Archive for October, 2012

Greetings from the Shanghai Synchrotron

Posted by Mark Halper on October 31st, 2012

Slow curves on the outside, fast ones on the inside. China opened the synchrotron in 2009.

SHANGHAI – Today’s blog is a post card from Shanghai that ties right into this morning’s proceedings at the Thorium Energy Conference 2012 where, you could say, things really accelerated.

Just after downing breakfast dumplings, we heard engaging presentations about how particle accelerators can provide the oomph that releases neutrons that can start a safe thorium nuclear reaction. So-called “accelerator driven systems” are just one of several ways to stir up thorium, the fuel that augers a peaceful nuclear future.

So it was fitting that in the afternoon we trundled off to have a look at a handy, nearby accelerator built by the same people who as we said yesterday are building a liquid thorium molten salt reactor  – the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics (SINAP), which is part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

In this case the accelerator was a synchrotron. It’s probably not the sort of accelerator you might use to release neutrons to start a thorium nuclear reaction (another time we’ll tell you more about what experts like Bob Cywinski of the UK’s University of Huddersfield have in mind for that), but one certainly suitable for all sorts of other things that are useful to humanity – medical cures and health diagnostics, just for starters.

JUST POINT AND SHOOT

The Shanghai Synchrotron Radiation Facility is a 432-metre long ring that is actually a giant 3D camera taking stunningly detailed and clear images inside tiny things, such as a mouse’s heart (mouse heart fans can skip to photo below now). Using a combination of electron beams, magnets, radiation and optics, it makes x-rays look Stone Age.

SSRF is testimony to the technological and scientific zeitgeist that is driving China – the same spirit that is leading the country into alternative nuclear power technologies like thorium.

The synchrotron is the envy of many a scientist, such as Jean-Pierre Revol, the leader of the ALICE particle accelerator team at the much better known CERN laboratory in Geneva. He’s at the thorium conference advocating accelerator technology as a neutron release mechanism.

Revol lauded the Chinese for building the facility, which he called “state of the art” and “very impressive.” That’s something, coming from a guy who works on a daily basis with CERN’s renowned 17-mile long Large Hadron Collider.

Have a look and see what you think. That’s the rolling building that houses the operation, at the top of this story. Here’s what we saw in the interior today:

THE GREAT HALL OF ELECTRON BEAMS

Look out for 3.5 billion electron volts on the other side of that white wall.

THE SSRF PHOTO ALBUM – THESE WERE ON SCREEN THIS AFTERNOON

Mouse lung:

Makes it look like Mighty Mouse.

Mouse heart:

Move over Braveheart. This is some corazon.

Grasshopper breathing:

This is a still shot from a video that was playing on an SSRF screen today. Sorry, no surround sound.

SYNCHRONIZED CYCLING

How to travel around a synchrotron when you’re not an electron beam.

SYNCHROTRON GOERS ARE RAVING

What do you get a man like Jean-Pierre Revol of CERN when he already has a Large Hadron Collider? Try a synchrotron. Revol, pictured outside the entrance, called the SSRF “state of the art” and “very impressive.”

Photos: SSRF exterior from India TV News. All other photos by Mark Halper, including those of SSRF images.

Completion date slips for China’s thorium molten salt reactor

Posted by Mark Halper on October 30th, 2012

Waving off worries. Xu Hongjie, director of the Thorium Molten Salt Reactor Center, says an expanding   staff of young scientists gives the project a “bright future.”

SHANGHAI – China has pushed back the intended completion date for its test thorium molten salt reactor, from 2017 to 2020, the head of the project indicated here today.

In a presentation at the Thorium Energy Conference 2012, Xu Hongjie, director of the TMSR Center at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), showed a slide stating a 2020 completion date for the 2-megawatt reactor.

That’s three years later than the 2017 set out by CAS’ Dr. Chen Kun last August in his TMSR presentation to a group of academics at the University of California Berkeley.

According to Dr. Xu’s slide today, CAS has also pushed back the target date for a 2-megawatt molten salt cooled, solid fuel thorium pebble bed reactor, from the original 2015 to 2017 – although Xu seemed to say 2015 in his talk.

Whether intentional or not, Dr. Xu did not voice any date for the TMSR. The slide accompanying his talk clearly shows 2020.

During an impromptu chat afterwards, Dr. Xu would not characterize the new date as a delay. Nor did he explain in detail why CAS has pushed back the timeline.

“You need a margin,” Dr. Xu told me. “Maybe something happens.”

Sliding back. Dr. Xu’s slide shows completion dates of 2017 and 2020, respectively, for the thorium       pebble bed and thorium liquid molten salt reactors – 2 and 3 years later that previously indicated.

China approved the project in Jan. 2011. That’s practically “yesterday” in traditional nuclear development time, so the country’s original targets of 2015 and 2017 struck some people as over ambitious.

But given China’s reputation for getting things done, others found the original timescale to be plausible.

The new timescale seems to reflect the significant design challenges that have been evident over the first two days of the conference, where experts from China and around the world have described various hurdles to the thorium molten salt reactor. Among them:

  • Developing materials or processes that can withstand corrosive salts, temperatures much higher than conventional nuclear, and radiation.
  • Assuring that the failsafe “freeze plug” works and thus allows TMSRs to live up to the claim that they are “meltdown proof.” In a TMSR, a plug melts when the reactor overheats, allowing the liquid fuel to drain into a safe tank.
  • Developing processes for the safe removal of actinides. Although TMSRs do not leave behind the longer living wastes of conventional uranium reactors, they still produce toxic elements, albeit with a shorter lifespan.

CAS, through its Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics (SINAP) division, could be well equipped to tackle these issues.

YOUTH MOVEMENT

Xu hopes to more than double his TMSR staff from 334 to 750 by 2015, hiring specialists in reactor physics, molten salts, materials, radioactivity and safety – from abroad as well as domestically.

Xu also said that the project’s youthfulness will help. Over 80 percent of its staff is under 39 years old – half are between 20 and 29 – and he is actively recruiting young scientists.

“Our team is very young, so we will be having a bright future,” he said.

In August, Dr. Chun said the test TMSR project had a $350 million budget

CAS/SINAP plans to follow its test 2-megawatt reactor with a 10-megawatt demonstrator and a 100-megawatt pilot.

Thorium molten salt reactors in principle run more efficiently than conventional reactors, produce less dangerous waste, reduce the weapons proliferation risk and eliminate the possibility of a meltdown.

China plans to use TMSRs not only to generate clean electricity, but also as a carbon-free heat source for industrial processes, the president of CAS’ Shanghai branch, Jiang Mianheng, said at the conference yesterday.

Photos by Mark Halper

Thorium takes a ride on the traveling wave

Posted by Mark Halper on October 30th, 2012

Imagine Bill Gates’ traveling wave reactor with thorium inside. Tsinghua University did.

SHANGHAI – It’s well known in thorium circles that China is enthusiastic about thorium’s prospects. The country is developing several different reactor types running on the fuel, including liquid molten salt, pebble bed and CANDU reactors.

You could now add “travelling wave reactor” to the list. Sort of.

For anyone who might have forgotten, the TWR is the fast reactor that Bill Gates’ nuclear company, TerraPower, is working on. It requires a starter kit of fissile material, and then runs for up to 60 years on depleted uranium, by converting the uranium to plutonium.

No one has a traveling wave reactor yet. But if you have a powerful enough computer, you can simulate how thorium would perform inside one.

That’s exactly what Beijng’s Tsinghua Univeristy has done.

“We tried to use thorium in a travelling wave reactor,” Tsinghua’s Dr. Yu Ganglin told the Thorium Energy Conference 2012 in Shanghai on Monday, from where we’re reporting this week and where thorium is shaping up as a contributor to national energy independence.

Yu presented a session called “Utilization of thorium fuel in different reactor designs.”

Thinking outside the box. Tsinghua University has a fancy computer that allows it to simulate thorium’s performance in unconventional reactors like the traveling wave, as shown by this slide at the Thorium     Energy Conference.

It’s not entirely clear what the results were.  Still, it’s noteworthy that thorium is getting attention in yet another reactor type.

TerraPower itself continues to rule out thorium.

“The first TWR and subsequent commercial reactors will be using depleted uranium,” a an independent spokeswoman for TerraPower  told me by email. “They have explored thorium in conceptual designs, but they decided there were too many issues to pursue engineering designs.”

Last December, the media was popping with reports that Gates and TerraPower were working on a deal to cooperate with China National Nuclear Corp. on TWR development.  But that has not materialized, nor has any formal development pact with a Chinese group.

“TerraPower attends a lot of technical conferences and shares their publications with colleagues around the world, including China,” the spokeswoman said. “There aren’t any business contracts at this time.” That may be the case in China, although elsewhere in Asia, India’s Reliance Industries late last year bought a minority interest in Gates’ company.

Yes, that’s the same India that has all those thorium reserves. For now, there seems to be no connection.

Images: Traveling wave reactor from TerraPower website. Slide from Dr. Yu Ganglin, Tsinghua University.

Taking the heat. Speaking at today’s Thorium Energy Conference, Jiang Mianheng said heat from high temperature reactors will power industrial processes.

SHANGHAI – Thorium fuelled nuclear reactors will play a key role helping China secure energy independence and reduce carbon emissions, not only by generating electricity but also by providing clean heat for industrial processes.

So said Jiang Mianheng, president of the Shanghai branch of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, in an address to the Thorium Energy Conference 2012 here today.

China’s industrial applications for the reactors will include extracting hydrogen to combine with carbon dioxide and form methanol, an environmentally friendly transportation fuel, Jiang said (see our report last week on China’s “nuclear powered car”).

The country will also use the reactors to turn fossil fuels into other useful compounds by supporting processes such as coal gasification, coal-to-olefin, and coal-to-diesel.

Nuclear electricity would also help usher in electric vehicles, he noted.  China’s few EVs today draw power largely from coal-fired stations.

While China will also deploy conventional nuclear, alternatives like thorium will contribute to the country’s push for energy independence. Today China imports more coal than it gets from its own mines. Jiang also cited a BP report that forecasts China will import 75 percent of its oil by 2030, and about 40 percent of its natural gas.

“That gives us an energy security issue,” said Jiang, whose father, Jiang Zemin, was president of the People’s Republic from 1993 to 2003. “We have a huge gap. We can rely on outside China, or we can develop ourselves.”

THEY’VE ONLY JUST BEGUN

Compounding the situation, Jiang noted that China’s export driven economy requires more energy than does an import economy.

And for all its famous growth, China and its 1.4 billion people are still urbanizing and industrializing – Jiang pointed out that only about 45-to-50 percent of China’s GDP comes from traditional industry.

“We need a high density energy – that is why we need nuclear energy,” he said.

China is also looking to nuclear to help clean up its pollution mess.

A sunny day in Shanghai. The sun was allegedly out yesterday in Shanghai, when this was the view of     pylons carrying a lot of coal-fired electricity. Nuclear can help clean up the mess.

“We need to worry about the sky pollution, or air pollution,” Jiang added. The country has committed to getting 15 percent of its primary energy from non-fossil fuel sources by 2020.

Jiang is the chairman of CAS’ thorium molten salt reactor (TMSR) steering committee, overseeing development of a TMSR that uses liquid thorium fuel, at CAS’ Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics (SINAP). Liquid TMSRs are intended to provide a safe, meltdown-proof, weapons-resistant alternative to conventional solid fuel uranium reactors.

They are cooled by liquid molten salt that allows them to operate at significantly higher temperatures, thus providing heat. Jiang is targeting 900 degrees C and possibly higher.

“Then we can use this energy to produce hydrogen.  We can convert the CO2, which is not waste at all, but is raw material for our chemicals if we can collect them,” he said. “That’s what we call the hybrid energy system.”

COLLABORATING WITH THE DOE

Jiang’s team is collaborating with the U.S. Department of Energy on development of a high temperature, molten salt cooled reactor design. The U.S. built and then abandoned a liquid TMSR reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in the 1960s and early 70s.

DOE has said that its collaboration with China focuses on molten salt coolants, rather than on molten salt fuel. China is advancing both, and has other thorium reactors under development in addition to the TMSR initiative, which is part of CAS’ Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics.

CAS and DOE entered their memorandum of understanding last December. After his public presentation today, Jiang told me that the collaboration is proceeding well. He was scheduled to meet later in the day in Shanghai with the president of the University of California Berkeley, one of threeU.S. universities participating in the DOE/CAS partnership – MIT and the University of Wisconsin are also participating.

In addition a SINAP delegate had just departed for meetings ORNL, he said.

The conference, co-sponsored by CAS/SINAP and the International Thorium Energy Organisation, runs through Thursday. Tomorrow, CAS/SINAP will provide an update on its TMSR development. We’ll be watching.

Photos by Mark Halper

British public gives ‘thumbs up’ to nuclear

Posted by Mark Halper on October 26th, 2012

This hippy’s thumb could go even higher when he/she learns about thorium

A fresh poll of the British public shows that 40 percent of 1,734 people surveyed think the UK should increase its use of nuclear power.

That’s up from 35 percent that last time YouGov/Sunday Times posed the same question nearly a year ago. You can see the results here (scroll down to page 9).

The problem for Prime Minister David Cameron’s pro-nuclear government, of course, is in converting the enthusiasm of that 40 percent – that’s 693 people – into funds.  YouGov/Sunday Times asked for opinions, not money. Cameron is struggling to find financial backers for proposed new plants. Nuclear contributes about 16 percent of Britain’s electricity.

The poll found even greater support for solar and wind, as 72 percent favoured more solar and 55 percent want more wind. Both categories declined by a point or two from last year. Coal-fired power stations increased by a point but were low on the public’s wish list, with only 17 percent wanting more, up from 16 percent a year ago. Coal is the UK’s biggest source of electricity, contributing nearly half.

Another 17 percent want more gas power stations (gas did not appear on last year’s poll), and 11 percent want more oil power stations, up from 10 percent.

To summarize: The number of people who want more nuclear outweighed the number that want more fossil fuels by a long shot. Although it trailed the number calling for more  wind and solar, it gained on both of those “renewables” as a preferred source of CO2-free energy.

A quick note on gender: More than twice as many men as women said yes to more nuclear  – 54 percent versus 26 percent. Read into that what you will.

Just think what the overall support could be as the public starts to learn more about safe nuclear alternatives like thorium fuel and reactor designs such as molten salt, pebble bed and others that could replace conventional reactors.

That in turn could set some pockets jingling.

A Tale of Two Pro-Thorium Arguments, from Jordan

Posted by Mark Halper on October 26th, 2012

This is Jordan’s most famous rock – Petra. It’s working on giving stature to uranium. It should really be thinking about thorium.

This is a short post drawing attention to a news story out of Jordan this week that, without mentioning the word thorium, provides two strong reasons why the kingdom and the rest of the world should adopt thorium-powered nuclear reactors.

The report by wire service Agence France Presse notes that Jordan has terminated a license that gave French nuclear company Areva the right to mine for uranium.

Areva had an agreement in place with local company Jordan Energy Resources Inc., to mine a potential 20,000 tonnes of uranium in the country’s central region, through a joint venture called the Jordanian French Uranium Mining Company.

But their license “is now void,” the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission declared, explaining that JFUMC had failed to submit a report on time.”

Not that Jordan is giving up on possibly mining uranium. Australian company Coffey Mining thinks the reserves are actually twice as much as what the JFUMC had detected, according to The Jordan Times.  Areva disputes Coffey’s outlook, and that disagreement seems to have factored into Areva’s termination.

But the set-to marks the latest in a string of mine delays and cancellations for the uranium industry, suffering from among other things a lack of financing.

THORIUM DRIVE

As uranium tyres go flat on the nuclear highway, I say it’s time to start replacing them with thorium wheels – the alternative element that when put into the right alternative reactor affords a safer, more efficient, meltdown proof reactor that leaves behind less waste and reduces the weapons proliferation risk.

Thorium is more abundant than uranium, and it typically co-exists with the rare earth metals that are vital to global manufacturing.  Mining for thorium thus helps kill two bird with one stone (watch for our chilling story from the rare earth business, coming soon).

And alternative thorium reactors like molten salt and pebble reactors run at significantly higher temperatures than conventional water cooled, uranium fuelled reactors. Thus, they have enormous potential not only as a source of electricity, but also of heat to drive industrial processes, as we noted recently from North Dakota.

And that’s where the Jordanian story comes in again. As AFP notes, the desert kingdom “is one of the world’s driest countries and wants to use atomic energy to fire desalination plants to overcome its crippling water shortage.”

Anyone who has ever heard Flibe Energy boss Kirk Sorensen speak about thorium knows that liquid thorium molten salt reactors such as the one he’s developing in Huntsville, Ala., are tailor-made to take the salt out of water.

Hey Kirk – why not send a test model to the King?

Photo: Carlalexanderlukas via Wikimedia

China’s nuclear powered car

Posted by Mark Halper on October 23rd, 2012

Take a nuclear reactor, use it to extract hydrogen from water, combine the hydrogen with CO2, and      bingo – methanol. Put the methanol in a car like Shanghai Automotive’s MG/Roewe above, and you have the ultimate Green Mobile.

Now that the headline above has  caught your attention – and perhaps your fear – let me clarify that I am not talking about a plan to shrink nuclear submarine engines for use in Chinese autos or anything like that.

Rather, I’m referring to an alternative, environmentally heroic automobile fuel called methanol that hit the international headlines last Friday when Britain’s Air Fuel Synthesis announced it had produced 5 litres of the stuff out of thin air.

Air Fuel’s methanol is not a fossil fuel, so it does not spew CO2 the way today’s petrol (gasoline) and diesel do.  Better yet: It actually removes CO2 from the air, because CO2 is one of the raw ingredients in the company’s methanol recipe. The other is hydrogen. Mix the two together, and eureka, you have methanol.

The problem is that in order to cook up that elixir, Air Fuel requires a lot of energy – more than the end product will deliver.  As everyone knows, extracting hydrogen is energy intensive. So too is the process of sucking CO2 into the cauldron. Air Fuel is applying a lot of electrolysis – in other words, a lot of electricity (for a closer look at the recipe, have a look at what I wrote on my CBS blog).

That’s where China and nuclear power come in.

MAKING INTRODUCTIONS

Air Fuel Synthesis, please meet the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics. SINAP is part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and it is developing an alternative type of nuclear reactor – a high temperature liquid thorium molten salt reactor (TMSR) – just for you.

Yes, believe it or not, SINAP is targeting methanol production as one of the key potential uses for the TMSR it hopes to whip into a small demonstrator reactor by 2015 or soon thereafter.

We know this because SINAP’s Dr. Kun Chen says so in a presentation that you can view here.

Speaking at the University of California Berkeley last August about the TMSR, SINAP’s Dr. Chen notes, “One of the solutions for the carbon capture is that we can use the heat from the high temperature reactors to capture carbon dioxide because we can produce hydrogen by using the high temperature reactor. Then if we can combine the carbon dioxide and hydrogen we can have methanol.”

About 12 minutes in, professor Chen describes the methanol production and use process as a possible “carbon neutral” energy cycle.

“People talk about batteries to store electric power, but the power can also be stored in the liquid fuel,” he says.  “By doing this, we may be able to have a carbon neutral cycle.”

THE POWER OF MOONSHINE

In case you’re wondering: Yes, methanol in a different guise is wood alcohol – the homegrown hooch that folklore says can rob you of your vision.

But as an industrial scale fuel, it could represent a blindingly good solution to the world’s energy and global warming crises. Nobel prize winning chemist George Olah first posited the “methanol economy” back in the 1990s.

Chen is not the only nuclear expert thinking that nuclear can help the greening of cars.

“It’s unlikely that we’re going to see nuclear reactors directly powering cars or airplanes or anything like that, but it’s much more likely that what we would do is apply a nuclear power plant to produce fuel that can be used as an energy carrier,” says professor Tim Abram of the University of Manchester’s Dalton Nuclear Institute in England, who I spoke with a week ago before news broke from Air Fuel.

Abram notes that heat from high temperature nuclear reactors could assist in the electrolysis or thermo chemical treatment of water that would yield hydrogen.

Experts disagree over whether that hydrogen should go straight into environmentally friendly hydrogen fuel cells – fuel cells give off no CO2, only electricity and water  – or whether fuel manufacturers should combine hydrogen with CO2 to make methanol. One argument for methanol is that it can travel through existing fossil fuel infrastructure, while hydrogen requires an entirely new distribution system.

GREEN MACHINES

We’ll save that debate for another time. The point is that many scientists like Chen and Abram are working toward applying nuclear technology to solve transportation’s ecological challenges. (Abram runs Rolls Royce’s nuclear “university technology centre” at Manchester, where he thinks broadly about nuclear-linked propulsion on land, air and sea).

It’s all part of the notion that alternative nuclear like TMSRs can safely provide clean industrial heat, as well as generate electricity. TMSRs are meltdown proof and can operate at much higher temperatures than conventional water-cooled reactors. Scorching TMSR heat could thus be of use to high-temperature industrial processes. As we noted in our last post, that could include oil, gas and coal fields such as those in North Dakota, where a molten salt reactor movement is afoot.

It could also include the steel, chemical and cement industries, among many others.

This has all the early stage look and feel of a disruptive, transformative technology that will come together.

China, with its commitment to alternative nuclear, will play a key role. Chen’s TMSR is just one of many alternative nuclear projects underway in China that also include pebble bed, fast neutron, and accelerator-driven reactors, all of which auger safety and operational improvements over conventional nuclear.

That’s one reason I’m on my way to Shanghai next week for the Thorium Energy Conference, where speakers from China and around the world will share progress reports. I’ll be blogging from there. As a warmup, watch for a more detailed report about SINAP’s TMSR.

Meanwhile, ask the manager at your local petrol station when he might be getting in some methanol.

Photo: Viva Chile via Wikimedia.

 

 

Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. Molten salt reactor enthusiasts will need some of Teddy’s fighting spirit to establish the state as the cradle of the MSR movement.

There is something afoot in North Dakota.

A reliable source tells me that lobbyists and some legislators there will soon push to cut the state loose from the oversight of the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission. North Dakota would instead establish its own body that would regulate nuclear operations within state boundaries.

The impetus? A nuclear technology called a molten salt reactor (MSR) that would provide a welcome, affordable industrial heat source to the state’s booming fossil fuel business.

For example, a small MSR could help blast solid coal into a liquid form that suits many uses. Coal liquefaction is energy intense. An MSR represents an efficient, CO2-free way of hitting the necessary temperatures. (Yes, the end product, liquefied coal, would serve up flagons of CO2 when burned by end users, but the MSR would at least take the greenhouse gas out of the production process).

Likewise, I could imagine an MSR providing the heat to bake the oil out of North Dakota’s shale, assisting tremendously in the “shale oil” bonanza that has given the state a neo-1849 Gold Rush feel. Small MSRs are well suited to safely power these high temperature industrial operations, with no threat of a meltdown.

COME OUT COME OUT WHEREVER YOU ARE

And that’s where the NRC comes in. Or more to the point, where it does not come in.

MSRs are one of several alternative reactor designs that the NRC never gets around to approving. The NRC devotes almost all of its attention to conventional reactors – the ones powered by solid fuel and cooled by water. In many ways, those reactors are inferior to options such as MSRs, pebble beds, and others, which use some combination of liquids, gases and solids for fuel and coolants.

Yet reactors running on these novel designs could be particularly well suited as CO2-free furnaces replacing fossil fuels bellows not just on oil fields but in steel mills, cement factories, you name it. They would also, of course, make splendid electricity generators.

To help expedite the approval and development of these sensible alternatives, President Obama’s Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future at one point seemed interested in establishing a federal regulatory body separate from the NRC.

NUCLEAR’S MASON DIXON LINE

That idea seems to have stalled. A North Dakota secession, if I may phrase it that way, would accomplish the same goal, albeit for just one state out of 50. Nebraska is making some noise as well.

At any rate, the stirrings are at least evidence that the MSR is now regaining mindshare following its dubious cancellation at Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory by President Nixon some 40 years ago.

Whether or not the people behind the idea truly stand a chance of shaking free from the NRC is hard to gauge. I have my ear to the ground, and I’m at least picking up the rumblings that they’re trying to make it happen. It seems they’re planning a January offensive (who can resist January in North Dakota?). In the spirit of blogging, I’m letting you know now about the radical stirrings along the Missouri River, well west of the Mississippi’s headwaters and just south of Saskatchewan.

I hope to bring you some names and faces in a subsequent post. Speak up below if you care to wave the flag – or even if you’re on the other side. We settle heated issues via level headed discourse here at Weinberg.

The MSR movement will take root somewhere. The barren lands of North Dakota could make fertile soil.

Photo: Michael Oswald via Wikimedia.

Tomorrow’s uranium story: Think thorium today

Posted by Mark Halper on October 16th, 2012

Finance this! It’s increasingly difficult to finance uranium mines. Above, Paladin’s Langer Heinrich operation in Namibia.

Regular readers of our 3-week new blog here at Weinberg will know that we don’t miss a chance to advocate a shift away from uranium fuel and toward thorium, the alternative that could help assure a safe nuclear future.

For more evidence, we take a look at tomorrow – literally.

The October 17th  (note that we’re posting on Oct. 16) edition of The Australian newspaper runs the following headline: “Uranium supply problems loom.”

The story reports that Perth-based Paladin Energy sees a uranium “supply crunch” coming “because low prices and a difficult financing environment are stifling the development of new uranium mines.”

Paladin would know. It’s a major uranium producer with mines in Namibia and Malawi among other locations. It has had difficulty securing financing from post-Fukushima investors who are wary of anti-nuclear sentiment, and of the downward trend in uranium prices.

WORSE THAN PRECARIOUS

Cruise over to Paladin’s website, and you’ll see this in a statement from CEO John Borshoff:

“While Paladin’s analysis suggests that annual demand by 2020 is only 8% lower than pre-Fukushima scenarios, low uranium prices and a difficult financing environment have generally stifled and delayed the development of new uranium projects, making what was already a precarious situation worse. As a result, primary supply is estimated to be up to 25% lower in 2020 than would have otherwise been expected if the pre-Fukushima uranium price trend had been maintained.”

Translation: Not a good outlook for anyone counting on a nuclear future fueled by uranium.

Paladin’s prospects mark just the latest in a recent string of uranium setbacks. Among them:

  • Areva has postponed its Trekkopje mine in Namibia
  • Niger has warned Areva that it must finish its Imouraren mine without further ado, following delays related to kidnappings
  • BHP Billiton has cancelled expansion plans at its Olympic Dam mine in Australia
  • Canada’s Cameco has slowed down operations at its Australian Kintyre project
  • A U.S.-Russian program that produces uranium from old nuclear weapons is due to expire, taking uranium out of the value chain.

THE Prêt-à-Porter PUNCHLINE

I think you see the punch line coming. With uranium such a tough business – let alone an inferior fuel – doesn’t today mark a juncture for pivoting to thorium?

There is more of it around in the world than there is uranium. And it’s ready to wear – you don’t have to process it into isotopes the way you do with uranium.

And then there are all those other benefits that we’ll quickly bang on about again here. Put it in the right reactor – say a molten salt or pebble bed design that’s  markedly different from today’s water-cooled, solid fuel reactors – and you have a fuel that burns more efficiently, can’t melt down, leaves less dangerous waste and is more difficult to fashion into a bomb than is uranium.

In a way the current situation circles back to the 1960s, when thorium reactor development waned in favour of previously scarce uranium once the world discovered it had much more uranium than it thought – and could build inferior reactors that happened to produce weapons waste that was desirable in the height of the Cold War. Now it’s time for thorium to skip ahead, and for uranium to take the back seat.

Sure, thorium will also require financing – the same sort of thing that’s troubling uranium. But as we said earlier this month when we wrote about the  funding hurdles for Britain’s conventional reactors, the current environment screams out for a new way. A thorium way – for  the big tomorrow.

Photo: Paladin Energy

 

The price of ditching nuclear in Germany

Posted by Mark Halper on October 12th, 2012

Rising energy prices are not politically popular. That will be on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mind as she prepares to run for a third term.

Word is leaking from Germany that grid operators will jack up the surcharge that consumers have to pay for renewable electricity by nearly 50 percent.

As the country abandons nuclear power following the Fukushima disaster, it is trying to increase the mix of “green” technologies like solar and wind. But someone has to pay for that shift, and that someone, increasingly, is the consumer.

The surcharge, levied by operators to recoup costs – they have to buy the power in the first place from producers at above market rates –  will jump from  3.6 eurocents per kWh in 2012 to 5.3 cents per kWh in 2013, reports Reuters, citing a government source.

Watch for an official announcement on Oct. 15.

That 47 percent escalation could feed an 11 percent jump in the average electricity bill, Reuters notes.  Like most people around the world, the average German certainly can’t expect an 11 percent pay rise, so the surcharge will put a solid dent in household budgets.

NO FREE BRATWURST

It’s the old cliché about no free lunch. If German people don’t want nuclear power and instead want to shift to solar and wind, then the German people will have to pay for it. There is no solar Santa Klaus.

The same has held true in other countries. In the UK, for instance, “have not” utility customers foot the bill for photovoltaic panels that the “haves” can afford to put on their rooftops. A government mandated “feed-in” tariff requires utilities to buy the solar electricity at hefty rates; the utilities then recoup the expenditure by increasing the bills of the people who can least afford it.

It’s an effective way of stimulating renewables – and to be clear, renewables belong on the energy landscape – but one that not everybody realizes comes out of the consumer’s pocket.

AN ALTERNATIVE

As long as we’re all reaching into our hard earned cash, why not try something like this for alternative nuclear – for the thorium, molten salt, pebble bed and other technologies that could help turn nuclear into the efficient, meltdown proof, proliferation resistant, waste-light power source that it could be?  Remember, that power would be CO2-free, and would run ‘round the clock, not just when the wind blows and the sun shines.

It would also eliminate the price volatility associated with fossil fuels (two utilities in Britain, British Gas and Npower, today announced hefty increases in gas and electric charges, blaming rising wholesale gas price in part).

The UK government wants consumers to help foot the bill for conventional nuclear, through a proposed scheme called “Contracts for Difference,” that guarantees a return to utilities that would tap into a new nuclear plant.

It’s time to think creatively in terms of financing alternative nuclear, which could outperform conventional nuclear in so many ways.

THE PEBBLY ROAD NOT TAKEN

Circling back to Germany, one of those alternatives which we just wrote about  – the thorium-powered pebble bed reactor (PBR) – coincidentally has a strong German history. Today the PBR reflects a new attempt at an innovative financing scheme, as South Africa’s Steenkampskraal Thorium Ltd. is reaching out to potential industrial users as financial partners. China also has a considerable pebble bed initiative under way.

The pebble bed technology originated in Germany in the 1960s. The country gave up on it in the late 1980s, a couple of decades before walking away from all nuclear last year. Now it’s asking consumers to foot the bill for renewables that can only chip away at the nuclear gap.

Then there is the other cost that Germans are paying: the environmental one. So far, Germany is making up a lot of its nuclear shortfall with fossil fuels. Hello CO2 and its global warming act. That’s a considerable price for anyone to pay.

Photo: Jacques Grießmayer via Wikimedia

 

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