Saturday, 10 November 2012

Thorium - Energy Cheaper than Coal - A Review

Robert Hargraves in his book “Thorium - Energy Cheaper than Coal” has decided to take the layman reader with him on a journey through the highly technical subject of energy and power generation.  His objective is to persuade the reader that it's possible, by making the right choices, to generate energy cheaper than that currently produced from coal in the US. 
So he starts with what you might call “Energy 101”, which would not be out of place in a high school curriculum.  Why is energy important to civilisation?  What is it and in what forms does it present itself? How is it stored and released? By page 60, however, he moves on to the serious issues behind the whole book: the rapidly increasing worldwide demand for energy, how that demand could be satisfied: the consequences of the various options and the link between the consumption of energy and prosperity. 
His book is stuffed with facts, charts and graphics.  He’s clearly done a lot of research but, in the absence of numbered references in the text, the diligent reader should know that they are listed as URL links, page by page, from p401.  I reached the middle of the book before I discovered this!
Energy Sources
Energy Sources  (Chapter 4 pp101-175) is very well developed and comprehensively reviews the advantages, disadvantages, limitations, efficiencies, utilisation factors and costs of energy generated from Coal, Gas, Wind, Solar, Solid Biofuels, Liquid Biofuels, Hydroelectric, Oil and Nuclear sources.  He also deals with energy Conservation and Storage.  It’s quite a tour de force in so few pages.  He’s enthusiastic about the efficiency of the Combined Cycle Gas Turbine, but he effectively demolishes Wind Power because it needs public subsidies and backup power plants running on gas, which can be rapidly started up when the wind drops.  Unfortunately these can actually contribute more carbon dioxide than Gas Turbines running on their own (p136).  He doesn’t make judgements about these subjects, he just lets the numbers speak for themselves!
Gas from Shales and Schists - Fracking
Writing from the North American perspective leads Hargraves to favour gas from shales and schists.  Because he’s convinced that replacing coal burning with much more efficient combined cycle gas turbine generators would lead to less overall release of CO2, he advocates harvesting natural gas from the “fracking” of shales (p121).  This conclusion contrasts dramatically with widespread European opposition to fracking from all fronts, not just the environmentalists.  Hargraves’ confident assurances that the gas bearing shales, (and schists) are well below the water table, and therefore fracking will not cause contamination of aquifers, doesn’t stand up.  Nature, geology and engineering are not so neat and tidy!  In France this pressure has forced the President, Francois Hollande, to announce that “fracking” will not be allowed to proceed.  Mind you in France no decision is ever irrevocable!
LFTR’s v The Rest
The Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) is presented in chapter 5, along with a plethora of other reactor designs, some of which offer significant advantages over the conventional uranium based Pressurised Water Reactor.  Many of these alternative designs were developed at Oak Ridge National Nuclear Laboratory, which ran a demonstration molten salt reactor from 1965 until the programme was closed down by the Nixon administration in 1969. 
Research on the Pebble Bed Advanced High Temperature Reactor (PB-AHTR) is being pursued in the US, with modest government funding of $7 million over three years, by UC Berkeley, MIT and U Wisconsin, whilst in China, with a $400 million budget and 432 people, they expect to have a demonstration PB-AHTR cooled by molten salt running by 2015 and an LFTR by 2017.   
Following the model of earlier chapters Hargraves begins with the physical fundamentals, in this case that means starting with the nuclear physics of fission and radioactive decay, then he continues by describing the technologies and finally gives a summary of the advantages of the LFTR.  The result is that the lay reader is presented with quite a lot of difficult to digest detail before the real advantages of the LFTR are described.  I’ve grappled with the problems of presenting of this material myself and, whilst Hargraves’ approach is logical and consistent, there is a definite risk of losing the reader in the technicalities.
By the end of chapter 5, I was much more aware of the multiplicity of different nuclear reactor types which have been built in the past, or are now proposed or are actively under development.  He describes numerous designs, along with their advantages and disadvantages; fast or thermal spectrum; solid or liquid fuel; water, gas, liquid metal or molten salt cooled; and of course those using the uranium/plutonium or thorium fuel cycles.  It’s a very useful one stop source for anyone wishing to be more informed about the background of innovation in the nuclear industry that’s going on behind utilization of the dominant pressurized water reactor.  It’s easy to assume that the conservative nature of the major stakeholders is stifling new developments but that’s certainly not always the case. 
Hargraves, in chapter 6, concentrates on the safety record of the nuclear power industry compared to other industries and by restricting his argument to fatalities he makes a strong case for nuclear power.  He goes on to comment on the perception of the risks of radiation compared to the reality of radiation arising from nuclear power installations.  Again he’s right and presents much evidence to support his case but, by concentrating on fatalities, he downplays the consequences of a major radiation discharge in terms of the disruption and fear that it engenders.  Even if the population concerned have a minor risk of suffering health problems the establishment of exclusion zones means that they will most likely have lost their livelihood or their property or even both.  They will also be terrified of the long term effects on their families.  The WHO report on Chernobyl states that this is the major adverse effect of that disaster.  To appreciate how this weighs on the public mind just consider the reaction to the Tsunami, in which about 23,000 people died, and then to the release of radioactive materials at Fukushima, which has so far yet to cause any direct health effects but where potential predicted cancer deaths range from none to 100.
He presents some surprising statistics, such as 1 in 77 Americans will die as a result of traffic accidents.  But of course we all accept that we have to use the roads!
“Don’t confuse me with the facts, I know what I think!” 
The fundamental problem when trying to convince people that nuclear power can be safe is that it’s a complex subject which concerns diverse technical issues and evaluation of risks.  These are very difficult to discuss successfully with non-technically minded people.  I find that you frequently arrive at the stage of “Don’t confuse me with the facts, I know what I think!”  So for many committed environmentalists there's little hope of persuading them that new nuclear power designs can be very safe indeed because, not being equipped to evaluate the evidence, they prefer not to trust the messenger and revert to views based on emotion.  There are, however, a few environmentalists who have listened to the LFTR message and they agree that it, and other inherently safe fourth generation nuclear plant designs, represent the only practical way of rapidly reducing carbon dioxide emissions and therefore avoiding the planet-wide, but less immediate, environmental disaster that awaits future generations. 
In this chapter Hargraves also addresses nuclear waste and weapons proliferation.
Energy generated from LFTR's for a Sustainable World is a great introduction to alternative technologies for replacing fossil fuels for use in transport: and also to using cheap energy from nuclear power to substitute for fossil fuels in chemical process industries and desalination plants.  This vision is not unlike that of Weinberg’s in the 1960’s when he proposed "making the deserts bloom" using nuclear powered desalination.  It may happen one day if the economics are right.  Energy, which is cheaper than that generated from coal, is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition because there’s much more in play here than just the cost of energy.  There would also need to be an acceptance that nuclear power plants and chemical plants, or even cement plants could cohabit on the same sites. 

I’ve visited a few cement plants and they are notable for their lack of security and their proximity to the quarries.  Their technology is really very simple.  I can’t imagine how you would graft a nuclear power plant onto one without a major investment in staff and security that would greatly increase the cement companies operating costs.  I really doubt that cement manufacturing companies would be interested in upgrading their technical capabilities to the required level or taking on the regulatory and technical risks.  Perhaps some sort of "Industrial Park", full of process industries with high energy demands, centred on a nuclear plant built and operated by an experienced nuclear company could be possible, but the whole thing would most likely have to be started from scratch and be very large.  In the European context, with financial uncertainty, a strong environmental lobby, high population densities and restrictive planning laws, it would be an unusually major investment the like of which is now rarely seen. 
The final chapter entitled Energy Policy is a fact packed discussion of the fragmented nature of energy policy and the highly subsidized nature of the energy sector in both the US and European contexts.  He calls for better political leadership in this area, something which the West seems unable to deliver but which the Chinese, in the energy sector at least, appear to be very well placed.
Robert Hargraves starts out by writing for the lay reader and ends up writing for the technically educated thorium enthusiast.  On the way he covers all aspects of energy and not just nuclear power.  In a trajectory that takes its reader from an introduction to energy which is suitable for a high school pupil, to the sort of detail that might interest a post-graduate student of nuclear engineering or environmental studies, he has written a comprehensive book so packed with facts concerning energy costs, efficiencies, utilisation factors and design details that it will serve as a useful reference book for some years to come.