China’s ambitious telescopes

China’s ambitious telescopes rise in the thin air of the Tibetan Plateau

By Dennis Normile |

DAOCHENG COUNTY IN CHINA—“I’ve seen people faint here,” warns physicist He Huihai as he deplanes at Daocheng Yading Airport, the world’s highest at 4411 meters above sea level. Many of his colleagues at the Institute of High Energy Physics (IHEP) in Beijing take a day to acclimate before resuming work on the Large High Altitude Air Shower Observatory (LHAASO), an ambitious new observatory here on the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau.

Although troublesome for humans, the thin air is exactly what makes Tibet good for observing the staggeringly energetic photons that crash into Earth from unidentified objects across the universe. After 3 years of construction, LHAASO is nearly finished and begins observations on 26 April.

LHAASO is just the first in a batch of observatories taking shape across the Tibetan Plateau, which might one day rival the high, dry, Atacama Desert in Chile as a home for premier observatories. IHEP’s Ali CMB Polarization Telescope (AliCPT), under construction in the plateau’s west, will start its hunt for signs of primordial gravitational waves next year. This year, the National Space Science Center will begin to build the Daocheng Solar Radio Telescope (DSRT), which will study the sun’s violent outbursts. And the National Astronomical Observatories of China (NAOC) in Beijing is studying sites on the northwestern rim of the plateau for a 12-meter Large Optical-Infrared Telescope (LOT), larger than any existing telescope.

Astronomers have long recognized the potential of the Tibetan Plateau, which has the highest average elevation of any region on Earth. In 1990, IHEP established a small cosmic ray observatory near Lhasa at 4300 meters. Since 2010, NAOC’s Ali Observatory, at 5100 meters, has hosted several small telescopes. But the scientific building boom accelerated after the four new observatories won funding under China’s latest Five-Year Plan, covering 2016 to 2020, as part of the nation’s efforts to boost basic research. New roads and airports, built as part of China’s controversial effort to tie Tibet more closely to the nation, are also encouraging astronomers to come.

Now, the country’s biggest optical telescope is a 4-meter facility near Beijing that has not lived up to expectations. The LOT, in contrast, would be one of the most powerful telescopes on Earth. A dispute over its design has delayed progress, but once NAOC settles on a site it hopes to move forward, says NAOC Vice President Xue Suijian. Such an instrument would allow China’s astronomers to join the hunt for exoplanets, study the evolution of galaxies, and watch for optical counterparts to gravitational waves, he says.

In contrast to that versatile giant, the DSRT has a singular focus: to study solar flares and coronal mass ejections, outbursts that hurl waves of charged particles toward Earth. To capture radio waves emitted during those eruptions, the DSRT’s 401 4.5-meter parabolic radio antennas are spaced in a 1-kilometer-wide circle—the best arrangement for imaging the sun, says Yan Jingye, chief engineer of the project. Traveling at light speed, the radio waves outrace the particles, which means the DSRT could help forecast the havoc the outbursts can wreak when they crash into Earth’s magnetic field 2 to 3 days later. Yan says the ultimate aim is “real-time analysis and real-time prediction”—which could help spacecraft operators shut down electronics until a storm passes.

AliCPT is the highest of the observatories, perched at 5250 meters to elude the atmospheric water vapor that can block microwaves from the cosmic microwave background (CMB), the afterglow of the big bang. Its antenna will funnel CMB photons to thousands of sensors to search for a telltale pattern in the light’s polarization. That pattern would be evidence for the gravitational waves generated by a hypothesized growth spurt in the newborn universe, known as inflation. Although international teams are searching for this signal in the Southern Hemisphere, AliCPT would be the first in the north. “Ideally, you’d want to map the entire CMB sky and from what I know the Tibetan Plateau looks quite promising,” says Peter Timbie, a cosmologist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

LHAASO will join a worldwide search for the highest energy photons in the universe: gamma rays that, in rare cases, can exceed the energy of Earth’s most powerful particle accelerators. When gamma rays strike the atmosphere, they create a cascade of secondary particles spreading in a cone until they hit the ground. Higher energy photons create more secondary particles, which shower across a wider footprint. To catch particles from lower energy photons, LHAASO will use three 5-meter-deep pools of water covering an area larger than 14 U.S. football fields. When the particles hit the water, they will spark faint flashes of blue Cherenkov light spotted by detectors at the bottom of the pools. Thousands of cheaper detectors spaced out across the 1.3-kilometer site will watch for higher energy gamma rays. An additional 1170 buried detectors will look for particles called muons, which can help discriminate between gamma ray showers and showers caused by cosmic rays, charged particles that can also reach extraordinary energies.

Unlike cosmic rays, the paths of gamma rays are unaffected by magnetic fields, making it possible to trace them back to their distant sources. Cao Zhen, LHAASO’s chief scientist, says the facility’s size gives it a shot at nabbing about 10 of the highest energy gamma rays a year, which could help unravel where they come from—perhaps supernovae, neutron stars, or black holes—and how they are generated. “That’s been a mystery for 100 years,” Cao says.

“LHAASO starting to take data opens some very exciting prospects,” says Peter Mészáros, a theoretical astrophysicist at Pennsylvania State University in State College. LHAASO should also detect photons from gamma ray bursts (GRBs), brilliant outbursts that appear out of nowhere and fade within days. Searchlight beams of radiation jetting out from certain supernovae or neutron star mergers are thought to cause the bursts, but the precise mechanism is a mystery. “Knowing the maximum energy of gamma ray photons from a GRB [could provide] important clues,” Mészáros says.

By creating infrastructure and astronomical know-how, the observatories in Tibet could pave the way for successors. Local governments here and in Ali are moving to preserve radio-quiet zones and minimize light pollution in hopes of attracting future projects. And the facilities themselves will show whether Tibet’s rarefied air lives up to its astronomical promise.


China Invests Big in Thorium

China Invests Big in Clean and Cheap Energy from Thorium

Geneva, Switzerland, 21 August 2018 – As the world struggles with a record-breaking heatwave, China correctly places its trust in the fuel Thorium and the Thorium Molten Salt Reactor (TMSR) as the backbone of its nation’s plan to become a clean and cheap energy powerhouse.
​​The question is if China will manage to build a homegrown mega export industry, or will others have capacity and will to catch up?

A new Beginning

For China, clean energy development and implementation is a test for the state’s ability. Therefore, China is developing the capability to use the “forgotten fuel” thorium, which could begin a new era of nuclear power.​
The first energy system they are building is a solid fuel molten salt reactor that achieves high temperatures to maximize efficiency of combined heat and power generation applications.
However, to fully realize thorium’s energy potential and in this way solve an important mission for China – the security of fuel supply – requires also the thorium itself to be fluid. This is optimized in the Thorium Molten Salt Reactor (TMSR).
The TMSR takes safety to an entirely new level and can be made cheap and small since it operates at atmospheric pressure, one of its many advantages. Thanks to its flexible cooling options it can basically be used anywhere, be it a desert, a town or at sea. In China this is of special interest inland, where freshwater is scarce in large areas, providing a unique way to secure energy independence.

History of the TMSR

In the sixties, the TMSR was born in the secretive US Government research facility Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). There, the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment (MSRE) ran successfully for more than 4 years and demonstrated its feasibility and stable nature.
In the seventies, the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics, under conditions of a short deadline, constructed a cold test of a molten salt reactor.
Since we entered the 21st century, TMSRs have received global attention. The U.S., the European Union, Russia, and Japan have all developed conceptual designs, investigated related technologies and begun practical experiments.
In 2011, the Chinese Academy of Sciences commenced the “Near future disruptive change in atomic energy – Thorium Molten Salt Reactor apparatus”, a strategic science and technology pilot project with political power behind. As a result, TMSR research, the practical realization of thorium’s high fuel efficiency and high temperature utility began in experiments. During the past 5 years, the development of key systems and technologies have made vital advancements such as the specialized development of the simulation and modeling system.
With this system, the world’s first experimental solid fuel molten salt reactor engineering design has been completed. With national and international co-operation, a safety standard for thorium molten salt reactors has been formulated as well as documentation regarding anti-proliferation and safety classification.
Specific breakthroughs have occurred in the molten salt reactor itself as well as techniques related to many crucial areas in the molten salt reactor: loop testing has been successfully researched, and molten salt pumps have been developed along with molten salt heat exchanges, high-temperature instrumentation and controls.

The Devil is in the Details

China has built the world’s first industrial scale high temperature experimental fluoride salt loop as well as the world’s largest passive natural circulation loop for molten salts. Large scale experimental facilities have been constructed to advance the closed thorium-uranium fuel cycle through reprocessing strategies. The minor actinides created can be used as fuel and the extra U-233 bred can be used to start new reactors, enabling China to finally reach the goal of a fully closed nuclear fuel cycle.

Since the Chinese TMSR uses all the thorium, only fission products will be sent to geological disposition, reducing the quantity and longevity of the fission products by orders of magnitude.
Further, realising the high-temperature Brayton cycle turbine technology for power generation can significantly increase the heat to electricity conversion and reduce the need for cooling water.
China has also solved the molten salt permeation problem and the difficult question of graphite swelling. A special project has developed a world-first high density, fine-grain graphite – and has developed the means of industrial production of it. They have also developed a specialized nickel alloy, secured its production and handling in China, as well as solved the difficult problem of fluoride salt corrosion control.

Pioneering A New Era Powered by Thorium

Since the start, the TMSR project has grown to a professional research team of over 400 researchers. Significant progress has been made in relevant fields of design and construction, advanced thorium molten salt reactor platforms have been constructed, and conditions necessary for experiments have been created. TMSR energy systems have obtained widespread and close attention from both research institutions within China and the growing international community.

“Everyone in the field is extremely impressed with how China saw the potential, grabbed the opportunity and is now running faster than everyone else developing this futuristic energy source China and the entire world is in a great need of.”
– Andreas Norlin, Thorium Energy World

The potential of this development has fueled discussions among international experts. As China ushers in the time of the Thirteenth Five-Year-Plan, there is trust in Thorium Energy to become the backbone of the nation’s research efforts, and to advance China as a nuclear energy country and greatly contribute to becoming a nuclear energy powerhouse.


Copenhagen Atomics on Thorium

Copenhagen Atomics co-founder Thomas Jam Pedersen

Copenhagen Atomics was set up four years ago with a dream or a vision that they wanted to build a 40-foot shipping container that contained a thorium molten salt reactor, and we wanted to be able to configure this molten salt reactor in a way where it can also burn spent nuclear fuel.
“One of the products we’re developing for the molten salt industry is called LIBS (laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy). It’s a technology where you can measure the different isotopes or all the different elements in the salt, and you really need that because when you’re running a reactor you want to know what’s going on inside the reactor. This LIBS technology allows you to do measurements in real time without having to take samples out. This is useful for R&D,  for running the real reactor but it’s also helpful for authorities.”
One of the other technologies that Copenhagen Atomics is developing is salt cleanup. In order to have a really efficient reactor and in order to be able to burn spent nuclear fuel, one needs to get really good neutron economy. In order to achieve that, one needs to remove the fission products. Now, Copenhagen Atomics has found a way where one can do this simply by evaporating all the volatile fission products out of the salt while it’s circulating. “We’re doing all this stuff with the non-radioactive elements and in salt loops but we would like to make agreements with countries that have real salt loops where they’re circulating real salt with fission going on inside of it so we can test that this is actually working in the real world.”
Copenhagen Atomics is a company that is really keen on openness and transparency and collaboration –  both collaboration across borders but also collaboration between companies, between academia and companies. That’s why they have decided to make some of their software tools open source, making it available online and they also have several data libraries that are available online
What if we wanted to provide 4TW of energy from Thorium MSR by 2040? What are the potential roadblocks?
Can we mine enough thorium? “Of course we can easily mine 5,000 tons of thorium every year. It’s not a problem at all, it’s just a matter of somebody making a decision.”

​Can we produce all those pipes and valves and vessels that we would need for all those reactors? “In my opinion yes. If we can produce 200,000 cars every day, we can produce the parts that are needed. And by the way, this molten salt
reactor that we are proposing – the number of items that go into it is lower than for a high-end car.”

Is there enough fissile fuel on this planet to start that many reactors? “There’s debate here. I think as an industry or as scientists this is something we need to discuss and if we cannot even agree on that, it is of course clear that the politicians and the public don’t know what to believe in. In my opinion, I think it’s only possible to start or make this amount of energy if you have a breeder reactor. But that’s my opinion.”

​How to have the quality assurance and the approval to make sure that this is not dangerous? “I think you all know that nuclear power is already today proven to be one of the safest energy technologies to produce electricity for the population. So my question is, if we were to make the approval process 10 or 20 times lighter than what it is today – easier, less costly -how would that change the safety?”

​What about public acceptance? “Whenever I meet people the worry they have is not so much about the everyday working of the reactor, what they’re afraid off is really bad accidents or bad people, like if this technology gets in the hands of bad people. What can we do about that? I think it has a lot to do with how the fuel is moved around.”

New dawn for thorium

New dawn for thorium reactor research

First molten-salt thorium nuclear reactor experiment in over 45 years starts in the Netherlands

The first phase of the Salt Irradiation Experiment (SALIENT) has begun at the Nuclear Research and Consultancy Group in Petten, a nuclear research facility on the Dutch North Sea coast. The experiment is being carried out in cooperation with the European Commission Laboratory Joint Research Center-ITU (JRC) in Karlsruhe, Germany, and initially aims to produce cleaner reactor fuel, and will then look at materials for reactor construction. The last research into molten salt thorium reactors was carried out at the Oak Ridge laboratory in the US.

The Petten team is using the site’s high flux reactor under product manager Sander DeGroot and lead scientist Ralph Hania. Using the high heat inside the reactor, the team is melting a sample of thorium salt fuel — a mixture of lithium fluoride and thorium fluoride — inside an insulated graphite crucible, and over time the neutron bombardment will trigger nuclear reactions that will transmute the thorium in the sample into uranium isotopes that can undergo nuclear fission.

The team’s first task is to remove noble metals (that is, those which are not involved in the reactions) to make a more efficient fuel; they are trying two methods for this, using a nickel foil in one crucible and a cube of highly porous nickel in another, hoping that the noble metals will preferentially precipitate out onto the nickel. The JRC is providing the thorium salts for the project and will analyse the fission products after irradiation to assess their stability. This stage will feed into later research into how to deal with the waste from a molten salt thorium reactor.

The next stage of the project will use a different fuel mixture also containing beryllium, known as FlIBe, which is believed to be the best mixture for a working thorium nuclear reactor (the mixture without beryllium is designed for a specific type of reactor that ‘burns’ nuclear waste from conventional nuclear reactors). This phase will test the resilience to corrosion and high operating temperatures of materials to be used in the construction of molten salt thorium reactors, such as different grades of steel, the nickel alloy Hastelloy (which was used at Oak Ridge) and titanium-zirconium-molybdenum alloys.

In later stages, the team plans to install systems circulating molten salt around loops; the Petten high-flux reactor is one of few in the world large enough for this. “This is a technology with much perspective for large scale energy production,” de Groot commented. “We want to have a head-start once the technology will break through.”


Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor

Is Thorium the Fuel of the Future to Revitalize Nuclear?


Nuclear energy produces carbon-free electricity, and the United States has used nuclear energy for decades to generate baseline power.

Nuclear energy, however, carries a dreaded stigma. After disasters such as Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukishima, the public is acutely aware of the potential, though misguided, dangers of nuclear energy. The cost of nuclear generation is on the rise–a stark contrast to the decreasing costs of alternative energy forms such as solar and wind, which have gained an immense amount of popularity recently.

This trend could continue until market forces make nuclear technology obsolete. Into this dynamic comes a resurgence in nuclear technology: liquid fluoride thorium reactors, or LFTRs (“lifters”). A LFTR is a type of molten salt reactor, significantly safer than a typical nuclear reactor. LFTRs use a combination of thorium (a common element widely found in the earth) and fluoride salts to power a reactor.

A typical arrangement for a modern thorium-based reactor resembles a conventional reactor, albeit with notable differences. First, thorium-232 and uranium-233 are added to fluoride salts in the reactor core. As fission occurs, heat and neutrons are released from the core and absorbed by the surrounding salt. This creates a uranium-233 isotope, as the thorium-232 takes on an additional neutron. The salt melts into a molten state, which runs a heat exchanger, heating an inert gas such as helium, which drives a turbine to generate electricity. The radiated salt flows into a post-processing plant, which separates the uranium from the salt. The uranium is then sent back to the core to start the fission process again.

Thorium reactors generate significantly less radioactive waste, and can re-use separated uranium, making the reactor self-sufficient once started. LFTRs are designed to operate as a low-pressure system unlike traditional high-pressure nuclear systems, which creates a safer working environments for workers who operate and maintain these systems. Additionally, the fluoride salts have very high boiling points, meaning even a large spike in heat will not cause a massive increase in pressure.

Both of these factors greatly limit the chance of a containment explosion. LFTRs don’t require massive cooling, meaning they can be placed anywhere and can be air-cooled. If the core were to go critical, gravity would allow the heated, radiated salt to spill into passive via underground fail-safe containment chambers, capped by an ice plug that melts upon contact.

LFTRs provide numerous benefits. Any leftover radioactive waste cannot be used to create weaponry. The fuel cost is significantly lower than a solid-fuel reactor. The salts cost roughly $150/kg, and thorium costs about $30/kg.

If thorium becomes popular, this cost will only decrease as thorium is widely available anywhere in the earth’s crust. Thorium is found in a concentration over 500 times greater than fissile uranium-235. Historically, thorium was tossed aside as a byproduct of rare-earth metal mining. With extraction, enough thorium could be obtained to power LFTRs for thousands of years. For a 1 GW facility, material cost for fuel would be around $5 million. Since LFTRs use thorium in its natural state, no expensive fuel enrichment processes or fabrication for solid fuel rods are required, meaning the fuel costs are significantly lower than a comparable solid-fuel reactor. In an ideally working reactor, the post chemical reprocessing would allow a LFTR to efficiently consume nearly all of its fuel, leaving little waste or byproduct unlike a conventional reactor. Lastly, a thorium plant will operate at about 45 percent thermal efficiency, with upcoming turbine cycles possibly improving the overall efficiency to 50 percent or greater, meaning a thorium plant can be up to 20 percent more efficient than a traditional light-water reactor.

LFTRs do present a few challenges. There are significant gaps in the research and necessary materials for LFTRs. The post-processing chemical facilities, which would separate uranium from the molten salts for re-use, haven’t been viably constructed yet. Each reactor would require some highly enriched uranium (such as uranium-235) to start the reactor, which is very expensive. Scientists suggest a $5 billion investment over the next five years could net a viable reactor solution in the United States, but with limited funding for thorium, it is difficult to see this vision come to fruition. Other countries have made preliminary investments towards building thorium reactors.

The public stigma about nuclear is real, and that must be overcome first before lawmakers will take action, as money needs to be allocated for research and development to continue on LFTRs in the United States. Without public and scientific support, it will be difficult to move forward with this technology. Education is needed to help push the agenda for thorium, spread information about thorium-based reactors, and educate the public about their safety. Resources to learn more about thorium and LFTRs include websites such as The Independent Global Nuclear News Agency and World Nuclear News, or conferences such as the Thorium Energy Conference.

Thorium reactors are a different way to generate electricity that could benefit the world. More efficient than their fossil fuel counterparts, safer than a conventional nuclear plant, and generating no carbon emissions as a byproduct, LFTRs are a viable solution for the future of our world’s energy needs.


Small modular reactors

Small modular reactors

Small and medium-sized or modular reactors are an option to fulfil the need for flexible power generation for a wider range of users and applications. Small modular reactors, deployable either as single or multi-module plant, offer the possibility to combine nuclear with alternative energy sources, including renewables.

Small modular reactors: flexible and affordable power generation

Global interest in small and medium sized or modular reactors has been increasing due to their ability to meet the need for flexible power generation for a wider range of users and applications and replace ageing fossil fuel-fired power plants. They also display an enhanced safety performance through inherent and passive safety features, offer better upfront capital cost affordability and are suitable for cogeneration and non-electric applications. In addition, they offer options for remote regions with less developed infrastructures and the possibility for synergetic hybrid energy systems that combine nuclear and alternate energy sources, including renewables.

Many Member States are focusing on the development of small modular reactors, which are defined as advanced reactors that produce electricity of up to 300 MW(e) per module. These reactors have advanced engineered features, are deployable either as a single or multi-module plant, and are designed to be built in factories and shipped to utilities for installation as demand arises.

There are about 50 SMR designs and concepts globally. Most of them are in various developmental stages and some are claimed as being near-term deployable. There are currently four SMRs in advanced stages of construction in Argentina, China and Russia, and several existing and newcomer nuclear energy countries are conducting SMR research and development.

The IAEA is coordinating the efforts of its Member States to develop SMRs of various types by taking a systematic approach to the identification and development of key enabling technologies, with the goal to achieve competitiveness and reliable performance of such reactors. The Agency also helps them address common infrastructure issues that could facilitate the SMRs’ deployment.


Nuclear Power Is Crucial

Nuclear Power Is Crucial to a Zero-Carbon Economy

Mark Lynas is the author, most recently, of “Nuclear 2.0: Why a Green Future Needs Nuclear Power.”

November 14, 2013, 6:07 PM

I fully agree with the climate scientists who are now so worried about climate change that they are reduced to pleading with the leaders of the green movement to drop their decades-long ideological opposition to nuclear power. As an author and campaigner on global warming for many years, I have tried to make the same case. In short, it makes no sense to try to tackle carbon dioxide emissions by eliminating one of the world’s largest sources of zero-carbon power, as anti-nuclear environmentalists demand. This idea is not just implausible; it is mathematically absurd.

For my recent book, “Nuclear 2.0,” I did some climate modelling with the British Meteorological Office to try to investigate the climate change outcomes of different energy approaches. The conclusion was clear: The only pathway that has a good chance of delivering a manageable climate outcome (below 2 degrees centigrade of global warming) is one including a substantial deployment of new, safer nuclear power. This is not a nuclear-only pathway, by the way. I don’t know anyone, not even in the nuclear industry, who claims that nuclear can do the job alone.

The safest pathway from my models had huge amounts of both wind and solar power, with the world’s wind farms covering an area equal to Texas and New Mexico combined and 2,500 concentrating solar plants in hot deserts. But all this renewable power cannot do the job without nuclear also in the mix, because poorer countries are seeking to vastly increase their energy consumption as their populations get connected to the electric grid for the first time. Energy scarcity is the enemy of development.

Nuclear is also vital to supply a zero-carbon baseload – a consistent source that does not vary with the weather. With smart grids, energy efficiency and electricity storage options, renewables and nuclear can work together to create a grid with little or no carbon output. It makes no sense to think of renewables and nuclear as rivals.


Energy-without the hot air

Sustainable Energy – without the hot air

David JC MacKay

Energy policy is crucial for the world, and a wide public should be engaged in debate and decisions on these issues. But such debate must be grounded in realistic numbers and good physics. All the key principles are clearly and accessibly explained in this book. David MacKay has performed a great service by writing it.

Prof Martin Rees FRS
President of the Royal Society

So much has been written about meeting future energy needs that it hardly seems possible to add anything useful, but David MacKay has managed it. His new book is a delight to read and will appeal especially to practical people who want to understand what is important in energy and what is not. Like Lord Kelvin before him, Professor MacKay realises that in many fields, and certainly in energy, unless you can quantify something you can never properly understand it. As a result, his fascinating book is also a mine of quantitative information for those of us who sometimes talk to our friends about how we supply and use energy, now and in the future.

Dr Derek Pooley CBE,
former Chief Scientist at the UK Department of Energy, Chief Executive of the UK Atomic Energy Authority and Member of the European Union Advisory Group on Energy.

1   Motivations

We live at a time when emotions and feelings count more than
truth, and there is a vast ignorance of science.

James Lovelock

I recently read two books, one by a physicist, and one by an economist. In Out of Gas, Caltech physicist David Goodstein describes an impending energy crisis brought on by The End of the Age of Oil. This crisis is coming soon, he predicts: the crisis will bite, not when the last drop of oil is extracted, but when oil extraction can’t meet demand – perhaps as soon as 2015 or 2025. Moreover, even if we magically switched all our energy-guzzling to nuclear power right away, Goodstein says, the oil crisis would simply be replaced by a nuclear crisis in just twenty years or so, as uranium reserves also became depleted.

In The Skeptical Environmentalist, Bjørn Lomborg paints a completely different picture. “Everything is fine.” Indeed, “everything is getting better.” Furthermore, “we are not headed for a major energy crisis,” and “there is plenty of energy.”

How could two smart people come to such different conclusions? I had to get to the bottom of this.

Energy made it into the British news in 2006. Kindled by tidings of great climate change and a tripling in the price of natural gas in just six years, the flames of debate are raging. How should Britain handle its energy needs? And how should the world?

“Wind or nuclear?”, for example. Greater polarization of views among smart people is hard to imagine. During a discussion of the proposed expansion of nuclear power, Michael Meacher, former environment minister, said “if we’re going to cut greenhouse gases by 60% … by 2050 there is no other possible way of doing that except through renewables;” Sir Bernard Ingham, former civil servant, speaking in favour of nuclear expansion, said “anybody who is relying upon renewables to fill the [energy] gap is living in an utter dream world and is, in my view, an enemy of the people.”

Similar disagreement can be heard within the ecological movement. All agree that something must be done urgently, but what? Jonathon Porritt, chair of the Sustainable Development Commission, writes: “there is no justification for bringing forward plans for a new nuclear power programme at this time, and … any such proposal would be incompatible with [the Government’s] sustainable development strategy;” and “a non-nuclear strategy could and should be sufficient to deliver all the carbon savings we shall need up to 2050 and beyond, and to ensure secure access to reliable sources of energy.” In contrast, environmentalist James Lovelock writes in his book, The Revenge of Gaia: “Now is much too late to establish sustainable development.” In his view, power from nuclear fission, while not recommended as the long-term panacea for our ailing planet, is “the only effective medicine we have now.” Onshore wind turbines are “merely … a gesture to prove [our leaders’] environmental credentials.”

This heated debate is fundamentally about numbers. How much energy could each source deliver, at what economic and social cost, and with what risks? But actual numbers are rarely mentioned. In public debates, people just say “Nuclear is a money pit” or “We have a huge amount of wave and wind.” The trouble with this sort of language is that it’s not sufficient to know that something is huge: we need to know how the one “huge” compares with another “huge,” namely our huge energy consumption. To make this comparison, we need numbers, not adjectives.

Where numbers are used, their meaning is often obfuscated by enormousness. Numbers are chosen to impress, to score points in arguments, rather than to inform. “Los Angeles residents drive 142 million miles – the distance from Earth to Mars – every single day.” “Each year, 27 million acres of tropical rainforest are destroyed.” “14 billion pounds of trash are dumped into the sea every year.” “British people throw away 2.6 billion slices of bread per year.” “The waste paper buried each year in the UK could fill 103448 double-decker buses.”

If all the ineffective ideas for solving the energy crisis were laid end to end, they would reach to the moon and back…. I digress.

The result of this lack of meaningful numbers and facts? We are inundated with a flood of crazy innumerate codswallop. The BBC doles out advice on how we can do our bit to save the planet – for example “switch off your mobile phone charger when it’s not in use;” if anyone objects that mobile phone chargers are not actually our number one form of energy consumption, the mantra “every little helps” is wheeled out. Every little helps? A more realistic mantra is:

if everyone does a little, we’ll achieve only a little.

Companies also contribute to the daily codswallop as they tell us how wonderful they are, or how they can help us “do our bit.” BP’s website, for example, celebrates the reductions in carbon dioxide (CO2) pollution they hope to achieve by changing the paint used for painting BP’s ships. Does anyone fall for this? Surely everyone will guess that it’s not the exterior paint job, it’s the stuff inside the tanker that deserves attention, if society’s CO2 emissions are to be significantly cut? BP also created a web-based carbon absolution service, “”, which claims that they can “neutralize” all your carbon emissions, and that it “doesn’t cost the earth” – indeed, that your CO2 pollution can be cleaned up for just £40 per year. How can this add up? – if the true cost of fixing climate change were £40 per person then the government could fix it with the loose change in the Chancellor’s pocket!

Even more reprehensible are companies that exploit the current concern for the environment by offering “water-powered batteries,” “biodegradable mobile phones,” “portable arm-mounted wind-turbines,” and other pointless tat.

Campaigners also mislead. People who want to promote renewables over nuclear, for example, say “offshore wind power could power all UK homes;” then they say “new nuclear power stations will do little to tackle climate change” because 10 new nuclear stations would “reduce emissions only by about 4%.” This argument is misleading because the playing field is switched half-way through, from the “number of homes powered” to “reduction of emissions.” The truth is that the amount of electrical power generated by the wonderful windmills that “could power all UK homes” is exactly the same as the amount that would be generated by the 10 nuclear power stations! “Powering all UK homes” accounts for just 4% of UK emissions.

Perhaps the worst offenders in the kingdom of codswallop are the people who really should know better – the media publishers who promote the codswallop – for example, New Scientist with their article about the“water-powered car.”

In a climate where people don’t understand the numbers, newspapers, campaigners, companies, and politicians can get away with murder.

We need simple numbers, and we need the numbers to be comprehen-
sible, comparable, and memorable.

With numbers in place, we will be better placed to answer questionssuch as these:

  • Can a country like Britain conceivably live on its own renewable energy sources?
  • If everyone turns their thermostats one degree closer to the outside
    temperature, drives a smaller car, and switches off phone chargers when not in use, will an energy crisis be averted?
  • Should the tax on transportation fuels be significantly increased? Should speed limits on roads be halved?
  • Is someone who advocates windmills over nuclear power stations “an enemy of the people”?
  • If climate change is “a greater threat than terrorism,” should governments criminalize “the glorification of travel” and pass laws against “advocating acts of consumption”?
  • Will a switch to “advanced technologies” allow us to eliminate carbon dioxide pollution without changing our lifestyle?
  • Should people be encouraged to eat more vegetarian food?
  • Is the population of the earth six times too big?

You should read David MacKay’s fantastic book to learn more.

The Integral Fast Reactor

by Steve Kirsch

“In the decade from 1984 to 1994, scientists at Argonne National Laboratory developed an advanced technology that promised safe nuclear power unlimited by fuel supplies, with a waste product sharply reduced both in radioactive lifetime and amount. The program, called the IFR, was cancelled suddenly in 1994, before the technology could be perfected in every detail. Its story is not widely known, nor are its implications widely appreciated. It is a story well worth telling, and this series of articles does precisely that.”

— excerpt from Plentiful Energy and the IFR story by Charles Till

Ease of fabrication generally may not seem to be that big a factor, but it is hugely important when plutonium, particularly recycled plutonium, is to be involved in the fabrication. Recycled plutonium builds up considerable amounts of the higher plutonium isotopes. Highly radioactive, hands-on fabrication is unwise if not impossible, yet hands-on fabrication is almost mandatory when fabrication is complicated. The high power densities in the fuel of a fast reactor demand excellent heat transfer, and the absence of another heat transfer medium like sodium, very tight fits of fuel to cladding are necessary. The IFR, as all other fast reactors, would be based on the uranium-plutonium fuel cycle. (Thorium/uranium-233, the other possible choise, is far less suited to neutron energies of a fast reactor.) The IFR fuel alloy, in addition to the U-238, must contain a substantial fraction of plutonium — perhaps up to one third as much plutonium as uranium. It was known that plutonium lowers the temperatures at which metallic fuel can operate in steel cladding — a eutectic (a mixture) of plutonium and iron with a lowered melting point forms at the fuel/cladding interface. But it was also known that zirconium might give a fuel alloy with the necessary protection against the eutectic formation. Earlier irradiation tests of various alloys had indicated that zirconium exhibited exceptional compatibility with cladding, and very important too, it significantly increased both the melting point of the fuel alloy and the fuel-cladding eutectic temperature. However, a very substantial addition of zirconium would be required, 10 percent by weight or, as zirconium is only 40 percent of the weight of uranium, fully 25 percent of the atoms in the fuel would be zirconium. The effect of this had to be tested.

Why it matters

To prevent a climate disaster, we must eliminate virtually all coal plant emissions worldwide in 25 years. The best way and, for all practical purposes, the only way to get all countries off of coal is not with coercion; it is to make them want to replace their coal burners by giving them a plug-compatible technology that is less expensive. The IFR can do this. It is plug-compatible with the burners in a coal plant (see Nuclear Power: Going Fast). No other technology can upgrade a coal plant so it is greenhouse gas free while reducing operating costs at the same time.

The bottom line is that without the IFR (or a yet-to-be-invented technology with similar ability to replace the coal burner with a cheaper alternative), it is unlikely that we’ll be able to keep CO2 under 450ppm because coal plants are unlikely to switch until there is a compelling economic alternative.

Today, the IFR is the only technology with the potential to displace the coal burner. That is why restarting the IFR is so critical and why Jim Hansen has listed it as one of the top 5 things we must do to avert a climate disaster. Without eliminating coal emission, the sum total of all of our other climate mitigation efforts will not matter.

To meet 450ppm, we must install about 13,000 GWe of new carbon-free power over the next 25 years. That number was calculated by Nathan Lewis at CalTech, but others such as Saul Griffith have independently dervied a very similar number and White House Science Advisor John Holdren has used a similar number in his presentations. That means we must install 1 GWe per day of clean power every single day for the next 25 years.

We are nowhere close to that installation rate with renewables alone. For example, in 2008, the average power delivered by solar worlwide was only 2 GWe (which is to be distinguished from the peak solar capacity of 13.4GWe). So after decades of renewable installations, we are still 12,998 GWe short with 25 years to go. That is why every renewable expert at a recent Aspen Institute Forum on the Environment agreed that nuclear must be part of the solution.

Nuclear has always been the world’s largest source of carbon free power. In the US, for example, even though we haven’t built a new nuclear plant in the US for 30 years, nuclear still supplies 70% of our clean power!

Nuclear can be installed very rapidly; much more rapidly than renewables. For example, about two thirds of the currently operating 440 reactors around the world came online during a 10 year period between 1980 and 1990. So our best chance of meeting the required installation of new power goal and saving the planet is with an aggressive nuclear program. Unlike renewables, nuclear generates base load power, reliably, regardless of weather. Nuclear also uses very little land area.

The IFR is our best nuclear technology. DOE did a study in 2001-2002 of 19 different reactor designs on 27 different criteria. The IFR ranked #1. Over 242 experts from around the world participated in the study. It was the most comprehensive evaluation of competitive nuclear designs ever done.

How does the US expect to be a leader in clean energy by ignoring our best nuclear technology? Nobody has been able to answer that question.

IFRs are better than conventional nuclear in every dimension. Here are a few:

  1. Efficiency: IFRs are 100 times more efficient than conventional nuclear. It extracts nearly 100% of the energy from nuclear material. Today’s nuclear reactors extract less than 1%. So you need 1 ton of actinides each year to feed an IFR (we can use existing nuclear waste for this), whereas you need 100 tons of freshly mined uranium each year to extract enough material to feed a conventional nuclear plant.
  2. Unlimited power forever: Fast reactors with reprocessing are so efficient that our existing actinide resources will power the entire planet forever (the Sun will consume the Earth before we run out of material to fuel fast reactors). If we just limited ourselves to the uranium waste on hand (the depleted uranium left over from the uranium enrichment process), we can still run the planet for the next 700 years without doing any new mining of uranium.
  3. Exploits our largest energy resource: In the US, there is 10 times as much energy in the depleted uranium (DU) that is just sitting there than there is coal in the ground. This DU waste is our largest natural energy resource…but only if we have fast reactors. Otherwise, it is just waste. With fast reactors, our nuclear waste becomes an energy asset worth about $70 trillion dollars…that’s trillion, not billion..
  4. Safety: The IFR is safer than conventional nuclear because the reactors safely shut down based on the laws of physics if something goes wrong. Today’s third generation nuclear designs are very safe: 1 accident every 29 million reactor years. The IFR should be even safer due to the passive safety inherent in the design. Also, IFRs are much safer than the coal plants they replace. Coal power plants are estimated to kill 24,000 Americans per year, due to lung disease as well as causing 40,000 heart attacks per year. Commercial nuclear has never killed even a single member of the public in its entire 50 year operating history.
  5. Proliferation resistant: The IFR is proliferation resistant because enrichment facilities are not needed to operate the plants. Instead IFR reprocessing just involves removing the fission products. The fissile/fertile ratio of the actinides is unchanged by this process. So IFR reprocessing cannot be used to enrich uranium or plutonium to make a bomb. One of the world’s top nuclear proliferation experts is strongly in favor of the IFR for this reason.
  6. Consumes existing nuclear waste from nuclear reactors and weapons: Fast reactors consume our existing nuclear waste (from reactors and decommissioned weapons) and transforms it into material that after only 200 years is safe
  7. Minimal waste: A 1 GWe IFR plant generates 1 ton of fission products each year that needs to be sequestered for 200 years until it is safe. A conventional nuclear plant of the same capacity creates 100 tons of “waste” each year some of which needs to be sequestered for 100,000 years until it is safe. If you powered your entire life from nuclear, the amount of waste you’d generate would be smaller than 1 soda can.
  8. Nuclear material never needs to leave the site: Because it is so efficient, the IFR can operate totally self-contained for its entire operating life with no nuclear material entering or leaving the site.
  9. The IFR creates a huge economic opportunity for the US to be the leading clean energy supplier to the world. Nuclear is the lowest cost scalable energy technology we have. The IFR is our best nuclear technology. If we focus on the IFR and invest in ramping up the volumes and reducing the cost, the IFR will be cheapest power source that every country will want everywhere. Our economy will benefit and our planet will too.

Small Modular Nuclear Reactor

NuScale’s Small Modular Nuclear Reactor Passes Biggest Hurdle Yet

NuScale Power is on track to build the first small modular nuclear reactor in America faster than expected.

Two weeks ago, NuScale’s small modular nuclear reactor design completed the Phase 1 review of its design certification application (DCA) by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. That’s a huge deal because Phase 1 is the most intensive phase of the review, taking more hours and effort than the remaining five phases combined.

The NRC’s review of NuScale’s DCA only began in March 2017 and the NRC’s final report approving the design is expected to be complete by September 2020. NuScale is the first and only SMR to ever undergo an NRC review. After sailing through Phase 1 so quickly, the company really is on track to build the first SMR in America within the next few years.

The first customer is certainly ready. Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) will own the first NuScale plant, a 12-module SMR, and place it at the Idaho National Laboratory. It will be operated by the experienced nuclear operator Energy Northwest. This first application will take advantage of the SMR’s specific ability to completely load-follow UAMPS wind farms.

‘We are thankful for the rigorous review of our revolutionary nuclear design and greatly appreciate the government recognizing the importance of furthering NuScale’s advancement,’ said NuScale Power Chairman and Chief Executive Officer John Hopkins. ‘Our technology means significant economic and job benefits for the country and it’s positioned to revitalize the domestic nuclear industry by virtue of NuScale’s affordable, flexible, and safe solution to providing zero-carbon energy.’

NuScale’s reactor is also America’s best chance to compete in the global SMR market as it gets started, and puts the U.S. on a path to beat foreign competitors like Argentina, China, Russia and South Korea who are developing their own SMR designs. Conservative estimates predict between 55 and 75 GW of electricity will come from operating SMRs around the world by 2035, the equivalent of more than 1,000 NuScale Power Modules, and will bring the market up towards a trillion dollars.