Hansen too. Perhaps his painstakingly worded letter is begging the question without frightening the horses?

     

  15. Jarmo says:

    #14
    Instead of attacking the coal industry in the US, Hansen might achieve more by allience with nuclear industry.  I guess IPCC could reverse the UN decision not to give greenhouse gas credits to new nuclear power under carbon trading. That would make a huge difference.

    However, given the apparent alliance of Greenpeace and IPCC, greenhouse gas credits are given to new coal power plants while Greenpeace is happy that nuclear is barred from receiving the same support coal gets:

     In November 2000 the world recognised nuclear power as a dirty, dangerous and unnecessary technology by refusing to give it greenhouse gas credits during the UN Climate Change talks in The Hague. Nuclear power was dealt a further blow when a UN Sustainable Development Conference refused to label nuclear a sustainable technology in April 2001.
    http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/campaigns/nuclear/
     

  16. BBD says:

    Jarmo #15
     
    It is as it is with GMO. The greens are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

  17. Louise says:

    Contrary to opinion in Germany “An opinion poll suggests that support for nuclear power in Britain has increased in the wake of the Fukushima disaster.”

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-14847875

  18. Louise says:

    I think one of the most valuable aspects of Keith’s blog is to both shine a spotlight on and to dispel common stereotypes.

    I am a firm supporter of the concensus that GW is A and is serious enough for us to need take urgent action now. I also vote for the mainstream right leaning political party in national elections. I am also a firm supporter of genetically modified foods and of nuclear power.

    Assuming that all of us who recognise the science that shows that we are causing global climate change are greens and/or lefties and/or are against GMO or nuclear power doesn’t help to further the debate.

      

        

  19. Eric Adler says:

    Louise,
    The UK is a different culture from the US. You don’t find the extreme individualist ideology in the UK, that we have here in the US. You also don’t have the bias against science and scholarship. Both of these things are the heritage of the settlement of the frontier where force, physical labor, and striking it rich were qualities prized in American Culture. Religion was a civilizing force. However learning was for sissies and was a foreign idea.

    To this day, the top students in the US are immigrants or children of immigrants.
     

  20. Eric Adler says:

    Louise,
    Looking at the actual current levels of support for Nuclear power, that support in the UK is not significantly better than Germany even after the increase the BBC has noted. You link quoted 23% for Britain. In Germany it stands at 21%.
    http://www.ipsos-na.com/news-polls/pressrelease.aspx?id=5265

  21. Matt B says:

    Louise,
     
    Eric is right, we’re all clutching our guns & bibles over here & busy beating up nerds.  Oops, I’m late for my Fox News fix! Ta ta!

  22. Tom Scharf says:

    The ultimate irony:

    Most AGW skeptics are pro-nuclear, and vice-versa.

    Point all the social scientists at this paradox and see how they explain it.

  23. harrywr2 says:

    Eric Adler Says:
    September 11th, 2011 at 1:02 pm Louise,
    Looking at the actual current levels of support for Nuclear power, that support in the UK is not significantly better than Germany even after the increase the BBC has noted
    The actual UK poll is here –
    http://www.britishscienceassociation.org/web/News/FestivalNews/nuclearpoll.htm
    Those who agree that the benefits of nuclear outweigh the risks are increasing steadily from 32% in 2005 to 38% in 2010 and now 41% in 2011, while those who feel the opposite are shrinking from 41% in 2005 to 36% in 2010 and now stands at only 28% in 2011.

     

  24. Matt B says:

    Hey Louise,

    Another thing us colonists like to do is take the results of different polls that ask different questions to different audiences and directly compare their results.

    That’s how we roll in the Land of the Free & Home of the Brave!

  25. Jon P says:

    OT

    Latest articles by Paul Krugman and Kathleen Parker, disgusting divisive trash. Still think Ms. Parker is a conservative Keith? Still think it is all republicans and conservatives fault for the division in this country? Simply amazing that on this historuc day, when we should attempt to come together we get this BS from these two.

  26. Eric Adler says:

    Jon P
    Facts are facts. The neocons exploited 911 to start an unnecessary war – the Iraq War, which was very costly. That was divisive for the country.  It added enormously to the military budget and worsened our security problem.
    Before we can come together we have to recognize how much mistakes in reacting to 911 cost the country unnecessarily, and fix it. 
    Overreaction to the tragedy caused us to neglect the domestic problems in our own country. There are more poor, more people without medical insurance, and much of the middle class is sinking into poverty.

  27. Eric Adler says:

    MattB @21
    You may consider this a joking matter, but it is a real problem.
    Educational attainment in the US puts us in the middle of the OECD countries, somewhere around 17th out of 34 countries.
    Looking at who is at the top of the educational ladder in the US, currently it is Asian immigrants.  As a youth, I attended the Bronx High School of Science, in NYC, a selective high school for nerds.  Today the school is 60% Asian students, even though Asians are a small minority in NYC. When I went there it was 90% Jews, mostly first or second generation Americans.
    Looking at the surnames of those who won the last Intel Science Competition, 2/3 of the top 40 semifinalists were Asians. We are lucky as country to have such an infusion of talent.
     

  28. Matt B says:

    Hello Eric,

    I agree with everything you say in post #27. It has none of the stereotyping found in comment #19. 

    My nephew graduated from the Bronx High School of Science 2 years ago and I know what you about that school is true. I echo your desire to improve math & science literacy in the States. But, I hate broad-brush characterizations that in my opinion impede constructive conversations.

    Peace, brother!

  29. Jon P says:

    Eric,

    You are spoutinhg your opion, not facts. As was I, Krugman is a tool and divisive moron as is Parker. Parker is NOT a consrevative no mateer how much those on the left wish her to be. There would have not been a Middle East “awakening” without Iraq, smoke that for awhile.

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