Archive for January, 2013

The hidden faces of fusion power

Posted by Mark Halper on January 28th, 2013

Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos has invested in General Fusion, one of a clutch of small, private companies pursing fusion power.

January has been an unusually busy month for developments in fusion power.

Or more to the point, for developments in government funding of fusion.

Last week, the European Commission called for a ministerial level meeting to assure continued commitment from the countries that back the €13 billion ($17.4 billion) International Thermonuclear Reactor Experiment (ITER). At around the same time ITER awarded a  €500 million ($673 million) contract for construction of the main buildings at Cadarache, including the facility housing the giant fusion machine, known as a tokamak.

Not to be outdone in the big money, South Korea is embarking on a 1 trillion won (nearly $1 billion) fusion project called K-DEMO, the journal Nature reported.  This is in addition to South Koreas’ involvement in Cadarache (along with the EU, U.S., Russia, China, India and Japan) and its own K-STAR tokamak project, and is expected to employ 2,400 people in the first phase alone, through 2016.

All of which begs two questions: Will fusion ever be ready, and why aren’t some of those state funds going into alternative forms of fission such as thorium and molten salt and the other reactor types we’ve written about here at Weinberg?

First, in case you need reminding: Fusion is a form of nuclear energy that throws atoms together rather than splits them apart as happens in today’s fission. Many people regard it as the Holy Grail of energy, as in principle its fuel – typically isotopes of hydrogen – would be abundant, it would operate safely without threat of a meltdown, and it would not leave long-lived waste. Fusion, not fission, gave rise to the nearly 60-year-old promotional tag line about nuclear that has yet to live up to its promise –  “too cheap to meter.”

THE LONGEST 30 YEARS

Huge government-backed projects like ITER and other state-backed fusion behemoths – for instance the National Ignition Facility in Livermore, Calif. – are impressive in their own right as ambitious science projects. And for variety’s sake, it is reassuring to note that each takes a decidedly different approach: ITER (and South Korea) wants to confine small amounts of superheated fuel contained in a huge space by superconducting magnets, while NIF is compressing its fuel into a tiny cube zapped by nearly 200 lasers that travel almost a mile to their target.

But they are concrete examples of the overriding problem that has afflicted fusion ever since physicists began seriously proposing it in the 1950s: They are a long way away from making fusion a reality. The simple problem with fusion is the amount of energy that it takes to create and sustain a meaningful fusion reaction exceeds the amount of energy captured from the reaction. A British phsycist named Martin Lawson established the conditions to overcome this back in 1955, throwing down a gauntlet known as the Lawson criterion.

Fusion peacenik Eric Lerner, president of Lawrenceville Plasma Physics in New Jersey, wants to           collaborate with aneutronic fusion experts in Iran.

The wry joke about fusion is that it is always 30 years away. And if you look at the timelines espoused by ITER, South Kroea and NIF, they all play right into that humor. When I interviewed ITER deputy director Richard Hawryluk a year–and-a-half ago for my Kachan & Co. report on alternative nuclear power, he did not foresee useful, grid-connected fusion power until at least 2040 (I haven’t spoken with him since, but in this field of molasses-like progress, I doubt much has changed).

NIF’s website calls for market penetration in the “2030s and beyond.”  Call me jaded, but given the history of this science as well as recent NIF difficulties noted by the San Francisco Chronicle, and I’ll key in on the “beyond.” In the Chronicle story, one scrutinizing, unnamed Congressional expert said that NIF is still “very, very far away” from its goal.

The Nature story suggest that South Korea could produce a commercial reactor by 2036 – so that’s starting to sound a little sooner than three decades.

Lest I sound dismissive, let me say that NIF, ITER and other colossal projects are making useful scientific findings. And they certainly stand a chance of licking Lawson.

THE FUSION ENTREPRENEURS 

But what has gone largely unnoticed in the shadows of these giants is that a number of much smaller, privately held and in some cases venture capital-backed companies are also pursuing fusion. “Small” and “privately held” in no way guarantees that they’ll break through where the big boys keep trodding along but I chose to believe, perhaps with a dash of naiveté, that the entrepreneurial spirit behind them will get at least one or two of the little ones there first.

Each of them is working on considerably smaller fusion contraptions than the 20-story “tokamak” building that will rise at Cadarache and the 10-story tall, 3-football field long facility housing 192 lasers that each zig zag their way nearly a mile to hit a tiny target of hydrogen isotopes in Livermore.

And each (I mention only some below) is developing its own particular take on fusion.

Two of the startups, Tri-Alpha Energy of Irvine, Calif. and Lawrenceville Plasma Physics (LPP) of Middlesex, New Jersey, are working on a technology  called “aneutronic” fusion that directly creates electricity. Other approaches to fusion use the heat of hot neutrons released in the reaction to drive a turbine. Aneutronic fusions tends to use fuel that differs from the deuterium and tritium (both hydrogen isotopes) of “conventional” fusion. Rather, it tends to use regular hydrogen and boron.

One thing that distinguishes LPP is its collaborative approach – it is boldly reaching out to Iran, a world leader in aneutronic fusion research, to jointly develop this peaceful form of nuclear power in an initiative that LPP president Eric Lerner calls Fusion for Peace.

And when I think of what sets Tri-Alpha  – a stealth company – apart from the others, I think of funding. It has received over $140 million in venture funds, including tranches from Goldman Sachs, Venrock, Vulcan Capital New Enterprise Associates, and reportedly from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

FUSION AND THE OIL INDUSTRY

Another fusion startup that has venture backing – about $32 million last time I counted –  is General Fusion of Burnaby, Canada, near Vancouver. Its funders include Amazon.com founder CEO Jeff Bezos, through his Bezos Expeditions investment company.

Notably, General Fusion also has backing from a Canadian oil sands company, Cenovus Energy. (Oil interest in fusion is not new. In the 1970s, for example, Exxon Corp. was investigating laser-based fusion). One could imagine a small-sized fusion machine providing the heat or electricity to assist in the extraction of bitumen from the Canadian praries. .

In fact, that same idea applies to alternative fission reactors. As I’ve written many times, small reactors could serve as excellent sources of process heat to industries like oil, petrochemicals, steel, cement and others that require high temperatures. This could not just small versions of conventional uranium fueled, water cooled reactors, but also unconventional and potentially superior designs like molten salt, pebble bed and others.

Which circles back to the second question I raised at the top of this article: Why aren’t governments putting more money into the research and development of alternative fission reactors?

FUSING WITH FISSION

They would be well advised to do so. Alternatives like thorium fuel and unconventional fission reactors can offer superior safety, efficiency, performance, waste management, and weapons-proliferation resistance – many of the attributes associated with the more heralded field of fusion.

They also share some of the same design challenges as fusion. For instance, molten salt, pebble bed and fast neutron reactors – all fission alternatives – operate at considerably higher temperatures than conventional fission, and thus face materials issues as do the even considerably hotter fusion machines.

And, in a best of both worlds scenario, there is even a prospect for a hybrid fusion/fission reactor. Fusion designs typically include a fission stage in which neutrons bombard lithium to produce tritium, one of the two hydrogen isotopes that fuels fusion reactions (another fusion startup, Redmond, Wash.-based Helion Energy, notes that the process also yields helium, which has many uses – it is falling short in supply). Some physicists and engineers believe that this could be extended to include fission reactions that deliver power on top of the fusion power.

So, it seems that, to the extent that states are funding nuclear research, they should be channeling into fission as well as fusion. Certainly China is. Other countries should be doing the same.

Photos: Jeff Bezos from Amazon.com. Eric Lerner from Lawrenceville Plasma Physics.

NOTE: There are other fusion initiatives large and small, too numerous to name in detail in this particular blog post. Feel free to tell us below about your favourite.

Turning away from turbines

Posted by Mark Halper on January 25th, 2013

Conversion factor. Matthew Simmons thinks his thermoelectric technology could replace turbines for converting nuclear heat to electricity. Here he addresses an October TED conference in Auckland, before heading to the Shanghai Thorium Energy Conference.

Look at any nuclear, coal, gas or geothermal power plant, and you will spot a turbine – a chunky rotary mechanical contraption full of moving parts that require serious maintenance and that can break down.  They convert heat – usually steam – into electricity, and in the inefficient process, they typically lose more energy than they transform.

So isn’t there a better way to morph all that warmth into electricity?

Matthew Simmons and his Hamilton, New Zealand innovation company, Arvus Group, believe there is.

“You convert the heat directly to electricity, with no moving parts,” says Simmons.

He’s working on a solid state thermoelectric technology he calls Thermagenz, which Arvus wll deploy first for geothermal power, but which Simmons believes could be a perfect match for the emerging “alternative” nuclear movement – especially for the high temperature reactors that could replace today’s conventional, lower temperature reactors.

RETHINKING NUCLEAR

“It’s all part of the rethink about nuclear,” says Simmons, who I spoke with via Skype today, and who I first met when he presented at the Thorium Energy Conference 2012 in Shanghai last October. Many proponents of thorium fuel advocate using it in high temperature reactors like those using molten salt and pebble bed designs, in order to optimize superior performance and safety features compared to conventional uranium reactors.

The idea of Thermagenz is simple: eliminate turbines altogether by running steam or some other heat source through a bank of “hybrid peltier” semiconductors, and out comes electricity. Say goodbye to moving parts and all the potential malfunctions that go along with them, a development that as Simmons points out means “the maintenance is almost zero.”

Arvus’ first installation of Thermagenz will be a trial, 2-kilowatt geothermal demonstrator starting soon in Taupo on New Zealand’s North Island, where Simmons says they only have to dig a meter to hit 200 degree C heat. It plans a larger, 100-t0-500 kilowatt geothermal trial in southeast Asia later this year, where it hopes to operate at least one megawatt-plus installation by the end of next year in partnership with a utility.

In the geothermal deployments, Arvus sinks a proprietary thermal superconducting material that Simmons says loses practically no heat for up to a mile. The material – which he declines to name  – is  “30,000 times more conductive of heat than silver,” Simmons claims (silver is a well known as an effective heat conductor).

RAISING THE TEMPERATURE

That heat feeds the solid state device, which can handle temperatures of up to 300 degrees C and which converts about 5-to-6 percent of the energy to electricity. Although that is much lower efficiency than what a turbine delivers, Simmons says the thermoelectric system as a whole offers huge advantages, including much lower operating and maintenance costs, as well as eliminating the need for precious water.

“The clean energy revolution isn’t really about efficiency. It’s about viability,” says Simmons.

But 5-to-6 percent efficiency and 300 degrees won’t cut it for high temperature nuclear applications, especially when many developers of MSRs, pebble beds and other alternative reactors are targeting temperatures of around 700-to-1,000 degreees C. (The good news is that Arvus’ high temperature superconducting pipe can deliver heat of up to 1,200 degrees, and can carry  that heat up to a mile beyond the reactor, where it would hand it over to the semiconductors for conversion to electricty).

That’s not lost on Simmons, who spoke at the Shanghai thorium conference to help generate interest among the thorium crowd and to initiate the long process of collaboration to help advance Thermagenz for nuclear applications.

Simmons says that the threshold for Thermagenz to compete on a par with turbines is about 15 percent efficiency operating at between 700 and 1,000 degrees C.

POSITIVE REACTIONS

Are reactor developers interested? “Yes,” says Simmons who adds that he has several meetings coming up with nuclear companies in Europe and elsewhere. He’s also working with semiconductor companies and university research teams.

“We want to develop a semiconductor that can work at the higher temperatures so that we can potentially back our Thermagenz not only onto geothermal, but also on the back end of  high temperature reactors,” says Simmons.

Thermoelectric generation from nuclear heat is not a new idea. Spacecraft like the current Mars Curiosity use it, as did the Voyager from the 1970s. But those craft tap a highly costly and inefficient version which would not fly in commercial nuclear reactors.

Certainly plenty of technological and financial challenges lie ahead both with Arvus’ technology and with alternative reactor and fuel development.

“It’s a long arc,” says Simmons. “But it’s going to attract so many interesting companies, interesting problems and interesting people, and so it’s a really exciting hub of energy to be part of. Because this is a shift, a lot of people truly believe in the potential of thorium, and it’s giving rise to people to rethink about nuclear. “

It’s good to know that the blades of nuclear change are spinning not just on the fuel and reactor front, but in the generating room as well.

Image of Matthew Simmons is a screen grab from TED video via YouTube.

The $20 billion case for restarting nuclear in Japan

Posted by Mark Halper on January 23rd, 2013

A mountain of savings. Restarting only half of Japan’s nuclear reactors would save the country over $20 billion, the IEEJ says. Above, Mt. Fuji as seen beyond Tokyo’s Shinjuku district.

We’ve been delivering regular stories on alternative nuclear for four months here at Weinberg, and we’ve barely said a word about fusion power. It’s been all fission. That was going to change today, as I was preparing a story about some recent fusion developments, and about how I see the fusion future shaping up.

But as they used to say in the quaint old days of radio news bulletins (and in fact they sometimes still do), this just in:  A leading think tank for the Japanese government has declared that the country can slash its power costs by 30 percent by restarting only half of the nuclear power plants closed following the Fukushima meltdowns triggered by the earthquake and tsunami of March, 2011.

I just had to stop what I was doing to bring you that news from the Tokyo-based Institute of Energy Economics (IEEJ) because there’s no land to watch more than Japan to take the global temperature of the “for versus against” nuclear discussion.

And regular readers will know that we’ve been watching. For a long time following the tragic events surrounding Fukushima, there really was no debate, as the nation stood overwhelmingly against nuclear power. As recently as last March, a poll showed that 80 percent of Japanese opposed nuclear.

MOOD SWING

But some time during the intervening months, the anti-nuclear heat began dropping, with the mercury rising on the “pro” side. In early December, Japan and its 80 percent-opposed-to-nuclear people elected a pro-nuclear government led by new prime minister Shinzo Abe. Abe promptly announced a rethink of the previous government’s intentions to permanently shut nuclear by 2040.

More steam built earlier this month when Japan’s – and the world’s – largest circulation daily newspaper called for a return to nuclear power.

“Revitalizing the Japanese economy will require a stable supply of electricity,” the Yomiuri Shimbun declared in an editorial. “This year will be important in that the energy and nuclear power policy, on which the nation’s fate rests, needs to be drastically reformulated…The government should immediately craft a realistic energy strategy that includes the use of various sources of power generation–including nuclear energy.”

SHOWING THEM THE MONEY

And now, the IEEJ has reinforced that push with some solid economics, pointing out that the country would save 1.8 trillion yen ($20.3 billion) by restarting only half of its nuclear reactors, Bloomberg Businessweek reports. Currently only two out of 54 reactors operate, and Japan has had to scramble to fill the gap, since nuclear had provided about 30 percent of the country’s electricity.

That dash has cost the country environmentally, as Japan has fired up fossil fuel plants including coal and liquefied natural gas.

As the IEEJ report makes clear, those measures have also come at an enormous financial cost.

And, Bloomberg adds, “The country paid an estimated 6 trillion yen ($67.7 billion) last year for its liquefied natural gas imports, twice as much as the year before, Yukio Edano, the country’s former trade and industry minister, said at a conference in September.”

The cost combined with the volatilities and geopolitical instabilities associated with fossil fuels confronts Japan with a potential economic catastrophe, IEEJ’s Nobuo Tanaka said last month, as I reported from the World Nuclear Power Briefing Europe 2012 in Warsaw.

I also suspect that the Japanese public might be losing patience with efficiency measures in which the masses have cut back on electricity use.

The shift back to a pro-nuclear nation is hardly complete. But the country’s regulator is devising toughened safety standards, which it expects to announce in July. After that, watch for more nuclear restarts.

And it behooves Japan to pursue alternative nuclear such as thorium fuel, molten salt reactors and others to help move to a safer, more efficient, and less weapons prone civilian nuclear era that would improve upon the conventional solid fuel, water-cooled reactors that have defined the global industry for some 50 years.

Fusion power could help accomplish that to. I’ll come back to that soon. To borrow another old broadcasting phrase, stay tuned to Weinberg.

Photo: Morio via Wikimedia

Striding to a nuclear future: The government of prime minister Manmohan Singh (left) took another step in the direction of nuclear power by announcing talks with Australia.

We’ve noted in separate posts recently how two countries, India and Australia, could help the world shape a carbon light energy future built on nuclear power, and in particular, alternative nuclear power.

So it made complete sense to us today when news broke that those two heavily coal-reliant nations announced plans to discuss joint nuclear development.

“India and Australia have decided to begin talks in March on civil nuclear cooperation,” the Wall Street Journal reported from New Delhi, where foreign ministers Salman Khurshid and Bob Carr met. The two government ministers will participate in the talks in March, the Journal states.

The article interprets the discussions as a step toward Australia allowing uranium exports to India, a country that most of the world until recently had for over three decades shut off from uranium supply and nuclear trade due to India’s nuclear weapons testing. Those restrictions have been slowly  loosening over the last few years.

A source of uranium from Australia would be a huge boost to India’s plans to increase nuclear electricity’s percentage from a slim 2.2 percent of the country’s mix today according to the CIA. India generates 69.9 percent of its electricity today using fossil fuels – basically coal, the environmentally worst fossil fuel  – putting it right up there near China’s 74.3 percent and the U.S.’s 75.5 percent, to compare it to other large countries.

URANIUM NATION

Australia trounces all other countries for proven uranium reserves, with 31 percent of the world’s supply compared to number two Kazakhstan’s 12 percent, according to the World Nuclear Association (WNA). Australia’s uranium companies like Paladin Energy have been suffering financially amid a slump in uranium prices following a post-Fukushima nuclear industry slowdowns, so a pick-up in India would bring welcomed relief.

And here’s where an Indian/Australian hookup gets even more interesting  from a nuclear perspective: That uranium could help feed the molten salt reactors (MSR) of which our guest blogger David LeBlanc wrote so convincingly last week. As Dr. LeBlanc noted, India is conducting substantial development in MSRs, which offer benefits over conventional reactors including improved efficiency and an ability to breed fuel.

With India and Australia cooperating, that MSR expertise could then circulate back to Australia, which is easing a longstanding taboo against nuclear power in its own country. As we noted in November, if Australia is going to seriously cut its own 75 percent reliance on coal-fired electricity and introduce nuclear (it currently has none), it has a golden opportunity to now skip a long generation of conventional nuclear and shift to superior alternative nuclear.

AND THORIUM TOO

That would not just mean MSRs, but it could also entail deploying thorium fuel rather than uranium. Thorium – especially thorium in an MSR – offers the efficiency and breeding advantages that LeBlanc noted. It also supports failsafe operations, leaves behind less long-lived nuclear waste than uranium, and makes things more difficult for bomb builders.

When you throw thorium into the nuclear future along with MSRs, the India-Australia connection starts to look something like a virtuous circle (okay, nothing’s perfect, but this combination looks damn good). Australia has thorium mining and processing expertise. For instance, Sydney-based Lynas Corp. mines rare earth minerals that contain thorium, and is expert at processing out the throium. It already has a stash of thorium from such operations.

And India is arguably more connected to thorium than any other country (as long as we’re arguing, you could say the same thing about China, Norway and South Africa). It has huge reserves, including on  the beach sands of Kerala. As LeBlanc noted, the country of 1.2 billion people has had a plan since the 1960s to rely on thorium nuclear. It also plans to start construction in 2016 or 2017 of a heavy water-cooled solid fuel thorium reactor.

The WNA says that India wants nuclear to provide 25 percent of the country’s electricity by 2050. With the right push into alternatives, I don’t see why the proportion couldn’t be higher.

Photo of  Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and others at 2007 G8 summit in Heiligendamm, Germany from Gryffindor via Wikimedia.

India: A hotbed of molten salt

Posted by Mark Halper on January 18th, 2013

Written by guest blogger David LeBlanc

The Gateway of India, in Mumbai. The country could become a gateway to energy’s future, given its impressive work in molten salt reactors.

 

Please welcome our first guest blogger, Canadian molten salt reactor expert David LeBlanc. Dr. LeBlanc has just returned from India, where that country’s MSRs initiatives impressed him, to say the least. We asked him to say a lot more than that, and we’re glad we did…

The world is full of surprises isn’t it?  Well, I’ve just experienced quite a big one. I’ve just returned from the most amazing meeting of the minds in Mumbai – the Conference on Molten Salts in Nuclear Technology hosted at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC).

BARC is the sprawling campus – more akin to a small city – where a majority of India’s research into nuclear power takes place, on the outskirts of the heaving metropolis. It is a true microcosm of India really: a mix of impressive modern buildings and ranging down to what Western eyes, at least, might call slums. Through it all, no one can dispute the impressive work that has taken place here over the decades.

A little background first. India has been heavily involved in nuclear power research since the 1960s – much of the time on its own, since the world discovered to its disappointment that the country was also working towards nuclear weapons. With its testing of a warhead in 1974, India became a sort of pariah, with most other countries cutting off all nuclear ties – including civilian nuclear power.  This has been changing significantly over the past several years.

But since its very early days when led by BARC’s namesake, Homi Bhabha (the so-called “father of India’s nuclear programme”) India has had a very ambitious civilian nuclear power development vision.

Given India’s lack of easy to obtain uranium and its abundance of thorium, the long term plan has been to start first with uranium in heavy water reactors and then put those reactors’ plutonium along with thorium into a subsequent small fleet of sodium cooled fast breeder reactors. These fast reactors would produce U233. This U233 would then be used to start a large fleet of a more advanced breed of heavy water reactors that would operate a closed, self-sustaining cycle of thorium and U233, a very tough job as the solid fuel would need to be processed frequently.

ADDING MOLTEN TO THE MIX

The country’s steadfast commitment to this 3-stage, heavy water, to sodium cooled, to advanced heavy water evolution has been challenging, to say the least. India has built few reactors totaling only 4.8 GWe and nuclear power is unfortunately only a small fraction of India’s power production  – the majority comes from coal.

Because of this seemingly engrained roadmap, many of us molten salt  advocates – and yes, I am one – didn’t expect to convince India of the merits of molten salt reactors even though MSRs are well known for their ability to breed fuel using thorium, or in even simpler forms, for their ability to use uranium many times more efficiently than do water cooled reactors.

And now, for the surprise, which has come to me in waves over the last few months, starting last summer when the conference organizers asked me to give a plenary talk. I was more surprised several weeks ago when the list of scheduled talks surfaced with 11 of the 25 presentations by Indian researchers. And then, the best surprise of all: after three great days of talks, I am truly impressed with the quantity and quantity of Indian work on the subject.

I left Mumbai with a conference proceedings of over 50 papers, two thirds of them by Indian authors. There were a couple dozen of us contributors from outside India including Europe, the U.S., Canada and Japan. A representative from the Chinese Academy of Science’s MSR program, Zhimin Dai, was to present but visa issues held him up.

Speaking of which, at first glance someone might speculate that India’s new involvement in MSR research might be reactionary to China’s recent major foray into the field. Whether that was the spark or not, it was very evident that a great pent up interest has been released in India.

I have quite literally never seen such a large gathering of engineers and scientists with such an interest and more importantly, knowledge of molten salt technology.

THE OAK RIDGE BOYS

This interest goes back to the 1970s when they directly contributed to Oak Ridge’s MSBR (molten salt breeder reactor) programme and we got to hear from many of those who contributed. From these Indian “old boys” I heard the same lament one hears from Oak Ridge’s “old boys” of what a shame it is this technology was left behind. I also heard the same enthusiasm for its current renaissance.

Indian researchers presented a variety of work on fluid fueled molten salt reactors but also on the idea of using similar molten salts as coolants – but not fuels –in what are known as FHRs (fluoride salt cooled high temperature reactors).

The FHR concept originated in the U.S. some ten years ago and is also a big part of China’s program.  Some MSR advocates might malign this “salt cooled” work as some sort of half measure in comparison to “salt fueled” MSRs.

While FHRs lack the extensive list of potential benefits that MSRs can claim, some researchers view FHR as a simpler first step. I see the merit of FHR design and have ideas in that regard myself but view it as a parallel path with MSRs, certainly not FHR first, true MSRs later.

As the audience was fully aware of MSR’s background and promise in terms of safety, cost, resource sustainability and long lived waste reduction I was able to focus on MSR reactor design. I presented on choices including my work on the “tube within tube two fluid MSR” which looks to solve the “plumbing problems” that led ORNL to abandon the promising two fluid approach in 1968. I also provided a few hints towards a new design concept I hope has much potential, and for which I have filed patents.

KEEP IT SIMPLE

Much of my presentation, though, focused on a simpler route forward through an MSR design which is known as a converter reactor and in particular a form of converter known as a denatured molten salt reactor (DMSR, with “denatured” meaning that any uranium employed is useless for weapons fabrication).

This approach uses both mined uranium and thorium together, or simply uranium alone. It is not a breeder like many MSR concepts but results in a much simpler reactor with far less R&D especially since it skips any sort of fuel processing.

The minor drawback is that it requires small amounts of annual uranium in order to top up the fuel cycle. But the amount is just a fraction of what conventional reactors require. A DMSR operator would only need to spend about 0.05 cents per kwh on uranium, and would not be adversely affected by any rising uranium prices either – not even by, say, a ten-fold increase over today’s low price level.

The message: MSRs are not just the best “thorium” reactor, they are also the best “uranium” reactor. It really is the engine, not the fuel that is the story. Come for the thorium, stay for the reactor as my tag line of late has been.

I’m back in Canada now, with Mumbai and my gracious hosts at BARC and the constant din of car horns still very much on my mind. And I can’t help but feel the world is a lot closer than it was before this conference to a future with a sustainable and affordable source of energy. It’s a good feeling, a good feeling indeed.

Photo: Rhaessner via Wikimedia

Dr. David LeBlanc is President and CTO of Terrestrial Energy Inc., an Ottawa company committed to the commercial development of MSR technology. For many years Dr. LeBlanc has been heavily involved in the design and advocacy of molten salt reactors and has authored numerous scientific and general media publications. He was the founder of MSR pioneer Ottawa Valley Research Associates. His design philosophy has been to simplify systems as much as possible while retaining the many strong advantages of MSRs. Dr. LeBlanc holds a Phd in Physics from the University of Ottawa. dleblanc@terrestrialenergyinc.com

Another sign that nuclear is coming back in Japan

Posted by Mark Halper on January 16th, 2013

Going nuclear. The headquarters building of Japan – and the world’s – largest circulation newspaper, Yomiuri Shimbun, where an editorial calls for restarting Japan’s nuclear power.

Want more signs that the public is swinging to supporting nuclear in Japan, the country that shut down almost all of its nuclear plants following the Fukushima disaster two years ago, and where most of the population objected to nuclear less than a year ago?

First, for a quick review. You’ll recall that early last month, the supposedly anti-nuclear Japanese public overwhelmingly elected a Liberal Democratic Party government led by pro-nuclear politician Shinzo Abe.

Of course there were issues other than nuclear power in the election.

But a nuclear pendulum is in motion. Last March a poll showed 80 percent of Japanese people saying “no” to nuclear. Eight months later those folk were installing a nuclear advocate into the top office. Soon after taking office, Abe announced a review of the previous government’s intentions to completely phase out nuclear by 2040. The country is currently operating only 2 of its 54 reactors.

POWER OF THE PRESS

Now comes the latest indicator that the public stance is easing: Japan’s – and the world’s – largest circulation newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun, has published a long and strong editorial calling for a return to nuclear. You can read the whole thing on this link. Here’s how it begins:

“Revitalizing the Japanese economy will require a stable supply of electricity. This year will be important in that the energy and nuclear power policy, on which the nation’s fate rests, needs to be drastically reformulated.

“Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has shown his intention to review the “Innovative Strategy for Energy and the Environment” drawn up by the Democratic Party of Japan-led administration, which set a target of having zero nuclear reactors operating by the end of the 2030s. Abe also expressed support for allowing the construction of new nuclear plants with enhanced safety features. We think his position on these issues is reasonable.

“The government should immediately craft a realistic energy strategy that includes the use of various sources of power generation–including nuclear energy.”

Japan is increasingly realizing as a nation that to stay economically competitive and environmentally sound, it will need nuclear power, which prior to the tragic Fukushima disaster supplied about 30 percent of the nation’s electricity.

Since that time, and with its nuclear shutdowns, it has struggled to fill the energy gap. It has relied on usage cutbacks, efficiency measures (no bad thing) and on CO2-emitting fossil fuels that it imports at great expense (sometimes, as we’ve noted, with the ironic help of nuclear-powered icebreakers leading liquefied natural gas containers from Russia through the Arctic).

The hazardous reliance on fossil fuels came into the spotlight earlier this week when utility Tepco – the company that ran the improperly sited Fukushima reactors that melted down when a tsunami knocked out their cooling systems – announced long term plans to secure an energy supply with what would appear to be coal.

ECONOMIC CRISIS

Political, business and thought leaders are growing more outspoken in their advocacy of nuclear for Japan. As we wrote here last month, Nobuo Tanaka, the former head of the International Energy Agency and a Japanese national, warned that a failure to embrace nuclear could lead to economic catastrophe for the nation.

Tanaka, who currently serves as a global associate for energy security and sustainability with Japan’s Institute of Energy Economics, is keen for his country to adopt alternative forms of nuclear other than conventional solid uranium, water cooled reactors. He’s particularly interested in fast  breeder reactors.

Japan has a number of other alternative nuclear ideas stirring that could provide more efficient and safer reactors compared to today’s reactors – designs such as the thorium fueled liquid molten salt reactor, for instance.

It has an abundance of expertise in these alternative areas, including  people like Moto-yasu Kinoshita of the University of Tokyo – who is also vice president of the International  Thorium Molten-Salt Forum – and Ritsuo Yoshioka, president of the International Thorium Molten-Salt Forum.

Likewise, Takashi Kamei of Japan’s Research Institute for Applied Sciences, is formulating maverick ideas on how to co-manage thorium and the vital rare earth elements with which it typically occurs. Japanese utility Chubu Electric is even investigating the possibility of using a thorium reactor.

Keep an eye on the land of the re-rising nuclear reactor.

Photo: Wikimedia.

Britain’s nuclear railway

Posted by Mark Halper on January 15th, 2013

Training for a nuclear future. National Rail CEO David Higgins commits to nuclear power to drive Britain’s railway electrification.

The company that operates the railway infrastructure in England, Scotland and Wales is turning to nuclear power to keep the trains running and help take CO2 out of its energy footprint.

No, Network Rail is not outfitting locomotives with small nuclear reactors as propulsion engines.

Rather, the privately held, government backed company has signed a 10-year deal with utility EDF to assure a supply of low carbon – nuclear that is – electricity that will allow Network Rail to expand the electrification of Britain’s railway lines.

“EDF Energy will ensure 100% of the electricity it supplies to Network Rail will be matched by low carbon energy generated from its eight nuclear power stations,” the companies said in a joint press release that appeared on both the Network Rail and EDF websites.

Today, many of the UK’s trains run on CO2-emitting diesel fuel. Only 55 percent of trains are electric, and Network Rail wants that to expand to 75 percent by 2020. By then, it hopes to electrify 54 percent of the  lines – an additional 2,000 miles of track fed by overhead high voltage cable and “third rails” – up from the current 40 percent.

VORACIOUS FOR VOLTS

Network Rail is already the single biggest consumer of electricity in Britain. Since the country faces an uncertain energy future, the rail operator will need to guarantee a steady source of power.

Thus, the 10-year deal with EDF.

The contract is unusual not only because of the nuclear commitment, but also because it allows Network Rail to purchase electricity up to 10 years ahead of time.

“EDF Energy is offering Network Rail the unique capability to purchase their electricity requirements up to 10 years in advance, helping to deliver greater certainty over costs and significantly reduce exposure to short term, volatile energy prices,” the joint release states.

EDF, a French company, operates 8 nuclear power stations in Britain and hopes to build four more, pending planning permission and financing.

A RICH SHADE OF GREEN

“Rail is already the greenest form of public transport and this partnership with EDF Energy will help us make it greener still,” said David Higgins, Network Rail CEO.  He described the supply arrangement as “an innovative contract for low-carbon energy.”

Likewise, EDF Energy CEO Vincent de Rivaz noted that,””Rail is already one of the least carbon intensive ways to travel and the huge investment in electrification will be backed by a stable and affordable supply of low carbon energy. The deal places nuclear energy at the heart of the UK’s infrastructure for the next 10 years and serves to underline that nuclear power is part of everyday life in Britain.”

Network Rail’s commitment to nuclear power is just the sort of boost from industry that nuclear companies need to help establish nuclear as a clean, CO2-free energy source for a sustainable planet.

What would be even more encouraging would be to see large industrial consumers of power support the research and development of alternative forms of nuclear power like thorium fuel, as well as to reactor types such as molten salt, pebble bed and fast reactors. Those reactors could serve industry even better than today’s conventional reactors, both as a source electricity and of heat. That in its own right would be an electrifying ride into the future.

Photo of David Higgins from Rail.co.

 

 

Public perceptions: The next step in nuclear safety

Posted by Mark Halper on January 11th, 2013

Safe talk. APCO’s Roger Hayes addressing the World Nuclear Power Briefing Europe conference last month about public perceptions of safety and other nuclear issues.

I’m going to take a few liberties with a presentation I had the privilege to hear in Warsaw last month, and tell you how the presenter, a public relations expert, made a fine argument, if perhaps subliminal, for alternative nuclear power.

Speaking at the World Nuclear Power Briefing Europe 20102 conference, Roger Hayes, a senior counsellor with Washington, D.C.-public affairs specialist APCO Worldwide, made a convincing case for the nuclear industry to collaborate globally in order to offset the public perception that nuclear is unsafe and untrustworthy.

“Nuclear remains quite introverted and largely nationalistic,” Hayes told a high level audience of nuclear executives and experts, advising the industry to break those habits if it is to overcome a widely held international view that nuclear power is dangerous.

In an APCO survey of a broad range of nuclear impressions, world opinion leaders rank nuclear next to last in safety behind all forms of energy other than shale oil, which nuclear barely beat.

“Safety as we all know is a clear issue for the industry,” Hayes said. “Perceptions on the safety of nuclear are polarized.”

Public opposition to nuclear tends to overlook that its safety record is far superior to oil, gas and coal. To help reverse that oversight, “What we need is a new, more holistic narrative about the nuclear industry,” Hayes said.

Safety last. In an APCO survey, opinion leaders ranked nuclear next to bottom in their safety perception of energy sources.

He’s right, and that’s where I’ll expand with some of my own interpretations, which echo my recent thoughts on the World Nuclear Association’s rebranding efforts.

Hayes did not mention “alternative nuclear” by name.

But to take a whole view, if you will, of “holistic,” the new narrative should include the alternative technologies that would directly address public fears – two of the biggest of which center around possible meltdowns and hazardous nuclear waste.

Conventional uranium fueled, water cooled reactors do run the risk of meltdown, although they almost never, ever get to that stage. The meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant that followed Japan’s tragic 2011 earthquake and tsunami have unfortunately reawakened the specter of such threats.

THERE ARE ALTERNATIVES

Alternative technologies – a liquid thorium molten salt reactor (MSR) or a pebble bed reactor, for just two examples – would be virtually meltdown proof, as nuclear fission would cease in the event of an accident. In the case of the MSR, fuel would also drain harmlessly into a tank.

Alternative technologies like the MSR and fast reactors would also minimize waste and in some cases would actually turn waste into fuel, thus usefully eliminating the worrisome challenge of where to store it.

Hayes’ notion of a collaborative, holistic approach to safety also includes, in his words, “a broader view in terms of scientific transfer outside of the industry, and supporting nuclear physics spinoffs and so on.” And he advises involving other industries.

On these counts, I would add that the status quo nuclear powers like Westinghouse, Areva, GEH and their utility customers, could divert resources into research and entrepreneurial projects to develop alternative designs for reactors and for safer, more efficient fuels like thorium. And they could partner with industrial users who might want to deploy novel designs for novel purposes – say, a small thorium fueled liquid molten salt reactor as a source of process heat.

Hayes also advocated greater “transparency.” You know what I’m going to say next, so I’ll keep it short, lest my own narrative stretch beyond the reasonable length limit of a regular blog posting:

The nuclear powers that be are making admirable safety advances within their own conventional constructs. But if they really want to impress the public with the “even safer” possibilities, they have to start talking more openly about alternative technologies, rather than fear the disruption that those technologies might cause to their own business.

Images: Photo of Roger Hayes by Mark Halper. Safety chart from Roger Hayes’ presentation in Warsaw.

 

Another union of nuclear and renewable power

Posted by Mark Halper on January 8th, 2013

Small vision. Addressing a nuclear conference in Warsaw last month, Grizz Deal saw many uses for small reactors, including baseload power at solar plants.

The pairing of nuclear power  supporters with renewable energy advocates might have until recently struck most people as a case of “strange bedfellows.”

But more and more, the combination is looking like a logical match of kindred spirits intent on moving the world off of CO2-spewing fossil fuel energy sources. We noted last autumn how the nuclear and renewables industries were joining hands in the UK, for instance.

Now, a couple of new cases in point: Two utilities in the United States are contemplating co-locating small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) at solar power stations, as a way to assure  round-the-clock power  – which intermittent solar cannot provide.

That’s according to Grizz Deal, the co-founder a Denver-based SMR company formerly called Hyperion Power Generation and now called Gen4 Energy.

“There’s actually a couple studies being done, one by Pacific Gas and Electric in California, and one by Florida Power & Light, as a way to beef up their renewable program,” Deal said in an address to the World Nuclear Power Briefing Europe 2012 conference in Warsaw last month.

GOOD THINGS IN SMALL PACKAGES

An SMR, as its name suggests, is smaller than the gigawatt-plus sized conventional reactors. Its size can vary widely, from a range of around 10 megawatt electricity capacity to around 300. Several companies like Gen4 are developing SMRs with the intention of selling them as both electricity and heat sources to utilities, industry and governments and as power sources in remote areas. When Deal was with Gen4 (he left about two years ago and now runs a Denver-based clean water firm called IX Power), he was targeting the water purification market.

Developers are also applying different designs, including conventional water-cooled uranium fueled mini conventional reactors, as well as liquid molten salt reactors (MSRs), pebble bed reactors, and others.

Kirk Sorensen, co-founder of Huntsville, Ala.-based Flibe Energy, hopes to sell small MSRs fueled by liquid thorium (rather than uranium) to the U.S. military bases, which would allow them to disconnect from unreliable public electricity grids.

Another company, South Africa’s Steenkampskraal Thorium Ltd., is developing a 35-megawatt (electric) thorium fueled pebble bed reactor that it hopes to sell as a source of industrial heat and for other purposes.

The U.S. Department of Energy last year announced that it would help fund a uranium-fueled SMR under development by Charlotte, N.C.-based Babcock & Wilcox, for use by utility Tennessee Valley Authority.

DOE is expected to soon award funding to at least one more SMR developer.  To hear Deal talk, it sounds as though the solar and wind industry might want to play close attention.

Photo of Grizz Deal by Mark Halper.

 

Molycorp crushes rare earth ore in California. The market has crushed Molycorp’s stock price since the company started operations in early 2012. Industrial outfits including Siemens, Nissan and Hyundai are rumoured to be interested in acquiring it.

What do you do when you’re China and the rest of the world is so annoyed with your stranglehold on rare earth metals that it files an unfair practices complaint through the World Trade Organisation?

You tighten export restrictions on the metals, making it even harder for overseas countries to get a hold of them!

That’s what seems to have happened over the quiet of the Christmas holiday break.

“China, the world’s biggest rare-earths supplier, cut the first-batch export quota for next year by 27 percent as overseas demand for the elements waned,” Bloomberg News reported via the Taipei Times on Dec. 29.

China’s Ministry of Commerce establishes two tranches of rare earth export quotas per year. It set 2013’s first batch at 15,501 tonnes, down from 21,226 for the first allotment in 2012.

SUBJECT TO CHANGE

It could increase export levels when it determines a second round, as it did last August, when an allowance of 9,700 tonnes brought the full year limit to a three-year high of 30,996 tonnes, Bloomberg noted. That increase came soon after the WTO agreed to investigate a complaint by the U.S., the European Union and Japan against China’s rare earth export restrictions and tariffs.

Rare earth metals are vital to the economy. Manufacturers build them into everything from missiles to cars to wind turbines to smartphones, just to name a few common items.

Minerals that contain rare earth elements can also contain thorium and uranium, which is one reason we’re interested in rare earths here at the Weinberg Foundation.

As we’ve noted, policies and practices surrounding rare earth mining and availability have a direct bearing on the availability of thorium, and vice versa. Thorium is the radioactive element that could potentially serve as a more effective and safer nuclear fuel than uranium. They can also affect uranium supply.

China controls some 95 percent of the market for rare earths.

DEMAND DOWN

It’s interesting to note that, as Bloomberg implied, waning demand for the elements led China to its export limitation. The implication is that by curtailing supply, and applying the fundamentals of supply and demand, China can reverse a considerable 2012 slide in prices.

Demand has slowed amid the global economic doldrums. Also, countries are starting to find ways around their reliance on Chinese supply.

At any rate, 2013 is shaping up as some sort of pivotal year for the rare earth industry. A lively final few months  of 2012 has helped set the stage for that:

  • Greenland, which some experts say has the second largest known reserves of rare earths in the world, could relax restrictions that prevent mining them. It depends on the outcome of parliamentary elections this year. Greenland’s rare earths co-exist with uranium.
  • Australian mining company Lynas opened a rare earth processing plant in Malaysia, only to have cabinet ministers threaten to shut it down over concerns about radioactive thorium that occurs with the rare earths.
  • Molycorp, the U.S. company that re-entered the rare earth business last February, has fared so poorly amid plunging prices  that its stock has plummeted, putting it up for possible acquisition. Siemens, Nissan and Hyundai are rumoured to be interested, ProEdgeWire reports. This echoes Toyota’s buy-in to Canada’s Metamac, as manufactures seek greater control of their vital supplies.
  • Molycorp’s CEO Mark Smith resigned.
  • A UK company, Rare Earth Metal Exchange Ltd., collapsed into liquidation, less than a year after launching, according to the Daily Mirror.

Exactly how the year swings for rare earths is difficult to assess, but expect plenty more action.

One industry observer cynically suggested to me a couple months ago that China has allowed prices to decline in order to undermine the stability of market entrants who have paid considerable sums to start up operations and who need a certain price floor to stay alive.

He might have been right.

Photo from Molycorp website via CBS SmartPlanet.

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