Thursday, 8 March 2012

Thorium Makes the Mainstream Media

BBC Series - Costing the Earth

Nuclear Power without the Nasties? 28 Feb 2012 
Kirk Sorensen
It’s really gratifying to see the subject of thorium fuelled nuclear power begin to penetrate the mainstream media.  I downloaded the podcast of this half hour BBC programme and listened to it yesterday.  The researchers and editors have done a very competent job; it’s an excellent piece of journalism and captured the subject very well in all its aspects, but without delving too far into the detail.  Kirk Sorensen was interviewed and, amongst other topics, gave a very lucid account of the reasons why the Oak Ridge Molten Salt ReactorExperiment (MSRE) was closed down in 1969.

Environmentalists for Thorium

Baroness Bryony Worthington
Others also interviewed were Michael Childs, of Friends of the Earth, and Baroness BryonyWorthington, who used to campaign for them.  They were correctly presented as environmentalists enthusiastic about thorium nuclear technology.  

Michael Childs
The ending was particularly striking.  It accurately relayed the scepticism of the nuclear establishment in the UK concerning thorium, and contrasted it with the optimism of Michael Childs and Baroness Bryony Worthington. Wouldn’t it be highly ironic if a significant proportion of environmentalists were calling for work to start on thorium based nuclear power, whilst the nuclear establishment were blocking research funding?  Personally I think that’s what’s very likely to happen in Europe.  Michel Allibert of the Reactor Research Group at Grenoble also highlighted the regulatory difficulties in the podcast.  In the US I’m a bit more optimistic, because it appears that Kirk Sorensen has a plan to get around these issues, but the same conservatism and regulatory forces are still present.  

Is the future Chinese?

In my opinion, the country which will fund and develop research into LFTR’s (Liquid Fuelled Thorium Reactors) and build the first commercially viable reactor will most likely be China.  They have an enormous growing need for energy and no constraints on regulatory compliance.  They also have the money and are rapidly developing the expertise.  For years they’ve been raiding the archives at the US’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the place where the original research was done in the sixties by Alvin Weinberg.  I’ve read some of the old Oak Ridge papers and Alvin Weinberg ran a tightly managed organisation. Everything was documented and reported, including their setbacks and problems.  
It’s a gold mine for English speaking Chinese researchers! They topped the visitors list in 2009 and 2010. 

In 2009 :-

1. China (1,139)
2. India (569
3. Germany (478)
4. United Kingdom (420)
5. Japan (408)
6. South Korea (363)
7. Canada (310)
8. Russia (258)
9. France (250)
10. Italy (105) 

“Once again, in 2010, China was the biggest source of foreign visitors to Oak Ridge National laboratory - accounting for more than 20 percent of the total number of foreign visitors and more than twice as many as any other country.

1. China (1,522)
2. India (709)
3. Germany (631)
4. United Kingdom (536)
5. Japan (498)
6. Canada (476)
7. South Korea (452)

 According to information provided by ORNL's Laboratory Protection Division, the number of foreign visitors processed last year was 7,487. That's up significantly from 2009 (6,007), which, in turn, was up from 2008 (5,092). There's obviously a growth pattern.

This is at least the sixth year in a row that China has headed the foreign visitors list, and it's probably been even longer. The lab did not have historical statistics readily available.”

France 2
There was also a short report which dealt with the subject of thorium on the national news on France 2 on 29th January (in French).  It ends rather pessimistically with the scepticism of the nuclear establishment coming through loud and clear.  

Minimising Thorium’s Advantages

In spite of the fact that the Oak Ridge MSRE reactor ran successfully from 1965 to 1969,  today’s “industry experts” both in France and in the UK are still saying that pumping high temperature molten salts at atmospheric pressure is difficult and dangerous.  (But almost certainly not as dangerous as containing and pumping high pressure water, with a potential for loss of coolant and subsequent explosion risk, which has already happened at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima).

The current stance of such experts is “It’s likely to be difficult and take a long time so it’s better to do nothing”, they minimise the advantages of Liquid Fuelled Thorium technology, and ignore the historical reality of a reactor that functioned for 4 years at Oak Ridge.

What a wonderful illustration of the decadence of Western European society which has lost the capability to invest, to take risks and to innovate!