Archive for the ‘Proliferation’ Category

We need to talk about Plutonium….

Posted by Suzanna Hinson on October 6th, 2016

An agreement between Russia and the USA to work together to dispose of weapons grade plutonium has been suspended. The deal dates back to 2000 when both nations agreed to reduce their nuclear weapons by disposing of 34 tonnes of plutonium each, enough to build approximately 17,000 nuclear weapons.
The strategy behind the agreement was a good one. Through a ‘sword-to-plough’ approach, the weapons grade material would be reprocessed and turned into clean energy to power homes and industry. The bilateral plan reduced the amount of weapons-grade plutonium and in turn burned it, thus producing vast amounts of carbon dioxide-free energy, whilst also strengthening the relations between the two countries with a very tense geopolitical history.
Unfortunately it is a breakdown in these relations that appears to have ended the deal. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the ongoing war in Syria have tested the relationship to breaking point. The failure of the recent Syrian ceasefire seems to have been the breaking point, with the US announcing that they will suspend discussion with Russia over Syria. Russia however claims that these are distractions and that the real issue is the USA’s reprocessing is insufficient and bombs could still be made from their plutonium.
This claim stems from the fact that Russia dilutes their plutonium and makes it into Mixed-Oxide (MOX) fuel which, in turn, would be used to generate electricity in reactors. This approach would see the plutonium permanently destroyed, whilst the Americans decided to scrap their MOX plant after Fukushima and opted to bury the plutonium instead. This, the Russians argue, contravenes the deal as the plutonium would still be retrievable.
Without this deal, the plutonium issue remains a significant one. There are large volumes of the material left over from nuclear weapons production. Plutonium is also produced by nuclear power stations. The UK is far from immune to this problem, burdened with the biggest plutonium stockpile in the world.
But with every crisis, there is an opportunity. Advanced reactors have the potential to burn up plutonium much more efficiently and easily. The US, Russia and the UK are all investing in new, Generation 4 designs that can deal with the problem. Plutonium is a domestic security issue and combatting it with advanced nuclear power not only reduces this insecurity but also simultaneously increases energy security.
International disagreements, however serious, should not be allowed to stand in the way of national or international actions on turning plutonium from a vice to a virtue. Weinberg Next Nuclear’s will soon be addressing this issue in a new report, discussing how the UK should deal with its legacy waste, including the plutonium stockpile.
Negotiations about Iran's nuclear plans

By U.S. Department of State from United States [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The recent agreement between six world powers and Iran has, according to President Obama; “cut off Iran’s most likely paths to a bomb”The agreement includes many commitments to cease enrichment of uranium above concentrations of 5%, dismantling or halting construction of additional centrifuges and a pledge to not construct a reprocessing facility. Iran will continue to enrich uranium to concentrations of 3.5% to keep its stocks at a constant level as it is consumed in the civilian nuclear power program.  

However, much of the discussion about the deal has missed one key question: the extent to which we are made prisoners by the proliferation risks of existing fuel cycles. Could a programme of nuclear R&D, aimed at developing proliferation-resistant nuclear energy, prevent future nuclear crises?

What if we said that no enrichment facilities would be necessary if Iran was planning on producing nuclear energy with a thorium fuel cycle?

Thorium sits two places down the periodic table from uranium, and while very little of naturally occurring uranium is the U235 necessary for use in a reactor, almost all of naturally occurring thorium is Th232, which is the isotope suitable for use as a nuclear fuel. . Because of this, there is no need for any enrichment of thorium fuel and no need for centrifuges of any kind. The lack of any need for these facilities would certainly change the game in terms of detecting rogue nuclear programmes.

However, there is a “but”: thorium fuels need a “fissile driver” to provide the initial neutrons to start the thorium chain reaction. This can be uranium-233, uranium-235 or plutonium, although for anti-proliferation purposes we should certainly discount the last two.

So that leaves us with U233. Handily, uranium-233 is produced by thorium fuels in a reactor (in a thorium fuel cycle, it is actually uranium-233 that fissions). The rub is that the world has very little U233 available and if we want to develop proliferation-resistant fuel cycles, we’ll need a lot more of it. Currently the only way to make it is to kickstart thorium fuel with…U-235 or plutonium, and then reprocess it (although Accelerator-Driven Systems could help).

Proliferation resistance

While U233 is recognised as a proliferation risk by the IAEA, it is far less suitable for making weapons than highly enriched U235 or Pu239. Indeed, only two nuclear tests have involved U233; the USA’s ‘Operation Teapot’and one 0.2kt experimental design in India’s Pokran-II tests. No nuclear weapons in existence are made with U233. Sadly uranium-235 and plutonium have a well-proven track record of making functioning bombs.

U232 is produced in smaller amounts alongside the U233, which is a hard gamma ray emitter. This gives the material a strong and easily detectable radiation signature. The material has to be handled very carefully, and fuel fabrication for example has to be done remotely with sophisticated equipment. These increased difficulties have long been cited as  properties that would hinder weapons proliferation.

Hans Blix, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency has recently called for the development of nuclear energy from thorium, citing a lower risk of weapons proliferation from reactors as well as benefits including reduced waste. He wrote in the Guardian newspaper that the commitments were “constitute substantial bars to any bombmaking” without curtailing the civilian power program. I’m sure he would agree that if Iran was pursuing thorium-fuelled reactors, the barriers to a weapons program would be even higher.

Of course, how any future international thorium fuel programme would obtain and distribute the “fissile drivers” would be very sensitive, needing just the kind of increased transparency and oversight that has just been agreed. What is certain is that proven thorium fuels, started with U233, would give the international community new diplomatic options in future nuclear disputes.

The nuclear club is expanding

Thirty-one of the world’s countries currently use nuclear power to generate over 11% of global electricity. Over forty-five countries are considering embarking down the nuclear route, with the front-runners after Iran and UAE including Lithuania, Turkey and Belarus. It is important to stress that thorium is not a magic bullet to weapons proliferation– but it can be a part of the solution to future international proliferation disputes, alongside appropriate regulatory regimes and oversight mechanisms. Given the pressing need for low-carbon energy it seems only prudent to support a more proliferation-resistant route for nuclear energy.

The MegaTons to MegaWatts program which saw almost 20,000 Russian warheads dismantled and used as fuel in American nuclear power plants has recently come to an end, providing almost 10% of US electricity for 15 years. A similar amount of warheads remain in existence. In 1953, Eisenhower’s ‘Atoms for Peace’ speech carefully tried to open the eyes of the world to the positive benefits of nuclear energy, after the horrors of the nuclear bomb had become clear. He urged that “the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life”. Perhaps it is time for that speech to be revisited, starting with a massive push to develop proliferation-resistant nuclear energy.

Cancel the Chattanooga Choo Choo. Assistant Energy Secretary Pete Lyons called off his trip to Tennessee's Oak Ridge National Laboratory when the government shut down last month. He's pictured here on an ORNL visit earlier this year, but not one relating to the advanced nuclear collaboration with China.

Cancel the Chattanooga Choo Choo. Assistant Energy Secretary Pete Lyons called off his trip to Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory when the government shut down last month. He’s pictured here on an ORNL visit earlier this year, but not one relating to the advanced nuclear collaboration with China.

Those of you who object to the U.S. sharing advanced nuclear reactor designs with China might snigger at this news. Those of you who support the collaboration will find it dismaying: Last month’s U.S government shutdown forced the Department of Energy to cancel a rare high level meeting with China regarding the two nations’ ongoing partnership in molten salt reactor development.

But while the collaboration’s bosses failed to meet for the key appointment, the roster of U.S. contributors has been expanding to include additional universities and industrial members, such as Bill Gates’ nuclear company TerraPower.

According to people familiar with the situation, DOE Assistant Secretary Peter Lyons was due to travel to Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in October to meet with the project’s Chinese co-leader, presumably Jiang Mianheng. Lyons and Jiang were the two co-chairs of the collaboration when it began in Dec. 2011.

With the itineraries set and with sensitive travel visas in place for Jiang and his Chinese delegation, something happened on the way to Tennessee: The U.S. government closed its doors for two weeks when Congress failed to agree on general budgetary appropriations.

The shutdown took out all manner of government operations including national energy labs such as Oak Ridge (ORNL), where in the 1960s the U.S. built a molten salt reactor, the designs for which are part of the DOE/China advanced reactor partnership.

I’ve sent several emails to Lyons and to a DOE spokesperson asking whether Lyons and Jiang have rescheduled, but they have not replied. Around the time that DOE and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) entered the agreement in December, 2011, Jiang was the president of CAS’ Shanghai branch. He is the son of China’s former president, Jiang Zemin.


The two countries are sharing information related to a molten salt cooled, solid-fuel reactor that would safely operate at high temperatures and thus serve as a more efficient electricity generator than today’s “cooler” conventional reactors, and that would also serve as a valuable source of clean industrial heat, replacing fossil fuels. The reactors also portend safety, waste, and proliferation advantages over traditional nuclear.

China plans to build a prototype of a 2-megawatt “pebble bed” reactor by around 2015, and a 100-megawatt demonstrator by 2024.

It is also planning to build a reactor that is both cooled and fueled by liquid salts – a “molten salt reactor” (MSR). It plans a 10-MW prototype by 2024.  DOE has said that the collaboration only entails salt-cooled technologies, and is not specifically exploring MSRs, which many experts regard as a logical and superior next step after the development of a salt-cooled reactor.

Jiang has expressed intentions of using high temperature reactors not just to feed the grid with electricity – cleanly powering future fleets of electric cars –  but also to provide heat for processes like hydrogen production (he wants to then turn the hydrogen into methanol) for coal gasification, and to turn coal into products including olefin and diesel.

Earlier this month, U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz told a nuclear conference in Irvine, Calif. that the U.S. could have similar uses for high temperature reactors.

“Small modular reactors, especially high temperature ones, may have a particular role there essentially as heat sources,” Moniz told delegates at the Future of Advanced Nuclear Technologies gathering organized by the National Academy of Sciences and the Keck Futures Initiative. He outlined a number of possible applications, including “process heat, water desalination, hydrogen production, petroleum production and refining.”


Moniz told the conference that he recently traveled to China to help promote the Westinghouse AP1000, a conventional reactor with improved safety features, designed by Westinghouse, the U.S. subsidiary of Japan’s Toshiba. There are currently four AP1000s under construction in China, with more planned. Westinghouse and China are co-marketing AP1000 reactor technology beyond China.

At the Irvine gathering, Moniz did not mention the DOE/China high temperature reactor collaboration.

He also did not provide any details on how the U.S. might beef up its commitment to advanced reactor development; when I asked him, he would say only that he hopes to “marshall” resources. By comparison, China’s commitment is much more significant and multifaceted. It is backing the molten salt project at CAS  – just one of China’s several advanced reactor projects – with about $400 million, and hopes to produce a prototype as soon as 2015.

DOE has provided $7.5 million in funding to three universities – MIT, the University of California Berkeley, and the University of Wisconsin – for advanced reactor development, with a focus on molten salt cooled, solid fueled designs.  Those three universities plus ORNL were seminal members of the DOE/China collaboration, and Westinghouse has been advising them on how to eventually commercialize their technology.

Researchers from those entities and from China have met for four separate collaborative workshops over the last two years, my sources tell me. Those gatherings have not included chairmen Lyons and Jiang. A fifth workshop is planned for January, at UC Berkeley.


Meanwhile, the core group of workshop participants has grown to include TerraPower, the Seattle company chaired by Gates which has been widening its nuclear net.  TerraPower continues with its original mission to develop a fast reactor that it calls a traveling wave reactor, but has encountered a few technical snags and is now investigating other possibilities as well including molten salt reactors and thorium fuel.

Other new participants have included San Diego-based General Atomics which is developing a high temperature solid fuel, helium-cooled reactor that it calls the Energy Multiplier Module (EM2). From academia, the Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of Michigan, Ohio State University and the University of New Mexico have also joined the workshops.

General Atomics has submitted its EM2 as a candidate for the second tranche of DOE’s $452 million award for small modular reactors — reactors that are smaller than today’s gigawatt-plus behemoths and portend significant costs savings. Most advanced high temperature reactors are suitable for small modular form, with sizes ranging from around 30 MW to around 500. GA is competing against other high temperature reactor makers for the award, including X-Energy. Conventional temperature machines are also in the hunt, including one from Westhinghouse and another from Corvallis, Ore.-based NuScale.

A year ago DOE awarded the first tranche, of around $225 million, to Babcock & Wilcox for its mPower reactor, a scaled down version of an ordinary temperature conventional reactor. B&W announced earlier this month that it needs to sell a 70 percent stake in the joint venture company developing mPower in order to continue.

Photo is from U.S. government via Flickr

U.S. energy secretary: Deploy nuclear for industrial heat

Posted by Mark Halper on November 22nd, 2013

Moniz OakRidge Y12

Hot on nuclear. Secretary Moniz says that advanced reactors could furnish clean industrial heat. He also backs President Obama’s point that new and safer nuclear improves energy security and reduces proliferation risks. The Y12 sign in the background reminds us of the proliferation connection. Y12 is a defense related unit at DOE’s Oak Ridge facility, where Moniz spoke in this June photo.

IRVINE, CALIF. – The notion that nuclear reactors could provide clean, CO2-free heat for industrial process – and thus expand nuclear power’s role beyond electricity generation – got a big boost here when U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz endorsed the idea.

Speaking via a video link last Friday to a nuclear power and medicine conference, Moniz said that reactors currently under development – often called “advanced” or “fourth generation” reactors and typically small in size – could safely operate at much higher temperatures than conventional models and would be key to broadening nuclear’s role.

“Small modular reactors, especially high temperature ones, may have a particular role there essentially as heat sources,” Moniz told delegates at the Future of Advanced Nuclear Technologies gathering organized by the National Academy of Sciences and the Keck Futures Initiative. He outlined a number of possible applications, including “process heat, water desalination, hydrogen production, petroleum production and refining.”

At the moment, the U.S. lags behind at least one country, China, in supporting the development of advanced reactors such as molten salt and pebble bed reactors. Jiang Mianheng, who heads the development of molten salt reactors (MSRs) in China (Jiang is the son of China’s former president Jiang Zemin), has stated that China plans to use them for hydrogen production, gasifying coal, methanol manufacturing and other purposes. China recently released revised timelines for two of its high temperature reactors. It hopes to build a 2-megawatt pilot pebble bed by around 2015, and a 100-megawatt pebble bed demonstrator by 2024, among others.


Moniz’s remarks came as the U.S. Department of Energy prepares to select a winner for the second tranche of its total $452 million funding award for small modular reactors (SMRs). SMRs represent potential cost savings over large conventional reactors because manufacturers could build them in more of an assembly line fashion, and users could purchase modules in increments and thus reduce upfront capital costs.

Many SMR designs also support operations at temperatures ranging from around 600 degrees C to 900 degrees C, considerably higher than conventional reactors. A number of high temperature reactor developers are vying for the DOE award, including San Diego’s General Atomics. X-Energy Inc., a Greenbelt, Maryland-based company that is developing a pebble bed reactor based on older South Africa designs, is also believed to have submitted. So, reportedly, have a number of standard temperature SMR developers, including NuScale of Corvallis, Wash., and Westinghouse.

DOE granted its first round a year ago to Babcock & Wilcox for its mPower reactor, a scaled down version of a conventional reactor that does not operate at the high temperatures that could supply industrial heat. Days before Moniz presented at last week’s conference, Babcock announced that it wants to sell up to 70 percent of the company in order to continue building the SMR. The company is hoping to install four of the reactors at the Clinch River site in Tennessse, in partnership with construction and engineering giant Bechtel and with the Tennessee Valley Authority, a power provider.

The winner of round two won’t necessarily be a company developing a high temperature reactor.


Despite Moniz’s public endorsement for advanced reactors, the DOE trails China’s concerted efforts. Those include a two-year-old collaboration with three DOE-backed U.S. universities – the University of California Berkeley, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Wisconsin –  in molten salt coolants for solid-fueled high temperature pebble bed reactors. DOE has provided the three universities with $7.5 million.

I asked Moniz after his presentation what measures DOE might take to step up its commitment to advanced reactors and bridge the gap with countries like China.

“I can’t say too much specifically,” he said. “But let’s just say we are trying to marshall some resources to increase our focus in that area.”

High temperature reactors provide other power benefits in addition to supporting industrial processes. For example, they support a more efficient electricity generating process, which cuts the cost of electricity.

And like all nuclear, high temperature reactors emit no CO2 during the generating process while having a very low CO2 footprint over the lifetime of a nuclear plant including mining fuel and constructing reactors.


Addressing nuclear in general, Moniz said that nuclear is “very clearly part of the solution set” in President Obama’s strategy to mitigate man-made climate change by shifting to low CO2 technologies.

“There is no one low carbon solution,” Moniz said, noting that nuclear is “not a silver bullet” but that “neither are any of the other technologies.”

Moniz cited a recent open letter by four renowned climate scientists calling for nuclear power to help stave off the ravages of man-made CO2 induced climate change. In that letter, signed by long time climate campaigner and Columbia University professor James Hansen among others, the scientists push for the deployment of new reactor types.

“I would argue that the discussion about whether we need to respond to climate change is largely over,” said Moniz, coming down squarely on the “respond” side.

The energy secretary also quoted Obama in urging continued development of nuclear energy for a multitude of reasons.

“When we enhance nuclear security, we’re in a stronger position to harness safe clean nuclear energy,” said Moniz, quoting from a speech that the president delivered at South Korea’s Hankuk University in March 2012, which continued, “When we develop new safer approaches to nuclear energy, we reduce the risk of nuclear terrorism and proliferation.”

That includes the development of advanced, high temperature reactors.

Photo is from Lynn Freeny, U.S. Government, via Flickr

Note: I’m in the midst of 10-day swing visiting various advanced nuclear initiatives up and down North America’s west coast. Stay tuned for more reports. – MH


James Hansen ArrestDC Tarsandsaction Wiki

James Hansen wants to arrest climate change by replacing fossil fuels with nuclear power. Above, a policeman handcuffs him outside the White House during a 2011 demonstration against TransCanada’s Keystone oil pipeline.

A group of four well-known climate scientists created a stir earlier this week with an open letter imploring environmentalists to back nuclear power as a low carbon energy source that can stave off the havoc of climate change.

With signatories including James Hansen, the Columbia University professor and longtime campaigner in the global warming fight,  the missive could put nuclear power firmly into the consciousness of this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference kicking off in Warsaw on Nov. 11.

But what much of the general press missed in reporting on the clarion call was that the scientists were not simply advocating nuclear. They were pressing for  a move away from conventional nuclear technology – the uranium fueled, water cooled reactors of the last 50+ years – and toward alternative reactor types, such as those we write about here at Weinberg.

“We understand that today’s nuclear plants are far from perfect,” the letter stated. “Fortunately, passive safety systems and other advances can make new plants much safer. And modern nuclear technology can reduce proliferation risks and solve the waste disposal problem by burning current waste and using fuel more efficiently. Innovation and economies of scale can make new power plants even cheaper than existing plants.”

In addition to Hansen, who recently retired from over 30 years as head of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies, the authors included senior scientist Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford University, atmospheric scientist Kerry Emanuel from MIT, and climate scientist Tom Wigley from Australia’s University of Adelaide.


For Hansen, alternative nuclear technology would include integral fast reactors (IFR) such as the PRISM reactor from GE-Hitachi which can burn plutonium and thus make use of existing nuclear “waste.” It can also breed fuel. Last year, Hansen, along with entrepreneur Richard Branson and GEH engineer Eric Loewen, wrote to U.S. President Barrack Obama encouraging support of IFRs (Loewen signed the letter in his then capacity as president of the American Nuclear Society).

Several other alternative reactor designs also augur improvement in safety, cost, efficiency, waste and weapons proliferation risks.

Those include molten salt reactors (MSRs), which deploy liquid fuel and which can operate safely at high temperatures and thus improve generating efficiencies and also serve as a clean heat source for high temperature industry processes that today rely on CO2-intense fossil fuels. MSRs also operate at atmospheric pressures rather than at potentially dangerous high pressure, and have a fail safe engineering that prevents meltdowns and and that allows fuel to drain harmlessly into a tank if necessary. They offer a number of other advantages, such as reduced waste and a potential to breed fuel.

Companies and countries developing MSRs include  China, Canada’s Terrestrial Energy, Japan’s Thorium Tech Solution, and Transatomic Power and Flibe Energy from the U.S., among others.

Other alternatives include another type of high temperature reactor called a “pebble bed reactor,” small modular reactors (which crosses many reactor types), and fusion.


The alternative reactor types – as well as conventional reactors – could also tap thorium fuel rather than uranium. Proponents of thorium point out that it is more plentiful than uranium, that it has a higher energy content,  and that it can reduce waste and proliferation risk, among other benefits. Thor Energy in Norway is currently conducting thorium tests in a conventional reactor. Scientists at the University of Cambridge and elsewhere believe that thorium could potentially be re-used over and over again in modified conventional reactors.

As I reported here recently from the Thorium Energy Conference 2013 in Geneva, thorium supporters include Nobel Prize winning physicist Carlo Rubbia and former chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix. Conventional French nuclear giant Areva last week publicly stated that is investigating thorium possibilities.

This week’s letter by Hansen and his fellow climate scientist did not mention the alternative technologies by name, but issued a call “for the development and deployment of advanced nuclear energy.”

It said that “renewable” energy technologies such as wind and solar simply won’t be enough to avoid further serious consequences from global warming.


Many formerly anti-nuclear environmentalists have crossed over into the pro-nuclear camp, a theme conveyed in the feature length documentary film Pandora’s Promise. This week’s letter hopes to broaden that trend.

“We appreciate your organization’s concern about global warming, and your advocacy of renewable energy. But continued opposition to nuclear power threatens humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change,” it said.

It further noted that, “Renewables like wind and solar and biomass will certainly play roles in a future energy economy, but those energy sources cannot scale up fast enough to deliver cheap and reliable power at the scale the global economy requires. While it may be theoretically possible to stabilize the climate without nuclear power, in the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power.”

It’s no coincidence that Hansen et al published the letter in the run-up to the two-week UN conference, where policy makers from around the world will attempt to agree on action to slow the effects of climate change. Often, these annual UN confabs – such as the 2009 Copenhagen installment – are remembered more for what they did not accomplish than anything else. Let’s see if Warsaw 2013 can at least leave some sort of positive nuclear impression.

For a full copy of the letter click here.

Photo is from Tarsandsaction via Wikimedia

HuXongjie AnilKakodkar IndiaTHEC13 Dinner

China’s Xu Hongjie (r) and India’s Anil Kakodkar chat after dinner at the Thorium Energy Conference in Geneva this week. Xu leads China’s TMSR programme. Kakodkar, former chairman of India’s Atomic Energy Commission and one-time head of the country’s Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, champions thorium use in his country.

GENEVA – Thorium-fueled high temperature reactors could help alleviate China’s energy and environmental problems – including water shortages – by providing not only low carbon electricity but also clean heat for industrial processes and power for hydrogen production, the scientist in charge of developing the reactors said here.

Xu Hongjie of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Shanghai indicated that one of the two reactors he’s developing should be ready in a 100-megawatt demonstrator version by 2024, and for full deployment by 2035. A second one, based on liquid thorium fuel instead of solid, would come later, he said, hinting that it might not yet have full government financial backing.

In a presentation at the Thorium Energy Conference 2013 (ThEC13) here, he referred to both reactors as thorium molten salt reactors (TMSR). The solid fuel version uses “pebble bed” fuel – much different from today’s fuel rods – and molten salt coolant. The liquid version uses a thorium fuel mixed with molten salt. Both run at significantly higher temperatures than conventional reactors, making them suitable as industrial heat sources in industries such as cement, steel, and oil and chemicals. The thorium can also reduce the waste and the weapons proliferation threat compared to conventional reactors.

“The TMSR gets support from the Chinese government, just because China is faced with a very serious challenge, not only for energy, but also for the environment,” Xu said. He noted that several regions of China face water shortages in large part because China’s many coal-fired power plants require water for for cooling, as do China’s 17 conventional nuclear reactors.

“Water scarcity is very serious for China,” he said. “Most of the water has been consumed by electricity companies – for coal but also nuclear.”


Nuclear reactors will help slow the growth of China’s CO2 emissions. The country today gets about 80 percent of its electricity from CO2-spewing fossil fuels. As China ramps up generating capacity to an estimated 3,000 gigawatts by 2030 – more than double today’s level – it will need to find low-carbon sources to mitigate climate change consequences.

Xu is the director of CAS’ of Thorium Molten Salt Reactor (TMSR), based at the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics, overseeing what he said is a $400 million project (China has described it in the past as $350 million). He calls the solid fuel reactor a “TMSR-SF,” and the liquid reactor a “TMSR-LF”.

One of two timelines (see below) that Xu included in his presentation showed that he expects to complete a 2-megawatt pilot for the solid fuel version by around 2015, and a 100-MW demonstrator model of the same by 2024, before readying it for live use in 2035 in “small modular” form (general industry nomenclature would call the solid fuel version an “FHR”, or fluoride salt-cooled high temperature reactor).

That timeline did not show a target date for a 2-MW liquid-fueled pilot reactor, which a year ago appeared to have slipped from 2017 to 2020. It did, however, show a 10-MW liquid-fueled pilot at around 2024, and a demonstrator version by 2035. It did not include a commercialization date. “For liquid, we still need the financial support from the government,” Xu said (story continues below chart).

XuHongjie TMSR Timeline

Solidifying the future. The solid fuel (TMSR-SF) molten salt cooled thorium reactor will be ready before the liquid fuel model (LF).

Xu explained that the liquid version requires more complicated development than the solid version, such as “reprocessing of highly radioactive fuel salts.” But the reprocessing, when worked out, will become an advantage because it will allow re-use of spent fuel, whereas the “open” fuel cycle of the solid version will not, he noted. Xu said that the solid fuel version is a “precursor” to the liquid-fuel reactor.

A second timeline showed plans for developing larger TMSRs, with a 1-gigawatt capacity. It showed “commercialization” for the solid fuel version by around 2040, when the liquid 1-GW machine would reach a “demonstrator” state. The timeline does not show commercialization plans for the 1-GW liquid version. It does, however, show that a 2-MW “experimental” liquid TMSR could by ready by around 2017 (story continues below chart).

XuHongjie 1GW TMSR Timeline

This slide, part of Xu Hongjie’s presentation, shows the timeline for a large TMSR, and suggests it would be used for hydrogen production.

After his presentation, I asked Xu to clarify the difference between the two timelines and the state of government financing, but he declined.

The second timeline shows the 1-GW reactors going to work for hydrogen production, a process that China mentioned at last year’s conference, held in Shanghai. Xu reiterated that China would combine hydrogen with carbon dioxide to form methanol, a clean energy source.


China has also talked about using TMSRs for coal gasification, and to convert coal to olefin and coal to diesel.

Xu told me the TMSRs would be used for electricity generation as well, although one slide in his presentation notes that the aim is to develop “non-electric” applications. Earlier this week at the conference, Nobel prize winning physicist Carlo Rubbia repeated an observation of his from a few years ago that China could generate the 2007 equivalent of its total electricity production – 3.2 trillion kWh, using a relatively small amount of thorium.

With those ambitious plans and with the program currently funded at around $400 million, Xu suggested that at some next stage the TMSR program will need an extra $2 billion “for the whole alternatives.”

China is collaborating with the U.S. Department of Energy on the molten salt-cooled reactor, which is the only publicly declared MSR programme in the world with funding in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The four-day ThEC, which ended on Thursday, included a clarion call from former UN weapons inspector Hans Blix for thorium fuel as an anti-proliferation choice, and an equally loud entreaty by Rubbia who said thorium has “pre-eminence” over uranium, the conventional nuclear fuel. One big uranium devotee, nuclear giant Areva, announced a thorium collaboration with Belgian chemical company Solvay.

The conference, on the campus of international physics lab CERN, featured lively discussions of how best to deploy thorium, including driving them with particle accelerators, and using uranium isotopes to start a thorium fission reaction.

Photo of Xu Hongjie and Anil Kakodkar is by Mark Halper.

Charts are from Xu Hongjie’s ThEC13 presentation.

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


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.”


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.


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.


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.


Bill Gates TED Jurvetson Flickr

Opening the nuclear Gates. TerraPower, Bill Gates’ nuclear company, is now open to reactor types other than its traveling wave design. The traveling wave remains the company’s focus, although Terra has morphed it into more of a “standing wave.”

TerraPower, the Bill Gates-chaired nuclear company that is developing a fast reactor, is now  investigating alternative reactor technologies, including thorium fuel and molten salt reactors.

While the company’s “big bet” continues to be on a fast reactor that TerraPower calls a traveling wave reactor (TWR), it is exploring other designs that could offer improvements in safety, waste and economics, CEO John Gilleland told me in a phone interview.

“We are an innovation house, so we like to look at other approaches,” Gilleland said. “Our big bet is on the traveling wave reactor because it fulfills so many of the goals that we would like to see nuclear achieve. But we’re always looking for innovations that lead to better safety or minimization of waste and so forth and so we have several things going there. Although those activities are small, that’s the way large activities get started.”

TerraPower’s interest in alternatives such as molten salt reactors (MSRs) came to light last month when the company’s director of innovation, Jeff Latkowski, surfaced in the audience at the Thorium Energy Alliance Conference in Chicago. The two-day gathering included presentations on thorium fuel and on reactors including molten salt reactors, high temperature solid fuel reactors, accelerator driven reactors, and others.

Latkowski quietly joined the five-year-old Bellevue, Wash., company a year ago to look after alternative approaches to nuclear. “My job at TerraPower is everything outside the Traveling Wave Reactor,” Latkowski told me in an email exchange after the Chicago event.


That includes MSRs, the design known by its enthusiasts to efficiently and safely produce high temperature heat for electricity generation and for industrial processes. MSRs use liquid fuel that cannot melt down and that harmlessly drains into a holding tank in the event of an emergency. They operate at atmospheric pressure rather than at potentially dangerous high pressures associated with conventional reactors. MSRs augur improvements in waste and a reduction in weapons proliferation threats, especially if they run thorium fuel. Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory built an experimental version in the 1960s, under the direction of Alvin Weinberg.

Another benefit for MSRs, as Gilleland noted, is that “your fuel is not as susceptible to the sort of neutron damage that other approaches are.” In other words, MSRs have a much higher “burn up” – they make greater use of fuel – than do conventional solid fuel reactors.

“We’re thinking about it and trying to work on it and we have a few proprietary ideas that we’re cooking up,” Gilleland said in relation to MSRs. He did provide details of the “proprietary” ideas, noting that, “We like to work on an idea for a while before we run out and tell about it – so we have some ideas which we’re trying to ferret out how good they are.”

Director of innovation Latkowski declined to say whether or not TerraPower has filed any MSR patents. In addition to running innovation and related partnerships, Latkowski also “oversees the development, maintenance and protection of TerraPower’s intellectual property portfolio” according to his company bio. TerraPower is a spin out of Intellectual Ventures, an innovation and venture capital firm that makes a business out of patents and is known as a keen collector and protector of intellectual property. It is headed by Nathan Myhrvold, a former Microsoft chief strategist and technology officer who serves as TerraPower’s vice chairman.

Nathan Myhrvold TerraPowerVideoYoutube

Patently speaking. TerraPower vice chairman Nathan Myhrvold is CEO of Intellectual Ventures, a company whose business is intellectual property. TerraPower is an Intellectual Ventures spin out. Above, Myhrovld describes the environmental merits of nuclear in 2011.

I asked CEO Gilleland about the extent to which TerraPower bases its MSR ideas on the Oak Ridge design. “Oh everybody goes back to that as a good reference point, and we have considerable departures from it that we’re thinking about,” he said. “So we’re just having a lot of fun with it. That’s how you get good ideas.”

According to Gilleland, MSRs still face technological hurdles, including the avoidance of corrosion in the reactor materials. He also said that TerraPower would want to assure that an MSR could reprocess fuel without having to remove it. Any removal increases proliferation possibilities of waste falling into the wrong hands. (One of the strong suits that TerraPower claims for its TWR is that, unlike other fast reactors, the TWR does not require the expensive and potentially hazardous removal of spent fuel to reprocess into usable fuel).

“We prefer a system where you can leave fuel in the reactor for a long time,” he noted.


TerraPower is also investigating the possibility of deploying thorium, a fuel that Gilleland said could trump uranium by virtue of thorium’s wider availability. There is about four times more thorium than uranium in the world.

But Gilleland noted that the attributes of TerraPower’s TWR fast reactor could offset any need for thorium. The TWR is the design that TerraPower has proposed for converting depleted uranium into plutonium that would burn for about 60 years before requiring refueling. It is a type of fast reactor – a reactor that does not slow down or moderate neutrons as today’s commercial “thermal reactors” do.

What about other nuclear technology alternatives, such as high temperature solid fuel reactors?

“We’re looking at all of them,” said Gilleland. “There’s no one at the top of our list right now.”

He described Latkowski’s innovation initiative as a “skunk works” that’s not a formal division but rather is a framework for encouraging lateral thinking. He likened it to innovative information technology companies that facilitate free thinking time for employees.

“It’s like Google and other places – the best ideas sometimes came from the person doing the backstroke in the swimming pool, or at home thinking,” said Gilleland. “So we want to just make sure that people have a certain fraction of their time for free thinking.”


One nuclear technology that TerraPower most likely won’t be pursuing is fusion.

“I have a soft spot in my heart for fusion, having run the ITER program and things like that, but it’s something I can’t count on for my grandchildren,” said Gilleland, whose background includes having served as U.S. managing director on the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), based now in Cadarache, France. Innovation director Latkowski also comes from a fusion background. Before joining TerraPower last year, he was chief scientist on the commercialization program at the National Ignition Facility, the U.S.’s massive laser fusion project at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

“We’re focused more on fission rather than fusion,” Gilleland said. “Fusion just takes so much more development and so much more time.” Other companies, like General Fusion, Helion Energy, Lawrenceville Plasma Physics, Tri-Alpha Energy and Lockheed Martin might disagree.

So how real are the company’s fission possibilities outside of the TWR?

“If we do things right , we’ll have some interesting things to talk about,” he said.

His interest in broadening nuclear development at TerraPower echoes remarks made in the past by TerraPower chairman and software billionaire Gates. In a 2010 presentation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Gates pointed out that “nuclear innovation stopped in the 1970s”and encouraged the industry to move to alternative nuclear technologies.

Gilleland described reactors such as the MSR as “futuristic” compared to the traveling wave, noting the TWR will come out first. The company thinks the TWR can be ready by the mid-2020s.


Development work and partnerships on the TWR are progressing, and TerraPower has already made a notable design change. AlthoughTerraPower still refers to its reactor as a “traveling wave,” it has turned it into more of a “standing wave” design.

In a TWR, first proposed in the 1950s, a cylinder of depleted uranium burns slowly like a candle, breeding plutonium (in a breeding “wave”) which fissions and produces heat. But as the World Nuclear Association notes, TerraPower has, “changed the design to be a standing wave reactor, since too many neutrons would be lost behind the traveling wave of the previous design and it would not be practical to remove the heat efficiently.” (TerraPower’s design calls for removing heat with a liquid sodium coolant).

In the new standing wave design, the fission reaction starts “at the centre of the reactor core, where the breeding wave stays, and operators would move fresh fuel from the outer edge of the core progressively to the wave region to catch neutrons, while shuffling spent fuel out of the centre to the periphery,” WNA explains.

As Gilleland put it, “We decided to have the fuel move past the wave rather than have the wave move past the fuel.” (The neutron loss might help explain why Gilleland is attracted to the MSR’s tendency to avoid neutron damage).

“It’s basically the same physics of what we started out with,” he said. “It’s just the practical considerations associated with making the most use of every neutron, and the engineers’ love of keeping the cooling system in one place, and not chasing the wave. It didn’t set us back at all. It was just sort of a natural evolution and one of the variations on the theme we’d been studying all along and then we just finally decided to switch to this standing wave. It just made some things easier.”

TerraPower believes it can start up a 600-megawatt prototype reactor by 2022 and have its first fast reactor ready for deployment by the mid-2020s. To that end, it has entered development partnerships with many international and domestic research groups and companies. The partners include several outfits in Russia, a country that is emphasizing fast reactor development: state nuclear company Rosatom and its TVEL fuel group; the Scientific Research Institute of Atomic Reactors; and A.A. Bochvar High-technology Research Institute of Inorganic Materials.

In China, TerraPower has teamed with the China Institute of Atomic Energy, which is developing a fast reactor. Other partners include the Korean Atomic Energy Research Institute, Japan’s Kobe Steel. Domestically, TerraPower is working with, among others, MIT, the University of California Berkeley, Oregon State University, the University of Michigan, Texas A&M University, the University of Nevada and a number of private companies. For a full list see TerraPower’s “partners” page.

It will be interesting to see if any MSR partners begin to appear on the website.

Photo of Bill Gates talking about nuclear and the environment at a 2010 TED talk is by Steve Jurvetson, via TED and Flickr. Photo of Nathan Myhrvold is a screen grab from a TerraPower video via New America Foundation and YouTube.

NOTE: This version corrects an earlier one that stated the TWR performs online reprocessing. It does not. Its fuel does not require reprocessing. Not only does it not have to remove fuel for reprocessing – an advantage over other fast reactors – it does not have to reprocess at all.. Also, Jeff Latkowski was chief scientist for NIF’s commercialization program, called Laser Inertial Fusion Energy (LIFE), not for all of NIF as originally stated. Corrected July 24 at 3:10 p.m. UK time.

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