CHICAGO – Thorium molten salt reactors could help underpin the nation’s economic and energy security, a former U.S. congressman, Navy admiral and senatorial candidate said here recently.
Joe Sestak, a determined Pennsylvania Democrat who is considering another run for the Senate in 2016, told the 5th Thorium Energy Alliance Conference that companies from heavy industries including fossil fuels should deploy thorium reactors as a source of clean, efficient and affordable heat to power high temperature processes.
Molten salt reactors (MSRs) in principle operate at around 800 degrees C, much higher than conventional nuclear reactors, making them suitable CO2-free replacements for today’s CO2-emitting fossil fuel furnaces. MSRs can be made in small sizes, so they would be easy to site on industrial locations.
Sestak encouraged MSR developers – who typically promote the CO2-free benefits of their technology – to pair with the “strange bedfellows” of CO2-emitting hydrocarbon companies that could fund MSR development and use the finished reactors to support and clean up their own industrial processes.
“You have got to get allies on board,” Sestak told a crowd of scientists, business people and others who were full of enthusiasm and plans for thorium, MSRs and other high temperature designs, but who generally lack the funds to develop and build their reactors. “The best ones are unlikely bedfellows.”
E PLURIBUS THORIUM
Thorium reactors could help establish American energy independence by propping up the natural gas fracking business that is prevalent in Sestak’s home state of Pennsylvania and that is helping reduce the country’s reliance on volatile and expensive imports of fossil fuel, Sestak noted. Producers of natural gas and coal could use the reactors for extraction heat and for clean processing of gas and coal into liquid form.
Other industries that could benefit from nuclear heat include concrete, fertilizer and hydrogen production, as well as water desalination Sestak said. He noted that reactors like MSRs have “an immense role to play if you focus on heat processes.”
Showing an astute awareness of thorium resources and value chains, Sestak noted that thorium naturally occurs in the same minerals as rare earth metals that are vital across a swath of industries. Manufacturers build rare earths into everything from missiles to medical equipment to cars, cellphones and computers, just to name a few; the list also includes renewable energy gear such as wind turbines and solar equipment.
Mining those rich minerals – such as monazite – could not only yield useful thorium, but would also provide the country with rare earths, helping to ease China’s dominance of them and supporting domestic manufacturing Sestak said. He noted that China controls 97 percent of the rare earth market. They exist underground in the U.S.; production and exploration is only now slowly returning, some two decades after stricter environmental regulations caused domestic producers to shut down.
THORIUM PLUS RENEWABLES
In a virtuous circle, Sestak added that rare earth extraction would also further support the country’s energy supply because, solar, wind, nuclear and fossil fuel equipment all rely to some extent on rare earth components.
“We have to be very clear that molten salt reactors or whatever we come forward with does not pose a threat (to other energy sources),” he said. “Rather, it will enhance and make cleaner and give more utility for other types of energy.”
Equating energy and economic stability to national security, he noted that, “For me, this issue of thorium with rare earth minerals has to be looked at as a national security issue. I believe that thorium, with rare earths is a way to enhance – greatly – the accessibility of our energy in so many fields, not just nuclear power.”
His ideas echo the Thorium Energy Alliance’s proposals for an international “Thorium Bank” cooperative that would oversee the safe handling of thorium – a mildly radioactive substance – and help facilitate production and distribution of rare earths from the same minerals. The Organisation of Rare Earth Exportation Companies is pushing for something similar.
Sestak has experience in trying to work thorium onto the national agenda. As a two-term Philadelphia area member of the House of Representatives from 2007 to 2011, he wrote an amendment supporting thorium reactors into a defense bill that passed the House but did not survive the Senate.
SENATE IN HIS SIGHTS
He could get another chance to push thorium from within Washington, as he is considering running for Senate in 2016.
Sestak ran a bold Senatorial race in 2010 when he defied his party’s wishes and challenged fellow Democrat Arlen Specter for the party candidacy, and won. He narrowly lost the main election to Republican Pat Toomey, whose campaign greatly outspent Sestak’s.
Sestak spent over 30 years in the U.S. Navy, rising to three-star admiral, and retiring in 2005. He commanded the USS George Washington nuclear powered aircraft carrier in Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean in 2002, supporting the war in Afghanistan and monitoring Iraqi airspace. During his naval career, he also served as Director for Defense on the National Security Council for the Clinton administration, and served as director of the Navy’s “Deep Blue” counter-terrorism unit after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
The former Congressman told the conference that he has solid trust in nuclear safety, noting that in his days commanding nuclear craft, “I put my head down at night about a hundred feet from that reactor.”
Sestak currently teaches at Cheyney University near Philadelphia and is an adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where he teaches courses in ethical leadership and in restoring the American dream.
Perhaps that restoration should include thorium molten salt reactors.
Photo: Joe Sestak at the Thorium Energy Alliance Conference by Mark Halper.
Note: This is the first of several reports about the lively proceedings in Chicago, where presentations spanned new thorium reactor types, surprising corporate interest in thorium, coolant safety, MSRs as medical isotope sources, thorium on Mars and much more ranging from the practical to the thought provoking. Stay tuned…