Archive for November, 2012

More nuclear power in Russia? Da! And fast!

Posted by Mark Halper on November 29th, 2012

Russian Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev lauded nuclear power last week in his home country. That’s him   in 2009 when he was Russia’s president. Next time he meets the man on the left, perhaps he could         whisper sweet nuclear insights in his ear.

Russia is stepping up its commitment to nuclear power, accelerating its plans to implement “fast reactors” by a decade, officials revealed at a high level conference last week.

Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of state nuclear corporation Rosatom, told the Presidium of the Presidential Council for Economic Modernization and Innovation that Rosatom will have “a ‘full range’ of fast reactors in operation by 2020,”  World Nuclear News (WNN) reported.

Previously, Rosatom had intended to hit that goal by 2030, wrote WNN, which is part of the World Nuclear Association (WNA).

(For the uninitiated among our readers who span from nuclear mavens to novices, fast reactors are one of several potentially superior alternatives to today’s conventional reactors).

Kiriyenko said that Rosatom’s research and development budget could reach $1.3 billion by 2020, which is 10 times the value in 2007, the year Russia began consolidating nuclear activities within Rosatom.

PRIME MINISTERIAL PRAISE

At the conference – which went largely unnoticed by the international press – Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev lauded a broad array of nuclear technologies for their vital contribution to, “the economy, the power industry, space exploration, aviation, medicine, agriculture, production of composite material and informatics.” Medvedev chaired the gathering.

Two months ago, Rosatom said it plans to begin operating a pilot 300-megawatt (electric) lead-cooled fast reactor at the Siberian Chemical Combine in Seversk in 2020 as a forerunner to “a nationwide series” of 1200-MWe versions, WNN wrote. Inferring from the story, it would now seem that Rosatom is targeting 2020 for the nationwide fleet.

Exactly how they would fund such a rapid build out is not entirely clear. The 880-MWe Beloyarsk-4 fast reactor under construction in Russia’s Urals district has suffered financial delays.

Russia plans to rely heavily on fast reactors to generate 45-to-50 percent of its electricity from nuclear by 2050 and up to 80 percent by 2100, WNN notes. (Although the country has the world’s largest proven gas reserves, government controlled gas company Gazprom makes a lot more money by exporting).

BROAD MINDED

As of 2010 nuclear provided 16.6 percent of the electricity, and the output could increase 50 percent by 2020 according to a briefing on WNA’s website. That would include the addition of the delayed Beloyarsk-4, now scheduled to come online in 2015.

The country currently has a nuclear capacity of 24.2 gigawatts (electric) across 33 reactors and could increase its nuclear output 50 percent by 2020, according to WNA’s. Current operating reactors include one fast breeder reactor, the 560-MWe Beloyarsk-3.

Russia has a broad scope of uses for nuclear energy. It operates nuclear powered icebreakers and provides a small amount of district heating from nuclear plants. It also plans floating nuclear power stations, and wants to increase aluminum production by using nuclear power.

Photo: Mika V. Stetsovski via Flickr/Wikimeda.

Getting steamy. Inside the Halden reactor, which provides steam to the nearby Norske Skog Saugbrugs paper mill in Norway.

Say the phrase “nuclear power” and people generally assume you’re talking about generating electricity.

But lest we forget, the energy from nuclear reactors can also serve other purposes, such as propelling submarines, which it has done since the 1955 launch of the USS Nautilus.

Reactors can also potentially provide clean heat for industrial processes, replacing the CO2- emitting fossil fuels that keep furnaces roaring in industries like oil and gas, cement, steel and others.

Correction: Scratch the word “potentially” in the preceding sentence because as it turns out, at least one reactor is already helping to power industry.

The reactor is a familiar one to regular Weinberg readers. It’s the so-called “test” reactor  in Halden, Norway. I wrote about it earlier this month, when I noted that Thor Energy, a privately held Oslo firm, will begin experimentally burning thorium fuel there this January.

STEAM HEATING

While I was revisiting my story, I stumbled across some striking information stating that steam from the Halden reactor “is normally delivered as process steam to the nearby paper mill.”

That insight, from the French government nuclear agency Commissariat à l’énergie atomique et aux énergies alternatives  (CEA, or in English, the Energy and Alternative Energies Commission) , notes that while Halden sometimes simply dumps the steam into a river (what a waste – why NOT put it to use?) it typically pipes the hot stuff over to a paper mill that uses it somewhere in the paper making process.

The steam goes to Norske Skog Corp.s’ Saugbrugs paper mill, according to Wikipedia. “The Halden Boiling Water Reactor is a research reactor located … adjacent to the Saugbrugs paper mill,” the online encyclopedia notes. “It is in operation about 50% of the time and, in addition to research data, supplies steam to the mill.”

So there you go. The process, so to speak, has begun. Industry is using nuclear generated steam.

The temperatures that Halden deliver – the heavy water reactor runs at about 240 degrees  –  would not be high enough to support many of the high temperature operations run by heavy industry like oil and gas, cement and steel.

The same is true of the 430-plus commercial electricity generating reactors in use around the world today, all of which run on water-cooled technology and solid uranium fuel. As the World Nuclear Association explains, conventional reactors “produce heat at relatively low temperatures in relation to many industrial needs.”

HOW TO TURN UP THE DIAL

All the more reason why nuclear investors should be funding alternative designs like liquid molten salt and pebble bed reactors that can operate safely at 700 degrees C and higher.

It’s the sort of thing that China is developing to facilitate fossil fuel processing such as coal gasification. (An irony of clean alternative nuclear is that it could well get its start by supporting carbon intensive fossil fuels, albeit, it would help decarbonize one aspect of the fossil fuel production chain. The oil sands industry in North Dakota and Canada may also serve as a proving ground.)

On a cleaner note, China is eyeing thorium molten salt reators to  help extract hydrogen which it would use to produce environmentally friendly methanol as a clean petrol and diesel replacement for cars.

Industrial heat could also propel Steenkampskraal Thorium Ltd.’s South African pebble bed reactor to the market.

WALK, THEN RUN

Back at Halden, putting the steam to use for paper making marks an exciting baby step onto the industrial heat walkway.

Halden is operated jointly by the Paris-based 34-nation Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and by research groups from a variety of countries, including host Norway’s Institute for Energy Technology (IFE). One could imagine industrial companies from any of the OECD countries keeping a watchful eye on the performance of the reactor’s process steam.

It’s also notable that one of Thor’s partners in the thorium test at Halden is Westinghouse, the U.S. unit of Japan’s Toshiba.  Westinghouse, based in the Pittsburgh area, must at least be entertaining the idea of furnishing heat to industrial companies such as its Pittsburgh neighbor, U.S. Steel.

The heat might not yet be really on for nuclear industrial applications, but the temperature does appear to be rising.

Photo: Institute for Energy Technology (IFE) via Wikimedia.

Albert Einstein was one of the early fiddlers with magnetic refrigeration.

When we launched our blog here at the Weinberg Foundation two months ago, we told you that our “thorium trail” would wind the world looking not only at safe, alternative nuclear power, but also at the related issues and technologies.

Today we head down the “related” path, as we take a look at a startlingly cold development in the rare earth business.

A quick refresher: The global economy would cough blood if denied rare earths. Despite their name, rare earths are not rare. Manufacturers build them into everything – missiles, radar, wind turbines, magnets, iPods, cars and light bulbs, just to name a few common items. China controls the market and restricts exports, causing price volatility. One reason we pay close attention to them at WF is that they often come from minerals like monazite, which also happen to contain thorium, the substance that promises a safe, alternative nuclear future. Policies and practices in rare earth can thus have a direct bearing on thorium availability and vice versa – as we noted in our blog earlier this week on how to safely extract thorium and rare earths.   

Review over.

We now turn our attention to a promising application that could, in a few years, yield a revolutionary product (I never use the word revolutionary when it comes to technology, so that’s how impressed I am in this case)  – magnetic refrigeration.  If only there were enough affordable rare earth materials available.  More on that – and how one company is getting around the problem – in a minute.

But first, while you’re scratching your head:  Yes, that’s magnetic refrigeration, not refrigerator magnet.

WATCH YOUR MAGNETO CALORIES

Magnetic refrigeration promises to do away with environmentally damaging refrigerant gases, and to drastically reduce the amount of electricity it takes to chill your meat and vegetables. It replaces those ubiquitous noisy, power hungry compressors – replacing them with silent efficient magnets. Some people trace the idea back to Albert Einstein.

The concept is simple:  Expose a certain material to a fluctuating magnetic field within the walls of a refrigerator and it will absorb heat, a property known as the “magnetocaloric effect.” Expel the heat, and your milk stays cold.

And you guessed it, that “certain material” happens to be a rare earth element. At least it is in the case of magnetic refrigeration pioneer Camfridge Ltd based in Cambridge, England, which is using a rare earth element called lanthanum.

But that’s only part of Camfridge’s rare earth story. The other part resides in the magnet that springs lanthanum’s magnetocaloric somersaults.

As people who follow rare earths know, magnet makers tend to use a rare earth element called neodymium, a metal in demand for wind turbines, hybrid cars and electric vehicles, among other markets.

That was the plan at Camfridge. That is, until China tightened already severe restrictions on rare exports and drove up the price more than tenfold in 2011, from around $19 per kilogram to, at one point last year, $244 per kilogram, notes Camfridge CEO Neil Wilson.

“Suddenly, with that spike in rare earth prices, it threw out all the calculations,” Camfridge CEO Neil Wilson told me when I spoke with him by phone recently.

DIAMOND IN THE RUST

Although prices have come down again (nowhere near their low), and China has recently slightly eased export restrictions, the volatility caused obvious problems – including “making our investors nervous,” Wilson said.

Innovation to the rescue!

“Our response to the price spike has really been to try to work to stopping using these neodymium iron boron magnets,” said Wilson.

His substitute material is something as old as traditional magnets themselves, and in fact, as old as the hills, really:  Iron (ferrite) oxide, or as Wilson calls it “fancy rust.”

The move to ferrite-based magnets itself is not innovative, although it is much cheaper.  Ferrite magnets cost about a tenth of neodymium magnets.

The trade-off is that ferrite magnets are also “two to three times less powerful,” says Wilson.

And that’s where the innovation comes in. A less powerful magnetic field induces less of a magnetocaloric effect in the rare earth coolant material – the lanthanum, which is actually a lanthanum silicon alloy

Thus, Camfridge and its partners are busy developing a product that uses a lanthanum alloy that can compensate. As Wilson notes, the ferrite “Puts more of onus on the way you make and process the lanthanum silicon material. We’re focused on making really good lanthanum.” If they improve the lanthanum, they can still have their gem of a coolant.

But isn’t the lanthanum also subject to the vicissitudes and volatility of the rare earth market?

Wilson says that at the moment, that is not a concern. Among other reasons: His product does not require a lot of lanthanum – the neodymium represented a far greater portion of the rare earth materials he was using, he notes.

And in the current developmental stage, “we’re only using tens of kilograms,” an amount that Wilson says “is covered by R&D budgets.”

COOL PARTNERS

One of the key partners in his lanthanum development is German magnetic materials specialist Vacuumschmelze.

Camfridge is working with several other partners as well. Those include refrigerator makers Whirlpool from the U.S., Italy’s Indesit (which sells the Hotpoint brand in the UK) and Turkey’s Acrelik (known for the Beko label in the UK). Imperial College London and the University of Cambridge are also on board. The company is backed financially by venture firm Cambridge Capital Group, and by Cambridge Enterprises,  an investment arm of the University of Cambrdge, among others.

It hopes to show a prototype of its “cooling engine” built into a Whirlpool machine by early next year. The idea is to build a magnetic “cooling engine” that is roughly the same size a today’s gas compressor, making it easier for refrigerator makers to swap out the old for the new.

Wilson thinks that his product could hit the commercial market by 2015, when manufacturers would build it into high end, ultra-energy saving models and cut at least 10 percent off the price of the machines compared to conventional gas compressor models. The rare earth engine would require only one half to two thirds the energy of compressors, one source said.

The Camfridge CEO sees the product eventually going mainstream. The company will have to continue refining its engine and making it small enough and affordable enough before that happens. But if it does, Camfridge will have demonstrated how to work with – and without – the realpolitik of the China-controlled rare earth industry.

Photo: Life Photo Archive via Wikimedia.

Takashi Kamei speaking in Shanghai recently, where he proposed an international group to oversee the   safe extraction, storage, and distribution of thorium.

Thorium holds incredible promise to power alternative reactor designs and usher in an era of much safer nuclear power that would underpin a C02-free energy future. But it has its potential hazards.

One of those is the significant – even deadly – environmental damage it could cause at the very beginning of its supply chain, when mining companies extract thorium from rare earth minerals like monazite in which thorium typically resides.

Thorium is mildly radioactive, so anyone pulling it out of the ground must store it properly – or better yet, arrange for its distribution to reactors once the world starts deploying thorium nuclear power.

This includes rare earth companies like those in China – the country that controls almost all the world’s rare earth production. For those companies, thorium can simply be a waste by-product with no use until China starts building thorium reactors – an area in which it has significant plans.

Sounding an alert that rare earth miners in China have not always followed strict safety procedures, Takashi Kamei of Japan’s Research Institute for Applied Sciences has proposed an international mechanism for assuring the safe extraction, storage and eventually distribution of thorium.

Speaking at the recent Thorium Energy Conference 2012 in Shanghai, Kamei proposed an oversight group called the Organisation of Rare Earth Exportation Companies (OREEC) that would raise a tax from international rare earth consumers to help fund the safe handling of thorium at its origin.

Tax and protect: This slide from Kamei’s Shanghai presentation shows how rare earth customers would   fund the safe handling of thorium and rare earths.

“Thorium’s production is not so clean,” Kamei warned.

He implored consumers of rare earths to help finance the safe extraction and handling of the rare earth’s thorium by-product. Without such safety, the rare earths that are vital to so many products including environmentally beneficial items like hybrid cars and wind turbines could ironically trigger severe environmental damage (watch this blog space soon for some cold truth on rare earth’s CO2-reduction capabilities).

That, in turn, would mean that, “China’s thorium dream will disappear” as thorium would be rendered a “dangerous radioactive waste,” said Kamei, who besides advocating the international group,  is also designing thorium nuclear reactors.

“The question is who has the responsibility to take care of the remaining thorium,” Kamei noted, referring to the rare earth production’s thorium by-product. “And of course, this is the consumers.”

Kamei calls his proposed tax a “ThAX” – an acronym of thorium and tax – and notes that while it would represent a higher financial price to the end user, it would lower the environmental cost. (My editorial comment: Another solution might be for the producer to eat the costs of responsible production – feel free to comment below).

“If China sells rare earths at a cheaper price, they do not have the opportunity to take care of the thorium,” said Kamei, noting that the purpose of OREEC “is to protect the environment.”

Kamei’s idea echoes a similar plan – without the global tax – put forth in the U.S. by rare earth and thorium advocates Jim Kennedy and John Kutsch, of the Thorium Energy Alliance. They are lobbying Congress to support a federal rare earth co-operative as well as a “Thorium Bank” that would store thorium and prop up both the rare earth and thorium industries.

Photos by Mark Halper.

Australia’s energy minister Martin Ferguson says the country might have to consider “all forms of clean energy,” and that could include nuclear.

Australia, long a no-go country for nuclear power, is showing signs of reconsidering its position as it recognises that nuclear could help cut carbon emissions.

“The Australian government’s responsibility is to test all forms of clean energy,” said Energy Minister Martin Ferguson in an article by the Australian Associated Press this week.

He was agreeing with a newly minted report by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, an independent think tank whose CEO Stephen Martin criticized a recent government white paper for omitting nuclear.

“If Australia is serious about mitigating the effects of climate change then nuclear must be on the table,” Martin said in the report. “It has the potential to provide low-cost, clean, base load energy and will be an important back-up if other renewable or clean energy options do not come to fruition.”

COAL STILL KING

Australia currently generates about 78 percent of its electricity from coal, according to a World Nuclear Association overview.  It is trying to switch to cleaner sources, but has made patchy progress with renewables like solar, wind and geothermal.

Just this week, for example, the federal government pulled the plug on what was to have been the country’s largest solar electricity farm – the $1.2 billion (U.S.), 250-megawatt Solar Dawn project in Queensland which was partially backed, ironically, by French nuclear giant Areva.

And an ambitious geothermal project in South Australia’s Cooper Basin region has stalled.

Referring to solar and other renewables as “clean energy,” Energy Minister Ferguson noted, “If at some point in the future we don’t get the breakthrough on baseload clean energy – Australia will need to think seriously about considering nuclear.”

One thing is certain: Australia is intent on reducing its own carbon emissions. In July it introduced its controversial carbon tax, which levies charges of about $24 per ton of greenhouse gas emitted.  It also plans to start a carbon trading scheme in 2015, linked to Europe’s.

CARBON PUSHER

Never mind that it is the world’s biggest exporter of coal, much of which it ships to China to feed that country’s armada of CO2-spewing coal-fired power plants. Australia’s energy scene is riddled with paradoxes. It has never operated a commercial nuclear power plant, and several of its states currently outright ban nuclear power, but the country is a major center of uranium mining – albeit a troubled one as we noted recently.

Fast forward to the future. It also has considerable reserves of thorium, the mildly radioactive element that could replace uranium as nuclear fuel and usher in a whole new era of nuclear power that is safer, less weapons prone, more efficient, and produces less waste.

SKIP A GENERATION OF NUCLEAR

In fact, Australian mining company Lynas is sitting on stockpiles of thorium, a byproduct of its rare mining operations (we’ll have more to say soon about the rare earth business – watch for some cold truths about them here on the Weinberg blog).

And that, potentially, is the opposite of a paradox. It would make complete sense for a country like Australia with no nuclear plant legacy – no entrenched uranium, water cooled reactors – to fast forward to a new generation of reactors running on a safer fuel in altogether different reactor designs, such as molten salt or pebble bed reactors.

If you want to look up to the next generation of nuclear technology, then make sure you keep at least one eye looking down under.

Photo: World Economic Forum via Wikimedia.

IEA World Energy Outlook shows why planet needs nuclear

Posted by Mark Halper on November 13th, 2012

IEA executive director Maria van der Hoeven has warned in the past that fossil fuels are keeping the world is on a disastrous warming trend.

The International Energy Agency released its annual World Energy Outlook yesterday, and you could sum up its power generation recommendation with a simple paraphrase: Keep the fossil fuels in the ground.

Or, to take, some liberty with IEA’s words – the planet should transition to clean non-fossil sources like safe alternative nuclear technologies, and, of course “renewables” such as wind and solar.

Paris-based IEA said the world is not doing enough to change energy practices and that it therefore risks causing a 2-degree C average rise in the earth’s surface temperature – an increase that many climate scientists say would be catostrophic.

“Taking all new developments and policies into account, the world is still failing to put the global energy system onto a more sustainable path,” the IEA says in the report’s executive summary.

A major culprit is the continued burning of fossil fuels, especially now that cheap natural gas is abundant in the U.S. and is prompting that country to export coal to other countries. The U.S. will out produce Saudi Arabia in oil by 2020 and will become a net oil exporter by 2035, the IEA predicts.

NOTHING FOSSILIZED ABOUT THE SUBSIDIES

Fossil fuel subsidies also played a major role in the continued supremacy of carbon intensive power, as they soared almost 30 percent in 2011, to $523 billion, the IEA reported.

IEA is a 28-country organisation that is part of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that was founded in response to the 1973-74 oil crisis. It has been addressing issues of energy and sustainability since then.

This year’s annual Energy Outlook came with a prescription:

“No more than one-third of proven reserves of fossil fuels can be consumed prior to 2050 if the world is to achieve the 2 °C goal,” IEA cautioned. “Almost two-thirds of these carbon reserves are related to coal, 22 percent to oil and 15 percent to gas. Geographically, two-thirds are held by North America, the Middle East, China and Russia.”

The IEA executive summary made no mention of “alternative nuclear” technologies that could help mitigate global warming consequences. Those technologies include thorium fuel as well as reactors that use designs like molten salt, pebble bed and fast neutrons that offer a safer and potentially less expensive option to conventional uranium-based nuclear reactors.

NUCLEAR DECLINING, BUT

Thus, the IEA pointed out that nuclear power’s share of global power generation will decline, even though the planet will generate more nuclear power as total energy demand increases. IEA said that last year’s Fukushima nuclear accident is causing a nuclear retreat as some countries like Germany back off. Again, the report does not take into account the prospects for alternative nuclear.

Coal will continue to play a dominant role, and renewables use will rise dramatically, according to IEA.

The executive summary notes: “The world’s demand for electricity grows almost twice as fast as its total energy consumption, and the challenge to meet this demand is heightened by the investment needed to replace ageing power sector infrastructure. Of the new generation capacity that is built to 2035, around one-third is needed to replace plants that are retired. Half of all new capacity is based on renewable sources of energy, although coal remains the leading global fuel for power generation.”

Renewables will become the second largest power source by 2015, and will account for about a third of energy output by 2035, according to the IEA.

ALL EYES ON CHINA, INDIA

Exactly how strong coal’s role will be will depend on policies in countries like China and India among others.

“Whether coal demand carries on rising strongly or changes course will depend on the strength of policy measures that favour lower-emissions energy sources, the deployment of more efficient coal-burning technologies and, especially important in the longer term, CCS (carbon capture and storage). The policy decisions carrying the most weight for the global coal balance will be taken in Beijing and New Delhi – China and India account for almost three-quarters of projected non-OECD coal demand growth (OECD coal use declines).”

The IEA outlook strongly recommends the adoption of CCS. (It’s Interesting to note that the CCS and renewables industries, both of which get plenty of attention in the IEA report, teamed with nuclear in the UK last week to urge the government to write low carbon measures into its pending energy bill).

Other key points from the IEA outlook:

  • Efficiency efforts have been abysmal. The IEA says industry could slash global energy demand in half by 2035 by taking simple efficiency measures. “Four-fifths of the potential in the buildings sector and more than half in industry still remains untapped,” IEA claims.
  • Nearly 1.3 billion people remain without access to electricity and 2.6 billion do not have access to clean cooking facilities.
  • Energy production’s use of water will grow at twice the rate of energy demand.  “Water is essential to energy production: in power generation; in the extraction, transport and processing of oil, gas and coal; and, increasingly, in irrigation for crops used to produce biofuels,” IEA says.

Alternative nuclear could help in all these areas. IEA’s reference to industrial efficiencies makes me think, for example, of how small, safe reactors could serve as a clean and efficient source of industrial process heat. Here’s hoping that next year’s IEA summary looks in the direction of alternative nuclear.

Photo from IEA via Flickr

University of California Berkeley nuclear engineering head Per Peterson is a fan of molten salts and other alternative nuclear. He’ll chair the ANS proceedings in San Diego. Above, he examines a model of a     pebble bed reactor in this photo from KQED Quest.

When we launched our blog here at the Weinberg Foundation in late September, we nicknamed it The Thorium Trail and pledged to travel the world spotting the emergence of alternative, safe nuclear technologies such as thorium.

And travel we have, as our path has included a real world landing last week in Shanghai – where we journeyed from our London base – as well as virtual stops in Norway, South Africa, Jordan, and the United States. Through the wonders of the Internet, we’ve skimmed uranium mines in Namibia and Australia, and have brushed up against oil sands in Canada, where small reactors could help cut fossil fuel-driven heat use.

We’re not resting.  We can’t.  Not when the world will need safe nuclear as a base load power source to help stem the effects of fossil fuel induced climate change that dramatically took centre stage a week ago when Hurricane Sandy clobbered New York and New Jersey.

Today, we turn our attention to San Diego for a quick preview of the 5-day American Nuclear Society’s annual winter conference, which kicks off this Sunday, Nov. 11.

WHERE’S THE THORIUM?

Have a look at the agenda here – click on the page’s “official program” link. On the surface, there’s not much going on related to thorium, the alternative to uranium that if run in the right type of reactor offers all manner of advantages over today’s nuclear plants: it’s safer, more efficient, meltdown proof, produces less waste and it reduces the weapons proliferation threat.

In the impressively busy 60 pages, the word “thorium” appears only once.

That is disappointing – shameful, really –  but it’s not a surprise. Of the conference’s eleven sponsors, seven are U.S. utilities – not known as the most progressive bunch when it comes to their nuclear power. The top two “platinum” backers are utility behemoths Duke Energy and Southern California Edison. The old guard is not going to shout about a new fuel like thorium that could disrupt its comparatively comfortable – and time honoured – uranium value chain.

Yet the conference will thankfully be chock full of sessions on alternative nuclear reactor designs (albeit not alternative fuel).  After all, ANS is assembling this year’s conclave under the heading Future Nuclear Technologies: Resilience and Flexibiity.

By inference, thorium will be in the collective consciousness, as many of the formal sessions will focus on technologies that could be optimized by using thorium rather than uranium – technologies such as such as molten salt cooling systems and high temperature reactors.

AN ALTERNATIVE CHAIRMAN

Let’s start at the top.  The conference’s general chair is University of California Berkeley  nuclear engineering department head and professor Per E. Peterson. Peterson has a rich background researching many advanced nuclear technologies, and his UC Berkeley bio notes that “currently his research group focuses primarily on heat transfer, fluid mechanics, regulation and licensing for high temperature reactors, principally designs that use liquid fluoride salts as coolants.”

I’ve added the boldface type in that last sentence because it bears noting that one of the most promising alternative designs for a thorium-fuelled reactor is indeed one that runs at a high temperature while cooled by liquid fluoride.

So there you go. The conference chair – the man running the San Diego show – has a keen interest in a thorium enabling technology, if not in thorium per se.

In fact, high temperature, molten salt reactors are the subject of the U.S. Department of Energy’s collaboration with China’s Chinese Academy of Sciences. CAS, as I wrote from Shanghai last week, is developing a liquid thorium molten salt cooled and fuelled  reactor (TMSR). The completion date has slipped, and China is welcoming expertise from the U.S., which developed a TMSR at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the 1960s under the direction of Alvin Weinberg.

DOE has said its interest in the collaboration focuses on the liquid coolant applied to high temperature reactors, but that unlike its Chinese collaborator, it is not currently investigating liquid thorium fuel.

HEAT’S ON WITH DOE, WESTINGHOUSE, CHINA

It’s not entirely clear why not, but MIT research scientist Charles Forsberg, who will be speaking several times in San Diego on fluoride coolants, might be able to provide an answer.  Forsberg is part of the DOE/China collaboration. DOE has tapped MIT, Peterson’s UC Berkeley, and the University of Wisconsin as partners in the collaboration which includes DOE labs Oak Ridge and Idaho National Laboratory.

Pittsburgh’s Westinghouse is serving as a commercial adviser on the same collaboration. So it seems no coincidence that when Forsberg and Peterson combine on Thursday in San Diego to give eight presentations related to salts and high temperatures, they will do so under a track chaired by Westinghouse nuclear engineer Art Wharton. It’s entitled Advanced Reactors.

Westinghouse, which does not like to publicly discuss its alternative reactor work, has had a hand in many of the sessions planned for the week, including those focused on small modular reactors, and one focused on a travelling wave reactor (the fast reactor that Bill Gates is building, although some say Gates has abandoned the “travelling wave” for a “standing wave” – more on that another time).

Outside of considerable of sessions dedicated to fluoride salt coolants, there will be plenty of talk surrounding other alternative reactor technologies.

FAST TALK

Fast reactors like San Diego-based General Atomics’ energy multiplier module are on the docket (GA is a co-sponsor of the conference which is taking place in its back yard).

So, too, are modular reactors – the small designs that could represent reduced upfront costs, provide electricity to remote off-grid regions and workplaces, and serve as industrial heat sources.

Equally, high temperature pebble bed reactors (PBRs) will take the spotlight in several technical sessions. Again, the discussion will not revolve around thorium. That’s an unfortunate oversight given that thorium could optimize pebble bed operations – a fact not lost on South Africa’s Steenkampskraal Thorium Ltd. which, as I wrote recently, is assembling a group of customers to help finance development of its gas cooled thorium fuelled PBR.

Any “future nuclear” technology conference would not be complete without fusion tracks, and the ANS conclave will have that as well – fusion is one of Peterson’s research subjects. The fusion discussions will include a look at tritium in both fusion – where it is a fuel – and in fission – where it is a waste, or byproduct. MIT’s Forsberg will be among the experts addressing the subject.

The one mention of thorium in the agenda? A 25-minute talk scheduled Wednesday morning by Terry Kammash from the University of Michigan, entitled Hybrid Thorium Reactor for Safe, Abundant Power Generation. It’s part of a group of presentations falling under the general heading Reactor Physics Design, Validation and Operating Experience and including a talk on liquid fast reactors.

TALK NERDY

For a broad overview of all of these technologies, ANS president Michael Corradini will chair a Tuesday afternoon forum entitled Ten Years Since the Generation IV Roadmap: Progress and Future Directions for New Reactor Technologies, followed logically by a Wednesday morning look at what the next 10 years hold.

A session entitled Telling the Nuclear Story Using Online Video and Broadcast should remind every one that it behooves the nuclear industry to effectively communicate its advantages to the public, especially in the wake of the Fukushima tragedy. Panelists will include Cara Santa Maria, the host of Huffington Post’s Talk Nerdy to Me.

As I’ve wandered onto the “PR” subject, here’s some free advice to ANS: you’ve done a good job assembling experts on many promising forms of alternative nuclear. It is beginning to feel like some of these alternatives could soon get  a more serious look from investors. Let’s hope so. But you gotta talk thorium, too.

Photo: Gabriela Quirós for KQED Quest.

Note: We won’t be in San Diego, but we’ll have our ear to the ground. Will you be there? Feel free to send your impressions. You could comment below, or use the “contact” tab above. Thank you –MH.

Renewables join forces with nuclear in Britain

Posted by Mark Halper on November 6th, 2012

Greenpeace UK executive director John Sauven praised the joint letter that the nuclear, renewables and carbon capture industries sent to Energy Secretary Ed Davey, although Sauven stopped short of outright endorsing nuclear. That’s him above talking with Prince Charles at the Glastonbury music festival in 2010.

The debate over whether nuclear power is green landed on “yes” in Britain yesterday, as leaders from the nuclear and renewable industries combined forces to urge the government to take low carbon measures.

Their joint action even received an endorsement from an unlikely source – traditionally anti-nuclear environmental group Greenpeace.

The development marked the second sign in recent weeks that the British public is warming to nuclear power. Late last month, 40 percent of respondents in a UK YouGov/Sunday Times poll said they favored the additional use of nuclear.

This week, the heads of three key industry groups – the Nuclear Industry Association, RenewableUK (it represents wind and marine energy) and the Carbon Capture and Storage Association wrote to Energy Secretary Ed Davey to insist that his imminent energy bill support the groups’ different forms of low carbon power.

“If we are to meet the UK’s energy security and climate change targets it is vital that the momentum is maintained in building new low carbon generation,” states the letter, reprinted by The Guardian newspaper. “We believe the proposed reforms should help raise the necessary investment. Like Government, we believe that a diverse energy mix is likely to be the most cost-efficient pathway to largely decarbonising the power sector, which means investment in nuclear, renewables and fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage.”

ENVIRONMENT, JOBS AT RISK

In their letter Keith Parker, Maria McCaffery and Jeff Chapman – CEOs respectively of the nuclear, renewables and carbon capture groups –  also said that the bill should stipulate a large decarbonization in the power sector by 2030. And they warned Davey that jobs are at risk if he delays his bill, because investments will slip.

In a surprise backing, John Sauven,the executive director at Greenpeace UK, noted, “This letter shows that whilst different industries will have differing preferences for the exact mix of energy technologies, there is unity from across huge swathes of the business community on the need for a clear goal in the energy bill to take carbon almost completely out of the electricity system by 2030.”

Sauven – whose remarks were first reported by The Independent newspaper – is right. And while his comments stopped short of a full endorsement of nuclear power, it feels like Greenpeace is budging in that direction. Nuclear is, after all, carbon free.

Teach Greenpeace a few more lessons about the safety, waste and proliferation benefits that alternative nuclear technologies like thorium molten salt reactors have over conventional solid fuel uranium, and the environmental group could be squarely onboard.

Photo: Vanessa Miles, Greenpeace

 

Alvin Weinberg: Good ideas in any language

Posted by Mark Halper on November 5th, 2012

Talking the talk. Weinberg’s vision of safe nuclear power based on designs like the thorium molten salt reactor make sense in any tongue. Above, Japan’s Dr. Moto-yasu Kinoshita of the University of Tokyo and the Thorium Molten-Salt Forum displays a Chinese language copy of Weinberg’s autobiography last week   in Shanghai.

Amid the overarching vision and technological updates at last week’s Thorium Energy Conference 2012 in Shanghai, there was a book making the rounds that spoke volumes for the global reach of the ideas hatched by Dr. Alvin Weinberg some 50 years ago.

The book had a familiar title to it, but you wouldn’t know it at first if you didn’t read Mandarin.

That’s it in the picture above with the smart black and red cover.

Yes, it’s Weinberg’s autobiography, The First Nuclear Era – The Life and Times of a Technological Fixer  – translated into Chinese and proudly displayed at last week’s conference by Dr. Moto-yasu Kinoshita of the University of Tokyo, who is also vice president of the International Thorium Molten-Salt Forum. Dr. Kinoshita reads Mandarin.

China has kept an eye on thorium and liquid fuel reactors since at least the 1960s, when Dr. Weinberg was building his thorium molten salt reactor (TMSR) at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. The Shanghai Institute of Nuclear Research held its first national conference on thorium back in 1965, and by 1971, the Shanghai Institute of Applied physics had built a zero-power molten salt reactor.

SAFETY FIRST

So it’s no wonder that after the guru of thorium molten salt reactors, Weinberg, published his autobiography in 1994, a Chinese translation quickly follow in 1996, published by China’s Atomic Power Publisher.

The book is a broad sweep of  Weinberg’s career in nuclear development and includes accounts of how the safe, non-proliferating reactors that he advocated, such as the TMSR, lost to more dangerous and inferior solid fuel uranium reactors that have come to define the industry.

It’s fair to assume that Weinberg’s thorium research, his writings, and his advocacy of safe nuclear have influenced China’s own thorium molten salt development.

China could now be on course to complete a liquid thorium molten salt reactor before any one else does, although as we reported last week, the Chinese Academy of Science’s Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics (SINAP) has pushed back its target completion date for a small test reactor by 3 years, to 2020.

OAK RIDGE IN CHINA

And the tradition of gleaning wisdom from Oak Ridge continues, as SINAP is collaborating with the laboratory and with other U.S. Department of Energy entities to help it perfect its TMSR.

At last week’s conference, Jiang Mianheng, the head of  the Shanghai branch of CAS and the son of China’s former leader Jiang Zemin – who ruled when Weinberg published his book – painted a future in which TMSRs will help China gain energy independence by generating carbon free electricity and by providing heat for industrial processes, including hydrogen extraction.

It will have happened with more than a little inspiration from the man in Tennessee.

Photo by Mark Halper

 

Thorium poised for New Year coming out party

Posted by Mark Halper on November 1st, 2012

“We’re ready.” Julian Kelly and Thor Energy will start testing solid thorium MOX fuel in January, with help from Westinghouse, Britain’s National Nuclear Laboratory, and others.

SHANGHAI – Norway’s privately held Thor Energy this January will start a four year live test of solid thorium fuel in partnership with industrial companies including nuclear giant Westinghouse, Thor revealed here today.

Speaking at the Thorium Energy Conference 2012, chief technology officer Julian Kelly said Thor will burn ceramic pellets of thorium plutonium oxide inside the Norwegian government’s Halden test reactor.

Thor will use fuel provided by the UK’s National Nuclear Laboratory and by the European Commission’s Institute for Transuranium Elements (ITU). It will also fabricate some of its own in partnership with Norway’s Institute for Energy Technology. The first batch will come from ITU.

“We don’t often spend a lot time being excited in the nuclear industry these days, but this is an exciting thing for us,” Kelly said. “We’re ready to go.”

Thor’s objective is to show that thorium plutonium fuel, known as thorium MOX, can operate safely and efficiently in a conventional reactor.

“We expect this experiment to yield data that will be used to demonstrate the safe, long term performance of ceramic thorium MOX fuels, and that this information will directly support the approval of a commercial irradiation of such fuels,” Kelly said. “We very much need this reactor to appeal to a regulator audience and also a power reactor operator audience. It’s not just a purely academic exercise.”

THE CALL OF THE FOUR HUNDRED

The Halden reactor is a heavy boiling water model (HBWR). The results will allow Thor to extrapolate performance of solid thorium MOX in a pressurized water reactor (PWR).

BWRs and LWRs account for almost all of the 430-plus nuclear reactors operating commercially today.

Many thorium supporters prefer to put thorium into alternative burners such as liquid molten salt reactors and pebble bed reactors. Although those reactors optimize thorium’s benefits more than conventional reactors do, none operate commercially today. They will require time not only for development, but also for regulatory approval (as will a new fuel like thorium MOX).

By running thorium in approved and existing designs and reactors, Thor would hasten the fuel’s commercial arrival.

Thorium augers reactors that are safer and more efficient than conventional uranium reactors. They don’t leave as much long-lived dangerous waste and in designs like molten salt and pebble bed, they are in principle meltdown proof. They also reduce the weapons proliferation threat.

Kelly downplayed suggestions that efforts should focus on alternative reactors.

CATALYST

He called the imminent test of thorium MOX in a conventional reactor, “a great catalyst for other thorium fuel undertaking worldwide,” and said, “it’s a great technology springboard to some other medium term thorium fuel possibilities.”

Thor is a privately held company owned by Norwegian technology firm Scandinavian Advanced Technology. Besides Westinghouse, NNL and ITE, Thor’s partners in the thorium MOX test include South Africa’s Steenskampskraal Thorium Ltd., which as we noted here recently is developing a thorium pebble bed reactor.

Other partners include Finnish utility Fortum, and French chemical company Rhodia, which possesses thorium that has been processed out of rare earth minerals.

Thorium MOX represents not only a potentially safer and better fuel than uranium, but also an opportunity for usefully disposing of plutonium waste of the sort that NNL is concerned with at its operations in Sellafield, England. NNL is part of the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change.

Companies in the nuclear fuel business  like Westinghouse could add a plutonium disposal revenue stream.

Although Westinghouse does not like to publicly discuss its thorium involvement, this is second time in recent months that its activities have wandered into the thorium community. News broke over the summer that Westinghouse was serving as the commercial adviser on the U.S. Department of Energy’s collaboration with the Chinese Academy of Sciences on the development of high temperature molten salt reactors.

Photo by Mark Halper

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