UK About To Leapfrog US In Energy?
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2012-03-03 17:01 by Karl Denninger
in Energy , 17 references Ignore this thread
UK About To Leapfrog US In Energy? *

We are so fooked here in this country by our willful blindness....

Last year, Kirk Dorius and I travelled to London to participate in the kickoff of the Weinberg Foundation, an advocacy group for thorium energy.  I am pleased to announce with them the formation of an “All-Party Parliamentary Group” or APPG that contains members of both the House of Commons and House of Lords, to consider the potential of thorium as an energy source. 

In a word, "Duh."

Here's the thing folks, when you boil it all down -- thorium is a no-brainer when it comes to a nuclear fuel and fuel cycle, assuming you want power and not bombs.  It also is the enabling pathway to petroleum independence without changing the consuming end of the pipeline.

Many "green" evangelists are all ga-ga over electric cars.  But they forget that while chargers are quite efficient (~80-85%) and electric motors are too (~85% for the best of what we can offer today) the fact remains that batteries have a crap energy density (meaning the amount of energy the contain per unit of both mass and volume is poor), they have a poor energy acceptance rate (how quickly you can charge said battery, requiring hours .vs. minutes to fill a fuel tank) and in addition they simply shift where the energy production takes place (to the coal plant behind the undesirable neighbor's house.)  In other words they simply move the exhaust pipe instead of getting rid of it.

Indeed when you stack the inefficiencies electric cars don't look so good.  A typical gasoline or diesel car is somewhere around 30% efficient end-to-end (that is, the number of BTUs of energy that go into the fuel tank .vs. the amount of energy that actually moves the car.)  The rest is lost as heat in some form or fashion, whether out the tailpipe, rejected by the radiator or as friction somewhere in the middle.

But neither do electric cars.  When we stack efficiencies we see the problem quite quickly:

30% (conventional nuclear or coal) to 50% (combined-cycle such as natural gas) at origin.
90% efficiency in transmission (transformers, loss on the electrical line, etc)
85% efficient (battery charger)
80% efficient (battery itself, assuming 50% charge state -- much less at 85%+ of full charge, perhaps as little as 50%)
85% motor, controller and gearing (in the car)
15.6 - 26% end-to-end

Oops; that's no better and if you start with 30% gross at the generating end it's actually worse!

So the argument for "energy efficiency" doesn't work in favor of electric.

Why does this mean we should use thorium?

Simple -- thorium reactors can be run not on pellets of fuel as conventional reactors using water as both a moderator and coolant, but rather with the fuel dispersed in a molten salt used as the working fluid and a fixed moderator in the reactor chamber.

This is a huge win for a number of reasons:

  • The reactor runs at much higher temperatures. Typical operating temperatures are in the 550-650 Celsius range as opposed to water-cooled reactors which are limited by the critical point (374 Celsius); beyond that temperature irrespective of pressure water does not remain liquid.  This means that the heat of vaporization is zero, which in turn limits the useful working temperature of the coolant.  The other problem with water is that to approach the critical temperature requires containment at extraordinary pressures; 217 atmospheres to be exact (over 3,100 psi!)

  • LFTR reactors run at normal atmospheric pressureA big part of the danger with conventional reactors comes from the properties of water at high temperature.  In order to keep it liquid you must hold it under extraordinary pressure.  Everything is much more difficult from an engineering perspective and any failure of that pressurized state is catastrophic as the water instantly flash-boils to all steam, resulting in the reactor having no coolant!  This is also why a conventional reactor requires uninterrupted power all the time; you cannot allow the coolant temperature to go over the critical point and since the fuel produces decay heat after shutdown you therefore must provide continual coolant flow until that heat is extracted.  The failure of that continual flow is what led to the Fukushima disaster.  LFTRs do not suffer from this problem as they do not operate under high pressure.  If all power is lost at a LFTR plant the coolant containing the fuel can be allowed to drain by gravity into tanks where, with no moderator present, the reaction stops and it simply cools over time on its own.  This passive safety was tested and proved effective in the United States in the test plant operated at Oak Ridge some 40+ years ago!

  • You can use the higher process heat level, up to 650C, to directly convert any carbon source to liquid hydrocarbons.  Coal happens to be a convenient source of both thorium and carbon, but in point of fact carbon can come from any source -- including atmospheric CO2. The Germans figured out how to turn coal into liquid synfuel during WWII and we have refined that process since then.

  • Reprocessing is continuous and online in form; the reaction products are thus nearly all consumed over time, producing a waste footprint that is a tiny fraction of conventional nuclear plants.  Conventional uranium-fuel-cycle reactors only have ~5% of the fuel material in the reactor that is actually fissile; the rest is bombarded over time.  Some turns into plutonium that can then be reprocessed and burned up, but a large amount of the remainder winds up as highly-radioactive byproducts that are dangerous for enormous lengths of time.  A commercial LFTR would be built with "online" reprocessing to separate out the neutron poisons (specifically Xenon) and introduce more thorium as the fuel is consumed.  The result is that most of the reaction byproducts remain in the reactor until they are reduced to less hazardous (or non-hazardous) elements and compounds; the decay heat released in this process also is harvested to produce useful energy instead of being dispersed in big cooling pools.

This is not necessarily a "cheap" oil replacement, but "cheap" is relative.  Can we produce $20/bbl equivalent oil products with this technology?  No.  Can we match $100/bbl oil?  Probably, and that's the point -- we can both produce electricity and 100% independent liquid hydrocarbons to fuel our buses, trucks and cars.

In addition we would be using a far safer technology than we use today for nuclear power.

I highlighted this alternative in Leverage for a specific reason -- behind every unit of GDP is a unit of energy.  If we are to ever rationalize our federal government spending on all things, including most-particularly our military, we must become energy independent.

We proved that these reactors can work in the 1950s and 60s at Oak Ridge.  This is not "pie in the sky" technology or the subject of science fiction.  It is a matter of science fact that we can, if we're willing, exploit to resolve our domestic energy requirements.

It appears that Britain is going to join China and India in heading down this road, leaving America behind.

We cannot afford to be left behind.

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Comments on UK About To Leapfrog US In Energy?
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Macksurf 1 posts, incept 2011-10-20

Thorium has always been the safer feul for nuclear power. The ONLY reason it is not used is because weapons-grade fissionable material is harder to retrieve from Thorium than Uranium. Thorium was previously a bit more costly to use but it gets cheaper as more Thorium based reactors are built.
Drhooves 614 posts, incept 2008-01-09

Spell check - Leapfrog in the thread title?

"Nuclear" and "Radioactivity" continue to be boggieman words for the uneducated, similar to the mathematically challenged who think the government deficits don't matter.

The U.S. will be left in the dark unless we copycat the Brits.

Gen says "it" is coming because:

"Balance sheets have two sides!"......and
"You can't count a single dollar twice!"
Ntb 1k posts, incept 2007-10-11

I was quite surprised to encounter a Thorium documentary on Radio 4 last week. Looks like there's going to be a push into the mainstream. It's here if iPlayer works in the US:

Btw forgive the pedantry but isn't it leapfrog (or is that a US thing?)

The future's bright, the future's orange.
Abn0rmal 9k posts, incept 2009-01-10

Another major advantage for the MSR is that hastelloy doesn't turn combustible as well as react with water to produce hydrogen gas like zirconium does when it gets too hot.
Asimov 148k posts, incept 2007-08-26


It's justifiably immoral to deal morally with an immoral entity.

Festina lente.
Onelegged 1k posts, incept 2009-11-13

One would think that U.S. business interests would be all ears on this. Like Gen said, being left behind in a technology sector of this type could prove to very costly. I think this could possibly end up being nothing short of a revolution in world energy policy. I am unaware of any other technology that promises this level of energy-density that isn't currently being utilized

I am sure that as soon as the politicos are lobbied sufficiently to provide 100% tax forgiveness and offer to pay for all R&D involved (plus whatever other sweetheart deals) with getting thorium on-line U.S. corporations will board this train. (sarcasm here!)

All The News That Fits, We Print.

New York Times

Reason: I added text.
Marcustullius 324 posts, incept 2010-06-12

The country as a going concern can't afford to be left behind.
The people can't afford to be left behind.
The sphincters running this show can -- or at least they believe they can.

Three guesses how this will sort out...


"It does not require a majority to prevail, but rather an irate, tireless minority keen to set brush fires in people's minds." (Samuel Adams)
Andysvw 2k posts, incept 2010-06-26

The University of Kentucky is building a coal to liquid F/T + biomass research plant 17 million. Free coal too.
Ghopper 2k posts, incept 2011-06-11

This country makes key decisions based on lobbying cash.
Mannfm11 8k posts, incept 2009-02-28

You bring up a big point Karl and that is what the hell has the leadership of the US been doing the last 40 years? Make that 100 years. It appears to me they have been intentionally bankrupting the USA with the Federal Reserve and all the international banking outfits, Breton Woods and dragging ass in regard to energy. Hard to charge dead men with treason, but either the guys running things now are continuing the trend or if you kick them in the ass, you are sure to hit them in the back of the neck. The big problem is private industry. If this stuff works, why the hell don't they build it? Is government standing in the way?

Also, I have wondered for years if you could make energy out of air, seeing as a hydrocarbon is composed of the elements in the atmosphere.

The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.---John Kenneth Galbraith

Jstanley01 8k posts, incept 2008-07-30

Looks like Sorensen was their featured speaker:

His blog has copious technical information:

They assume an authority which is nowhere so dangerous as in the hands of those who have folly and presumption enough to fancy themselves fit to exercise it. --Adam Smith
Flappingeagle 5k posts, incept 2011-04-14

We have not had "leadership", all we've had is react to the latest poll and get reelected.

Even poor leadership would have formulated a coherent energy policy given a 40 year time-frame. All we've had is a giant circle-jerk of smileys.


Here are my predictions for everyone to see:
S&P 500 at 320, DOW at 2200, Gold $300/oz, and Corn $2/bu.
No sign that housing, equities, or farmland are in a bubble- Yellen 11/14/13
Trying to leave
Chris92346 1k posts, incept 2009-03-25

"Fear of Nuclear power"

Okay that is one and a big one. However what would you say are other disadvantages of this technology? Lets play devils advocate.
Lemonaid 18k posts, incept 2008-01-20

TPTB want to arrest population growth.

"There is no means of avoiding the final collapse of a boom brought about by credit expansion. The alternative is only whether the crisis should come sooner as the result of a voluntary abandonment of
Larryl 50 posts, incept 2011-06-26

The U.S. is confronted with a huge infrastructure problem in that the power grids serving the vast majority of the country is operating well beyond design capacity. Which begs the question... does it make sense to heavily increase the load via automobiles?

Ben 7k posts, incept 2009-10-09

It's not just Democracies or Republics that have this problem. The UK and India have an energy policy. So does France, Germany and most of Europe. There is something about the US System that gets in the way of big decisions, lately.
Otiswild 5k posts, incept 2009-03-09

I'm thinking it's an uphill battle in the UK, their envirodouchebags are more strident and shrill than those in the US..

China and India? Not so much.
Burya_rubenstein 2k posts, incept 2007-08-08

Karl, would you consider personally building a thorium reactor? Leadership by example and all that... Or at least, build the F/T device?
Swarf_maker 124 posts, incept 2008-10-18

However what would you say are other disadvantages of this technology? Lets play devils advocate.

Beyond the fact that they do produce radioactive waste, even if only 1% of that of a PWR, there aren't a lot of disadvantages.

First and foremost, there isn't an approved design yet - and that is no small hurdle.

Second, LFTR breeds only about 10% in excess of its needs, so you need ten LFTRs of a given size running for a year to produce enough excess U233 to fuel an eleventh. The US has enough U233 to fuel one LFTR but has plans to denature this. LFTR can burn plutonium to start up but that means processing spent fuel from PWRs to extract the plutonium. (Or perhaps you could convince the military to part with some.) You are going to get a lot of resistance to that idea. Similarly, you could build fast breeder reactors to provide fuel to start LFTRs. Again not an easy sell politically.

Third, because the U233 produced in LFTR is highly radioactive due to contamination with a small percentage of short half-life U232, it is not particularly good for making bombs. That said, it CAN be used to make bombs, particularly if you don't care about the welfare of the people you have handling it.

Wind, solar and biofuels simply won't come close to meeting the demand for energy. Oil, Coal, and natural gas WILL run out. Demand for oil will soon exceed our ability to produce it, then it will start to get really expensive. This will feed into the general economy and you will see some huge price increases in food.

(Waste?) Heat from LFTR could be used to power liquid fuel production for transportation and agriculture via the Fischer-Tropsch process. But note that F-T is by no means carbon neutral.

Right now we have a problem. If we don't start working toward a solution very soon it could grow into a predicament - with no practical solution.

"Eternal vigilance by the people is the price of liberty." Andrew Jackson

Reason: Added: (Or perhaps...)
Abn0rmal 9k posts, incept 2009-01-10

Swarf_maker wrote..
Similarly, you could build fast breeder reactors to provide fuel to start LFTRs
There's no need to do that. LFTR can also use the exact same uranium that is currently going into conventional reactors. You'd only need enough fuel to run it for the first year because after that it would be self-sustaining with regards to U233 bred from thorium.
Ghopper 2k posts, incept 2011-06-11

"The U.S. is confronted with a huge infrastructure problem in that the power grids serving the vast majority of the country is operating well beyond design capacity."

Well luckily a large portion of the 2009 Stimulus was going for just that purpose. What do you think? They blew it all on State bailouts? Ha!

/sarcasm off
Ben 7k posts, incept 2009-10-09

"Second, LFTR breeds only about 10% in excess of its needs, so you need ten LFTRs of a given size running for a year to produce enough excess U233 to fuel an eleventh. "

This is an advantage.

Year 1: 100 reactors spawn 110
Year 30: 1745 reactors

Energy problem: Over
Ribbit 2k posts, incept 2007-09-10

Otiswild: "I'm thinking it's an uphill battle in the UK, their envirodouchebags are more strident and shrill than those in the US."

Since before Climategate I've been having run ins with the very worst of these envirodouchebags, and promoting LFTR like mad.

Particularly small sized LFTR that can fit into a footprint the size of a 40ft container. This would allow production line manufacturing of them, and diversification of generating capacity - have an infrastructure that ties into the National grid, so that units can be plugged in on small sites where the power is actually needed, which would eliminate transmission losses.

Alongside them, mains water supply connections could be installed in many convenient places (especially perhaps near the coast), so that water desalination can play as important a role as liquid fuel creation.

Plus that source of high grade heat (cheap high grade heat at that), has all manner of other potential industrial uses.

When surplus water is available (which will be fairly often during periods of low demand), it can be pumped uphill to the reservoirs and large storage ponds that are near towns and cities.

As an aside, I don't know why Magneto Hydro Dynamic (MHD) generators aren't built into the water mains piping - the water is flowing through them anyway.

High grade heat and clean water, as well as power to drive growing lights and climate control, could have fantastic market garden potential using drip agriculture in greenhouses too. In places like the Sahara, which has vast amounts of water under the sand, LFTR, desalination, and drip agriculture, could provide a large part of Africa with cheap energy, clean drinking water, and plenty of food.

The Nile has 6 harvests a year remember. The Sahara would be at least as good (and could probably feed the World on its own - let alone doing the same in other deserts).

The pressure on population (presently needed, for getting water, fuel, and food, because it all relies on man, woman, and child power), would be very much in the down direction.

I started off getting a very hostile response to LFTR, from people that are more interested in problems and scaremongering (problems and scaremongering are their route to self justification and massive income), than solutions.

They started fading very much into the background when the logic of LFTR started sinking in, even with them, only having a brief flurry of attempted resurgence, after the Japanese Fukushima disaster.

I then spent a lot of time pointing out that LFTR would be perfectly safe to build even in places like Fukushima.

Somewhere else where LFTR makes a huge amount of sense, and where it would have a massive effect on the demand for liquid fuels, would be as ship propulsion units. If all container and merchant ships were converted to LFTR propulsion systems, just think how much fuel that would save (shipping consumes HUGE amounts of liquid fuels).

If a ship sank with a LFTR propulsion system, so what? It could either be left where it sank, with the ship, to no harmful effect, or, easily salvaged (especially if designed to be easily salvaged).

There's so many upsides with thorium, even a blinkered, agenda driven, agit-prop activist envirodouchebag can see them.

The very worst of them really hate LFTR, because bottom line, they hate and despise humanity, and can't stand the prospect of our species having a bright, cheerful, optimistic future, and will do (and have been doing) everything in their power to return us to the caves, on the way back to the trees.

They don't like admitting that though, and especially in public to themselves. So now, when confronted with LFTR, the almost sensible ones just shut the fuck up and go away.

eta: some of the very worst, have been coming back onto blogs, and asking for more info on LFTR. There's a seed change happening.

If the State was a Nanny, it would have been fired for incompetence, unreliability, and having its hands in the till, a very long time ago now.

Reason: typos
Ntb 1k posts, incept 2007-10-11

As an aside, I don't know why Magneto Hydro Dynamic (MHD) generators aren't built into the water mains piping - the water is flowing through them anyway.

Most of our grid is pumped - it would be a net energy loss. If there are any gravity fed systems, you need a bigger pipe to accommodate the reduced flow from the drag created.

The future's bright, the future's orange.
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