Archive for September, 2012

Two kids and and an adult. Transatomic co-founders Mark Massie and Leslie Dewan, both phD students, share the stage with advisor Richard Lester, head of MIT’s nuclear science and engineering, at a lively     TED conference.

There’s a new kid on the thorium block.

Meet Transatomic Power, an MIT-connected fledgling that’s designing a thorium molten salt reactor by combining nuclear expertise with Silicon Valley style start-up panache.

Unlike the conventional solid-fuel reactors used in almost all of the world’s commercial nuclear power plants, molten salt reactors deploy a liquid fuel, auguring a wealth of safety and operating improvements.

Transatomic is the latest company to publicize its MSR intentions. Richard Martin introduced Transatomic to the world yesterday in a Forbes website article. As many Weinberg followers will know, Rick is the author of the thorium homage SuperFuel.

First, to set the record straight: Transatomic is indeed working with thorium schemes. But as Martin notes, the company is “fuel-agnostic,” and is also making room for uranium. It reminds me a bit of Ottawa Valley Research, David LeBlanc’s Canadian project that is developing an MSR with either fuel in mind.

Now, let’s get on to something less on the technical side, and more with a marketing slant. Transatomic is slapping a stellar name onto its reactor, calling it the “Waste Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor.” That’s a WAMSR to you fans of acronyms.  Not bad – it has a certain punch as far as acronyms go.

WHAT A WASTE

But more importantly, the WAMSR is intended to do as it says on the tin – get rid of nuclear waste by burning it in a power generating reaction. One of the top public objections to nuclear power is, to quote the masses, “yeah, but what do you do with the waste?” Transatomic provides a ready made, in your face answer with its product moniker.

The tiny company is by no means the first to propose using spent fuel from other reactors as fuel, but putting the idea right there on the label is a stroke of enlightened branding. Granted, some people might run from the scary word “annihilating.” But most won’t. Technology like this could one day make the U.S. forget it ever bitterly debated whether to use Yucca Mountain as a waste repository.

This sort of user friendliness, if I can call it that, reflects a youthful business acumen at Transatomic that is as much Google as it is Oak Ridge. (Disclaimer: I say this without having actually met the company. But I like what I see so far).

Transatomic is in part the brainchild of a couple of youngsters – MIT PhD students Leslie Dewan and Mark Massie. The kids themselves bring a refreshing accessibility to the technology. Watch Dewan in action at a TED conference late last year in a video on Transatomic’s website, (she’s about 6 minutes in) and you might think you were witnessing a lively presentation for a popular mobile phone app. About 13 minutes into the same clip, Massie looks and speaks as if he just invented Twitter – while conveying the usefulness of nuclear waste.

THE ADULTS ARE HERE TOO

Like Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google who eventually brought in technology industry veteran Eric Schmidt to run the shop, Dewan and Massie have hooked up with a seasoned business person. Co-founder and CEO Russell Wilcox is the former CEO of E Ink, the company that helped commercialize electronic displays used in e-readers like the Amazon Kindle, according to Transatomic’s website.

The company’s advisory board includes Dr. Richard Lester (he’s the grey hair in the video), head of the department of nuclear science and engineering at MIT, where he is also the “Japan Steel Industry Professor.”  A tangential observation, but I like the implied connection to steel – it makes me imagine one of these waste annihilators forcing heat into a blast furnace, replacing the CO2 belching processes used today.

Other experienced advisors: MSR veteran and Oak Ridge National laboratory senior program manager in nuclear technology Dr. Jess Gehin; and MIT assistant professor Dr. Benoit Forget.

Transatomic hopes to build a prototype reactor in five years and to have live, commercial WAMSRs operating by 2030 via licensing agreements to nuclear plant operators, Martin reports. The company’s website says it is planning a small, or “modular” 200 megawatt size for electricity production.

TALKING THE TALK

The new technology could help enliven a nuclear industry that is still recovering following the Fukushima meltdowns last year. Not only could the WAMSR burn waste, but like other molten salt reactors it could potentially operate more safely than conventional designs, in part by allowing its liquid fuel to drain harmlessly into a tub in the event of an emergency. MSRs can also operate at normal atmospheric pressure rather than under potentially dangerous high pressure.

Transatomic’s website also points to reduced levels of radioactive waste, and to operating effiencies that are much higher than conventional solid fuel, water cooled reactors.

“The nuclear industry knows it’s in trouble, it’s not quite sure what to do, and it’s just trying to survive for the moment, “ Wilcox tells Martin.  “It’s a fabulous time to do a leapfrog move.”

That’s the sort of inspired rhetoric that has played out successfully in the transformed information technology world. It’s refreshing to hear Transatomic talk the talk in the nuclear industry.  Now let’s see if it can walk the walk.

Photo: Screen grab from TED video on Transatomic website.

Note: This version updates an earlier one, adding Jess Gehin and Benoit Forget as advisors.

Prime Minister David Cameron addressing an international summit of energy secretaries in London earlier this year. That’s UK Dept. of Energy (DECC) boss Ed Davey next to him, followed by U.S.chief Steven Chu and DECC minister Greg Barker. Thorium is slowly entering DECC’s clean energy radar.

Welcome again to the Weinberg Foundation blog, aka The Thorium Trail, where as we announced here yesterday, we will provide a steady stream of updates on the future of energy: Safe, peaceful nuclear power that cuts the CO2 cord and eases climate change. We will trot the globe looking at developments in thorium fuel, molten salt reactors and many other alternative nuclear technologies that are safer and more efficient than the uranium, water-cooled designs that have defined the industry for half a century.

Our first full post comes from the UK, where earlier this month the government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change published a curious report on thorium – a fuel that did not, at first glance, seem to impress DECC as a promising replacement for uranium.

A quick read of DECC’s Comparison of thorium and uranium fuel cycles looks almost dismissive.

“Thorium has theoretical advantages regarding sustainability, reducing radiotoxicity and reducing proliferation risk,” the executive summary states. “While there is some justification for these benefits, they are often over stated.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the fuel that could minimize long lived dangerous waste, mitigate weapons proliferation, eliminate meltdowns, and run more economically than today’s uranium reactors.

The muted assessment, prepared for DECC by the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) – a privately run vestige of the defunct uranium stalwart British Nuclear Fuels Limited – notes that “the thorium fuel cycle at best has only limited relevance to the UK.” It concludes that the claim that thorium is inherently safer than uranium  “is not sufficiently substantiated and will not be for many years, if at all.”

Phew.

READING BETWEEN THE LINES

But here’s the curious bit: We know here at the Weinberg Foundation that NNL is indeed more open to thorium than its conclusions suggest. We recently visited NNL at their headquarters in Sellafield, England, where they were clearly interested in learning more about thorium technologies, such as those under development in China including a molten salt thorium project.

And as we read beyond the report’s headline coolness, we spot plenty of encouragement. While downplaying thorium, the summary points out that “Nevertheless, it, is important to recognise that world-wide there remains interest in thorium fuel cycles and as this is not likely to diminish in the near future. It may therefore be judicious for the UK to maintain a low level of engagement in thorium fuel cycle R&D by involvement in international collaborative research activities.”

Judicious indeed!  Because as DECC/NNL itself spells out, thorium, while having “limited relevance,” also proffers many advantages over uranium.For instance, the report says thorium can operate more efficiently than uranium. “The thorium fuel cycle is in principle capable of achieving higher conversion ratios in thermal reactors than uranium fuel, which is advantageous for resource availability,” it states, adding that thorium “converts” into fissile material at nearly twice the rate that occurs in the uranium process.

Out with the old, in with the thorium? With Cameron’s government struggling to find backers to replace reactors such as this relic at Oldbury-on-Severn, now’s a good time to consider alternatives like thorium.

 

It notes that thorium leaves behind much less nasty waste, pointing out that it “generates only trace quantities of plutonium and higher actinides, which can reduce the long term radiotoxicity of spent nuclear fuel.”

BOMBS AWAY

DECC even begins to describe how difficult it can be to fabricate a bomb from the thorium fuel cycle, thus giving credence to claims by thorium supporters who say that thorium can eliminate the weapons proliferation risk. DECC notes that the thorium process includes traces of uranium 232, a substance so full of gamma ray emissions that no terrorist would survive contact with it in the first place.

Certain alternative reactor designs would draw out these advantages more than conventional water-cooled nuclear plants. DECC is particularly keen on very high temperature gas reactors (VHTRs), which tend to be gas-cooled. It also notes that thorium fuel could mix with plutonium and help the UK dispose of its troublesome stash of that deadly stuff.

So how is it that despite acknowledging all these benefits, DECC concludes that the thorium case is generally “overstated” and of limited relevance to the UK?

In part, by issuing a few specific refutations. For instance, on proliferation, DECC says that an intrepid bomb maker can circumvent the deadly U232. It concludes that the justification for thorium reducing proliferation risks “is not very strong.” (Of all the claims for thorium’s advantages, the proliferation argument is perhaps the most debated, and we welcome your comments and feedback on this or any other aspect).

IT’S THE ECONOMY, MAESTRO

But each time we read through the report, it strikes us that the main impediment to tapping thorium’s potential is, as DECC sees it, economics – the lack of funding to advance thorium development into a commercial state.

Or to put it another way, the entrenched British (read Western) nuclear industry – the half a century year-old uranium value chain – will not make the necessary investments to migrate to a superior technology when iterative improvements on conventional reactors will suffice.

That’s the sort of ossified thinking that got Big Media and Telecom in trouble as the Googles and Skypes came along.

To be clear, DECC did not exactly phrase it that way.  “While economic benefits are theoretically achievable by using thorium fuels … in current market conditions the position is marginal and insufficient to justify major investment by utilities,” it says.

“The thorium fuel cycle is disadvantaged because all the supporting infrastructure would have to be established from scratch,” it adds. “Furthermore, since the energy market is driven by private investment and with none of the utility companies investing or currently developing either thorium fuels or thorium fuelled reactor concepts, it is clear that there is little appetite or belief in the safety or performance claim.”

INTERNATIONAL DIFFERENCES

Meanwhile, China has no such investment reluctance. It has a bevy of alternative nuclear research projects underway, including several thorium initiatives. In one, the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics has committed 400 experts and $350 million to building a small test thorium molten salt reactor by 2017 (we’ll bring you more about this in another post soon).

The DECC report can be read as an endorsement of thorium, but as a carefully worded, reluctant one in the face of a dominant uranium industry and in light of the government’s efforts to rescue plans to build new reactors with money from the uranium industry.

It’s no wonder then that DECC recommends at least “a low level of engagement” with international thorium efforts. “This will enable the UK to keep up with developments, comment from a position of knowledge and to some extent influence the direction of research. Participation will also ensure that the UK is more ready to respond if changes in technology or market forces bring the thorium fuel cycle more to the fore,” it says.

Or as someone recently commented,  it might also leave the country in a position to one day – soon even –  have to license thorium technology from the East.

Photos: Cameron et al, from DECC. Oldbury nuclear plant from David Bowd-Exworth via Wikimedia Commons.

Note: An earlier version of this story referred to NNL as “privatized.” NNL is “privately managed” by Ohio-based Battelle Memorial Institute, services firm Serco and the University of Manchester. The UK government owns it.

Welcome to the Thorium Trail

Posted by Laurence O'Hagan on September 26th, 2012

Welcome to our blog and meet our new blogger in residence, Mark Halper. Some of you might already know Mark’s lively and prescient scribblings. A prolific journalist, Mark writes with a punch about everything from nuclear reactors to light bulbs, cricket to cloning, media moguls to subatomic particles. He covers energy for the CBS SmartPlanet website, contributes to the UK’s Guardian newspaper, and has written for a broad reach of influential publications including TIME Magazine, Fortune, the Financial Times and Wired, among others.

Mark’s articles on thorium and other alternative forms of nuclear power caught our attention. His report late last year, Emerging Nuclear Innovations: Picking global winners in a race to reinvent nuclear energy (published by Kachan & Co.) drew much needed public attention to thorium’s long neglect and future potential.

He has followed up that insightful work by embarking on his Thorium Trail – a series of groundbreaking stories for CBS noting thorium and new reactor technology developments around the globe including in China, India, Japan, the UK and U.S. His exclusive piece earlier this summer on the U.S. Department of Energy’s quiet collaboration with China is still raising eyebrows.

Want to know more about the DOE’s collaboration with China? About India’s evolving thorium power stations? About rare earth policies that could help usher in the thorium era? Watch these pages for this and more incisive reporting on critical developments in new nuclear, as Mark will now be bringing you all the latest thorium news here on our freshly minted blog.

Mark’s Thorium Trail has now made its base camp at the Weinberg Foundation, where it will venture through industry, science and research; reporting on the maverick individuals making the technological, engineering, financial and political advances that will drive thorium up the global energy agenda.

Please join us in welcoming Mark, as he ventures along the Thorium Trail.

Stay tuned, get notified … and feel free to comment.

John Durham
Baroness Worthington
Laurence O’Hagan

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