Archive for June, 2013

Joe Sestak TEAC5 2

In thorium we trust. Former Congressman Joe Sestak, who is considering a senatorial run in 2016, says    that liquid thorium reactors hold several keys to national security and the economy, including clean heat    for industrial processes.

CHICAGO – Thorium molten salt reactors could help underpin the nation’s economic and energy security, a former U.S. congressman, Navy admiral and senatorial candidate said here recently.

Joe Sestak, a determined Pennsylvania Democrat who is considering another run for the Senate in 2016, told the 5th Thorium Energy Alliance Conference that companies from heavy industries including fossil fuels should deploy thorium reactors as a source of clean, efficient and affordable heat to power high temperature processes.

Molten salt reactors (MSRs) in principle operate at around 800 degrees C, much higher than conventional nuclear reactors, making them suitable CO2-free replacements for today’s CO2-emitting fossil fuel furnaces. MSRs can be made in small sizes, so they would be easy to site on industrial locations.

Sestak encouraged MSR developers – who typically promote the CO2-free benefits of their technology – to pair with the “strange bedfellows” of  CO2-emitting hydrocarbon companies that could fund MSR development and use the finished reactors to support and clean up their own industrial processes.

“You have got to get allies on board,” Sestak told a crowd of scientists, business people and others who were full of enthusiasm and plans for thorium, MSRs and other high temperature designs, but who generally lack the funds to develop and build their reactors. “The best ones are unlikely bedfellows.”


Thorium reactors could help establish American energy independence by propping up the natural gas fracking business that is prevalent in Sestak’s home state of Pennsylvania and that is helping reduce the country’s reliance on volatile and expensive imports of fossil fuel, Sestak noted. Producers of natural gas and coal could use the reactors for extraction heat and for clean processing of gas and coal into liquid form.

Other industries that could benefit from nuclear heat include concrete, fertilizer and hydrogen production, as well as water desalination Sestak said. He noted that reactors like MSRs have “an immense role to play if you focus on heat processes.”

Showing an astute awareness of thorium resources and value chains, Sestak noted that thorium naturally occurs in the same minerals as rare earth metals that are vital across a swath of industries. Manufacturers build rare earths into everything from missiles to medical equipment to cars, cellphones and computers, just to name a few; the list also includes renewable energy gear such as wind turbines and solar equipment.

Mining those rich minerals – such as monazite – could not only yield useful thorium, but would also provide the country with rare earths, helping to ease China’s dominance of  them and supporting domestic manufacturing Sestak said. He noted that China controls 97 percent of the rare earth market. They exist underground in the U.S.; production and exploration is only now slowly returning, some two decades after stricter environmental regulations caused domestic producers to shut down.


In a virtuous circle, Sestak added that rare earth extraction would also further support the country’s energy supply because, solar, wind, nuclear and fossil fuel equipment all rely to some extent on rare earth components.

“We have to be very clear that molten salt reactors or whatever we come forward with does not pose a threat (to other energy sources),” he said. “Rather, it will enhance and make cleaner and give more utility for other types of energy.”

Equating energy and economic stability to national security, he noted that, “For me, this issue of thorium with rare earth minerals has to be looked at as a national security issue. I believe that thorium, with rare earths is a way to enhance – greatly – the accessibility of our energy in so many fields, not just nuclear power.”

His ideas echo the Thorium Energy Alliance’s proposals for an international “Thorium Bank” cooperative that would oversee the safe handling of thorium – a mildly radioactive substance – and help facilitate production and distribution of rare earths from the same minerals. The Organisation of Rare Earth Exportation Companies is pushing for something similar.

Sestak has experience in trying to work thorium onto the national agenda. As a two-term Philadelphia area member of the House of Representatives from 2007 to 2011, he wrote an amendment supporting thorium reactors into a defense bill that passed the House but did not survive the Senate.


He could get another chance to push thorium from within Washington, as he is considering running for Senate in 2016.

Sestak ran a bold Senatorial race in 2010 when he defied his party’s wishes and challenged fellow Democrat Arlen Specter for the party candidacy, and won. He narrowly lost the main election to Republican Pat Toomey, whose campaign greatly outspent Sestak’s.

Sestak spent over 30 years in the U.S. Navy, rising to three-star admiral, and retiring in 2005. He commanded the USS George Washington nuclear powered aircraft carrier in Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean in 2002, supporting the war in Afghanistan and monitoring Iraqi airspace. During his naval career, he also served as Director for Defense on the National Security Council for the Clinton administration, and served as director of the Navy’s “Deep Blue” counter-terrorism unit after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

The former Congressman told the conference that he has solid trust in nuclear safety, noting that in his days commanding nuclear craft, “I put my head down at night about a hundred feet from that reactor.”

Sestak currently teaches at Cheyney University near Philadelphia and is an adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where he teaches courses in ethical leadership and in restoring the American dream.

Perhaps that restoration should include thorium molten salt reactors. 

Photo: Joe Sestak at the Thorium Energy Alliance Conference by Mark Halper.

Note: This is the first of several reports about the lively proceedings in Chicago, where presentations spanned new thorium reactor types, surprising corporate interest in thorium, coolant safety, MSRs as medical isotope sources, thorium on Mars and much more ranging from the practical to the thought provoking. Stay tuned…

Do molten salt reactors have a lithium problem?

Posted by Mark Halper on June 4th, 2013


Looking for lithium. Chemist Stephen Boyd cautions that lithium-7, a key element in the MSR salt FLiBe,    can be difficult to obtain.

When it comes to fission reactor designs, there’s nothing quite as safe, efficient, meltdown-proof, waste-light and proliferation-resistant as a molten salt reactor (MSR), many nuclear experts believe.

But as the community of MSR developers perfects its designs, it will have to overcome a number of engineering and materials challenges. One of those, according to a leading expert: Obtaining the elements to make the elixirs – the molten salts – that define the reactor.

First, a quick review. As it says on the label, a molten salt reactor (MSR) uses a liquid salt as the fluid that both carries the fuel (uranium, thorium or even a mix of plutonium among other possibilities) and serves as the coolant that picks up heat from a reaction and transfers it to a turbine.

It is the liquid nature that underlies all the reactor’s advantages, not the least of which is safety.  As guest blogger John Laurie pointed out here recently , liquid reactors – MSRs – cannot encounter a meltdown accident because they are already “pre-melted”. If things overheat, MSR designs allow the liquid fuel to drain harmlessly away into a holding tank.

A good MSR salt can continue to flow as a liquid at temperatures far above the operating temperature of conventional solid-fuelled, water-cooled reactors. MSR developers envision temperatures in the 700 degree C and 800 degree C range, a level that improves generating efficiencies and that makes the MSR highly useful as an industrial heat source.


Not all salts are up to the task, however. The one that many MSR developers believe best suited for the job is called lithium fluoride beryllium fluoride, or FLiBe. (It’s so much associated with MSRs that it’s the namesake of one well known MSR company, Huntsville, Ala.-based Flibe Energy).

But there’s potentially one big problem with FLiBe: Obtaining the lithium isotope called lithium-7 that FLiBe requires.

Lithium-7 occurs in natural lithium, where it is the main isotope, cohabitating with a little bit of another isotope, lithium-6. Common lithium is 92.5 percent “7” and 7.5 percent “6.”

The two isotopes together form regular lithium found in everyday items like cellphone and computer batteries. But separating them is not straightforward. According to chemist Dr. Stephen Boyd, chief technology officer of Aufbau Laboratories, Blue Point, N.Y., only two countries do it – China and Russia – and they use a separation process that relies on mercury, a hazardous substance that requires great care. Mercury is infamous in history for causing neurological disorders among 19th-century hat makers – giving rise to the term “mad hatter disease.”

The U.S. government abandoned the mercury method a number of years ago at its former lithium separation facilities at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. It recently announced a $120 million mercury clean up program there. Some reports have suggested that the inexplicable loss of a large amount of mercury from Oak Ridge also played a role in the decision to halt mercury-based lithium separation.

ThermonuclearBikiniAtoll DOE

Another use for lithium. The U.S. used lithium-6 and hydrogen to fuel this thermonuclear detonation on   Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean on March 1, 1954. The Department of Energy’s defense-linked Y-12 group monitors lithium production.

So why was the U.S government extracting lithium-7 in the first place? Because it uses lithium-7 as a neutralizing agent – a pH balancer – in the small reactors that power the Navy’s fleet of nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers (commercial nuclear operators use it in the same way). Lithium-6 cannot be used in this process because it would transmute into potentially dangerous tritium (more on that in a moment).

The U.S. lithium separation process has been closely controlled by the federal government over the years, and not just because it wants to assure a supply of lithium-7 for its naval vessels.

Another reason: The enrichment of lithium into lithium-7 by definition also yields lithium-6, a substance with nuclear weapons links. Lithium-6 can be used to make tritium, a hydrogen isotope that is a fuel in hydrogen bombs (which work on the principles of fusion power, releasing energy by fusing tritium with another hydrogen isotope, deuterium).


With such deadly and national security implications, the government controls lithium-7 and lithium-6 enrichment through its Y-12 program, an Oak Ridge-based operation that resides in the Department of Energy but which serves national security and defense purposes.  As the DOE group’s website notes:

“Y-12 helps ensure a safe and effective U.S. nuclear weapons deterrent. We also retrieve and store nuclear materials, fuel the nation’s naval reactors, and perform complementary work for other government and private-sector entities.”

What this all suggests is that there’s an opening for a new lithium-7 extraction process. However, any company attempting such a development will have to work under the watchful eye of DOE’s Y-12 group.

That’s what Dr. Boyd has in mind at Aufbau.   Boyd, who wrote a guest blog here earlier this month in which he cautioned about other materials challenges facing MSRs, says he is developing a non-mercury process.  He declines for now to reveal details of his technology, but says he has been in contact with Y-12.

The knock-on effect for anyone in the MSR business is that they might find supplies of lithium-7 to be tight, at least until new potential supplies such as Aufbau’s or others come around.


That might be one reason why several MSR developers about whom I’ve written recently are considering salts other than the lithium-7 reliant FLiBe. A number of salts have the similar “eutectic” properties of FLiBe that minimize the chance of them solidifying (just like you don’t want your salt to boil, you also don’t want it to turn into a solid).

Canada’s Terrestrial Energy, for instance, is considering using sodium-based salts. Thorium Tech Solution is contemplating FLiNak, which is a combination of sodium, potassium and lithium. (There are reasons other than the lithium component for choosing a different molten salt. TTS has expressed concerns with FLiBe’s beryllium, an element that might disagree with the plutonium that will form part of TTS’s liquid fuel).

Each of these has its trade-offs. They can be less expensive and easier to obtain, but some of them can damage MSR plumbing.

Boyd believes it makes the most sense to stick with FLiBe for commercial, scientific and national-security reasons.

“FLiBe is a very good eutectic for MSRs,” he notes. “It’s one of the best, but you can run into the lithium problem right away.”

He also notes that there’s a business case for sticking with lithium-based FLiBe, because there are valuable markets outside of nuclear reactors for lithium isotopes and related products. He claims that lithium-6 sells for $1 million per kilogram.

Stay tuned for more on Boyd’s lithium enrichment ideas.  I met with him and with other MSR and materials mavens at the Thorium Energy Alliance Conference in Chicago last week,  a gathering that was full of bright ideas on the development of alternative and safe nuclear power. Among them: How one U.S. politician thinks thorium reactors developers can find funding. Watch for my reports.

Photos: Stephen Boyd by Mark Halper at Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago, June 1, 2013. Bikini Atoll thermonuclear detonation from the U.S. DOE.

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