30 April 2011

House of Lords, SELECT COMMITTEE ON SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY, Call for Evidence: Nuclear Research and Development Capabilities.

Below is an email I received from Tim Yeo, followed by my last-minute, hurried and faulty response. There is no indication that comments from the Select Committee will be forthcoming, but I will post details, if I do hear anything:

  • Nuclear energy‏

  • From:

    Sent:12 April 2011 13:10:39
    To: lftrs@hotmail.co.uk (lftrs@hotmail.co.uk)
    Dear Mr Megson
    Thank you for your e-mail of 21 March which I read with interest.
    At present my Committee is not looking specifically at the nuclear industry, but you may be interested to know that the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has recently launched an inquiry into nuclear research and development capabilities. The press notice for this inquiry can be found here:
    The deadline for submissions is 28 April. I hope you find this helpful.
    I am grateful for your interest in our work.
    Yours sincerely
    Tim Yeo MP
    Chairman, Energy and Climate Change Select Committee

    Call for Evidence
    Nuclear Research and Development Capabilities

    In the body of your document you appear to call for suggestions to cope with 7 different problems and, on the basis of the proposals you receive, you will then set about ensuring adequate R D & D capabilities to deliver your selected solutions by 2050.

    If I am reading your intentions correctly, then I wish to propose a unique form of nuclear reactor which copes with all 7 problems, thus implying that much of the R D & D can be focused in a fashion which, one could reasonably suppose, would be the quickest and cheapest way of achieving your goals.

    The reactor I propose is the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR), which provides the answers to the problems, in the order you laid them out, as follows:

    1.  The choice of a LFTR, which is a Molten Salt Reactor, will deliver a Gen. IV reactor.

    2.  Since LFTRs are fuelled by the thorium 232 isotope (Th 232) and natural thorium is 100% Th 232, the increasing demand for uranium, as the worldwide demand for PWRs escalates, is sidestepped. Bear in mind that natural thorium (containing 100% Th 232) is 3½ times more abundant than natural uranium (containing 0.7% fissile U 235 – hence the need for massively expensive enrichment plant). Also thorium is a throw-away by-product of rare-earth mining and, in some countries, safe disposal of thorium bearing rock has to be paid for. There is sufficient thorium available to supply the total energy requirements (including carbon-neutral fuels, from atmospheric CO2, for all form of transport and ammonia feed-stock, from atmospheric nitrogen, for nitrate fertilizers).

    3.  LFTRs are far more proliferation resistant the PWRs, since fertile Th 232 breeds to the fissile U 233 fuel, but the U 233 is always accompanied by a tiny proportion of the highly dangerous isotope U 232. This isotope emits hard gamma rays which endanger the lives of personnel and destroy electronics and other associated equipment.

    4.  LFTRs are thermal spectrum reactors and burn up 100% of the thorium fuel – it is a closed fuel cycle and therefore obviates the need for recycling of fuel. Bearing in mind that PWRs operating on the U – Pu open fuel cycle only burn up a few percent of the fissile fuel, before removal of fuel assemblies is necessary, a LFTR power plant can deliver some 300 times more electricity (and/or process heat) per kg of fuel, than an equivalent PWR.

    5.  LFTRs generally require a start-up ‘charge’ of U 233, but this can be replaced wholly or partly by Pu 239 and so, instead of producing Pu 239 (as happens in a PWR), a LFTR can burn-up Pu 239 and thus eliminate the problem of long term storage of plutonium. LFTRs do not produce any transuranics and the fission products contained in the spent fuel have worst-case half-lives of 30 years, requiring storage for 300 years, to decay to background radiation levels. Such waste can have a guarantee of safe storage, at a tiny fraction of the cost of storing PWR waste. 

    6.  The ubiquity of thorium guarantees safe and secure fuel supply. Alvin M. Weinberg, one of the inventors and patent holders of the Light Water Reactor (LWR), championed LFTR research and operation in the 60s and 70s as Director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), talked about ‘mining the rocks’. The implication being that any cubic metre of the Earth’s crust could be cost-effectively mined, for the energy content of its thorium.

    7.  The safe and secure disposal of spent fuel is covered in 5, above. Also of great significance, is the greatly reduced quantity of waste produced by a LFTR, in comparison to a PWR. To produce 1 GWyear of electricity, a PWR will consume 30 tonnes of LEU or MOX fuel and produce 30 tonnes of spent fuel, which may invoke the expense of reprocessing. By contrast, a LFTR produces the same 1 GWyear of electricity, using only 1 tonne of fuel and producing 1 tonne of cheaply stored waste.

    There is so much more to be said about the benefits of LFTRs over and above those of PWRs, in terms of delivering high temperature process heat, to develop a widespread hydrogen economy and Combined Heating and Power (CHP) systems. In terms of safety, LFTRs are several orders of magnitude safer than PWRs, because they have no high-pressure ‘driver’ to expel radiotoxic substances into the environment. And, the fluoride salts are very stable and of low reactivity, unlike, for example, liquid sodium. In terms of cost, because LFTRs operate at atmospheric pressure, they do not require a thick-wall pressure vessel to contain the core and therefore, no outer containment building; you could run by a LFTR and know it’s not a fraction of the cost of an equivalent PWR.

    I would like to suggest to the Committee that they invite Kirk Sorensen, the world’s leading authority on LFTRs, over from the USA, to give a presentation on LFTRs to your nuclear advisors.

    Kirk blogs on:  http://energyfromthorium.com/


    Colin Megson.

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