Archive for October, 2013

Hans Blix: Shift to thorium, minimize weapons risk

Posted by Mark Halper on October 29th, 2013

Hans Blix CERN THEC13

Thorium on his mind. Hans Blix says it’s time for the nuclear industry to move away from uranium.

GENEVA – Hans Blix, the disarmament advocate who famously found no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq a decade ago, said today that thorium fuel could help reduce the risk of weapons proliferation from nuclear reactors.

Addressing the Thorium Energy Conference 2013 here, Blix said that nuclear power operators should move away from their time-honoured practice of using uranium fuel with its links to potential nuclear weapons fabrication via both the uranium enrichment process and uranium’s plutonium waste.

“Even though designers and operators are by no means at the end of the uranium road, it is desirable today, I am convinced, that the designers and the others use their skill and imagination to explore and test other avenues as well,” Blix said.

“The propeller plane that served us long and still serves us gave way to the jet plane that now dominates,” said the former United Nations chief weapons inspector who also ran the International Atomic Energy Agency from 1981 to 1997. “Diesel engines have migrated from their traditional home in trucks to a growing number of cars and cars with electric engines are now entering the market. Nuclear power should also not be stuck in one box.”

Blix rattled off a list of thorium’s advantages, noting that “thorium fuel gives rise to waste that is smaller in volume, less toxic and much less long lived than the wastes that result from uranium fuel.” Another bonus: thorium is three to four times more plentiful than uranium, he noted.

“The civilian nuclear community must do what it can to help reduce the risk that more nuclear weapons are made from uranium or plutonium,” Blix said. “Although it is enrichment plants and plutonium producing installations rather than power reactors that are key concerns, this community, this nuclear community, can and should use its considerable brain power to design reactors that can be easily safeguarded and fuel and supply organizations that do not lend themselves to proliferation. I think in these regards the thorium community may have very important contributions to make.”

Blix described the obstacles that are in the way of a shift to thorium and other nuclear alternatives as “political” rather than “technical.”

Not everyone agrees that thorium is a proliferation cure for the nuclear power industry. Even some supporters of thorium note that thorium fuel cycles yield elements such as uranium 233 that groups could use to make a bomb if they were able to get a hold of it.

The lively discussions surrounding these and other thorium issues will continue tomorrow at the conference, which is taking place at CERN, the international physics laboratory. Earlier at the gathering today, conventional nuclear giant Areva announced a thorium collaboration with Belgian chemical company Solvay. Yesterday, Nobel prize-winning physicist Carlo Rubbia lauded thorium for its “absolute pre-eminence” over uranium.

Photo of Hans Blix by Mark Halper

Areva strikes thorium development deal with chemical giant Solvay

Posted by Mark Halper on October 29th, 2013

Areva LucVanDenDurpel CERN THEC13

If he were to look over his shoulder, Areva’s Luc Van Den Durpel would see the word “thorium.” With the metal gaining attention as an alternative to uranium fuel, Areva is now stepping up thorium research.

GENEVA – French nuclear giant Areva, a stalwart of the conventional uranium-driven large reactor industry, today announced it is collaborating with €12.8 billion Belgian chemical company Solvay to research the possibilities of deploying thorium as a reactor fuel.

“Solvay and Areva have made an agreement to have a joint R&D program working on the whole set of thorium valorization (validation),” Areva vice president Luc Van Den Durpel said in a presentation at the Thorium Energy Conference 2013 at the CERN physics laboratory here.

Van Den Durpel said the effort would cover “the overall worldwide development related to thorium, both in the nuclear energy field and in the rare earth market.”

Thorium, a mildly radioactive element that supporters believe trumps uranium as a plentiful, safe, effective, weapons-resistant fuel – Noble laureate physicist Carlo Rubbia yesterday referred to its “absolute pre-eminence” over uranium – comes from minerals that also contain rare earth metals vital the to the global economy. Solvay’s business includes rare earth processing, which can leave thorium as a “waste” product that’s subject to strict and costly storage regulations. Companies that have to hold on to thorium would like to find a market for it.

Ven Den Durpel said Areva and Solvay will investigate “resolving the thorium residue issues arising from certain rare earth processing in the past and now.”

As a possible nuclear fuel, he acknowledged that thorium offers advantages such as reducing waste and proliferation risks. “It’s not the devil – you could call it sexy because it’s not plutonium and that why it’s attractive,” he said in reference to uranium’s notorious waste product. He also noted that thorium’s high melting point provides operational advantages.

But the Areva executive, who heads strategic analysis and technology prospects in corporate R&D, said that any chance of Areva using thorium in a reactor is a long way off.

“We would like to demystify thorium,” he said, noting that its benefits are often overstated and hyped, and that it has issues including the management of radioactive isotopes of protactinium and uranium involved in the thorium fuel cycle.

He said there is “not really” a market for thorium in the short term, but that a “medium term” market is a “possibility” that would entail mixing thorium with other fuels like uranium and plutonium in light water reactors. By complementing the other two fuels, thorium could potentially lengthen fuel cycles, reduce waste, and produce uranium 233 for use in other reactors.

But he said any transition to 100 percent thorium fuels would “take decades at least.”

Ven Den Durpel based his thorium assessments on use in light water reactors, and not in alternative reactor designs such as molten salt reactors or pebble beds.

Photo by Mark Halper

Nobel laureate: Go thorium

Posted by Mark Halper on October 28th, 2013

Carlo Rubbia Geneva THEC13 Reception2

Carlo Rubbia, mixing with delegates at this week’s International Thorium Energy Conference, says thorium has “absolute pre-eminence” over other fuel types, including uranium and fossil fuels.

GENEVA – If nuclear power is to finally overcome public opposition and the post-Fukushima backlash, government and industry must walk away from traditional reactor technology and shift to superior designs that rely on thorium rather than uranium.

So said Nobel Prize winning physicist Carlo Rubbia this morning, addressing the Thorium Energy Conference 2013, held here at the renowned international physics lab CERN.

“In order to be vigorously continued, nuclear power must be profoundly modified,” said Rubbia, a former director general of CERN and the co-winner of the 1984 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Rubbia noted that thorium has “absolute pre-eminence” over all fuels including uranium as well as fossil fuels. He said it must become a staple of nuclear because it leaves less long-lived waste than uranium, is far more plentiful, is resistant to weapons proliferation and has a much higher energy content so that reactors will require less of it (see chart below).

RENEWING SHIFT

Rubbia called for a shift toward thorium so that nuclear could play a big role as a low-CO2 energy source, a function that the public tends to associate with renewable energies like wind and solar.

“A distinction between renewable and not renewable energy is academic,” said Rubbia, who pointed out that the country most famous for CO2-spewing coal-fired plants, China, could generate the equivalent of its 2007 electricity production – 3.2 trillion kWh – by using an amount of thorium that is just a small percentage of China’s domestic production of rare earth metals. Thorium comes from minerals that also also contain rare earth elements, a class of materials that are vital to the world economy and that China controls.

MonaziteITHEC Geneva2013

Energy’s rock solid future. Thorium occurs naturally in minerals like this chunk of monazite from South Africa’s Steenkampskraal mine, on display at the Geneva conference.

Rubbia told a packed audience of thorium and reactor experts that thorium is probably also a superior fuel for reactors known as breeders, which produce more of their own fuel.

Thorium supporters differ over the best way to deploy the fuel. Speakers and enthusiasts from around the world are gathered here for four days to compare notes and advocate their own approaches.

SPLIT DIFFERENCE

Rubbia, a particle physicist, prefers a method in which an accelerator coaxes thorium to split by bombarding it with a neutron – a concept known as an “energy amplifier” which he helped conceive.

Unlike uranium, thorium is not “fissile.” It requires a method to kick start it, such as the accelerator approach or another technique that mixes it with an isotope of uranium that releases neutrons that in turn excite thorium.

Scientists and engineers also differ over whether to burn thorium in conventional reactors or in a number of alternatives such as molten salt reactors or pebble bed reactors, the designs for which date back decades. Both run at much higher temperatures than today’s reactors and thus support a more efficient generating cycle. They could also serve as a low-CO2 source of industrial process heat, replacing fossil fuels in operations such as cement and steel making.

Rubbia co-won the 1984 Nobel for work at CERN leading to the discovery of the W and Z bosons, which are related to the weak force, one of the four fundamental forces of nature along with the strong force, gravity and electromagnetism.

He is currently affiliated with the Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy as well as the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Germany. He was recently named a senator for life in Italy, where he previously ran ENEA, an energy and technology development agency where he promoted solar thermal power.

Other speakers followed Rubbia outlining their preferences for thorium and providing updates for thorium reactor initiatives in countries including China, Japan and India. Stay tuned the Weinberg blog for more reports.

Photos are by Mark Halper

EnergySourceJoules Rubbia CERN THEC

The Crown Joule. Thorium has a higher energy content than any other fuel including uranium, even uranium extracted from seawater (sw in the chart), according to this slide from Rubbia’s Geneva presentation.

 

CERNGlobe

Energy for the globe. The talk inside CERN’s Globe center (above) will turn to thorium nuclear power next week.

Many nuclear experts believe that the future of safe, effective, nuclear power lies in deploying thorium fuel rather than uranium, the firewood of choice that has prevailed ever since the world first starting splitting atoms to feed the grid in 1956.

Thorium proponents point out that the metallic element is more plentiful than uranium, leaves far less long lived waste, can effectively help burn existing waste, reduces the prospects of making weapons from waste, and that it can avoid meltdowns.

But who’s making it work? Which countries are taking the lead? China? India? Norway? Do you simply put it into conventional reactors? Or should you build alternative reactors that optimize its advantages? Should you run it in liquid or solid form? How do you overcome some of the engineering and materials challenges for proposed alternative reactors like molten salt machines? And, as thorium itself is not fissile, what’s the best way to excite it into a state of chain reactions? Is industry even interested in it?

Some of the world’s brightest minds in thorium and nuclear science will offer their answers to these questions next week, as they gather at CERN, the internationally famous physics lab in Geneva, for the fifth annual Thorium Energy Conference.

“Thorium offers a route to safe, clean nuclear energy,” said Jean-Pierre Revol, a CERN physicist and president of the international Thorium Energy Committee (iThEC). “The number of renowned scientists coming to ThEC13 gives a clear signal that a truly international cooperation is forming to herald a new era in nuclear energy, with clear benefits for the world.”

HansBlixCTBTO

Many thorium proponents point out that thorium reduces the chances of building arms from nuclear waste. Former Iraq weapons inspector Hans Blix (above) will give a thorium non-proliferation talk on Tuesday.

Geneva-based iThEC has organized the conference along with Stockholm’s International Thorium Energy Organization. Together, they have put together an impressive roster of big thinkers and problem solvers including Nobel prize winning particle physicist Carlo Rubbia and former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) boss and United Nations weapons inspector Hans Blix to help map out the thorium road. As a sign that industry is taking thorium seriously, the agenda includes insights from engineering stalwart Rolls-Royce, and from nuclear power giant Areva, known more for its conventional nuclear technologies than for thorium.

The intensive program kicks off in earnest on Monday morning, when particle accelerator expert Rubbia will present one of the early sessions. That should help set the tone for a strong thread of accelerator science that will run through the confab humming a stone’s throw from CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) – the world’s largest accelerator known for its hunt of the Higgs Boson, dark matter and antimatter. Conference host Revol himself leads an LHC team.

ACCELERATE THIS

Some thorium enthusiasts believe that the best way to coax thorium into fissioning is to bombard it with particles from an accelerator. Beginning Wednesday, the accelerator theme will take over many of the sessions, with presentations from scientists investigating thorium accelerator technologies in the U.K., China, France, Switzerland (Revol will present), Japan, South Korea, Venezuela, Russia, India and the U.S., and earlier in the week, from Belgium’s MYRRHA project.

But non-accelerator approaches should also get a full hearing, with presentations scheduled from the likes of Kirk Sorensen, president of Flibe Energy, the Huntsville, Alabama company that is hoping to revive the molten salt reactor (MSR) designed by the late Alvin Weinberg (and who inspired the Weinberg Foundation, publisher of this blog) at Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the 1960s.

Carlo Rubbia BastianGreshake

Nobel winning particle physicist and accelerator exeprt Carlo Rubbia will speak on the future of thorium power.

Not all MSR experts agree on the same design, and to that end, other enthusiasts will discuss their preferences for fuel mixes, corrosion-resistant materials, plumbing configurations and the like. Speakers will come from the U.K., the Czech Republic, France and elsewhere – including Weinberg Foundation chairman John Durham and Jan Uhlir from the Czech Nuclear Research Institute Rez, which is testing high temperature reactor using coolant materials from the U.S. Industry will also weigh in, as Rolls-Royce presents on Tuesday about “Opportunities and Challenges for Thorium in Commercial MSRs,” following an address by Areva.

Talks will also cover different technologies on how to process and re-use waste in thorium reactors.

A NEW TWIST ON CONVENTION

Some thorium backers such as Norway’s Thor Energy strongly believe that the world should not wait for alternative reactors, but should run thorium in conventional reactors cooled and moderated by water. Thor CEO Oystein Asphjell will summarize some early positive results that Thor has spotted in its ongoing thorium irradiation tests at Norway’s Halden test reactor.

Other presenters, from Turkey and India, will outline ideas for deploying thorium in heavy water reactors including the Canadian CANDU design. Sumer Sahin, from Turkey’s Atilim University, will also discuss building hybrid fission/fusion reactors using thorium.

Through it all, former weapons inspector Blix should serve as a reminder that thorium augurs a great reduction in the weapons-related waste potential of nuclear power, when he delivers a talk on Tuesday morning entitled “Thorium Power and Non-Proliferation.”

For a sense of national commitments, the conference has rounded up speakers from a number of government energy agencies and laboratories to provide updates. Speakers include Xu Hongjie from the China Academy of Sciences’ Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics, the site of last year’s Thorium Energy Conference 2012.  China has more than one thorium reactor under development and is using technology from the U.S.

Toshinobu Sasa from the Japan Atomic Energy Agency will present on “The Japanese Thorium Program,” – sure to draw interest in how thorium can help Japan reinstitute nuclear power following its post-Fukushima shutdown. Sweden, India, the EU, the U.K.’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, the IAEA and Belgium will also sketch out the initiatives – some more active than others –  under their purviews

Regardless of the approach that any country, company, scientist or engineer is taking, the conference as a whole, within spitting distance of the Large Hadron Collider, hopes to step up the pace of  thorium’s arrival into the commercial nuclear marketplace.

The Weinberg Foundation will be there updating you with regular blogs and tweets.

For the full agenda, click here

Photos: Globe is from CERN. Hans Blix is from the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization via Flickr. Carlo Rubbia is from Bastian Greshake via Flickr.

 

Our response to the Hinkley C deal

Posted by David Martin on October 21st, 2013

Hinkley C deal shows that UK urgently needs “Plan B” for nuclear

Whilst we welcome the contribution that Hinkley C will make to the fight against climate change, the saga of the deal proves beyond doubt that the UK Government must develop a “Plan B” for the next generation of nuclear power stations. We are all paying the price for two decades of under-investment in nuclear research and an official policy of industry fragmentation.

That the two new reactors will supply 7% of UK electricity shows the remarkable and under-appreciated potential of nuclear energy. We need new nuclear: it is the only proven means of reliably generating low-carbon, base-load electricity. Nonetheless, if it is to make a significant contribution, both the technology and our economic ideology will have to evolve.

Hinkley C deal gambles with long-term public support

The Government is to be applauded for including costs of decommissioning and waste management in the strike price, which compares favourably with other clean energy sources. However, the Weinberg Foundation is concerned that this deal’s complex financing structure could erode public support for nuclear power, just when we need its major benefits — of zero emissions, low operating costs, and reliable supply — the most.

The UK must replace its entire 11GW nuclear fleet within the next 15-20 years. DECC’s own analysis predicts that by 2050 we will need up to 7 times more nuclear power to meet rising demand for clean and reliable electricity[1]. Yet it is unknown whether the public will support the construction of much-needed nuclear plants financed in the fashion pursued by the current government.

We need to rebuild the UK fission industry and inspire the general public. The UK needs a long-term plan grounded on investment in research and the training of young scientists and engineers. We must fund research to overcome the limitations of the current reactor technology, which requires huge up-front capital investment. Radically better, cheaper forms of nuclear power, such as Molten Salt Reactors, are possible.

Nuclear innovation is sorely needed

We need a concerted programme of nuclear R&D to make nuclear competitive with fossil fuels up-front, by lowering the capital cost. Next-generation reactors will be cheaper and researchers are working hard – at present with minimal public funding – to bring them to market.

For example, Molten Salt Reactors cannot melt-down, could utilise nuclear fuel thirty-times more efficiently than currently designs[2] and could be mass-produced, greatly reducing the initial capital cost. The UK Government should invest in promising technologies like Molten Salt Reactors as a matter of urgency.

The UK Government, with industry, must do more to support the development of cheaper, safer and more sustainable reactors. A concerted programme of R&D now would lay the ground for a true revival of the UK nuclear industry and help to return the country to the top table of international engineering and manufacturing capability.

John Durham, Chairman of the Weinberg Foundation, said: “To fight climate change and ensure energy security we urgently need to lower the capital cost of new nuclear. The best way of doing this is through a coordinated R&D programme to develop the most promising next-generation reactors, such as Molten Salt Reactors. Investment in next-generation nuclear technology today will ensure that the UK leads the global nuclear revival in the years ahead.”



[1] See DECC: “Energy Pathways”: https://www.gov.uk/2050-pathways-analysis

[2] Most Molten Salt Reactors have projected fuel “burn-up” rates exceeding 90%. Modern Light Water Reactors, such as the EPR scheduled for Hinkley C, can only burn-up approximately 3-4% of the fuel’s potential. (See the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Thorium Energy, Thorium-fuelled Molten Salt Reactors)

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