Posts Tagged MSRs

Why I have joined the Alvin Weinberg Foundation

Posted by Stephen Tindale on June 4th, 2015

“I cannot really complain too much about solar utopians: their dreams are noble and ought to be encouraged. On the other hand, when these dreams of solar utopia are used as political instruments to eliminate the nuclear option, I believe it is most important to object.”

Alvin Weinberg, ‘Toward an acceptable nuclear future’, 1977.

I am a former renewable energy utopian – though, since I live in the UK, I am more excited about wind power than I am about solar. I spent 20 years campaigning against nuclear, the last 5 of them as head of Greenpeace UK. I protested outside nuclear power stations. Then I realised that I had been wrong; that renewable energy cannot expand quickly enough to phase out fossil fuels and protect the climate. I concluded that opposition to nuclear power is not compatible with any attempt to control climate change. And, because many of my former colleagues in green groups were continuing with anti-nuclear campaigns, I too felt that it was important to object. So for the last 6 years I have been speaking out in favour of nuclear power, and was delighted last month to start working for the Alvin Weinberg Foundation.

Alvin Weinberg was not only a world-renowned nuclear scientist, but also one of the world’s first climate campaigners. He warned of the dangers of increased carbon dioxide concentrations in the 1970s; over a decade before James Hansen’s historic Congressional evidence in 1988. (That is not in any way intended to downplay Hansen’s immense contribution to climate science or, indeed, to campaigning.) Weinberg also spoke out against the dangers of technology tribalism. We need to use every tool to mitigate the climate and energy crises. We do not need nuclear or renewables; we need nuclear and renewables. That is even more strongly the case today in 2015 than it was in the 1970s.

In the 1977 paper quoted above, Weinberg speaks of the need “to set the nuclear ship back on course”. Thirty -eight years later, it definitely needs to be set back on course again, particularly in Europe. The European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) that is supposed to be constructed in the UK may well get abandoned; EDF have not yet taken a final investment decision, and the EPRs being built in France and Finland are well over time and over budget. The latest in a long line of problems is that Areva have used the wrong type of steel at the EPR site in France, and the steel is already encased in concrete.

The EPR is a very complex design. Other existing nuclear reactor designs (so-called generation 3 or 3+) are less complex and need to be built, because they are proven, demonstrated and ready to go. However, more advanced designs must also be researched, developed and demonstrated. This should include both Integral Fast Reactors and Molten Salt Reactors (MSRs), the technology which Weinberg himself pioneered at Oak Ridge in the 1960s. MSRs have many potential benefits over current nuclear reactors:

* The plant can operate at near atmospheric pressure. The fuel salt used in MSRs has no chemical reactivity with air or water. So MSRs cannot explode.

* The liquid salt returns to a solid form at ambient temperatures. This, combined with installed passive safety systems, would automatically shut down advanced reactors avoiding future situations like  Fukushima and Chernobyl.

* Some advanced reactors could be fuelled by existing nuclear waste from conventional nuclear reactors. This ‘waste’ still contains over 90% of the energy that was in the uranium, so can be used many times as fuel. At the end of the process these advanced reactors would still produce some waste, but much less by volume than the waste produced by a conventional nuclear plant.

* Certain next-generation reactors can use plutonium as fuel. The UK has the world’s largest stockpile of plutonium, a result of two decades of reprocessing and failure to use mixed-oxide (Mox) fuel.

* Advanced reactors could be very fuel efficient – up to 75 times more electricity per ton of fuel than an out-dated conventional light-water reactor.

*Next generation reactors could be designed to be small and modular (producing up to 300 megawatts) which would suit power needs in remote locations. Compact versions of MSRs could be built in a central factory and assembled on site. This would reduce costs.

* Modular reactors could be constructed adjacent to industrial sites so that waste heat from the reactor could be used for heat-intensive processes such as desalination or the production of aluminium, cement, ammonia and synthesised fuels.

* Some advanced reactors are ideally suited to the sustainable production of medical isotopes, used for scans and to treat cancer. These isotopes are currently in short supply.

* Most next generation reactors would use approximately 97% less water than conventional nuclear reactors.

The Alvin Weinberg Foundation is committed to highlighting these benefits, to politicians and the public, and seeing the potential of advanced nuclear power realised. There are companies seeking to build prototype MSRs in the UK. If the EPR is abandoned, a sensible reaction by the new British government would be to support an advanced nuclear technology demonstration project in the UK.

UK Technology Strategy Board backs new Molten Salt Reactor study

Posted by David Martin on June 9th, 2014

By Dan Mason, from Flickr

Photo by Dan Mason from Flickr

In an exciting development, a bid to study next-gen Molten Salt Reactors (MSRs) has won funding from the Technology Strategy Board, the UK government’s strategic innovation agency. MSRs could be a game-changing way of producing clean electricity, so this is great news for all who support the revival of clean energy R&D to tackle climate change.

The bid was led by the indefatigable Jasper Tomlinson and Professor Trevor Griffiths. In a first for the UK, the project will produce a rigorous desk- and computer-based study of the feasibility of a pilot-scale MSR, based on the latest science.

The TSB’s decision is welcome. This project marks another step in the revitalization of the UK’s next-gen nuclear R&D — although it goes without saying that much more needs to be done.

That said, it is further confirmation that MSRs are no longer seen as “pie in the sky” technology. As R&D gains momentum worldwide – from startups like Transatomic Power and Bill Gate’s Terrapower to China’s research efforts — MSRs are becoming increasingly serious contenders. As the TSB has recognised, the potential prize of safer, cheaper, more-efficient low carbon energy is too attractive to pass up.

We hope that the TSB’s decision is just the first phase of a well-resourced programme of UK MSR research.

We will post further details as we hear them. Keep an eye on the Weinberg’s blog for further updates and an interview with the winners themselves…

Congratulations to all involved in the bid!

NuScale OnTruck ChenectedAichieOrg

Alternative nuclear rolled ahead a bit this week, as the U.S. DOE agreed to fund NuScale’s small modular reactor, transportable on the back of a truck.

The U.S. Department of Energy has taken another “small” step toward shaking the nuclear industry out of its uninventive ways and towards innovative reactors that augur lower costs and improved operations and safety for a low CO2 future: It has granted up to $226 million in funding to an Oregon startup that is developing a “small modular reactor.”

The award to Corvallis, Oregon-based NuScale Power marks the second tranche of a $452 million program that DOE announced in March 2012. It comes a year after DOE’s first grant to North Carolina-based Babcock & Wilcox. That grant was reported at up to $225 million at the time, although DOE told me today that it has so far committed $101 million to the five-year B&W project through March 2014 and that it is currently reviewing the release of additional funds.

“Small modular reactors represent a new generation of safe, reliable, low-carbon nuclear energy technology,” U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said in announcing the award to NuScale. “The Energy Department is committed to strengthening nuclear energy’s continuing important role in America’s low carbon future.”


Like B&W, the NuScale design calls for a scaled-down conventional reactor, fueled by solid uranium, cooled by ordinary water and operated in a pressurized environment. By virtue of its smaller size, the NuScale “Integral Pressurized Water Reactor” (IPWR) portends lower costs because in principle it could be factory-built in more of an assembly line manner than could large conventional reactors; the idea is to ship them to a site via truck, rail or barge for final assembly. The “integral” design fits a reactor and a steam generator in an 80-foot by 15-foot cylinder.

The small size would also allow users such as utilities to purchase new reactors in less expensive increments rather than paying billions of dollars up front for conventionally sized reactors, which reach well over a gigawatt in electrical capacity. At 45 megawatts electric, the NuScale reactor provides about 3 percent the output of a 1.3-GW reactor. NuScale’s “modular” design permits up to 12 of the pressurized water reactors in a plant, for a total capacity of 540 MW.

NuScale, founded in 2007, has designed the IPWR to sit underground, thus protecting it from attack. The IPWR deploys a “passive cooling” system that would release a pool of water from above the reactor in the event of an emergency, rather than rely on pumps to circulate water (failed auxiliary electricity systems knocked out cooling at Japan’s Fukushima reactor, leading to meltdowns there).


NuScale partner Energy Northwest, a Richland, Wash. company that produces power for utilities, said that NuScale could develop a commercial six-to-12-reactor plant on the site of Idaho National Laboratory by 2024, which Energy Northwest would have the right to operate. Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, a cooperative of government entities that pools electrical power resources, is also part of the scheme.

U.K. engineering stalwart Rolls Royce is also part of the NuScale small modular project. NuScale is majority owned by $27.6 billion engineering company Fluor Corp., based in Irving, Texas.

The presence of several companies in the NuScale project echoes the B&W small modular reactor venture which won the first tranche of DOE’s $452 million in SMR funding. B&W is working with U.S. construction firm Bechtel, and with federal power provider Tennessee Valley Authority. They hope to deploy four 180-MW reactors at TVA’s Clinch River, Tennessee site, via a joint venture called Generation mPower that is 90 percent owned by B&W and 10 percent by Bechtel.

That project took a peculiar turn recently, when B&W said it plans to sell 70 percent of its interest in mPower – including intellectual property.

A DOE spokeswoman said that DOE has so far committed $101 million to B&W through March, 2014. Possible further funding is currently under review, she said. B&W’s five-year federal funding period began in December, 2012. If DOE released more funds, the total would not exceed $226 million, the same five-year cap on the NuScale funding, which runs through Dec. 2018. In both cases, DOE would also be limited to funding no more than half of project costs, the spokeswoman said. She added that there will be no more grants under the $452 million Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA).


While the DOE grant helps to push U.S. nuclear in a new direction of smaller and less expensive reactors, it stopped short of endorsing altogether new reactor designs that would support much higher operating temperatures.

These so-called “fourth generation reactors” include liquid fuel reactors known as molten salt reactors, as well as solid fuel reactors using “pebble bed” and “prismatic” fuel structures rather than conventional rods.  They would provide many additional advantages. For instance, they typically operate in unpressurized environments, which is a safety benefit over today’s pressurized reactors. They tend to leave less long-lived waste.

At higher temperatures they also generate electricity more efficiently, which lowers generating costs and would help nuclear compete in a market where natural gas prices are currently low. Unlike natural gas generation, nuclear power generation is carbon free, and the nuclear lifecycle is low-carbon.

And as Secretary Moniz himself noted last month, high temperature reactors could serve as sources of low-carbon heat for industrial processes and thus expand nuclear power beyond its role of generating electricity.

A number of high temperature reactor developers vied for the DOE award that went to NuScale, including San Diego’s General Atomics, and X-Energy Inc., a Greenbelt, Maryland-based company that is developing a pebble bed reactor based on older South Africa designs.

Stay tuned to the Weinberg site as we delve into some of these alternative reactor designs in our upcoming blog posts.

Photo is from NuScale via ChenectedAiche

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

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.


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.



Just add limestone. Molten salt reactors could process limestone and dolomite into a substance that would help neutralize ocean acid, says Alex Cannara.

Ask anyone to identify the consequences of CO2 emissions, and the answer that most people who are not climate change skeptics will give is “global warming.”

It’s a good reply. Rising concentration of atmospheric CO2 is heating up the planet to temperatures that could have broad, catastrophic climate consequences by 2050.

But while global warming rightly receives plenty of attention, there’s another ongoing and lesser known CO2 scourge that could be even more disastrous: ocean acidification.

Simply put, up to half of the world’s man-made CO2 emissions land in the ocean, where it forms carbonic acid which will eventually wreak havoc if not stopped according to the United Nations-backed Ocean Acidification Network and other groups.

Scientists say that the oceans’ average acidity managed to remain constant for 300 million years until the Industrial Revolution came along. Over the last two centuries, it has increased by about 30 percent. In technical terms, the pH level has dropped from an average of around 8.2 to 8.1.

The ocean is not acidic per se, but on the 0-to-14 pH scale where anything over 7 is “alkaline” and under 7 is “acidic”, the needle has moved dangerously down. pH measurement is one of those logarithmic things like the Richter scale where progressions are much bigger than their numbers outwardly suggest, so a 0.1 drop in pH indicates a signifiant move toward acidity. If any of you humans suffer a 0.1 drop in blood pH, for instance, hold on for a seizure or a coma.


A more acidic ocean threatens the existence of anything in the waters that has a shell or a skeleton. Translation: let the acidification continue, and before long, oops, there goes the fish, crustaceans, molluscs, coral and more. As oceanic CO2 levels rise and form carbonic acid with a “CO3” molecule (H2CO3), it will increasingly deprive marine creatures of the carbonates – CO3 – that they need to combine with calcium to build strong bones and shells.

Ocean acidification is even undermining certain plankton, the foundation of the ocean’s food chain. So the carbonic acid that’s not directly weakening the bigger creatures could eventually starve them.

Exactly how long this pH decline can continue before real trouble starts is a matter of debate, but some experts believe that if we don’t raise the pH, we’ll hit a tipping point before 2050 and as early as 2035, when the ocean will lose its ability to recycle carbon into living creatures.

As the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) notes:

“Fundamental physiological processes such as respiration, calcification (shell/skeleton building), photosynthesis, and reproduction have been shown to respond to the magnitude of changes in CO2 concentrations in seawater, along with the resultant changes in pH and carbonate ion concentrations that are expected over the next century.

“This change is more rapid than any change documented over the last 300 million years, so organisms that have evolved tolerance to a certain range of conditions may encounter increasingly stressful, or even lethal, conditions in the coming decades.”

The implications of that are staggering. NOAA points out that over a billion people in the world rely on the ocean as their primary source of food protein. Then there’s the hit to the global fishing industry, which employs hundreds of millions of people.

Alex Cannara Ocean Slide

Acid attack. A slide from Alex Cannara’s presentation shows that carbonic acid could cause “big trouble” for sea life as soon as 2035.

What can be done?

Alex Cannara is glad we asked.

Dr. Cannara, an engineering and environmental consultant based in Menlo Park, Calif., says that molten salt reactors (MSRs) can come to the rescue in a multi-pronged assault on acidification.

As regular readers of this blog will know, MSRs are small nuclear reactors that use liquid fuel and operate at much higher temperatures than today’s solid-fuel reactors, over which they offer operational, safety and economic advantages. As such, they have huge potential as CO2-free energy generators for the future (nuclear reactors do not emit CO2 during electricity and heat production; their lifecycle entails some CO2 emissions during stages including manufacturing and mining).


Just like MSRs could be a key weapon in the fight against CO2-induced global warming, the same CO2 reduction would help reverse the toxic build-up in the world’s seawaters, notes Cannara, speaking at the recent Thorium Energy Alliance Conference in Chicago (some MSR developers believe the reactors would work best using thorium rather than uranium).

That’s good, but you could say that the reduction in CO2 emissions is just a warm-up act to a direct MSR-based scheme (a substantial warm up act that is – a bit like Santana opening for the Rolling Stones, which they used to do).

In Cannara’s vision, heat from MSRs could process limestone and dolomite (both are carbonate minerals) into a residue that, when dumped in seawaters, would raise the pH level. As Cannara explained in a letter to anti-global warming campaigner and former U.S vice president Al Gore earlier this year:

“One path is to process billions of tons of dolomite/dolostone (calcium-magnesium carbonate) so that it can be distributed in seas to neutralize the carbonic acid created by our emitted, then dissolved, CO2 and thus to precipitate that carbon as new seafloor carbonates. Similarly, calcium oxide (quicklime) can be used — again derived from limestone and similar rock.”

The process mimics the production of cement, in which fossil-fuel fired kilns heat limestone (calcium carbonate) and break it down into quicklime that blends into a “clinker” that becomes cement.

“Basically, you’re doing a cement plant that’s not making cement,” Cannara told me when I spoke with him after the Chicago conference. “You don’t ship it for cement, you ship it for the ocean. It would suck carbonic acid from the water – it’s just like putting a Tums in your stomach. It neutralizes some of the acid.” (Tums is an over-the-counter indigestion tablet).

It’s a grand vision, but it comes with a few major challenges. As Cannara acknowledges, it will require an immense amount of ground-up rock to make a difference, requiring a sizeable fleet of MSRs. “We would be talking about doubling the amount of processing that’s done for cement,” he said.


On the technical side, I also wonder if MSRs can operate at a hot enough temperature. Even at, say, 800 or 900 degrees C, which MSR developers are targeting, an MSR would still be short of the 1,450 degrees C of today’s cement kilns.

That aside, in a virtuous circle, once MSRs are enlisted for grinding limestone and dolomite in the fight against ocean acidification, they could also go to work replacing CO2-spewing fossil fuels as a heat source for cement production. As Cannara noted when I spoke with him, “You could make cement without combusting things.”

There’s more to this MSR campaign too: Cannara notes that in the MSR process, CO2 that naturally breaks off from the limestone and dolomite could be captured and combined with hydrogen to form synthetic fuels. Where would the hydrogen come from? It would be extracted from water in a process that would be powered, again, by an MSR. As an added benefit, the water’s oxygen would be released into the air.

But the focus of Cannara’s plan is to reverse the decline in ocean pH.

“We have to neutralize at least everything that’s currently being emitted, and that’s a lot of carbon,” says Cannara. “The problem is so immense. It’s non-linear. It’s a true tipping point problem, because once you turn off the ocean’s natural recycling of carbon to the life forms that live in the ocean, you’re not going to get that back. What you’ve done is a massive extinction. We need massive amounts of clean power through MSRs, not only to eliminate combustion power, but also to deal with the issue of how to ameliorate the ocean chemistry problem.”

In other words, now’s the time to recruit MSRs in the environmental fight against catastrophic CO2 emissions on all fronts – land, air and sea.

Photo of Alex Cannara presenting in Chicago is from Mark Halper. Slide is from Alex Cannara.

Nuclear back in German competition following court ruling

Posted by Mark Halper on August 29th, 2013

GreenTec FranHealyTravis

When celebrities and stars like Fran Healy of the rock band Travis gather for the GreenTec Awards in Berlin, they’ll have to entertain the notion of nuclear, as well as solar and wind.

Remember my story last month about how Germany airbrushed a molten salt nuclear reactor out of the finals of a green energy competition?

Well guess what: A Berlin appeals court has reinstated the reactor, which now stands a chance of grabbing gold in the high profile GreenTec Awards, an event that honours “ecological and economic consciousness and commitment.”

For a quick review: GreenTec’s organizers disqualified the Dual-Fluid Reactor (DFR) after the public voted it as one of three finalists in the vaunted Galileo Knowledge category. Under the competition’s rules, the public selects one finalist of three in each of the contest’s eight groups, while GreenTec judges select the other two. The grass-roots selection of a nuclear technology in a country where the government opposes nuclear rankled the GreenTec panelists, who promptly booted it. Otherwise, things might have become a tad uncomfortable for anti-nuclear Germany’s energy minister Peter Altmaier, who is GreenTec’s patron and who will be on stage for the glitzy awards ceremonies this Friday, Aug. 30, in Berlin.


Outrage followed the elimination, and the DFR’s developer, Berlin’s Institute for Solid-State Nuclear Physics, appealed to a German court, which forced GreenTec to readmit the reactor into the finals.

German blogger Rainer Klute reported:

“The DFR’s expulsion from the GreenTec Awards was unlawful and must be undone, the Berlin Court of Appeal decided now (case 25 W 22/13)…Greentec Communications GmbH must accept the results of the online voting, treat the DFR according to the original contest rules and allow it for the finals. Consequently, the jury must repeat its vote for the overall winner, taking into account the Dual-Fluid Reactor as a regular candidate.”

As I wrote last month, the organizers told me they eliminated the DFR because the applicants were not truthful. After the story ran, they elaborated that the nuclear folks essentially lied by stating that the DFR is safer than wind power. I guess that would upset people in a country that has walked away from nuclear following the 2011 accident at Fukushima, and that prioritizes renewables like wind and solar.

But it was an odd accusation considering that the safety comparison with wind is debatable. Many level-headed people argue that wind can be less safe for a number of reasons. For instance, the building and installation of wind turbines requires fossil fuels and their attendant unsafe CO2, pollutants and mining; and wind farms take up vast tracts of land that could be used for other purposes.

GreenTec also said that the Institute for Solid-State Physics misrepresented the truth when it said in its application that the DFR does not produce any radioactive waste.

The Berlin court subsequently overruled GreenTec’s argument.


Now, scientists from the nuclear institute will don dinner jackets this weekend for the gala and star-studded final in Berlin, which will be full of German celebrities. The Galileo prize for which they are contending salutes “a technological idea that can help protect the environment, regardless of whether the project has been successfully implemented or if it is still in the developmental stage.”

That certainly describes the DFR – a molten salt reactor under development that, like other MSRs, augurs safer, more efficient and less costly nuclear power that could offer the world a significant source of CO2-free electricity generation. That might be an inconvenient truth to GreenTec’s organizers, but it’s one that they now have to reconsider.

Wouldn’t it be something if the DFR actually wins this Friday. Given the events of the last few months, it seems unlikely. But chalk up the DFR’s reinstatement alone as a moral victory, and one that, in at least a small way, starts to brush nuclear back into the German energy discussion.

Image is a screen grab from the GreenTec Awards home page

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.

Joe Sestak TEAC5 2

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps that restoration should include thorium molten salt reactors. 

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

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

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