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Thorium molten salt reactors studied by joint Chinese and American
June 28, 2012 4:38 PM   Subscribe

Signs of cooperation between China and the US on promising new energy technology Beijing-based CAS is a state group overseeing about 100 research institutes. It and the DOE have established what CAS calls the “CAS and DOE Nuclear Energy Cooperation Memorandum of Understanding.”

Sounds like the Thorium technology is gaining ground in the US as well, this is a promising development in my opinion!
posted by daveeza (68 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
Between this and fourth-generation reactors, there's (slim) hope yet for reducing carbon emissions and, more importantly, unlocking long-term supplies of safe, affordable energy - though this will no doubt be opposed by the majority of the environmental movement.
posted by Dasein at 4:56 PM on June 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Dunno. Humans can't seem to get the safety part of the equation right when it comes to fission... Just historical fact. It's probably a wiser course of action to double down on fusion or orbital solar arrays.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:04 PM on June 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Fin.
posted by Burhanistan at 5:17 PM on June 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


I did a post on this a while back. in my opinion, this IS progress. though I think it's a way to test it out in a place with.. let's say more lax regulation. but we can't burn dinosaurs forever..
posted by ninjew at 5:20 PM on June 28, 2012


When thorium has been tried, it's been very expensive. In theory it would be cheaper then uranium, but remember that we built all that uranium infrastructure to support the creation of nuclear weapons. Uranium/plutonium energy was a side effect of that.
posted by delmoi at 5:21 PM on June 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


>Humans can't seem to get the safety part of the equation right when it comes to fission... Just historical fact.

WTF? Nuclear power is, by measure of fatalities per megawatt or per years operating, just about the very safest technology there is. In the OECD (so excluding soviet russia) there have been basically zero deaths due to radiation poisoning in the past four decades.
posted by wilful at 5:28 PM on June 28, 2012 [16 favorites]


Between this and fourth-generation reactors, there's (slim) hope yet for reducing carbon emissions and, more importantly, unlocking long-term supplies of safe, affordable energy
We already have that, it's called Solar, and right now it's cheaper per kWh/year to build a solar plant then a nuclear plant.

If anyone has money they want to invest in an energy product, it will only be cost effective to go nuclear if you are very far north and don't get much sun, or we get to the point where basically all of our daytime energy production is solar and we only need more power at night.

For some weird reason there are a ton of people who just love nuclear power. They're completely willing to write off Fukushima as a freak occurrence, as only a minor inconvenience.

But more then that, they are absolutely obsessed with claiming that solar doesn't work, that it's too expensive, it's not practical, bla bla bla. It's so weird and totally detached from actual reality.

Even totally ignoring safety concerns - just on a cost basis nuclear is more expensive. So why would anyone with money to invest in energy chose nuclear over solar?
WTF? Nuclear power is, by measure of fatalities per megawatt or per years operating, just about the very safest technology there is.
What about based on evacuation and effective destruction of property based making vast swaths of land uninhabitable?

Second of all, that figure comes from a blog post not a peer reviewed science paper, which didn't include Chernobyl and was written before Fukushima. Amazingly, they counted estimated deaths caused by increased illness due to polution for coal and oil, but not increased deaths due to illness caused by Chernobyl. And again, this was before Fukushima.

The figures for wind and solar were based on people falling off roofs/wind towers. But realistically those jobs aren't any more dangerous then any other construction jobs.
posted by delmoi at 5:35 PM on June 28, 2012 [7 favorites]


In the OECD (so excluding soviet russia) there have been basically zero deaths due to radiation poisoning in the past four decades.

You mean, except in places where there have been horrible nuclear accidents, it's perfectly safe?
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:39 PM on June 28, 2012 [12 favorites]


NPR did a story on it, here:

posted by daveeza at 5:42 PM on June 28, 2012


We already have that, it's called Solar, and right now it's cheaper per kWh/year to build a solar plant then a nuclear plant.

Does that include provisions for storing energy to cover night-time consumption?
posted by atrazine at 5:45 PM on June 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


though I think it's a way to test it out in a place with.. let's say more lax regulation.
Laxer regulation seems like a great way to reduce the safety! And by the way, for some reason people say thorium reactors can't melt down, because once the moderator is removed the reaction stops.

But people said the same thing about the design used in Fukushima. And the reaction stopped exactly the way it was supposed too. The problem is that it was still giving off new heat energy due to the decay of the main reaction's byproducts. The same thing happens with Thorium.

Now, I don't personally think nuclear energy is too dangerous to use, in theory. The problem for me is that politically I don't think it's a good way to promote greenhouse reductions. Tying the two together just seems like a good way to kill support for stopping emissions even further. Because at the end of the day, people would probably rather the earth heat up a few more degrees then have a nuclear plant near their home.
posted by delmoi at 5:46 PM on June 28, 2012


Delmoi, the soliloquys on solar, as promising as it is, are getting kinda boring when the pop up in every single global warming/green technology thread. Seriously, dude, it's getting into copy-paste territory.

One thing I found quite interesting about this piece was how it dicusses the significant thorium deposits in China as a motivation for them to investigate this. I think discussion of renewable can sometimes get over-focused on "The One True Renewable", but the reality is a low carbon future is just as likely to be more heterogenous - or at least as much - as our current high-carbon world.

As an Australian, with ample natural resources carbon and non-carbon alike, it's easy for me to forget that supply issues could and are being a major factor in development of renewables.
posted by smoke at 5:53 PM on June 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


We already have that, it's called Solar, and right now it's cheaper per kWh/year to build a solar plant then a nuclear plant.

Which is why nuclear operators can make money selling their power for 6.8 cents/kWh and while solar operators sells theirs for 44.3-71.3. Gotcha.

Does that include provisions for storing energy to cover night-time consumption?

Nope. Never has, never will, and people who hold out wind and solar as a panacea will always find a way to avoid talking about this.
posted by Dasein at 6:01 PM on June 28, 2012 [6 favorites]


Smoke, as an Australian, you should maybe be more excited about the current state of solar. If the history of nuclear power and the current trends in solar are any indication...imagine a few decades from now, China paying for massive HVDC hookups to a huge surplus of baseload solar thermal from Australia. They're eventually aiming to be self-reliant via their Tarim Basin megaproject, but Australia, having wisely invested early in solar, continues to be China's energy lifeline long after king coal has been resigned to the dustbin of history.

I can dream, can't I?
posted by [expletive deleted] at 6:02 PM on June 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Solar and wind are great, you live in sunny or reliably windy climes, but if you want to generate a lot of heat in winter in Northern latitudes, , or concentrate a lot of heat to make large amounts of steam for underground injection to make the tarsands less carbon intensive, thorium makes a lot of sense...
posted by daveeza at 6:19 PM on June 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


What about based on evacuation and effective destruction of property based making vast swaths of land uninhabitable?

Given that one of the healthiest coral reefs on the planet is Bikini Atoll, that could be seen as a feature, not a bug.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:19 PM on June 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Does that include provisions for storing energy to cover night-time consumption?

Why is perfection once again an enemy of the good? Does nuclear ever include provisions for inevitable devastation to cover catastrophic events like Fukushima and Chernobyl?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 6:28 PM on June 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Does that include provisions for storing energy to cover night-time consumption?
No but it doesn't include operation of decommissioning costs of the plant either, just the pure construction costs.

Anyway, once all of our daytime energy needs are met (which where the majority of our electricity use occurs), then it would be reasonable to look at nuclear as a way to provide a way to produce power at night, and eliminate the final coal/oil/natural gas plants.

But until then, what's the point? This criticism always strikes me as totally absurd. People build power plants to make money. Right now, you can make money selling power during the day - in fact, daytime electricity is worth more then nighttime electricity! So again, why would anyone invest in nuclear power when they can get more energy per year, per dollar, then with nuclear?

If we left it entirely up to "the market" the cost of energy during the day would decrease, eventually it would cost as much during the day, and in the long run it might actually get to the point where it's so cheap during the day that building nuclear plants that can produce overnight might be a more cost effective investment. But that's a long way off. And by then, a good chunk of our carbon emissions will be gone.

The other thing we definitely need (which is much less sexy then solar) is better home insulation, so that people don't even need to burn fuel oil or natural gas for heating.

Finally, I think it may be cost effective to create create HVDC lines around the arctic circle, to carry power from Europe/Asia/North America at night. That will take care of the night/day issue, since it's always daytime somewhere.
posted by delmoi at 6:31 PM on June 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Dasein, I propose two answers to your question.

1. Nuclear has relied, and continues to rely on huge subsidies, both direct and indirect. For instance, who's on the hook for claims exceeding Bruce Power's $75 million liability policy? Who pays for decommissioning? Who pays to deal with the waste? Who provided funding to develop CANDU reactors to begin with? Who provided financing to build the plants?

2. Rooftop PV in Canada isn't exactly the poster-child for solar power, or alternative energy in general. I'd be tempted to agree that it isn't the best way to go about things. The case of Germany is a telling example. Germany has had success getting PV off the ground with their subsidies, to the point where recently they had a few hours of PV providing more than 50% of their countries energy needs. While I like that, and I like that feed-in tariffs are driving better and cheaper PV technology for everyone, I shake my head at the waste of all those panels being installed in Germany rather than in, say, Spain.

I'm not even against nuclear power. I'm especially of the mind that this is the wrong time to abandon nuclear. I'd love to see major breakthroughs with thorium molten salt reactors, and I think better fission (and in my fantasy utopia, fusion) could honestly be a huge part of the decarbonization of our energy supply, but let's be honest about a few things.

Nuclear is at the very least, equally reliant on the state as solar, wind, geothermal, or other renewables. The cost per kilowatt hour that Ontario Hydro pays isn't an honest reflection of the relative merits of solar PV and nuclear. If we can afford to pour government money into nuclear, we can afford the same to renewables.

Also, to answer your challenge regarding intermittentcy: a large, distributed grid of solar (PV and molten-salt thermal for baseload), wind, tidal, geothermal, and hydro (traditional, run-of-the-river and pumped peakers to store excess generated by ambient power). Transmission losses could be minimized by using HVDC transmission from deserts to population centers thousands of kilometers away.

The technology required is easily within the means of even the smallest nuclear power. It requires only the will to do so.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 6:37 PM on June 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


For some weird reason there are a ton of people who just love nuclear power. They're completely willing to write off Fukushima as a freak occurrence, as only a minor inconvenience.

It is a freak occurrence, resulting from using an ancient and flawed design in an area subject to high seismic activity and, of course, tsunamis. It's a hell of a lot more than a minor inconvenience, it's a major problem. But not as major a problem as the filth and CO2 emitting by coal-burning power stations and the like, which border on catastrophic.

But more then that, they are absolutely obsessed with claiming that solar doesn't work, that it's too expensive, it's not practical, bla bla bla. It's so weird and totally detached from actual reality.

No, not really. I'm fine with solar. But it only works about half the time (because of this thing called night), and it doesn't work equally well at every latitude or at all times of the year, any more than wind does. We should keep working on both, and I would point out that we've already sunk a lot of money into such technologies in the last few years. Two solar tech companies that had government-guaranteed loans have gone bust, losing well over a billion dollars and all the jobs that were temporarily created, with little technology dividend to show for it.

I'm fine with that, because you have to expect some duds along with some wins. But the idea that we're not investing in solar is BS. Solar is great. Wind is great. But while we wait for them to generate a greater share of our power, nuclear is a technology that's known to work and generally does so cleanly.

Finally, I think it may be cost effective to create create HVDC lines around the arctic circle, to carry power from Europe/Asia/North America at night. That will take care of the night/day issue, since it's always daytime somewhere.

That doesn't sound very realistic. How much do you think this would cost, and how much power would expect to transmit over it?
posted by anigbrowl at 6:41 PM on June 28, 2012 [5 favorites]


Nope. Never has, never will, and people who hold out wind and solar as a panacea will always find a way to avoid talking about this.
The share of electricity produced from renewable energy in Germany has increased from 6.3 percent of the national total in 2000 to over 20 percent in the first half of 2011.
Anything is possible if a government exists to improve the lives of their citizens instead of facilitating their exploitation.
posted by deanklear at 6:47 PM on June 28, 2012 [7 favorites]


Which is why nuclear operators can make money selling their power for 6.8 cents/kWh and while solar operators sells theirs for 44.3-71.3. Gotcha.
You're cherry-picking data. From Canada, which gets less sunlight then most of the world. It basically proves you're being disingenuous. So thanks for clarifying that for everyone. The Gujarat Solar Park will charge 29¢/kWh for the first 12 years, and only 12¢/kWh after that. The key thing with solar is that the costs are upfront. The ongoing costs for a solar park to continue operating are minuscule. The high feed in tariffs are setup by governments in order to subsidize development, they don't represent the final cost of the installation, and many of them were set years ago when solar costs were much higher.

The disingenuousness of the nuclear argument is the weirdest thing. Why is it that nuclear advocate go out of their way to falsely denigrate solar power? Especially when they often claim to be concerned about global warming? It's totally bizarre.

Look at the real numbers: The cost to build a solar plant today (not 10 years ago) vs. the cost to build a nuclear plant today that can generate the same number of kilowatt hours per year. Look up those numbers. The real ones. What are they? As I've pointed out when you look at the total cost to build a plant (such as the Gujarat one) vs a nuclear plant that can put out the same amount of energy per year (day and night, winter and summer) solar is just cheaper. Nighttime use is something we'll need to worry about in the future, once all daytime energy use is completely carbon free. Until then, it's really irrelevant at this point.

Maybe at that point nuclear will be a cheaper option compared to storage. But the time to worry about that is when it's actually an issue.

Nuclear energy also requires massive government subsidies, particularly a willingness to pick up the tab for decommissioning, which is extremely expensive. Obviously the cheapest way to generate power these days is coal or natural gas. But between nuclear and solar, solar is obviously cheaper to build.

Remember, the key thing is that the price of solar panels has dropped several fold in just the past few years. So if you're comparing prices based on systems that were setup years ago, they'll be more expensive. I'm talking about the cost of brand new facilities, like the above linked Gujarat Solar park.
Solar and wind are great, you live in sunny or reliably windy climes, but if you want to generate a lot of heat in winter in Northern latitudes, , or concentrate a lot of heat to make large amounts of steam for underground injection to make the tarsands less carbon intensive, thorium makes a lot of sense...
Like I said, for keeping homes warm in the winter, the best way to do this is with insulation. If we switch to renewables, there won't be much reason to mine tar sands anyway.
posted by delmoi at 6:50 PM on June 28, 2012 [9 favorites]


It is a freak occurrence, resulting from using an ancient and flawed design in an area subject to high seismic activity and, of course, tsunamis.
No. It was completely predictable from the historical record. Tsunamis like that had been recorded several times in Japanese history, about once every 200 years. The plant was supposed to last for 50 years.

That's a 1/4 chance of a tsunami like that hitting the plant. It should have been planned for, but wasn't. If the backup power had been waterproof, the plant wouldn't have melted down.

Anyway, maybe it's reasonable to put nuclear plants in seismically inactive areas. But politically it is a complete waste of energy when solar is cheaper anyway. When we get all or most of our daytime energy from Solar, then it might be a good time to look at nuclear vs. other options (like a global grid)
posted by delmoi at 6:53 PM on June 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


One June 9, 2012, for two hours, Germany produced over 50% of its electric needs from green power.
posted by stbalbach at 7:02 PM on June 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Ahh, green power, not solar. Thanks for the clarification, stbalbach.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 7:03 PM on June 28, 2012


World Solar Power Goes Parabolic.
posted by stbalbach at 7:05 PM on June 28, 2012


That doesn't sound very realistic. How much do you think this would cost, and how much power would expect to transmit over it?
Solar in general doesn't seem "realistic" to a lot of people, even though it's actually being used in the real world at low cost. If you don't think it's feasable, why don't you do the math and figure out how much you think it would cost, as opposed to guessing randomly?

one of the longest links cost about a half billion euros, and does 700MW over 580km, but most of the cost is in the converter stations, rather then the cable itself, so you can extend the link length without increasing overall costs that much. That's about 1/5th the distance from the UK to Canada through Iceland and Greenland.

In any event, it may be the case that nuclear plants for nighttime power generation might be cheaper then nuclear now, but why worry about that at this point in time? If daytime energy prices become so cheap that solar is no longer a good investment.

No government is going to destroy existing coal/natural gas energy infrastructure. It's still going to exist, and won't have any trouble generating power at night. Once we get to the point that it's only needed for nighttime power is when we need to start worrying about how to replace it.

Anyway, the reality is solar installs have skyrocketed in the past few years. The expansion is absolutely massive because inverters actually have run the numbers and can clearly see that it works out.

So ultimately, it doesn't really matter what you think at all. People actually have run the numbers, and are investing in solar on a massive scale. But it's truly amazing that people who claim to care about global warming would spend their energy denigrating the one technology that stands a good chance of putting a major dent in our power needs without generating CO2 due to what seems to be an entirely irrational love for nuclear power regardless of the costs, risks, or political feasibility and would seem to rather have global warming then see the problem solved with something other then nuclear energy.
posted by delmoi at 7:13 PM on June 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm hoping that we'll be in a financial position to install solar in the near future; we're paying for some other things right now that are painful now but will pay off big later (aka no student debt.) I live in the desert southwest and it's summer, so we've got our usual roasting temps and all the sun we can handle. Out here it makes even more sense, because sun means heat, and heat means air conditioners and swamp coolers running a bunch. Solar can help when energy demand is at its highest here. Large scale installations are good, but rooftop solar creates more distributed power generation. You put the two together out here, and you make a huge dent in energy demand.
posted by azpenguin at 7:33 PM on June 28, 2012


Liquid Flouride Thorium Reactor in 5 minutes

Learn about what it is before you make uniformed comments about nuclear power.
posted by j03 at 7:36 PM on June 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


The Waterloo region Mennonites are very keen on solar. In particular one sees many of the Sunflower type pole trackers going up on farms. These sects are extremely conservative about technology but they have done the thinking and made their choices. No waste, no noise, no upkeep, no fuel, no emissions. Just good clean power. Cleaner, ethically, than what comes off the grid

We would do well to think as they do on this.
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:46 PM on June 28, 2012


The share of electricity produced from renewable energy in Germany has increased from 6.3 percent of the national total in 2000 to over 20 percent in the first half of 2011.

Europe is using Wood Pellets in Coal plants to meet renewable energy goals, though I can't find out how much of total renewable energy this comprises.


“When only the emissions from the burning fuel are analyzed, natural gas appears to be a cleaner option,” chemical and biological engineering professor Xiaotao Bi of the University of British Columbia explained to his campus’ Ingenuity magazine. “But when you factor in the entire life cycle of natural gas … with that of engineered wood pellets, which come from a renewable resource, the pellets are a far better environmental choice. They’re clean, and they’re sustainable.”


Sweden consumes 20% of world wood pellet production
posted by Golden Eternity at 7:46 PM on June 28, 2012


Solar power: it's good enough for plants
posted by crayz at 7:58 PM on June 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


deanklear, I note that you did exactly what I said people do - avoid disucssing the inherent limits on a renewable-reliant grid.

It's amazing what you can do when you have the power to confiscate people's money and spend it on uneconomic forms of power - you absolutely can build enough wind and solar capacity to increase their share of the grid. And if Germans want to go even deeper into debt to raise the electricty bills, it can have an even higher share. What it can't do is lead to the shutdown of the backup plants fossil fuel or nuclear plants that any grid will rely on.
posted by Dasein at 8:38 PM on June 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Delmoi: I don't think you're wrong. However... how do you reconcile the fact that you claim solar is competitive to nuclear or fossil fuel.... against, say, every single energy study done on this page - US DOE, national bodies in UK, France, Australia, Germany, Japan - which unanimously say solar is significantly more expensive.

In general, in order to change people's perceptions, you first need to start the conversation from common ground that everyone accepts before moving onto the problem topic.

Say, start with all these national studies, with known methodologies (Levelized Energy Cost) that show solar being twice as expensive as coal and nuclear - and show a walk from there to the "true" cost of solar that you are claiming, which is so cheap that it makes nuclear obselete.

Simply claiming "solar is cheaper, why can't you accept it" isn't going to change anyone's minds, unfortunately, and neither is randomly quoting super low cost per watt numbers.

If you haven't done it I'll make a stab of it sometime this weekend...
posted by xdvesper at 8:40 PM on June 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Gujarat Solar Park will charge 29¢/kWh for the first 12 years, and only 12¢/kWh after that.

Are you seriously trying to rebut real-world numbers with what some solar entrepreneur is claiming will be the cost in 12 years? Even if you're right, it's still twice the cost of nuclear power.

Nuclear has relied, and continues to rely on huge subsidies, both direct and indirect.

I agree - but it produces affordable power. Renewables are subsidized and they don't.

Who pays for decommissioning? Who pays to deal with the waste?

The nuclear operators, and through them the ratepayers (i.e. it's factored into the price). Not the taxpayers.

Also, it's not waste. If we had the foresight to build a fast reactor, we could get centuries of power out of the "waste" that's piling up.
posted by Dasein at 8:49 PM on June 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's amazing what you can do when you have the power to confiscate people's money and spend it on uneconomic forms of power
Like thorium research reactors?
And if Germans want to go even deeper into debt to raise the electricty bills, it can have an even higher share. What it can't do is lead to the shutdown of the backup plants fossil fuel or nuclear plants that any grid will rely on.
Germany is one of the few countries to have built a thorium reactor, which ended up being hugely expensive and shut down in just 4 years because it was so expensive.

Also, electricity costs in Germany are lower then most of Europe and have actually been dropping over the past few years. If Germany stopped subsidizing solar, the installed panels would still all exist, and continue to provide power practically for free.

You're saying solar is bad because it costs money, and therefore we should do nuclear instead. But you're ignoring the fact that nuclear costs money also and in fact it costs more money.
Are you seriously trying to rebut real-world numbers with what some solar entrepreneur is claiming will be the cost in 12 years? Even if you're right, it's still twice the cost of nuclear power.
No. I'm talking about the feed in tariff, which is set by law. If the law says you'll get $x/kWh then that's what you'll get. Not sure why this is so confusing.

Yes, it's a subsidy. But as I said, nuclear doesn't work without subsidies either. If the government pays up front for the construction of a nuclear reactor (or they build one to produce weapons fuel) then that won't be factored into the cost of the energy.

Instead of doing that with solar, you have a feed in tariff.

I'm not sure if you really even understand how this works: the cost of solar energy is practically zero. The cost is the up front cost to build the reactor. How much you charge per kWh only depends on how quickly you can recoup your initial investment. In most cases, the feed in tariff is set by law, for a set period of time.

With nuclear, the subsidies come in in up front cash to help with construction, and critically they provide guarantees to pay for decommissioning, the costs of which can be huge, possibly even more then construction (the German thorium reactor cost 2 billion euros to build, and 400 million to decommission, after operating for just 4 years)

And again... the point here is what should you invest in. If you can charge more money for solar energy then nuclear, obviously it's a better investment. If you charge the same then it's also a better investment.
posted by delmoi at 9:00 PM on June 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


I agree - but it produces affordable power. Renewables are subsidized and they don't.
Again, solar power costs almost nothing to produce. The only question is how quickly the initial investment is recouped. In fact, operational costs are still less then nuclear. The panels just sit there. Occasionally they need to be replaced, while a nuclear reactor requires constant management.
posted by delmoi at 9:01 PM on June 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


What it can't do is lead to the shutdown of the backup plants fossil fuel or nuclear plants that any grid will rely on.

This need only be a small minority of the grid, according to the latest studies. We could go all-in building renewables as fast as we can for the next 30 years and still not pass any point where the grid can't operate, so it's a fallacious objection to be raising any time this generation - just a throwing up of hands and incorrectly saying "it's impossible" when the engineers don't agree. They don't agree because they're not blinded by an assumption that the grid doesn't change. We are constantly maintaining it, managing it, rebuilding it, repairing it, redirecting it. The grid is always evolving according to our will, and should we wish to change it in ways that allow renewables to massively dominate energy production, that's a political problem, not an engineering one.
posted by -harlequin- at 9:07 PM on June 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


No. It was completely predictable from the historical record. Tsunamis like that had been recorded several times in Japanese history, about once every 200 years. The plant was supposed to last for 50 years. That's a 1/4 chance of a tsunami like that hitting the plant. It should have been planned for, but wasn't. If the backup power had been waterproof, the plant wouldn't have melted down.

No, there was 1/4 chance of a tsunami hitting the Japanese coast somewhere. And yes, the reactor design was flawed, the maintenance was flawed, the lack of contingency plan was flawed, and it was not a great place to put a nuclear power plant int he first place. Across the number of nuke plants as a whole, this was exceptional rather than typical. Nuclear power is potentially very dangerous, but the danger can be mitigated fairly easily. Despite Fukushima, Chernobyl, and all other nuclear accidents put together, the industry still does far less damage than coal.

And more importantly, it scales really really well.
posted by anigbrowl at 9:13 PM on June 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Interesting discussion is once again derailed by discussion of solar pros and cons that's rehashed in every thread. I was interested in learning something new about thorium reactors. A shame.
posted by smoke at 9:13 PM on June 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


Solar in general doesn't seem "realistic" to a lot of people, even though it's actually being used in the real world at low cost. If you don't think it's feasable, why don't you do the math and figure out how much you think it would cost, as opposed to guessing randomly?

I know it's being used in the real world. I was advocating for solar power back in the 1980s. Solar and wind are awesome.

But it's truly amazing that people who claim to care about global warming would spend their energy denigrating the one technology

Nobody's denigrating solar outside your imagination. You're using that straw man to denigrate nuclear power, and I am not the only one to notice it.
posted by anigbrowl at 9:17 PM on June 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


I hope thorium can be developed into something really awesome, because current nuclear power is pretty abysmal, and boy howdy it would be useful.

From what I've read, views range from fervent belief it's a silver bullet that could be built tomorrow if not for the evil environment conspiracy, through to it sounding promising on a napkin but turning out to be so much more problematic to actually engineer that, meh, maybe it could be useful somewhere... to someone... for some specialist applications, but it's not significant.

But there's one way to find out! :)
posted by -harlequin- at 9:28 PM on June 28, 2012


Germany is one of the few countries to have built a thorium reactor, which ended up being hugely expensive and shut down in just 4 years because it was so expensive.

Besides the fact that it's a different technology we're talking about here, generalizing from a sample size of 1 built 25 years ago is hardly useful. So I suggest you go off and build solar plants, which is great, and let the rest of us maybe talk about this other thing we're interested in that we would like to build in addition to various renewable sources.
posted by anigbrowl at 9:30 PM on June 28, 2012


the reactor design was flawed, the maintenance was flawed, the lack of contingency plan was flawed, and it was not a great place to put a nuclear power plant int he first place. Across the number of nuke plants as a whole, this was exceptional rather than typical.

Actually those factors seem fairly normal, not exceptional at all. The business of business is business.
posted by -harlequin- at 9:31 PM on June 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Actually those factors seem fairly normal, not exceptional at all. The business of business is business.

(Which is why I hope thorium could offer a new normal for nuclear power)
posted by -harlequin- at 9:33 PM on June 28, 2012



No, there was 1/4 chance of a tsunami hitting the Japanese coast somewhere.
Yeah, and there reactors all up and down the coast.

Nobody's denigrating solar outside your imagination.
Lol.
posted by delmoi at 11:26 PM on June 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm not opposed to nuclear myself - in fact I totally see potential in it in certain circumstances. I am not an expert on energy, but I've read a bit and my girlfriend and my ex-girlfriend are both people with a degree of professional expertise on the issue, so I've at least picked up a little bit. Here are my understandings (which may, of course, be inaccurate.)

First, nuclear is clean, cheap, reliable and safe, in comparison to fossile fuels, and provided that things are done according to proper regulations the way we'd hope them to be handled in the first world. Problem is that even in the U.S., which hasn't really suffered any nuclear catastrophes, we've been playing the odds a little hard due to politics and economics.

Like solar plants, nuclear plants incur massive upfront costs in infrastructure, as well as in decommissioning, as delmoi has brought up. It takes forever to build a new one, based on newer, safer, more efficient designs, and then get it online. And maintenance is something of an issue, due to safety concerns. What this means is that a plant like Vermont Yankee can have its license renewed (over the objection of the state government) for another twenty years even after it was scheduled for decommission already, because of the amount of reliance upon it and the amount of money it would cost to replace.

So basically, even if one is fully in favor of nuclear power (and again, I'm pretty in favor) we aren't doing it right yet. It really requires a commitment stronger than one which blows with the winds of political favor. We have, as a culture, more or less accepted the higher risks of oil and coal, but have never really accepted the lower risks associated with nuclear, because they are of a type which scares us more. As such, we haven't been able to regularize our financial burden in keeping up our nuclear infrastructure, and that paradoxically has made nuclear more dangerous.

Secondly, solar is great, and safer than nuclear or fossil fuels or really almost any other form of alternative energy. I don't know much about the downsides, but I know that DC has a program which I'm willing to bet is also in place in most other places in the US, which facilitates solar paneling for homes, which feeds the excess power back into the grid and credits the homeowner with the difference. While this doesn't solve the night-time use problem, it can conceivably go halfway.

Third, we've come a long way with hydrogen power, but transporting it is, I believe, still the big problem no one has been able to solve. But I have faith in human ingenuity.

Fourth, wind power is highly geographically-dependent, but the bit that bugs me is the apparent NIMBY issue with it, which never made much sense to me. I've drivent by and through wind farms, and they've always been strangely beautiful to me. Just different strokes, I guess.

Finally, every expert will agree that the safest, cleanest, and most stable form of alternative energy is energy efficiency. And this, thankfully, gets better all the time. There are two areas where it doesn't, however, and these account for the grand majority of american home energy costs:

1. Air conditioning. Sometimes you need it, for sure. My GF is hyper-conscious about energy spending, and we still need to turn it on on days like today in DC. But central air, while a high upfront investment, is way more efficient than any other kind, and cheaper in the long run. Ceiling fans are best when practical. Window units are fairly awful.

2. Clothes dryers. The one appliance which one cannot get energy-star-certified. Seriously, hang-dry your clothes, and save yourself hundreds yearly.
posted by Navelgazer at 11:52 PM on June 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


Why are nuclear and solar mutually exclusive again?

I assume our goal is to reduce emissions as quickly as possible. It's a big complicated worldwide problem.

While we are busy debating where our power should come from in 30 years new coal burning plants are being built.
posted by rcdc at 11:57 PM on June 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


And more importantly, it scales really really well.

Well, until the 50 years of minable uranium is used up, sure.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:15 AM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Finally, every expert will agree that the safest, cleanest, and most stable form of alternative energy is energy efficiency. And this, thankfully, gets better all the time. There are two areas where it doesn't, however, and these account for the grand majority of American home energy costs

Air conditioning and heating tech is not likely to become significantly more efficient anytime soon, but the need for them could be drastically decreased with some fairly low tech changes to housing design and materials. We're still using black roofs on most of our houses, for christssake. It's ridiculous.

Our whole house building philosophy is predicated on an antagonist relationship with the surrounding environment. But a little synergy can go a long way. See, for example, Persian windcatchers. To use a more modern example, geothermal heat pumps can cut energy consumption in half. Imagine if green construction was subsidized as heavily as energy in the US.
posted by dephlogisticated at 1:18 AM on June 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


Well, until the 50 years of minable uranium is used up, sure.

You realize that this thread is about a non-uranium approach to nuclear power generation, yes? That thorium is a completely different element from uranium, is abundant in the earth's crust, has a fuel cycle about 140 times more efficient than that of uranium, and results in only a fraction of the waste, yes? Because you read the article linked to in the FPP and the headline of the thread, yes?

So why are you talking about uranium?
posted by anigbrowl at 1:37 AM on June 29, 2012


Because you're talking about nuclear power plants, yes? For power generation, yes? And because thorium is not used for power generation (outside of research), yes? And so if you're going to talk about how great nuclear power is, then you're talking of using uranium, yes? Which we only have 50 years left of, yes?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:57 AM on June 29, 2012


Can you clarify this 50 year figure? Uranium is a pretty common element, about as common as lead in the crust. Available reserves are mostly determined by financial and political factors (energy prices, fuel prices influenced by burning decommissioned warheads, availability of enrichment and reprocessing etc) rather than actual physical deposits.
posted by Dr Dracator at 2:09 AM on June 29, 2012


Any forecast of the development of nuclear power in the next 25 years has to concentrate on two aspects, the supply of uranium and the addition of new reactor capacity. At least within this time frame, neither nuclear breeding reactors nor thorium reactors will play a significant role because of the long lead times for their development and market penetration.

The analysis of data on uranium resources leads to the assessment that discovered reserves are not sufficient to guarantee the uranium supply for more than thirty years.


The Energy Watch Group wrote a 2006 report that forecast "peak uranium" in 2035 based on analyses of data from the IEA World Energy Outlook and the European Nuclear Energy Agency 2006 Red Book.

We're about 23 years away from that inflection point, which puts us roughly fifty years to the other end of the tail, give or take years for the faster trip back down the tail, as new power plants are added to the mix that more quickly consume supply.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:35 AM on June 29, 2012


Noting that the GE AP1000 has the tip in the states for at least 12 3G reactors. 5 years from shovel to grid it not too bad. Florida Plunder and Loot wouldn't be building them two of them at Turkey Point if they couldn't flip a few bucks, and it looks like the bill will be $18B all in. It's not thorium but it's ready to build now, and it seems like a far better design than what's running.

My dad did nuke plant safety and security for years and I'm sure he'd have a lot to add.
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:31 AM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Can you clarify this 50 year figure?

Reports estimating uranium depletion vary wildly, to say the least. One of the more pessimistic ones was a study released by the European Commission in 2001, saying that the current level of consumption would exhaust all primary uranium sources within 42 years (72 years if secondary and military sources of uranium were included). However, those estimates assume that nuclear reactors continue to supply the same percentage of global energy as they do today -- replacing fossil fuel plants with nuclear plants would require a six fold increase in uranium consumption, reducing the global supply to only 12 years.

Other studies in the "pessimistic" category predict supplies of 70, 100, and 130 years, depending on the viability of secondary uranium sources and not making an attempt to displace oil and coal. "Optimistic" studies predict supplies lasting 8,500 years, 47,000 years, or even 5 billion years of uranium power. What gives?

What the optimistic studies have in common is that they ALL rely on widespread use of either breeder reactors (at the low end) or fast breeder reactors (for the million year predictions and beyond). The problem is that right now very few of these fancy breeder reactors exist. They're mostly an area of research, not a means of commercial power generation. Many prototypes have been built, run for a few years, and shut down. Some have started construction, had huge cost overruns, and were abandoned. Many are looking for funding. I think India is in the process of building one. China has had a small 25MW prototype running for a few years now, and Russia has been running the 560MW BN-600 since 1980.

The breeder reactors that exist (...both of them) are not considered economically competitive with normal nuclear reactors, but that's ok, because eventually scarcity will drive prices up to the point where we will be forced to eat the extra cost. Until then, from a purely economic standpoint, we can limp along consuming uranium from primary sources for another 30, 40, or 50 years waiting for the oil and uranium peaks to make the costs of reprocessed uranium look cheap by comparison.

But from an environmental standpoint, we don't want to wait that long to stop using fossil fuel for power generation. We want to stop it now! We've already caused enough environmental damage as it is! Where's the next source of power?

The options don't look good. Worldwide energy consumption for 2008 (assuming wikipedia is accurate) was roughly 15 terawatts (TW). 33% from oil, around 27% from coal.

If we build more nuclear plants and switch entirely to nuclear power, we will literally run out of primary-source uranium. We are building solar, and we should build more, but we aren't because it's even more expensive and doesn't scale as well as nuclear. A 2009 study estimates the total worldwide potential for harnessing solar power using current (2008) technology at ~50TW, meaning that we would need to realize 18% of that potential in order to replace oil and coal. We can start on that, but how long would that take? Does that mean covering 18% of the globe in solar panels? Would we be finished in 20 years? Would global demand pass 50TW before it was even finished? The same study estimates global potential wind power at 19TW, roughly half of which would be needed to replace our 2008 level of oil and coal use.

The FPP is about an agreement to cooperate on researching yet more alternative nuclear designs, exploring the use of molten salts and particle accelerators. Is this agreement really going to foster collaboration or is it mainly a formalized treaty to alleviate the need for China and the US to spend resources infiltrating and/or bombing the other's research facilities? We desperately need to move beyond the R&D stage and settle on some form of viable green power that we can begin building as soon as possible. We don't have enough uranium to lean heavily on nuclear power, and solar is going to take an excruciatingly long time to build out.

When I read about reactor designs that only need 10 or 20 more years of research to become viable, I'm reminded of that day in science class where we learn that a single glass of water contains enough energy to power a large city. We've known that for over 50 years, but we still don't have water-fusion power generators.
posted by ceribus peribus at 4:58 AM on June 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


Anyone who likes nuclear is, IMO, either crazy or hasn't spent any time actually reading their local regulator's nuclear incident reports. In many countries these are a matter of public record and can often even be accessed online.

When one goes back a few years and reads them, there's only one conclusion to that can be drawn:

My son's kindergarten is better qualified to operate a nuclear power plant than the nuclear industry that currently does.

It is an absolute miracle that major incidents such as Chernobyl, Fukushima and Three Mile Island don't happen more often, given the literally hundreds of near misses and minor incidents you'll find in those reports.

I can recommend that anyone wishing to have an opinion on nuclear energy finds those reports and spends some time reading them.
posted by Djinh at 5:44 AM on June 29, 2012


There are scales at which humans build stuff really efficiently, like hand held electronics, cars, and houses, that pretty well covers the construction scales required for solar and wind. We aren't so great at doing large "must never fail" projects though, not at scale anyways, well people make mistakes.

I agree with delmoi that wind and solar costs will continue to decline and adoption will continue to increase. Rare earths aren't actually rare, just crapy to mine. So any nation could potentially jump onto the wind or solar manufacturing bandwagon with enough upfront investment.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:03 AM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wow. Any chance that both sides could maybe tamp down the condescension just a little? This is a hugely complex issue that not even professionals in the industry know absolutely everything about, so let's back off a little on calling each other uninformed and absurd, m'kay?
posted by Etrigan at 7:10 AM on June 29, 2012 [5 favorites]


Given that one of the healthiest coral reefs on the planet is Bikini Atoll, that could be seen as a feature, not a bug.

No argument about that part. Ditto on the studies about wildlife and plant life around Chernobyl. However humans are not coral nor fish, nor vegetative matter. One opinion is that these organisms, as individuals, don't live long enough to reap the genetic whirlwind of nuclear contamination--but humans do. In any case, it's still difficult to reconcile the short-term issues associated with accidents in nuclear power plants. Certain other environmental issues (warming of river water, for example) have to be overcome, or else minimized; this is an obstacle of kind, though, and all energy sources share it in one form or another.

Mr. Obvious is fond of saying that maybe the development of power should be multi-pronged, not just reliant upon a central source. The Japanese have made good use of methane plants, for example, which power largish sections of their cities. They combine sewage recovery with power generation to do this. Other are wind, solar, and maybe tidal action. Some studies indicate that water temperature differential offshore may successfully drive power generators. Why not combine all these in an area such as San Francisco? Why not use as many of them as is practicable elsewhere?

Storage is a central issue. Small scale, off-the-grid residences successfully use solar panels and marine batteries. This isn't practical on a massive scale, but the theory seems valid enough to pursue: for example combine solar and tidal in certain areas to extend the daily usage arc, and use batteries as required.

I'm not sure that constraints are all technical. I believe that inertia is our biggest issue. Politics resist moving the paradigm forward, to be sure: my untested theory is that progressive thinkers are fewer than those who don't want new contraptions, and chicken ranch enterprises tend to hang on to their legislative earmarks. Lobbyists for the investors in existing systems certainly won't move on this until, and unless, you can assure them that their piece of the energy pie won't be diminished by the change.

Cheaper energy is a pie in the sky that we won't put on our table in our lifetimes.
posted by mule98J at 7:46 AM on June 29, 2012


Because you're talking about nuclear power plants, yes? For power generation, yes? And because thorium is not used for power generation (outside of research), yes? And so if you're going to talk about how great nuclear power is, then you're talking of using uranium, yes?

No. The subject of this thread is progress on the idea of using thorium for power generation, instead of uranium. Because it looks like it could be cheaper, cleaner, and safer than uranium. So your objections about the limited supply of uranium are irrelevant, because thorium enthusiasts think that using uranium for power generation is a bad idea. When I talk about the scalability of nuclear power, I mean power from nuclear fission. Not the particular fuel involved.
posted by anigbrowl at 1:31 PM on June 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


When I talk about the scalability of nuclear power, I mean power from nuclear fission.

*sigh*

Okay, one more time:

Uranium is the only fuel that powers modern reactors, directly or indirectly. So nuclear power isn't scalable, because there is only so much of the one natural metal on earth that we know how to use as nuclear fuel - and only a fraction of that is even really useful. The stuff that can't get fissioned gets used in weaponry to irradiate Iraqi and Afghan children.

As far as the real world goes, thorium reactors are lab experiments and production facilities are decades away, if they can work at all. Thorium might be sustainable, it might be safer, but there are no production thorium reactors in the world today.

So, no, nuclear power is not scalable, with the technology the human species possesses today. It certainly hasn't shown itself to be safe or well-managed, but it most definitely is not scalable, nor sustainable in the long-term, at current fuel usage rates.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:14 PM on June 29, 2012


BP, get over it already. This is a thread about designs for future reactors, not about existing ones. First Delmoi tries derailing it about solar, and then you try derailing it over uranium. go grind your axe somewhere else.
posted by anigbrowl at 5:19 PM on June 29, 2012


It's amazing what you can do when you have the power to confiscate people's money and spend it on uneconomic forms of power ---Dasein

I know this statement is being made about solar, but this is exactly how I feel about nuclear power. None of the companies pushing nuclear in the US are offering to pay for these plants, nor guarantee their safety with their own money. They are doing this expensive public relations effort because they want us taxpayers to build the plants and take the risks.

Heck, any power plant is profitable if you do it that way.

Let's cut the government red tape to the bare essential, but rigorous, safety regulations, then let the free market decide. If the billion dollar corporations or private equity funds think they will make money, they'll build them. If not, they won't. They've spent billions on many industries in the past.

I'm betting that they wouldn't be willing to spend one penny of their own money on nuclear reactors. It is a hucksters game and we taxpayers are the pawns.
posted by eye of newt at 10:23 PM on June 29, 2012


This is a thread about designs for future reactors, not about existing ones.

Well, except for all those comments about existing nuclear reactors being safe, clean, etc., sure. For instance, like your comment about Fukushima being a freak event, and then saying existing nuclear power is clean and scalable.

go grind your axe somewhere else.

Do not do this, please. If you cannot deal with some basic and important facts, do not participate. But do not accuse others of grinding an axe when your own comments are in plain sight for all to read. In the comment I linked to you were certainly not talking about future reactors, you were specifically talking about what we have now.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:06 AM on June 30, 2012


One data point that most northern Californians know all too well. If northern California's one nuclear reactor, Diablo Canyon, had never been built, we'd be paying about 15% less than we are paying now for electricity.

Let's say I paid $100 a month average. Over 20 years, that's an extra $3600 I've had to pay out because of the nuclear reactor. Make any financial arguments you want, but the money missing from my wallet speaks louder than your words.

But these new reactors won't have any expensive problems this time, that the ratepayers will end up having to fund, right?

As I said before, let the builders and manufacturers be responsible for building it and don't make the ratepayers/taxpayers responsible when it goes overbudget. If the arguments are sound enough for investors to build them, great! No need to try to convince us of anything. Try to convince investors instead. If they want to spend the money to build them, let them build as many as they want. If the power is cheap, we'll buy it and they'll make a profit.

That's how it is supposed to work. Don't make the ratepayers responsible. We've been down that road too many times before.

Just don't let anyone pass the costs on to the taxpayers/ratepayers. We've been down that road too many times.
posted by eye of newt at 1:22 AM on June 30, 2012


sorry for the extra copy/paste mistake
posted by eye of newt at 1:24 AM on June 30, 2012


Blazecock, can we at least ask you not to throw in gratuitous "killing children" lines?
posted by Etrigan at 4:57 AM on June 30, 2012


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