Posts Tagged MSR

The impact of Brexit on clean energy

Posted by Stephen Tindale on June 27th, 2016

What will be the impact of Brexit on clean energy in the UK? Answer: nobody knows, because nothing is remotely clear in British politics now. Who will be prime minister? Will there be an early general election? What will be the relationship between the UK and the remaining EU member-states? Will there even be a UK?

However, some broad predictions can be made – and they are not optimistic.

In the short term, there will probably not be significant change in the policy framework. But there will be further slowdown in investment in energy infrastructure: potential investors do not like instability. Investment in renewables will be reduced because the UK will no longer be obliged to meet the 2020 legally-binding renewables target. Investment in new nuclear will also be reduced: progress on Hinkley looks even less likely this week than it did last. Investment in new  interconnectors will probably suffer less. Other countries’ governments may be very cross with Britain, but that will not stop them wanting to sell us more electricity.

In the medium- to long-term, some laws governing the energy sector will probably be revoked or weakened. The free market right of the Conservative party has been strengthened, and attacks on ‘Brussels red tape’ were frequent in the successful Leave campaign. There were criticisms of the EU’s 2010 Industrial Emissions Directive, which limits air pollution emissions from power stations and protects public health ( However, air pollution is quite high on the UK political and media agendas. So the Industrial Emissions Directive will probably remain in force post-Brexit.

Weaker climate policies

Climate policies look more vulnerable, because there is a significant overlap between Euroscepticism and climate scepticism. The UK’s Climate Change Act, which commits the UK to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80 per cent (from1990 levels) by 2050, was passed with all party support in 2008 – only five MPs voted against. There are more climate sceptic Conservative MPs now than there were in 2008, and likely to be even more following a general election called by the new prime minister. But the new government is not likely to repeal the Act. Instead, it will probably weaken it by adopting less ambitious ‘carbon budgets’. The Act requires governments to set such budgets for four year periods, on advice from a Committee on Climate Change. The Cameron government has yet to accept the Committee’s latest recommendation.

The 2010-15 Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government implemented an Emissions Performance Standard banning the construction of new coal power stations unless they have carbon capture and storage. The opposition Labour party tried to get this applied to existing coal as well (as Obama is doing with his Clean Power Plan). There is now little likelihood of this happening. And the promise made by energy and climate secretary Amber Rudd (a leading Remain campaigner) to close unabated coal by 2025 looks unlikely to be met. Rudd said in her speech announcing this target that it would only be implemented if consistent with energy security. The slow down in energy infrastructure considered above makes the target much more challenging.

The coalition also introduced a ‘carbon floor price’: emissions allowances under the EU Emissions Trading System are not sold in the UK if the auction bid is lower than £18 per tonne of carbon dioxide. This raises around £2 billion a year, ( ), so a Chancellor of the Exchequer will not want to abolish it. But making UK operators pay around three times the cost of allowances elsewhere in Europe does not help UK competitiveness, so the next Chancellor will come under considerable pressure to scrap it.

Advanced nuclear power

Post-Brexit, there will be less Europe-wide collaboration on energy R&D. This will hamper research. In the words of Universities for Europe:

“Working together, UK and European researchers can pool their resources, expertise, data and infrastructure to achieve more together than they could do alone. Many of today’s challenges are global, not national. In the EU, researchers can collaborate more easily to come up with solutions on an international scale, making the most of Europe’s diversity to achieve bigger and better results. EU frameworks, programmes and funding support collaboration are reducing the barriers to working across borders.” (

This additional barrier does not make energy R&D impossible. The UK must continue to invest in energy innovation. Chancellor George Osborne promised in his 2015 Autumn Statement £250 million over five years for nuclear innovation. In his March 2016 Budget he allocated £30 million to a Small Modular Reactor (SMR) competition. The Department of Energy and Climate Change is currently talking to potential SMR developers.  This is in line with our recommendations (see  However, the referendum result means that the UK government has less money than expected. And a competition does not guarantee that money will be provided. The UK ran a competition on Carbon Capture and Storage but then cancelled it without giving any awards. The top priority for Weinberg Next Nuclear in the coming months will be to try to ensure that the SMR competition continues and leads to financial support to developers.

Transatomic Power publishes details of MSR concept

Posted by David Martin on May 20th, 2014

Transatomic Power

Back in 2012, we blogged about Transatomic Power (TAP), a Boston-based start-up aiming to design what they call a Waste Annihilating Molten Salt Reactor (WAMSR). TAP have now released a technical white paper which provides greater detail about their reactor concept.

The paper reveals that their 520MWe MSR concept makes use of a zirconium hydride moderator combined with a lithium fluoride fuel salt. This innovative combination would enable the reactor to run on spent nuclear fuel, or fresh low-enriched uranium, thus providing both a high level of proliferation resistance and an efficient way of consuming existing nuclear waste. TAP also suggest that the use of hydrogen-dense zirconium hydride as moderator, instead of graphite, will reduce the size and cost of the reactor vessel.

Like all MSR concepts, TAP’s reactor offers very high fuel burn-up, up to 96%, and a range of passive safety features. TAP believe that their reactor could be constructed for just $2 billion per plant, with a 3-year build time.

This is just one of many exciting MSR concepts being developed around the world. As others have reported, start ups are now home to some of the boldest innovations in nuclear energy. For more information on other MSR projects worldwide, see our world map.

We’ll be following TAP’s progress with great interest. Check out the technical white paper here.

DFR Lesson Weibach

Molten salt seminar. Nico Bernt of Berlin’s Institute for Solid-State Nuclear Physics gives a tutorial on the Dual Fluid Reactor, which is a molten salt reactor that he advocates as a source of industrial process heat, as well as for electricity.

A funny thing happened on the way to the final round of Germany’s prestigious GreenTec Awards. A molten salt reactor that the public had voted into the August 30th gala gathering vanished from the competition, muscled out by none other than the contest’s organizers.

It seemed like an odd turn of events, considering that GreenTec exists to honor “ecological and economic consciousness and commitment,” as it says on its website.

What could be more ecologically sound than the Dual-Fluid Reactor, an MSR entered into the contest by Berlin’s Institute for Solid-State Nuclear Physics. MSRs and other advanced nuclear designs auger a CO2-free energy future and represent clear improvements in nuclear safety, efficiency, and waste management when compared to conventional nuclear. The Dual-Fluid Reactor (DFR) is no exception (click on the video below to learn more about it, including how it can be used as a source of industrial process heat to make hydrogen and synthetic fuels).

Clearly, a significant portion of the German public understands this. The Dual-Fluid Reactor (DFR)  made it to the finals on the strength of an open, online voting round. Under the rules of the competition, GreenTec judges select two finalists in each of the contest’s eight categories, and the public selects the third.


While the judges did not send the DFR to Berlin, some sensible common folks did, bestowing the DFR as one of the three shortlisted contenders for the vaunted Galileo category, a science-oriented award sponsored by German media company Pro-Sieben.

But this is Germany, where the energy lords extol renewables like solar and wind, and where the government decided two years ago to walk away from nuclear in the aftermath of Fukushima. GreenTec, backed by clean technology company VKPartners GmbH, counts Germany’s energy minister Peter Altmaier as its patron. Altmaier will be participating on the Berlin awards stage (where it might have been a tad uncomfortable for an anti-nuclear government to potentially salute a nuclear energy technology).

So GreenTec took swift action, and disqualified the DFR. Airbrushed it right out of the picture.

DFR Comparison Weibach

Economic case. The DFR compared to conventional reactors, or “LWRs” (light water reactors), according to developer Daniel Weibach.

The development stunned the Institute.

“On June 4, we have been disqualified and denominated by the jury, with no explanation,” it wrote on its website. “Rules have been changed afterwards to allow for a denomination of the online voting.”

Outrage ensued, as DFR supporters accused GreenTec of changing the voting rules to suit their own interests.

German blogger Rainer Klute – a regular commenter on Weinberg blogs –  noted:

“People who had campaigned for the award and for the DFR were heavily shocked. Not only they found the decision as such completely incomprehensible, but also the procedure to make it. Changing rules in the course of the game is something that is usually considered less than fair. Most of us (but obviously not all) learned this early in our childhood. No wonder the award’s makers were criticized violently in blogs and social media, especially on their own Facebook page.”

GreenTec has posted an explanation on Facebook. It’s in German which I unfortunately don’t read. I asked GreenTec to clarify its actions for me in English. A spokeswoman replied via email that, “Indeed, it is true that our jury disqualified the project Dual Fluid Reactor (DFR) in the Galileo category. However, it is not true that we in any way changed the rules of participation for this specific case!”


The spokeswoman said that the Institute had violated a clause in the application process “which obliges participants to provide truthful information about their projects, ensuring an objective evaluation process.” She also noted that “The organizers are authorized to disqualify the applicant as well as take away his/her rights to the title.” They also stripped another finalist, called Care Energy.

She did not elaborate on the violation in the DFR application. I asked her to provide more details, which had not arrived at the time of publishing this blog.

Meanwhile, GreenTec is looking forward to its glitzy Aug. 30 evening, sans nuclear, when they will anoint winners in the Galileo category as well as in production, energy, mobility, aviation, recycling, communication, and building and living.

On that night, GreenTec says, stars will step out “demonstrating their enthusiasm for climate protection.”

Attention stars: You could shine brighter with MSR power.

Go to DFR class with the designers Nico Bernt and Daniel Weibach in this YouTube video:

Images are screen grabs from the Institute for Solid-State Nuclear Physic’s DFR video, via YouTube.

OakRidge MSRE Welding

Welding past, present and future. David LeBlanc will combine features from Oak Ridge’s 1960s molten     salt reactor with the SmAHTR concept, to make his own “Integral Molten Salt Reactor.” That’s not LeBlanc above. It’s a welder finishing up the Oak Ridge MSR over 40 years ago.

The more I watch developments in the molten salt reactor field, the more impressed I am by the variety of innovative approaches.

While every molten salt reactor project I’ve encountered traces its inspiration and probably its basic design to the 1960s Oak Ridge National Laboratory project in Tennessee, the number of modifications that different labs are pursuing is starting to resemble the type of competitive differentiation that defines a free market.

Before I get too carried away, let me acknowledge that MSRs are a long way from the market (although with the right breaks, not as long as some would believe). Thus, it’s admittedly premature to compare them to the thriving technological leapfrogging of, say, the automobile or information technology industries.

But MSR companies nevertheless are in the early stages of trying to one-up each other as they all chase the general goal of building a reactor that runs on liquid fuel rather than on conventional solid fuel, and that provides a host of improvements in safety, efficiency and long-lived waste reduction.

The most recent case in point comes from the newest of the statups: Terrestrial Energy Inc., based in Ottawa Canada, and run by co-founder, president and chief technology officer David LeBlanc.

Dr. LeBlanc is an MSR expert who in January wrote a guest blog here in which he pointed out among other things that it would be in the best interest of the MSR industry to keep designs as simple as possible in order to stand a chance of commercializing within a reasonable time frame.

That advice struck me as sensible, so I made a point of following up with LeBlanc, who incorporated Terrestrial in late 2012 after several years of running an MSR intellectual property company called Ottawa Valley Research Associates.

We spoke by Skype last week, when LeBlanc explained the pragmatic reasoning behind his simplicity push, noting that, “You cannot underestimate the cost of nuclear R&D.”


He outlined his plan for simplicity. In keeping with the theme, let me attempt to keep it simple:  Terrestrial Energy is departing from the original Oak Ridge scheme that called for a two-fluid molten salt reactor that would breed its own fuel.  Instead, Terrestrial’s design calls for a single fluid reactor that would “burn” rather than breed. In the nuclear lexicon, LeBlanc’s reactor is known as a “burner” or a “converter”, not a “breeder.”

While a two-fluid breeder would be the “Ferrari” of MSRs, the world cannot afford to wait for its development, given the desperate need for CO2-free energy sources such as MSRs, notes LeBlanc.

Dual fluid breeder MSRs face a number of extra challenges that will prolong their development beyond that of a single fluid MSR. Among them:

  • The infamous “plumbing problem” that vexed Oak Ridge. In a two-fluid design, one fluid continuously breeds fuel, feeding it into another fluid where the nuclear reaction takes place. The pipes and materials that house and separate the fluids are subject to damaging wear and tear.
  • Dual fluid breeders require constant removal of fission products, which are the short-lived radioactive waste products of a nuclear reaction (different from the long-lived “actinide” wastes like plutonium) “That requires a lot of R&D and a lot of capital to develop,” notes LeBlanc, who points out that in the 1960s, Oak Ridge had planned to remove fission products on a 10-day cycle by removing a tenth of the salt each day.

Ergo, LeBlanc’s single fluid approach, which uses denatured uranium – low enriched uranium that is useless for weapons fabrication.

Compared to a breeder MSR, a burner based on denatured uranium has the obvious disadvantage of not running forever on its bred fuel. LeBlanc downplays that, noting a once-through cycle can last for up to 30 years in a single fluid MSR. In addition, the actinides – which are much less than in conventional reactor waste – could potentially be removed at that point and recycled into the next fuel batch, minimizing long-term waste storage needs.

DIAGRAM IMSRvsModularsvsBeetle2 2

Packing a punch. LeBlanc’s high power density design means that his IMSR can be smaller than other modular reactors. Above, he compares a 25 MWe and 300 MWe version of the IMSR to the SmAHTR design, and to more conventional modular reactors from Nuscale and Babcock & Wilcox. He borrows from a famous VW ad slogan. Spot the Beetle – it’s to scale.

Those 30 years, though, would require annual top-ups of uranium. But as LeBlanc points out, the amount would be only about one sixth of the uranium requirements for today’s conventional solid fuel reactors.

Toward the end of its molten salt reactor days, Oak Ridge designed and built a single fluid MSR to run on denatured uranium, along with thorium, called a DMSR.


Terrestrial Energy is drawing on that design, but is combining it with principles borrowed from another technology called SmAHTR, for Small Modular Advanced High Temperature Reactor.

The 50-megawatt (electric) SmAHTR is a conceptual innovation at Oak Ridge. It is a small version of the liquid cooled 1500 MWe AHTR  – on which Oak Ridge is collaborating with China  – that places the heat exchange inside the reactor vessel.

SmAHTR and AHTR introduce liquid cooling (molten salts) to high temperature next generation solid fuel reactors such as those that use TRISO fuel – pebble bed reactors – and those that use prismatic blocks where the fuel is embedded in graphite blocks that serve as the moderator. Those reactor designs have in the past typically used helium gas as a coolant, which presents various mechanical difficulties and requires high pressure.

LeBlanc believes that by switching the fuel into the molten salt, it offers many benefits of liquid fuel while retaining innovative features of the SmAHTR design. One such benefit: The reactor generates heat directly in the liquid fuel, which permits higher power density operation. Placing the heat exchanger inside the reactor vessel rather than outside – as with some other MSRs – helps.

That, in turn, will allow Terrestrial to build smaller but equally powerful reactors compared to other small modular manufacturers that are using more conventional solid fuel, water-cooled designs, such as Babcock & Wilcox (see diagram above).


Not to be outdone on the nomenclature front, and in keeping with the MSR industry’s nascent differentiation trend, Terrestrial gives its reactor a unique name: the Integral Molten Salt Reactor, or IMSR.

The IMSR will also include patent pending innovations, on which LeBlanc declines to publicly elaborate.

Another IMSR feature: It will use a core of graphite moderator slabs between which the fuel flows which LeBlanc says, “allows other advantages like tricks to limit the amount of neutrons reaching the vessel wall.” This addresses a problem that developers of liquid fuel fast reactors will find difficult to crack, he notes.

With the right combination of power density and core design Terrestrial could build the IMSR with upwards of six times the electrical output of the same size vessel as SmAHTR. It would require replacing the graphite core every four years. The fuel would reside temporarily in a holding tank during the core swap. That marks an improvement over the SmAHTR concept, which requires a swap of the solid fuel core every four years.

LeBlanc envisions IMSR reactor sizes ranging from 25 MWe to 300 MWe.

As with other MSR startups, such as the Japanese single fluid company Thorium Tech Solution, LeBlanc is undecided on exactly what salt he’ll use.  While FLiBe salt (lithium fluoride and beryllium fluoride) is commonly associated with dual fluid MSRs, its lithium isotope is problematic, for reasons I’ll examine in a subsequent blog.

LeBlanc says he is considering alternatives including sodium based salts.

In the long run, he has not ruled out a breeder design or thorium fuel, but for now, he’s focused on the single fluid uranium reactor.

“The burner is less challenging than the breeder,” notes LeBlanc. “It greatly reduces technological and regulatory hurdles.”

His goal is to commercialize the Terrestrial reactor by 2021. With his simple and SmAHTR combination, he stands a reasonable chance.

Photo from Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Diagram from David LeBlanc. 

Motoyasu Kinoshita NRKno

Moto-yasu Kinoshita speaking in Norway in 2011. Kinoshita hopes to run molten salt fuel tests at Norway’s Halden reactor.

Japan’s fleet of conventional nuclear reactors remains mostly shut following the Fukushima meltdowns two years ago but a significant aspect of it lives on – its high level nuclear waste.

One company has a plan that would use that waste for fuel in an altogether different type of reactor and thus turn Japan’s troubled nuclear past into a revived future.

Tokyo-based Thorium Tech Solution (TTS) wants to combine the reactors’ waste – their spent fuel full of actinides like plutonium – with thorium, the element that many people believe makes a superior alternative nuclear fuel to today’s uranium.

And rather than use the fuel in conventional solid rod form, TTS would put it into a liquid, molten salt form. TTS’ molten salt reactor (MSR) would thus deliver the classic advantages of an MSR, while also helping Japan deal with its nuclear waste. Compared to conventional solid fuel uranium reactors MSRs are safer, cannot melt down, generate less long-lived dangerous and weapons-prone waste, and are more efficient. All the better if they use thorium instead uranium, many believe.

TTS, founded by the late Dr. Kazuo Furukawa, bases its designs on the work of Dr. Alvin Weinberg, who built a thorium MSR in the 1960s at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

Furukawa started TTS in 2011, soon before his death in December of that year at the age of 84. TTS picked right up where his previous company, ITheMS (International Thorium Energy & Molten Salt Technology Inc.) left off. It aims to build a 160–megawatt electric MSR called a FUJI, and a smaller 7-megawatt model called a miniFUJI (in this case, the word “fuji” implies “the only one” – as in the only solution for a carbon free energy future).

ITheMS, which was run by Japanese politician Keishiro Fukushima with Furukawa as its chief scientist, closed in 2011 after it was unable to secure $300 million it had sought.


Furukawa, who devoted much of his career to molten salt nuclear research (in the early1980s he worked on an accelerator-drive molten salt system before shifting to the Oak Ridge design), was steeled on making TTS the success that ITheMS was not.

His successors at TTS are working hard to realize that. In a stroke of abject determination, his younger brother Masaaki Furukawa, who is the company’s president, has declared that TTS will build a working prototype by 2018 – not one near the scale of even a miniFUJI, but a tiny primitive version that will produce electricity and prove the concept.

Masaaki Furukawa’s fellow shareholders at TTS include Kazuo Furukawa’s son Kazuro, who is a professor at the Koh Energy Kasokuki higher energy accelerator research group; and chief engineer Moto-yasu Kinoshita.

Kinoshita is also a vice president of the International Thorium Molten Salt Forum and a researcher at the University of Tokyo. We featured him on the Weinberg blog last November from Shanghai, where he was proudly displaying a Chinese language version of Alvin Weinberg’s autobiography, The First Nuclear Era – The Life and Times of a Technological Fixer.

Motoyasu Kinoshita Weinberg Book Halper

The source. Kinoshita displays a Chinese language version of Alvin Weinberg’s autobiography at the       Thorium Energy Conference in Shanghai last November. Weinberg’s MSR design has inspired TTS and other new MSR companies.

I spoke with him  at length this week via Skype, when Kinoshita told me that TTS could begin building commercial FUJIs and miniFUJIs by around 2025.

Obviously, a lot has to happen between now and then, not the least of which will be that TTS has to secure funding.

The company is taking things in stages.

The focus at the moment will require that TTS raise a mere $300,000 – pocket change in the world of nuclear development – to soon test different molten salts. TTS wants to establish which it will use, as it tries to develop a fluid that will not corrode common nickel alloys such as hastelloy and inconel that would form the plumbing in an MSR.

While some competing MSR researchers want to substitute and develop exotic metal replacements, Kinoshita says that TTS is determined to stick with existing materials, an approach he calls “practical and cheaper.”


Instead of material moves, Kinoshita says TTS will apply “chemistry control” to come up with the right recipe of molten salt ingredients that would avoid corroding common alloys.

A typical fluid in MSR designs is a compound known as FLiBe, which is a mixture of lithium fluoride and beryllium fluoride. Kinoshita notes that it is the fluid that Oak Ridge National Laboratory used in the MSR it built in the 1960s under the direction of Weinberg (from whom the Weinberg Foundation, publisher of this blog, takes its name; “FLiBe” is also the namesake of Huntsville, Ala.-based MSR company Flibe Energy, another Oak Ridge inspired group).

In fact, Oak Ridge included beryllium to help avoid corrosion.

But Kinoshita notes that beryllium has its own problems.

“It is not easy to use beryllium – it’s a controlled material because of its toxicity,” he says.

And perhaps more to the point in TTS’ plans – beryllium does not get along well with plutonium, which is one of the “waste” elements that would help form TTS’ mixed thorium fuel.

So TTS is investigating other solutions, such as adding sodium to FLiBe. It is also considering another molten salt called FLiNaK, which is a combination of sodium, potassium and lithium.

Kinoshita is confident that TTS will be able to raise the $300,000, which he thinks could come from anti-nuclear weapon groups who would back the idea of destroying weapons-linked nuclear waste.


TTS could wrap up its molten salt tests by “this year or next,” Kinoshita says.

It could then focus on a bigger project, would require about $5 million: Testing the behaviour of nuclear waste’s transuranic elements like neptunium, plutonium, americium and curium.

For that, TTS plans to burn simulated-fuel versions of molten salts in a test reactor. It hopes to use the Halden reactor in Norway – the same place where Norway’s Thor Energy will soon begin irradiating a thorium-plutonium mix, with backing from Westinghouse and others.

Other possible test sites would be the Nuclear Research Institute in the Czech Republic, and Japan’s currently halted Japan Materials Testing Reactor.

Kinoshita envisions about five years of the transuranic tests. Then begins the heavy lifting of building the MSR and overcoming technical challenges that all MSR developers face.


Among the hurdles: molten salts in MSRs tend to solidify when temperature drop to around 460 degrees C.  Molten salt reactors are meant to operate at somewhere between 700 degrees C and 900 degrees C. That’s much higher than conventional reactors, and is a reason why MSRs can make more efficient use of fuel (higher temperatures burn more fuel). One of the great attributes of molten salts is that they don’t boil easily – thus they can flow as they need to in an MSR system at high temperatures.

But if things cool too much, they solidify, and pipes can burst. So-called “freezing accidents” would not pose meltdown type threats associated with extreme accidents in conventional reactors, but they would destroy the reactor.

Another challenge: TTS will have to develop chemistry to separate waste from fuel within its reactor. TTS is using a single fluid approach, unlike the dual fluid approach under development at other MSR projects. In a dual fluid MSR, one fluid produces fissile uranium 233 fuel from fertile thorium, and feeds that into a second fluid where reactions take place. TTS’ single fluid technology will have to apply a still unproven technique for separating the fissile uranium 233 from the fertile thorium and from wastes.

On the other hand, companies developing the two fluid approach will have to overcome materials challenges – in a typical MSR design, the silicon carbide that separates the two molten salt fluids can fail (which is why Furukawa decided on the single fluid approach in the first place).

All told, Kinoshita thinks TTS can start building commercial miniFUJIs and FUJIs by around 2025.

As for the 2018 proof of concept model? That will be tough, but not impossible. Scientific geniuses are welcomed to apply at TTS.

Photos: Kinoshita in Norway, Aksel Kroglund Persson/NRK. Kinoshita with Weinberg book, Mark Halper

Chu Obama Charles Watkins Wiki

“Before I go Mr. President, let me tell you about these molten salt reactors.” That’s a completely made-up conversation. But outgoing U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu (l), this week did say that small modular reactors will be key to the country’s low carbon energy future. MSRs are one variety of them.

You might have missed the quiet announcement earlier this week: The U.S. Department of Energy has opened a second round in its $450 million program to fund small modular nuclear reactors, following its grant to Babcock & Wilcox late last year.

In a logical scenario, the next recipient would receive about $227 million, or roughly the same as what B&W is believed to have won.

“The Energy Department will solicit proposals for cost-shared small modular reactor projects that have the potential to be licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and achieve commercial operation around 2025,” DOE said in a press release.

Small modular reactors (SMRs) are much smaller than the gigawatt-plus size of new conventional designs. DOE said it is “seeking 300 megawatts or smaller.”

They auger lower costs because they can be manufactured in more of an assembly-line manner and transported complete to a site, and because they would allow utilities and other end users to add power in increments. They also lend themselves to installation in remote areas where they could provide a less expensive alternative to diesel generators.


Another advantage: they can potentially serve as sources of clean heat for industrial processes in factories and oil fields.

Outgoing Energy Secretary Steven Chu made it clear that they are an important part of a low carbon energy future.

“As President Obama said in the State of the Union, the Administration is committed to speeding the transition to more sustainable sources of energy,” Chu said in the release. “Innovative energy technologies, including small modular reactors, will help provide low-carbon energy to American homes and businesses, while giving our nation a key competitive edge in the global clean energy race.”

The DOE release also says that SMRs will offer “innovative and effective solutions for enhanced safety, operations and performance.”


With all that in mind, it seems to me that DOE should take a serious look at molten salt reactors (MSRs) and pebble bed reactors (PBRs), rather than only look at shrunken versions of conventional uranium fueled, water-cooled reactor, such as what B&W is building with its 180-megawatt mPower reactor (utility Tennessee Valley Authority plans to deploy two mPower units by 2021).

“Conventional” SMR companies like Nuscale Power, Gen4 Energy  and Westinghouse could well vie for the next round with small water-cooled reactors. But is this not also a funding opportunity for MSR companies like Huntsville, Ala.’s Flibe Energy and Cambridge, Mass.-based Transatomic Power?

Most MSR designs tick the “smaller” box, and would certainly qualify in the “enhanced safety, operations and performance” category. They are meltdown proof, operate at normal atmospheric pressure rather than at the high pressure of  many water-cooled designs, and they make more efficient use of fuel because they operate at higher temperatures. They also leave less waste, and in certain designs, can use nuclear wast as fuel. DOE’s 2025 target would be feasible.

Transatomic might be counted out if it sticks firmly to its intention to build a 500-megawatt reactor, which is above the 300 megawatt ceiling stated by DOE. But it seems that at their early stage of development, Transatomic could tinker with size.

Flibe fits right into the modular size, as it’s targeting between 10 and 50 megawatts, and up to 250 megawatts.


And don’t rule out a pebble bed option, either. Like MSRs, gas-cooled PBRs run at high temperatures. They fit well into small, modular form factors. A DOE-China collaboration ties the two ideas together, as it is looking into using molten salt coolants in solid fuel high temperature reactor (MSRs uses molten salts as part of their liquid fuel mix, as well as for the coolants that aborb the heat of a nuclear reaction and transfer it to a turbine).

In fact conventional giant Westinghouse is the commercial adviser to the DOE-China project, so it could have an interest in applying for funding for an alternative design, although it is almost certainly much further along with its small conventional reactor.

There is plenty of cross-pollinated interest among the various alternative parties that together could build a case for funding alternative nuclear. Westinghouse  – the commercial adviser to the U.S.-China molten salt coolant project – ran the Advanced Reactors track at last November’s American Nuclear Society’s annual winter conference (ANS) in San Diego, where the presentations included molten salts and high temperature reactors.

They also included talks by University of California Berkeley nuclear engineering head Per Peterson (he chaired the 5-day conference as well), who is known for his  interest in pebble bed reactors and in molten salt coolants. Peterson is also on the board of advisors at MSR company Flibe. In fact Peterson chaired the 5-day conference. Massachusetts Institute of Technology research scientist Charles Forsberg, a member of the DOE-China team, also presented in the alternative nuclear track.

Another MIT expert, Richard Lester, is a key adviser to MSR company Transatomic. Lester is the head of the department of nuclear science and engineering at MIT, where he is also the “Japan Steel Industry Professor” (I conjure up images of molten salt reactors supplying heat to steel mills when I see that).


And MIT, of course, is home to President Obama’s nominee for Chu’s replacement as Energy Secretary, the pro-nuclear physicist Ernest Moniz.

These individuals are not all united behind all the same causes and companies, but most of them share a big vested interest in alternative nuclear. It seems as though together, they could raise government interest – and backing – in the area.

Of course they’ll have to find funding elsewhere as well. I could imagine an oil company getting behind the development of a small MSR, for among other reasons, to use as a heat source. Or space agency NASA. The military might also want to invest – an MSR could help domestic bases disconnect from the creaky public grid, as Flibe president Kirk Sorensen has pointed out.

How about venture capital? Maybe. Flibe has added Bram Cohen to its board of advisers. Cohen is the founder of Internet company BitTorrent, where he has experience at raising $40 million in venture capital. Transatomic is getting ready to attempt a “Series A” round of venture financing.

Those possibilities could make a good mix. A DOE award should be a possibility. In the current round it might be a long shot. But so was the moon.

Photo from Charles Watkins, White House photographer, via Wikimeda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kickstart a molten salt reactor? Why not?

Posted by Laurence O'Hagan on January 20th, 2013

Ex-MIT and nuclear expert Peter Reinhardt mines the viability of thorium fuelled molten salt reactors in his latest blog on thorium reactors.

An informative, digestible and compelling argument; offering up the ‘crazy’ idea that, in the face of  US congress impotence, why not crowd fund an MSR?:


India: A hotbed of molten salt

Posted by Mark Halper on January 18th, 2013

Written by guest blogger David LeBlanc

The Gateway of India, in Mumbai. The country could become a gateway to energy’s future, given its impressive work in molten salt reactors.


Please welcome our first guest blogger, Canadian molten salt reactor expert David LeBlanc. Dr. LeBlanc has just returned from India, where that country’s MSRs initiatives impressed him, to say the least. We asked him to say a lot more than that, and we’re glad we did…

The world is full of surprises isn’t it?  Well, I’ve just experienced quite a big one. I’ve just returned from the most amazing meeting of the minds in Mumbai – the Conference on Molten Salts in Nuclear Technology hosted at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC).

BARC is the sprawling campus – more akin to a small city – where a majority of India’s research into nuclear power takes place, on the outskirts of the heaving metropolis. It is a true microcosm of India really: a mix of impressive modern buildings and ranging down to what Western eyes, at least, might call slums. Through it all, no one can dispute the impressive work that has taken place here over the decades.

A little background first. India has been heavily involved in nuclear power research since the 1960s – much of the time on its own, since the world discovered to its disappointment that the country was also working towards nuclear weapons. With its testing of a warhead in 1974, India became a sort of pariah, with most other countries cutting off all nuclear ties – including civilian nuclear power.  This has been changing significantly over the past several years.

But since its very early days when led by BARC’s namesake, Homi Bhabha (the so-called “father of India’s nuclear programme”) India has had a very ambitious civilian nuclear power development vision.

Given India’s lack of easy to obtain uranium and its abundance of thorium, the long term plan has been to start first with uranium in heavy water reactors and then put those reactors’ plutonium along with thorium into a subsequent small fleet of sodium cooled fast breeder reactors. These fast reactors would produce U233. This U233 would then be used to start a large fleet of a more advanced breed of heavy water reactors that would operate a closed, self-sustaining cycle of thorium and U233, a very tough job as the solid fuel would need to be processed frequently.


The country’s steadfast commitment to this 3-stage, heavy water, to sodium cooled, to advanced heavy water evolution has been challenging, to say the least. India has built few reactors totaling only 4.8 GWe and nuclear power is unfortunately only a small fraction of India’s power production  – the majority comes from coal.

Because of this seemingly engrained roadmap, many of us molten salt  advocates – and yes, I am one – didn’t expect to convince India of the merits of molten salt reactors even though MSRs are well known for their ability to breed fuel using thorium, or in even simpler forms, for their ability to use uranium many times more efficiently than do water cooled reactors.

And now, for the surprise, which has come to me in waves over the last few months, starting last summer when the conference organizers asked me to give a plenary talk. I was more surprised several weeks ago when the list of scheduled talks surfaced with 11 of the 25 presentations by Indian researchers. And then, the best surprise of all: after three great days of talks, I am truly impressed with the quantity and quantity of Indian work on the subject.

I left Mumbai with a conference proceedings of over 50 papers, two thirds of them by Indian authors. There were a couple dozen of us contributors from outside India including Europe, the U.S., Canada and Japan. A representative from the Chinese Academy of Science’s MSR program, Zhimin Dai, was to present but visa issues held him up.

Speaking of which, at first glance someone might speculate that India’s new involvement in MSR research might be reactionary to China’s recent major foray into the field. Whether that was the spark or not, it was very evident that a great pent up interest has been released in India.

I have quite literally never seen such a large gathering of engineers and scientists with such an interest and more importantly, knowledge of molten salt technology.


This interest goes back to the 1970s when they directly contributed to Oak Ridge’s MSBR (molten salt breeder reactor) programme and we got to hear from many of those who contributed. From these Indian “old boys” I heard the same lament one hears from Oak Ridge’s “old boys” of what a shame it is this technology was left behind. I also heard the same enthusiasm for its current renaissance.

Indian researchers presented a variety of work on fluid fueled molten salt reactors but also on the idea of using similar molten salts as coolants – but not fuels –in what are known as FHRs (fluoride salt cooled high temperature reactors).

The FHR concept originated in the U.S. some ten years ago and is also a big part of China’s program.  Some MSR advocates might malign this “salt cooled” work as some sort of half measure in comparison to “salt fueled” MSRs.

While FHRs lack the extensive list of potential benefits that MSRs can claim, some researchers view FHR as a simpler first step. I see the merit of FHR design and have ideas in that regard myself but view it as a parallel path with MSRs, certainly not FHR first, true MSRs later.

As the audience was fully aware of MSR’s background and promise in terms of safety, cost, resource sustainability and long lived waste reduction I was able to focus on MSR reactor design. I presented on choices including my work on the “tube within tube two fluid MSR” which looks to solve the “plumbing problems” that led ORNL to abandon the promising two fluid approach in 1968. I also provided a few hints towards a new design concept I hope has much potential, and for which I have filed patents.


Much of my presentation, though, focused on a simpler route forward through an MSR design which is known as a converter reactor and in particular a form of converter known as a denatured molten salt reactor (DMSR, with “denatured” meaning that any uranium employed is useless for weapons fabrication).

This approach uses both mined uranium and thorium together, or simply uranium alone. It is not a breeder like many MSR concepts but results in a much simpler reactor with far less R&D especially since it skips any sort of fuel processing.

The minor drawback is that it requires small amounts of annual uranium in order to top up the fuel cycle. But the amount is just a fraction of what conventional reactors require. A DMSR operator would only need to spend about 0.05 cents per kwh on uranium, and would not be adversely affected by any rising uranium prices either – not even by, say, a ten-fold increase over today’s low price level.

The message: MSRs are not just the best “thorium” reactor, they are also the best “uranium” reactor. It really is the engine, not the fuel that is the story. Come for the thorium, stay for the reactor as my tag line of late has been.

I’m back in Canada now, with Mumbai and my gracious hosts at BARC and the constant din of car horns still very much on my mind. And I can’t help but feel the world is a lot closer than it was before this conference to a future with a sustainable and affordable source of energy. It’s a good feeling, a good feeling indeed.

Photo: Rhaessner via Wikimedia

Dr. David LeBlanc is President and CTO of Terrestrial Energy Inc., an Ottawa company committed to the commercial development of MSR technology. For many years Dr. LeBlanc has been heavily involved in the design and advocacy of molten salt reactors and has authored numerous scientific and general media publications. He was the founder of MSR pioneer Ottawa Valley Research Associates. His design philosophy has been to simplify systems as much as possible while retaining the many strong advantages of MSRs. Dr. LeBlanc holds a Phd in Physics from the University of Ottawa.

Public perceptions: The next step in nuclear safety

Posted by Mark Halper on January 11th, 2013

Safe talk. APCO’s Roger Hayes addressing the World Nuclear Power Briefing Europe conference last month about public perceptions of safety and other nuclear issues.

I’m going to take a few liberties with a presentation I had the privilege to hear in Warsaw last month, and tell you how the presenter, a public relations expert, made a fine argument, if perhaps subliminal, for alternative nuclear power.

Speaking at the World Nuclear Power Briefing Europe 20102 conference, Roger Hayes, a senior counsellor with Washington, D.C.-public affairs specialist APCO Worldwide, made a convincing case for the nuclear industry to collaborate globally in order to offset the public perception that nuclear is unsafe and untrustworthy.

“Nuclear remains quite introverted and largely nationalistic,” Hayes told a high level audience of nuclear executives and experts, advising the industry to break those habits if it is to overcome a widely held international view that nuclear power is dangerous.

In an APCO survey of a broad range of nuclear impressions, world opinion leaders rank nuclear next to last in safety behind all forms of energy other than shale oil, which nuclear barely beat.

“Safety as we all know is a clear issue for the industry,” Hayes said. “Perceptions on the safety of nuclear are polarized.”

Public opposition to nuclear tends to overlook that its safety record is far superior to oil, gas and coal. To help reverse that oversight, “What we need is a new, more holistic narrative about the nuclear industry,” Hayes said.

Safety last. In an APCO survey, opinion leaders ranked nuclear next to bottom in their safety perception of energy sources.

He’s right, and that’s where I’ll expand with some of my own interpretations, which echo my recent thoughts on the World Nuclear Association’s rebranding efforts.

Hayes did not mention “alternative nuclear” by name.

But to take a whole view, if you will, of “holistic,” the new narrative should include the alternative technologies that would directly address public fears – two of the biggest of which center around possible meltdowns and hazardous nuclear waste.

Conventional uranium fueled, water cooled reactors do run the risk of meltdown, although they almost never, ever get to that stage. The meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant that followed Japan’s tragic 2011 earthquake and tsunami have unfortunately reawakened the specter of such threats.


Alternative technologies – a liquid thorium molten salt reactor (MSR) or a pebble bed reactor, for just two examples – would be virtually meltdown proof, as nuclear fission would cease in the event of an accident. In the case of the MSR, fuel would also drain harmlessly into a tank.

Alternative technologies like the MSR and fast reactors would also minimize waste and in some cases would actually turn waste into fuel, thus usefully eliminating the worrisome challenge of where to store it.

Hayes’ notion of a collaborative, holistic approach to safety also includes, in his words, “a broader view in terms of scientific transfer outside of the industry, and supporting nuclear physics spinoffs and so on.” And he advises involving other industries.

On these counts, I would add that the status quo nuclear powers like Westinghouse, Areva, GEH and their utility customers, could divert resources into research and entrepreneurial projects to develop alternative designs for reactors and for safer, more efficient fuels like thorium. And they could partner with industrial users who might want to deploy novel designs for novel purposes – say, a small thorium fueled liquid molten salt reactor as a source of process heat.

Hayes also advocated greater “transparency.” You know what I’m going to say next, so I’ll keep it short, lest my own narrative stretch beyond the reasonable length limit of a regular blog posting:

The nuclear powers that be are making admirable safety advances within their own conventional constructs. But if they really want to impress the public with the “even safer” possibilities, they have to start talking more openly about alternative technologies, rather than fear the disruption that those technologies might cause to their own business.

Images: Photo of Roger Hayes by Mark Halper. Safety chart from Roger Hayes’ presentation in Warsaw.


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