Those who follow the growing next-gen nuclear movement and clean energy R&D will have been long aware of the increasingly concerted worldwide efforts to research and commercialise Molten Salt Reactors (MSRs). Hundreds of nuclear scientists and engineers are now hard at work, moving MSRs from “should have been” to “will be”.
The resurgence of MSRs has steadily built up steam, leading to a dizzying rush of news of progress in the development of this safer, cleaner and cheaper advanced nuclear technology. The field is progressing so quickly that it’s hard to keep track of it all. We’ll be examining the latest developments in-depth over the next few weeks. For now, here’s a summary. In the past 6 weeks alone:
- –Via NucNet we heard that the China National Nuclear Corporation has commissioned Shanghai Institute of Applied Sciences to undertake a full design of a 10MW Molten Salt Reactor, to be built and go live in 10 years’ time. This is a multinational research programme: Australia’s national lab ANSTO is already undertaking detailed materials experiments to support the development of China’s MSR design. Could other countries be poised to join China’s MSR programme too?
- –Terrestrial Energy, the Canadian company pursuing a scalable and fuel-flexible Integral MSR, announced that it had signed cooperation agreements with both Canadian Nuclear Laboratories and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the birthplace of the MSR. The latter announcement returns MSRs home to Oak Ridge after a hiatus of around 35 years. Our namesake Dr Alvin Weinberg, who was longtime Director of ORNL and leading proponent of MSRs, would have been absolutely delighted at the news. Terrestrial’s collaboration with Oak Ridge will allow it to harness the expertise of the historical leader in MSR R&D. It’s great to see a US National Laboratory working on MSRs again.
- –The American ‘skunkworks’ start-up ThorCon, established by shipping pioneer Jack Devanney, announced that Martingale, Inc has completed the pre-conceptual design of its ThorCon Molten Salt Reactor and that further design work is underway at a rapid pace. ThorCon’s MSR is a completely modernised version of Oak Ridge’s successful Molten Salt Reactor Experiment, part-fuelled by thorium and designed, from the ground up, for mass production in shipyards.
- –Finally, Transtomic Power’s R&D continues apace, attracting widespread media coverage. We continue to hear very promising news from UK-based MSR company Moltex Energy. And as we first reported in July 2013, we keep hearing rumours that the Bill Gates-backed Terrapower is switching focus from its Travelling Wave Reactor to a novel Molten Salt Fast Reactor design.
Because of the advantages conferred by MSRs’ liquid fuel, all promise inherently safe, reliable, large-scale and cost-competitive clean energy. The rebirth of MSR technology can no longer be dismissed as a simple “flash in the pan”. Development of MSRs is happening, now, and it is attracting diverse private investment from far-sighted investors who can see the enormous global market for clean, cheap and intrinsically safe nuclear energy. If developments continue at this pace, the world will have not one but at least two or three MSRs operating in 10 years’ time. As often happens in advanced technology, developments will gather speed as cohorts of technicians are trained and experimental results published.
There will be those who point to the world’s varied experience of other advanced systems and say, “C’mon, we know the most about such-and-such kind of Fast Reactor, so that must be the leader”, but the news above leads us to disagree: prior to the 1940s aircraft engineers had greatest experience with propeller planes; prior to electronic computers we had the greatest experience with slide-rules; and prior to the discovery of antiseptics doctors had the greatest experience with leeches. All that experience could not stop the onward march of a superior disruptive technology when it emerged.
MSRs may be on the cusp of starting the onward march trodden by other great disruptive breakthroughs before them. But success is far from assured.
Most concerning for the future of all nuclear innovation is governments’ tepid support. Great progress is being made in the whole gamut of reactors, from MSRs to high-temperature reactors to advanced LWRs. It is an unhappy contradiction that the governments most vocally in support of strong climate action, such as Germany and the UK, also do the least to support the development of mission-critical, game-changing nuclear technologies. With the exception of China, it’s startling how slow governments have been to see the huge potential of next-gen nuclear technology for fighting climate change and providing clean electricity to billions, and the huge new export markets advanced reactors such as MSRs will bring. With the exception of China and Russia, government support for next-gen nuclear energy is negligible: the UK alone has seen a 99% cut in reactor R&D in the last 25 years.
Led by a group of start-up companies, the nuclear innovation we need is already here. All forward-thinking governments need to do is give these companies a hand-up by promoting catalysts such as regulatory reform. A virtually limitless economic prize awaits the country that first licenses and plays host to advanced ‘workhorse’ reactors such as MSRs, for that will be the country that cleanly and safely powers the world this century. The human prize of being able to cleanly and safely power human development without causing climate change defies computation.
Governments of the world: it’s your choice.