Archive for February, 2013

Transatomic co-founders Mark Massie and Leslie Dewan are MIT PhD students who can readily seek   insight from an expanding advisory board of nuclear veterans.

Transatomic Power, the youthful molten salt reactor company based in Cambridge, Mass., has added four nuclear industry veterans to its technical advisory board,  a move that could help it bring the alternative nuclear technology to market.

The appointments include retired Westinghouse Electric chief technology officer Regis Matztie, who is also the leading commercial adviser to the molten salt nuclear collaboration between China and the U.S. Department of Energy.

Also named to the board were Todd Allen, Deputy Director at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL); Ken Czerwinski, Director of the University of Las Vegas (UNLV) Radiochemistry Program; and Michael Corradini, Wisconsin Distinguished Professor of Nuclear Engineering and Engineering Physics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the current president of the American Nuclear Society.

Transatomic, as we noted in September, is a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-connected startup co-founded by MIT PhD students Mark Massie and Leslie Dewan, and by CEO Russell Wilcox, who is the former CEO of information technology company E-Ink.

“Atomic energy is an abundant and reliable power source and Transatomic Power has a better way to harness it,” Wilcox said in a press release. “We’re very excited to welcome these four luminaries to our advisory board, and look forward to their contributions as we work to bring this important new technology to market.”

“This is a chance to help the young people in our industry to re-imagine and re-invent the field,” INL’s Allen said in the release. “In this team I see the spirit of innovation that helped give birth to the industry at its start.”


Transatomic is developing a molten salt nuclear reactor that it calls a Waste Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor (WAMSR). The name reflects Transatomic’s intentions to use existing nuclear waste as fuel, a feature that could help win over nuclear opponents who object to waste legacy.

The company is designing the WAMSR to run on liquid – molten salt – fuel. Transatomic has previously claimed to be “fuel agnostic” towards either thorium or uranium (as has Ottawa-based MSR developer Terrestrial Energy, headed by David LeBlanc), although it mentions only uranium in this week’s statement announcing the board additions (among which there is a fair amount of uranium experience).

Some MSR proponents, like Kirk Sorensen, president of Huntsville, Ala.-based Flibe Energy, believe that thorium fuel best optimizes MSR’s advantages over conventional solid fuel reactors.

Like other MSR companies, Transatomic promotes the technology for being safer than conventional solid-fuel reactors, for producing less waste and for cost advantages.

MSR proponents say they are meltdown proof because in the event of a malfunction the fuel drains harmlessly into a tank, stopping the nuclear reaction and removing decay heat. In conventional nuclear, although control rods can stop fission reactions, decay heat can build into a meltdown if cooling systems fail, as happened at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant in 2011. MSRs also operate at higher temperatures, thus making more efficient use of fuel. And they function at normal atmospheric pressure, rather than at the high pressure of many conventional reactors.

MSRs could also be manufactured in small “modular” sizes that would permit manufacturing economies of scale and that would allow utilities and other end users to purchase smaller amounts of nuclear generation capacity – in the tens or hundreds of megawatts – compared to today’s behemoths typically rated at well over 1,000 megawatts. Transatomic is targeting 500 megawatts.


In a variation on the MSR theme, the U.S. and China are collaborating on a high temperature reactor that uses a molten salt coolant (coolants absorb heat from nuclear reactions and transfer that heat to a turbine) but a solid fuel. Full MSRs use molten salts as both their coolant and fuel, mixing uranium or thorium into the molten salt fuel.

The U.S.- China partnership could also lead to joint work on an MSR (China has a separate MSR initiative), or could help inform separate MSR development. Westinghouse Electric, known for its conventional reactors, serves as the collaboration’s commercial adviser, with Matzie as the head of the commercial advisory panel.

Transatomic’s press release makes no mention of the U.S-China molten salt collaboration or of Matzie’s role in it.

Matzie and the three other new appointees join experienced nuclear experts already on Transatomic’s advisory team: Richard Lester, head of the department of nuclear science and engineering at MIT, where he is also the “Japan Steel Industry Professor”; Jess Gehin, Oak Ridge National laboratory senior program manager in nuclear technology; and Benoit Forget, an MIT assistant professor.

In another MIT connection, Charles Forsberg, a research scientist in MIT’s department of nuclear science and engineering, leads a DOE-funded set of three universities that are developing a molten salt cooled high temperature reactor related to the Chinese collaboration The three are MIT, ithe University of California Berkekely, and the University of Wisconsin.

Photo is a screen grab from a TED conference YouTube video on Transatomic’s website.

Note: This post corrects an earlier version that stated fission continues after an emergency in conventional reactors. In conventional reactors, control rods stop fission, but decay heat continues to build if  the reactor is not properly cooled. Thank you to readers James Arathoon and David LeBlanc for pointing out the error. Corrected around 1:10 p.m. GMT March 2.

Germany’s energy challenge, part 2: Greenhouse emissions are up

Posted by Mark Halper on February 26th, 2013

While Germany has been increasing renewables, it has also brought in a lot more of this since deciding to close nuclear power. That’s a coal-fired plant in Datteln along the Dortmund-Ems Canal near Dortmund.

In our previous post, we noted that Germany wants to trim the $1.3 trillion (yes, trillion) in subsidies that it would provide to build renewable power in the wake of the government’s 2011 decision to abandon nuclear power.

Now, the other shoe has dropped in the walk away from nuclear: Greenhouse gas emissions including CO2 rose in 2012 as the country relied more heavily on coal and other fossil fuels – along with renewables – to replace production from 8 nuclear plants that it has already closed. (It plans to shutter its remaining 9 by 2022. Nuclear had provided about a quarter of the country’s electricity before the post-Fukushima decision).

The rise was slight – 1.6 percent in greenhouse gases, and 2 percent in CO2, the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety reported on its website (the account is in German; an English version should post soon). But it came came amid slow industrial production.

But the World Nuclear Association calculated that if Germany had left the eight nuclear reactors operating, it would have reported a drop of 18 million-to-34 million tonnes of CO2 emissions, rather than a rise of 14 million tonnes. Thus, WNA says, Germany would have reported its all-time low of 897 million tonnes per year.

Bloomberg noted that Germany emitted 931 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents last year as the use of lignite rose 5.1 percent.

“We must make sure that this was an exception and that it doesn’t become a trend that’s repeated,” Environment Minister Peter Altmaier said in the Bloomberg story.

According to Reuters, industrial CO2 emissions were flat from 2o11 to 2012, while emissions from household and transport use increased. Renewables helped to keep the level from rising above 2 percent.

But as Altmaeir noted last week, it will cost Germany $1.3 trillion in subsidies by 2022 if the country were to continue with its current support program for energy technologies like wind and solar. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government has proposed cutting close to $400 billion, which would still leave the government with a hefty subsidization bill of over $900 billion.

As I said last week, if the country were to recommit some modest portion of those funds – say, 25 percent – it could go a long way toward developing efficient and safer nuclear reactors that run on thorium and other alternative nuclear technologies like molten salt and pebble bed reactors, among others.

Photo from Arnold Paul via Wikimeda.


Germany’s $1.3 trillion energy challenge

Posted by Mark Halper on February 22nd, 2013

How to trim a trillion. A plan favored by Germany’s Environment Minister Peter Altmaier and the coalition government would knock €1 trillion in renewable energy subsidies down to a parsimonious €700 billion.     Just think what a portion of that would buy in nuclear R&D.

Today’s blog is an “equal time” posting.

I’ve written several entries over the last few months on how nuclear power looks ready for a comeback in Japan, where authorities virtually shut it down following the March 2011 meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.

What about that other industrial powerhouse that also decided to walk away from nuclear – Germany?

I haven’t written as much about that, in part because Germany is not giving out the same “bring it back” signals as Japan is.

But there have certainly been subsurface rumblings from Deutschland, most recently this week, when Environment Minister Peter Altmaier warned that the decision to close all nuclear plants by 2022 could by that time cost the country one trillion euros ($1.3 trillion) in government subsidies alone, Bloomberg reported.

Exercising financial prudence, Altmaier and the coalition government to which he belongs have proposed cutting €300 billion ($395 billion) from that amount, the article states. That would bring the bill down to a mere €700 billion ($923 billion).


Yes, €700 billion, with a “b”, for a reduced bill. That’s enough money to build at least 70 conventional nuclear reactors  with significant cost overruns (more than 70 really, but I’ll keep the math neat and simple). And 70 is about 4 times more than the 17 reactors the country had been operating prior to the shutdown decision, when nuclear had provided a quarter of Germany’s electricity.

That means that the money that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government plans to spend subsidizing renewables could in theory enable the country to convert to 100 percent nuclear, with plenty of electricity left to also export to neighbors. And that’s if it were to start from scratch with all new and conventionally designed plants. It’s a slightly cheeky, disingenuous point to make, in part because the whole idea of Germany spending on renewables is to, well, transition to renewables. And to shut nuclear.

Nothing wrong in general with a strong mix of renewables. We’re going to need them in our climate fight.

But let’s look at it another way. If Germany were to put even, say, a quarter of the €700 billion into research and development of nuclear alternatives like thorium and molten salt reactors and pebble beds, among others, it could seed a bright, safe, efficient, low waste, CO2-light energy future with minimal weapons proliferation risk.

Alas, Germany aims for renewables like wind and solar to furnish 35 percent of its electricity by 2020, and 80 percent by 2050. It has already closed eight of its 17 conventional reactors, and will shutter the other nine by 2022.

It is currently filling the gap in large part with fossil fuels, in the process increasing its CO2 emissions at the expense of global warming. In 2012, renewables accounted for 22 percent of German electricity, nuclear for 16 percent, coal for 45 percent, and natural gas for 11 percent, according to industry group BDEW, Reuters reported via the Financial Post recently. (Some of the rest was almost certainly imported nuclear electricity from France).


To be clear, Altmaier to my knowledge said nothing this week about rethinking the renewables target, nor anything about reconsidering nuclear.

What he did say was that he wants to cut the costs of the transition to renewables. After a 2012 in which national GDP grew by a mere 0.5 percent, that makes sense. You have to also wonder whether German business, industrial and political leaders might, just might, be ruminating nuclear in the back of their minds. I give it a few years before those thoughts come forward.

“I don’t want to limit the renewable expansion, I want to make it affordable,” Altmaier told reporters in Berlin, Bloomberg reported.

The subsidies are costing Germany in more ways than one. Subsidies are distorting financial realities and scaring away real investors, who know that renewables are not truly competitive without the government aid, the Reuters January story noted.

What’s more, as I wrote in December,  the renewable expansion requires a $56 billion investment in grid infrastucture.

Renewables also come with the stigma that they do not provide round-the-clock power, the way  low-CO2 nuclear or CO2-intense fossil fuels can. As Reuters pointed out, “A study drawn up by the Swiss Prognos Institute in November projected a possible gap of 8 gigawatts (GW), or 9 percent of the assumed maximum amount of energy required by 2020, if nuclear plants were phased out as planned and not replaced by equally reliable alternatives.”

A trillion euros for an energy shortfall?

I’m not even sure what a trillion euros looks like. But I’m envisioning an attractive hue if a portion of it is wrapped up in alternative nuclear reactors.

Photo from Christian Doppelgatz/KUXMA via Wikimedia

Japan’s latest reason to restart nuclear: A record trade deficit

Posted by Mark Halper on February 20th, 2013

This is what Japan’s trade deficit looks like. Liquefied natural gas tankers have been arriving to replace closed nuclear power plants.

Pick your cliché: Double whammy; Vicious circle; Stuffed.

All of them describe the parlous Japanese economy, which looked even worse today when the country reported a January trade deficit caused in large measure by the shutdown of almost all of the nation’s nuclear reactors.

Not just any trade deficit, mind you. In a country long accustomed to running a surplus by selling manufactured goods like cars and electronics to the rest of the world, Japan ran up a record deficit of 1.63 trillion yen ($17.4 billion), Bloomberg reports. A deficit means that more money is leaving the country than is coming in. Rudimentary economic says that’s okay up to a point, after which, it’s not.

Why the gigantic deficit in Japan?

No, Japanese consumers have not suddenly developed a special yen (sorry) to buy Fords or BMWs.

The chief culprit is imported fossil fuels.

In order to fill the electricity gap created by shutting down almost all of its nuclear power plants, Japan has had to purchase huge amounts of fossil fuels like coal and natural gas.


And here’s your vicious circle, your double whammy: Without nuclear, Japan needs those costly fossil fuels in order to power the factories that build those cars and electronics destined for foreign lands. Nuclear had provided about 30 percent of the country’s electricity before the tragic events of the March 2011 tsunami and earthquake prompted the closure of all but two of Japan’s 54 reactors.

Continuing with the circular theme, the growing demand is helping to weaken the yen, making the fossil fuels even more expensive and feeding the trade gap. As Bloomberg wrote, “Weakness in the yen that aids exporters such as Sharp Corp. and Sony Corp. also means the country pays more to import fossil fuels needed as nuclear reactors stand idle after the Fukushima crisis in 2011.” (Recall the irony that some of the imports are arriving via nuclear-powered icebreakers!).

One energy and economic adviser late last year  even warned of a potential “economic crisis or catastrophe” if Japan does not  restart nuclear The adviser, Nobuo Tanaka from Japan’s Institute of Energy Economics, warned of a huge deficit, among other hazards. That was a prescient, given today’s report. A leading politician from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party virtually repeated Tanaka’s economic warning a week ago.

The fossil fuels also come at a huge environmental cost. Unlike nuclear plants, fossil fuel generation emits CO2 linked to global warming.

As I’ve noted several times here recently, sentiment is swinging back towards support of nuclear power in Japan, where the Fukushima meltdowns and the human displacement that followed were caused by a disastrously bad engineering decision supported by a management culture impervious to questioning.


But a smart redeployment of existing reactors, followed by development of alternative nuclear technologies like thorium and molten salt reactors among others, marks an opportunity to bring the economy back onto safer ground.

It’s no wonder that newly elected Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing for a restart, as is the country’s largest daily newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun. A leading economist effectively repeated that call today, in the Bloomberg story:

“The trade deficit means the yen can’t just keep weakening,” said Takeshi Minami, chief economist at Norinchukin Research Institute Co. in Tokyo. “Abe will probably restart some nuclear plants after the upper house elections in July as, without them, the costs to the economy are too great.”

Abe faces a difficult act. Current government policy attempts to keep the yen low to boost exports and help the economy recover  (exports actually rose, although imports rose much more, leading to the deficit ) but the weak yen pushes the price of imported fossil fuels sky high.

There’s that vicious circle again. Nuclear power can help the country spin out.

Photo from Shell

Czechmate against nuclear? No. Here’s why not

Posted by Mark Halper on February 18th, 2013

Nuking CO2. This slide presented earlier this month by Nobel winning physicist Burton Richter shows that the lifecycle CO2 emissions of nuclear – including mining and manufacturing – are lower than those of biomass and solar, and are on a par with hydro and geothermal. As a low emitter, nuclear trounces fossil fuels. The chart comes originally from a group of University of Wisconsin PhD students.

Today’s post is a sort of de facto double guest blog.

After Bloomberg all but sounded the death knell for new nuclear power projects in the Czech Republic and across Europe last week, some staunch defenders of the nuclear faith emerged.

Bloomberg had quoted energy experts saying that capital costs, risks and lengthy delays would scupper the two proposed new reactors at Temelin in the Czech Republic, and would likely do the same for a pair of reactors in the UK and at several other proposed sites in Eastern Europe and the Baltics.

The story cited declining energy prices and the low cost of carbon credits, among other factors.

“The future of nuclear energy in Europe looks very dim indeed,” said one of the experts, Mycle Schneider, an independent consultant on energy and nuclear power based in Paris. “Nuclear is too capital intensive, too time-consuming and simply too risky.”

Nuclear new builds would die, despite government mandates to decrease reliance on CO2-emitting fossil fuels. As the Bloomberg story noted, “While the Czech government says it wants new reactors to replace coal plants and reduce dependence on Russian gas, consensus is proving difficult to find.”


No sooner did Bloomberg run the story than the rebuttals started popping up in the comments section.

Here are two of them, word for word.  The first comes from Alex Cannara, the Bay Area radiation expert and thorium supporter. I particularly like his point about nuclear’s low lifecycle CO2 emissions compared to renewables like wind (a point essentially backed up by the chart above presented by Nobel prize winning Stanford University physicist Burton Richter at an EDF “Science Day” in Sausalito, Calif. earlier this month):

Hope they didn’t pay this ‘consultant’ much for:  “Nuclear is too capital intensive, too time-consuming and simply too risky.”

Germany thinks it’s ok to emit tens of mega-tons more of CO2 because they like coal & ligniite better than nuclear?  Remind us how many Germans have died from nuclear-power radiation.  What about Americans?  English?  French?  Oh yes, all zero.

Whoever wrote the advice above seems ok with the deaths and disease from combustion, mining, etc. — all things needed for windmills, by the way.

So when we see German coal & gas burning costing ~180 years of human life per TW-hour, we should say that’s ok, despite German nuclear costing less than 1/6 those years of life?  Really?

Remember, making 1 large Siemens windmill requires processing about 2000 tons of materials via fossil fuels — steel needs coal and iron ore, etc.  Concrete needs kilned limestone & mined/crushed aggregate., etc.  So the emissioins burden of wind is higher than nuclear.  And we’re not even talking about the vast tracts of land/sea taken for wind.  Nor are we talking about species threats, maintenance emissions, worker dangers, and even maritime dangers for offshore windmills.

And here we thought the Germans the smartest — must have been some PR, or the beer.


Soon after Cannara piped up, thorium advocate Timothy Maloney from the Thorium Energy Alliance weighed in, after another commenter had suggested “pumped hydro” and its “85 percent” efficiency as a sustainable form of generating electricity. Note Maloney’s encouragement of a LFTR reactor (pronounced “lifter”), which is a thorium-fueled molten salt reactor:

Pumped Storage Hydro is efficient, but not quite 85%.  The NREL’s Renewable Electricity Futures Study,  Vol 1, p.181, cites 80%.

The problem with PSH is that it doesn’t carry us for a very long time.  The NREL study, p. 106, note 21 estimates only 8 hours maximum.

Hydro is the least expensive current generation method, but it’s not baseload.  Hoover Dam works 100% of the time, for now, but most dams do not.  Worldwide, the capacity factor for all hydro installations is only 44%.  James Conca, Forbes , June 15, 2012, The Naked Cost of Energy.

Hydro’s  total life-cycle cost is about 3 cents per kWh.   We in the Thorium Energy Alliance think we can beat that handily with Liquid-Fuel Thorium Reactors – LFTR.

Our total life-cycle plant construction cost is about one-half cent per kWh (50 years plant longevity at 100% capacity factor).   The fuel itself (thorium) is so inexpensive it’s essentially zero cost.  Add 1 cent per kWh for plant Operation & Maintenance, the standard estimate, and we come in at about 1.5 cents per kWh.

About half the cost of Hydro.

The game is not yet over in Europe. In fact with superior alternatives like thorium, molten salt and others waiting in the wings, nuclear should continue to have a vital role. China and India are making such a play, Europe would look foolish not to.

Latest entrant in the fusion sweepstakes: Lockheed Martin

Posted by Mark Halper on February 15th, 2013

Let’s get together. Charles Chase of Lockheed Martin says that putting atoms together in the company’s fusion device is the key to the world’s cheap, plentiful energy future free of CO2 emissions.

A few weeks ago, I noted that there is a growing stable of companies, many small and some venture-backed, that is tackling the elusive challenge of nuclear fusion.

Driven by entrepreneurial spirit and not by the colossal state budgets that define the large international governmental fusion projects such as Europe’s ITER and the U.S.’s NIF, one or more of these entities is likely to crack the fusion nut first, I said.

Almost on cue, another company has trotted into the fusion corral: U.S. aerospace stalwart Lockheed Martin.

Speaking last week at a Google “Solve for X” event (it’s a bit like a TED gathering, but organized by the ubiquitous search engine/media company), Charles Chase from Lockheed’s “Skunk Works” group described a transportable, 100-megawatt fusion machine that he said will be grid ready in 10 years and that – here’s a bold claim – could provide all the world’s baseload power by 2050.

“There are still 1.3 billion people in the world without electricity,” Chase says in a YouTube video of his presentation. Noting that the planet could nearly double its energy consumption by 2050 to 28 terawatt year, he says that the Lockheed fusion technology, “might be able to bring energy for everyone.”

Like the smaller start-up  companies that are gearing up to beat ITER and NIF to the grid, Lockheed’s fusion device shuns the massive size of the 20-story ITER tokamak under construction in France, and the 3-football-field-long NIF laser facility in Livermore, Calif., and does so by deploying technology that’s yet again different.  A short list of other companies working on fusion variations include General Fusion, Helion Energy, Lawrenceville Plasma Physics (LPP) and Tri-Alpha Energy.


The Lockheed machine heats deuterium gas with radio waves, generating a plasma that a magnetic field holds and confines. In principle, this confinement would hold long enough for deuterium to fuse with tritium –  both are isotopes of hydrogen – creating helium and the all important heat that would then drive a turbine.

It is a superior variation on the the ITER approach to magnetic confinement (NIF uses lasers, not magnets) that allows Lockheed to make a much smaller device, says Chase, whose LinkedIn profile identifies him as “senior program manager, revolutionary technology” at the Palmdale, Calif. Skunk Works division of Bethesda, Md.-based company.

Lockheed will build a sub-100MW prototype version by 2017 that will measure about 1-meter in diameter by 2-meters long. The 100MW grid-ready unit will be about twice that size, he says.

Listening to Chase talk, I’m struck by how similar his claims are to those made by leaders and developers of fission alternatives to conventional nuclear, such as thorium and molten salt reactors.

He describes a reactor that is meltdown proof, leaves no long-lived radioactive waste, emits no CO2, and has a ridiculously higher energy density than fossil fuels. He also talks about the ease of transporting the compact machine on a truck, about desalination uses, about decentralized power in developing region, and, being from an aerospace company about how the machine could propel a craft to Mars in a speedy one month.

Here’s a slide from his presentation, which I grabbed from the YouTube video:

You’ll see that his list also includes “no proliferation issues” and “unlimited, low cost fuel supply.” I’m not sure any nuclear technology could ever absolutely claim either of these.

On proliferation, let’s not forget that thermonuclear weapons rely on fusion technology. On a related note, California’s NIF facility is funded by a defense-oriented group at the U.S. Department of Energy, and one of NIF’s international partners is a U.K. Ministry of Defence group called the Atomic Weapons Establishment.

As for an unlimited supply of fuel, while deuterium is easy enough to obtain, tritium is a different story. Several fusion schemes call for extracting it in a fission reaction between lithium and neutrons emitted in the fusion process. And tritium’s radioactivity will require special attention.

Then again, there are other fusion techniques, such as the “aneutronic” approach under development at LPP, Tri-Alpha Energy and elsewhere, that use different processes and elements.


And of course there’s no guarantee that Lockheed will manage to do what all fusion projects have failed at so far: harnessing more continuous energy than what goes into the reaction in the first place.

To get there will require a top notch blend of science, engineering and money. On the money front, it is interesting to note that Chase presented in a Google forum. Google itself has made significant investments in sustainable energy including solar, wind and geothermal. One would assume it is contemplating nuclear.

Along the same lines, it was a venture capitalist, Steve Jurvetson, who broke the news about Chase’s Lockheed presentation last week – on the Flickr website. Juvertson is managing director of Silicon Valley VC firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson, whose investment portfolio includes technology standouts such as Tesla Motors, SpaceX and Hotmail.

As I noted in my CBS SmartPlanet blog earlier today, Jurvetson said nothing about backing the Lockheed project. But in the grand slam, home run oriented world of venture capital, you’ve got to believe that the possibility of solving fusion would keep guys like Jurvetson swinging. General Fusion and Tri-Alpha have already drawn VC funds.

If the money bags are smart and broad in their thinking, they will also be looking at some of the fission alternatives. Fifteen percent of a thorium molten salt reactor company, anyone?

Setting out his stall. Hiroyuki Hosoda, the executive acting secreatary general of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, said the economy “will stall” if Japan doesn’t restart nuclear soon.

A senior politician from Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party this week warned of severe economic consequences if Japan does not restart nuclear reactors soon.

“The economy will eventually stall in terms of energy cost,” cautioned Hiroyuki Hosoda, executive acting secretary general of the LDP, in a speech reported by the Kyodo news service in The Mainichi.  “Power companies will face capital deficits in around three years if their reactors remain idled, and the basis of their existence will be affected.”

His remarks echo those we reported recently from Nobuo Tanaka, a global associate with the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan (IEEJ), which advises Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. Tanaka warned of potential “economic crisis or catastrophe” if the country fails to embrace nuclear power again.

Japan has shut all but two of its 54 nuclear reactors in the wake of meltdowns triggered when the tragic March 2011 tsunami knocked out poorly cited emergency diesel generators that had powered cooling systems at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

Prior to the shutdown, nuclear power had generated about 30 percent of Japan’s electricity. The country has paid a high financial and environmental cost by filling some of the power gap with imported fossil fuels.

The IEEJ recently said that Japan could save $20 billion by simply restarting only half of its idled reactors.

Political and public opinion has been swinging back towards support of nuclear.

Although 80 percent of Japanese said less than a year ago that they opposed nuclear power, the public in December voted in a pro-nuclear government led by the LDP’s Shinzo Abe, who has  announced a review of the previous government’s intentions to completely phase out nuclear by 2040.

Last month, Japan’s (and the world’s) largest daily newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun, backed a return to nuclear power.

Photo credit: Foreign correspondents club of Japan


World energy leaders: Global nuclear worries are easing

Posted by Mark Halper on February 11th, 2013

Sleepless no more. WEC secretary general Christoph Frei says nuclear worries are no longer keeping energy leaders up at night.

Here’s another sign that the global backlash against nuclear power following Japan’s tragic tsunami and earthquake two years ago is easing: World energy leaders now say that concerns over nuclear power are no longer keeping them up at night.

Rather, the top energy issues that are causing them to lose sleep are: uncertainty over climate change; political instability in regions of the world key to traditional energy supplies; energy price volatility; and global recession trends.

That’s according to the World Energy Council (WEC), which reported the shift in its World Energy Issues Monitor, an annual report that assesses the views of international energy leaders. WEC  – a London-based international group of industry, government, NGOs and academia committed to sustainable energy  – launched the 2013 edition at the opening of its World Energy Leaders’ Summit of energy ministers and CEOs last week in New Delhi.

It marks a shift in the anti-nuclear reactions that persisted following the nuclear meltdowns triggered when a tsunami knocked out poorly cited cooling systems at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power station in March, 2011.


“The four top insomnia issues are the continued uncertainty towards a future climate framework, the fear of a lack of political stability in the Middle East / North Africa region, the high energy price volatility, as well as the global recessionary context, which has replaced post-Fukushima nuclear that was among the key critical uncertainties,” WEC Secretary General Christoph Frei writes in the report.

The geopolitical and volatility concerns echo views which we reported from Japan recently, where former International Energy Agency head Nobuo Tanaka has warned of a potential economic catastrophe if Japan does not return to nuclear power. Japan has temporarily shut all but two of its nuclear reactors.

Japan is among the countries where nuclear power is regaining support. A recent government advisory group said that even a partial return to nuclear power  could save the country $20.1 billion, new prime minister Shinzo Abe is pushing for a nuclear restart, and so is Japan’s largest daily newspaper, Yomiuri Shimbun.

The international contingent at the WEC shares those sentiments. The press release accompanying the report notes:

“Concerns arising from the current depressed economic outlook have overtaken nuclear energy as one of the top critical issues. While nuclear energy continues to be closely observed and debated, its perceived uncertainty and impact have dropped to pre-Fukushima levels.  This reflects the prudent re-evaluation of nuclear energy in many countries.”


Allow me to append that observation: To truly carry on with this “prudent re-evaluation,” the industry should make sure to shift nuclear research and development toward alternative technologies including thorium fuel, high temperature reactors such as those that use a molten salt design, fast reactors, fusion and small reactors. These alternatives portend safer and more efficient and cost effective nuclear operations compared to conventional technology.

Fukushima has reaffirmed for us that safe and sound operations are a nuclear must. The meltdowns there were a fluke caused by poor engineering decisions, not by fundamental design flaws. They should never happen again. Alternative nuclear designs can help see to that.

Photo: Jonathan Dewe via Flickr.

Why the world needs a “thorium bank” – Part 2

Posted by Mark Halper on February 7th, 2013

Trouble in paradise. The scene is a lot more serene at Kuantan’s Teluk Chempedak beach in Malaysia     than it is at Lynas Corp’s nearby rare earth facility.

A couple months ago, we looked at a controversy in Malaysia, in order to highlight the global need for  a “thorium bank” – an international operation that could take thorium off the hands of rare earth miners and facilitate its availability as a nuclear fuel. It’s time to revisit the Southeast Asia country, because the need is literally heating up.

A review: Thorium is a mildly radioactive element that could replace uranium and offer safety, waste and efficiency advantages over conventional nuclear, especially when run in reactors that are markedly different than today’s solid fuel, water cooled behemoths. Thorium typically co-exists in the same minerals as rare earth elements, the 17 metals that are crucial to the manufacture of everything from missiles to iPhones.

That co-existence can deter important rare earth mining, because operators have to spend to responsibly extract and store the thorium. Many regard this as nothing but a burden because there isn’t much of a market for thorium, although there could be a market once regulators approve thorium as a nuclear fuel.

In Malaysia, as we noted in December, four Malaysian government ministers said they would revoke the license of Australian rare earth company Lynas Corp. to process rare earths at a brand new plant in Kuantan on Malaysia’s east coast, unless Lynas started exporting the “waste” – presumably, thorium…


Fast forward to this week. The Malaysian Insider is reporting that environmental group Himpunan Hijau “is threatening to burn down Lynas Corps’ controversial rare-earth refinery.” It attributed the threat to the group’s chairman Wong Tack, who warned of the action out of “anger and frustration” if the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition retains power in upcoming national elections.

Himpunan Hijau is backing the rival Pakatan Rakyat party because it has pledged to shut down the plant.

“If Pakatan (is) in power and still refuses to close down the plant, they (the people) will be even more frustrated and angry… Our position is we will have another uprising, bring down Pakatan and burn down the plant,” he said.

It’s one thing to exercise concerns over the potential environmental hazards of rare earth mining. And it’s certainly understandable that suspicions could arise over good intentions when a company from a foreign country arrives to profit from mineral extraction.

But outright thuggery and arson?


Here’s a better answer: An international effort to assure the environmentally sound mining and processing of rare earths – including the extraction and storage of thorium. As we noted in December, at least two such initiatives could accomplish that.

The “thorium bank” proposed by Jim Kennedy and John Kutsch, co-directors of the Illinois-based Thorium Energy Alliance, would oversee and store thorium gathered from rare earth processing operations. It would assume liability for thorium and would help assure a reliable supply chain of thorium for a thorium nuclear power future, and work alongside a rare earth co-operative that would look after safe  rare earth processing and the extraction of thorium from the rare earths. (Kennedy is also president of Missouri thorium and rare earth company ThREEM3).

A separate plan by Takashi Kamei of Japan’s Research Institute of Applied Sciences calls for a tax on international rare earth consumers to fund the safe extraction of thorium from rare earths, through what Kamei calls the Organisation of Rare Earth Exportation Companies.

To state the obvious, either of those proposals sound a lot more level headed than Himpunan Hijua’s incendiary solution. Malaysian police would probably share that sentiment. As I was preparing this post, news broke that they are investigating the threat.

Let cooler heads prevail.




Sir John Beddington, the UK’s chief scientific adviser, has an idea that thorium and other alternative     nuclear technologies could be key to a low carbon future.

A key report by the UK government on the future of nuclear power will recommend a big increase in nuclear generating capacity by 2050, and will encourage the development of reactors that can burn waste and and breed fuel instead of leaving waste, the Weinberg Foundation has learned.

The “Nuclear Research and Development” report for 2050 and beyond, led by chief scientific adviser Sir John Beddington in response to a query by the House of Lords, will come on the heels of scathing criticism today that the country’s nuclear waste maintenance operations operates over budget and has spent £67.5 billion ($106.4 billion).

The roadmap will lay out four possible low carbon energy scenarios for the country.

In three of the four, it will call for 75 gigawatts of nuclear output capability, a spokesman for the Department of Energy and Climate Change told Weinberg in an email. (He did not describe the fourth scenario. See clarifications below).

That’s about 90 percent of the country’s current power capacity, of which nuclear currently comprises about 18 percent while fossil fuels dominate. In 2050, the total capacity will be higher, but 75 gigawatts should represent a significantly greater proportion than today’s 18 percent.


To get there, the country should consider adding technologies other than conventional nuclear reactors that leave waste by burning uranium in large water-cooled reactors – the same fundamental approach that the global nuclear industry has used for 50-some years, the report will recommend.

Instead, reactors that “close” the fuel cycle – breed new fuel – will be key, the report will suggest, as will new fuel cycles based on thorium instead of uranium, which can also run in a “closed” cycle in a molten salt reactor. The report will also call for advances in conventional reactors, or “LWRs” (light water reactors).

The DECC spokesman shared the upcoming recommendations with Weinberg following our story late last week in which we noted that DECC’s chief scientific adviser David MacKay is taking an interest in thorium and in other alternative nuclear technologies, and that he and Beddington would soon publish a report that could encourage those technologies. John Perkins, the scientific adviser to the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, is also co-authoring the report.

We asked DECC to elaborate. After we published Friday’s blog, the spokesman alerted us to the 75 gigawatt target.  He said the report’s findings to date note that:

“In order to potentially deliver against the upper end of this scope it is likely that more advanced and diverse options will need to be explored by the market. Such options may include: development of newer fission technologies such as evolutionary LWR’s, small modular reactors (SMRs) or Generation IV ; options for closing the uranium fuel cycle and reprocessing spent fuel; progressing the development of fusion; and consideration of alternative fuel cycles such as Thorium.

“Ensuring that these options are not foreclosed or essential skills lost will be an important long term objective and the R&D Roadmap element of the work will set out a number of pathways and key decision points for any future R&D programmes to consider.”

The DECC spokesman said that Beddington has shared a number of his recommendations with government ministers, and that the government expects to publish the roadmap “within the next few months.”


The timing of the pre-release of findings is fitting, given a separate report today that was highly critical of rising costs and delays at the U.K.’s nuclear waste storage facility, called Sellafield.  That assessment, by Parliament’s House of Commons, claimed that Sellafield’s storage, run privately for the government by a company called Nuclear Management Partners, spends £1.6 billion ($2.5 billion) and has ponied up a total of £67.5 billion  ($106.4 billion).

Sellafield has the world’s largest stash of plutonium with about 100 tons, and stores other waste including highly radioactive substances in vitrified glass blocks.

Some of that waste, like the plutonium, could be used in new style reactors. Alternative reactors would also minimize waste and thus greatly reduce the need for waste facilities like Sellafield.

In Britain’s privatized energy sector, scientific advisers like Beddington, MacKay and Perkins would be hoping that industry – the “market” as the pre-report says – would help fund development of the alternatives.

What’s not known is how much – if any – the government might provide for research and development.

Photo  from UK Department for Business Innovation and Skills, via Flickr, of  Sir John Beddington at the UK’s Big Bang Fair, a science gathering for young people.

Clarifications and correction: After this story appeared, DECC clarified that the report does not recommend “a big increase in nuclear generating capacity” per se, as stated in the opening paragraph. Rather, it recommends development of alternative nuclear if Britain is to meet the more more nuclear intensive of four low carbon energy scenarios set out in the government’s Dec. 2011 Carbon Plan aiming for 80 percent carbon reduction by 2050. Only one of those scenarios – not three as stated above –  envisages 75 gigawatts of nuclear capacity by 2050, which would represent 68 percent of projected total capacity. The other scenarios call for 28, 20 and 10 percent nuclear. 

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