The Lanthanide Age

So what do Australia’s new fighter jets and nuclear power have in common?

The current nature of US regulation does not favour reactor designs that deviate from conventional pressurised, water-cooled and moderated, once-through uranium fueled varieties, and even these are expensive in terms of licensing and compliance. This is obviously an impediment to the refinement and deployment of commercial thorium-fueled molten salt reactors, which were being pursued at Oak Ridge National Lab until the 1970s and the termination of funding. The Thorium Energy Alliance has been working for years to build political support to once again pursue this technology in the US.

lObCP

It is not merely the abundance of thorium in the Earth’s crust and the relative simplicity of refining it into fluoride salt fuel that holds appeal, but the fact that the optimal reactor for extracting fission energy, e.g. Flibe Energy’s LFTR, is a breeder reactor which will utilise practically all of the thorium or other actinides it is loaded with. Yet, even this potential has failed to gain much political traction outside YouTube, social media and semi-regular technology columns in magazines. The Thorium Energy Alliance has instead focussed its effort on the rare earth elements – critical for modern electronics – that are invariably mixed up with thorium in minerals such as monazite. It is the radioactive, regulated thorium which complicates utilisation of indigenous rare earths in the US, to the extent that China now has complete market control. Accordingly, legislation was proposed to change this.

The whole presentaiton is very interesting but essentially the intention is to establish a governmentally chartered cooperative that would expand US rare earth element production and securely stockpile the separated thorium, while targeting chemical, industrial and energy-focused utilisation of the actinide in parallel. James Kennedy puts it best in this presentation to the IAEA last month.

The F35 Joint Strike Fighter and its Chinese-made components are just one example of a current suite of problems with rare earth elements. Political opposition to TEA’s elegant solution is at best baffling, when at stake is nothing less than a potential source of super-deployable, emissions-free electricity and industial heat, hand-in-hand with the feed-stock of our modern communications as well as most other technology.

Indeed, we are most certainly already locked into the Lanthinide* Age. Their responsible use should be expanded to connect the whole world, and the next generation of nuclear is the clean energy with which to power it.

LFTR_dessert

There is hope, as one Senator has heeded the call and proposes to pass the National Rare Earth Refinery Act bill. We will know by December if sanity will prevail.

 

*Plus scandium and yttrium, of course.

Generation IV

This debut post is a concise summary of the modern approaches to realistic, efficient nuclear power that heed traditional safety concerns and cost effectiveness, which I wish to promote as the clean, modular sources of baseload electricity for the near future.

MSR

The molten salt reactor is basically a chamber containing high temperature, unpressurised liquid phase fluoride salts, with a moderation mechanism such as control rods, and inputs and outputs to access the generated heat. In the design built and tested in the 1960s at Oakridge National Laboratory, a mixture of fluorides of lithium, beryllium and zirconium was used as the coolant, containing uranium fluoride as fuel. It was tested for a total of 6000 hours (250 days) without incident.

The striking advantages of this approach to nuclear power would have been realised in the following phase of research, had funding been continued. The MSR fissioned U-235 (and then U-233) to generate heat, but a further layer of subtly different fluoride coolant was intended to “blanket” the main coolant chamber such that it was exposed to the neutrons from the reaction. This blanket would contain thorium fluoride as the fertile fuel.

Thorium exists naturally as a single, ubiquitous radioactive isotope. It is responsible for much of the harmless background radiation in soil, sand and rocks which nobody spends a second’s thought on. Thorium-232 would “breed” uranium-233 after capture of a neutron, and it is this form of uranium which would fission to provide further neutrons to sustain the chain reaction. Used in this way, molten salt reactors would rely on an abundant primary fuel that is currently considered a worthless by-product of rare earth mining, and which, in principle, could be concentrated from soil or rock from nearly anywhere. Moreover, the homogenous nature of the liquid fluoride fuel ensures essentially total conversion: every watt of thermal energy would be produced.

Other actinides, in suitable molten salt form, could also be used to fuel the MSR, hence this technology represents an avenue for permanent disposal of waste and weapons-grade material. In addition, intrinsic passive safety features promise “walk away safety”. For a start, the reactor fuel is already in a high temperature (>650C), molten state, so the concept of “nuclear meltdown” is entirely circumvented. The density of this liquid in the original experiment was observed to oscillate so as to accelerate and decelerate the chain reaction and “load follow” the energy demanded of the reactor. As for emergency shutdown, an outlet pipe at the base of the reactor is cooled by an electric fan which keeps a “plug” of salt frozen within. Failure of the system would cause this to melt and allow the molten salt to drain harmlessly into basement storage tanks. Finally, the near-atmospheric pressure of the reactor means no large, thick concrete containment is necessary.

The reaction heat is exchanged into a separate salt or steam loop to drive a turbine for electricity, but the high temperature is also ideal for chemical and industrial process heat, such as water desalination. Although this reactor concept is being promoted in the U.S. as LFTR (Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor), a major Chinese research centre has dedicated a group of about 300 workers to establishing the MSR technology based on the Oakridge results.

Flibe Energy

Transatomic Power

Terrestrial Energy

IFR


The integral fast reactor is envisaged as self-contained reactor, generator and fuel recycling plant. It is specifically based on liquid metal-cooled fast breeder reactor technology, as opposed to traditional water-cooled thermal reactors.The enriched uranium and other fuel derived from spent nuclear or weapons-grade material is fabricated, as oxides, into solid fuel along with sodium metal. At operating temperature the liquid sodium, as well as circulating and transferring the reaction heat, fills the voids left by fissioning material and acts to maintain steady neutron density.

These neutrons interact in the fast spectrum, with much the same energy as they had when they were released. This results in breeding of further Pu-239 from fertile U-238, and thus the eventual consumption of virtually all the nuclear fuel (in comparison, a traditional light water reactor will use less than 1% of the solid fuel material). The resulting spent fuel is recycled in a pyro-processing facility, powered by the reactor, where remaining useful isotopes are extracted and incorporated into new fuel, and actual waste is treated for long term storage.

The most promising IFR is known as PRISM (Power Reactor Innovative Small Module), the result of extensive testing of the liquid sodium-cooled reactor concept in the form of the successful Experimental Breeder Reactor II, which ran from 1965 to 1995. Actual scenarios were demonstrated where coolant flow was shut off at full power, resulting in natural expansion of the reactor liquid and shutdown due to low enough neutron density. Other passive safety features are provided by refuelling and generating mechanisms integrated into the reactor itself under the sodium coolant, which is securely sealed from interaction with oxygen or water. This also implies a modular design philosophy which will enable assembly line production reminiscent of passenger aircraft construction. PRISM is ready for assessment by various countries’ regulatory authorities; China is known to be constructing a similar reactor.

Similiar, modular concepts include:
The ARC-100
The Energy Multiplier Module

SMR

Small Modular Reactors are a broader class of modern reactors which generally offer an output under 3-500 MW, integrated coolant circulation, safety systems and power generation, and rapid assembly line production. Some approaches boast the need for infrequent refuelling. Strictly speaking Generation-III+ technology, among the many designs, the Westinghouse SMR is somewhat like a miniature model of the state-of-the-art AP1000 power plant, many of which are currently being erected in China. The increased economies of scale and standardisation of components which do not require prohibitively large production facilities promise an increased power output per unit area of footprint and per total fabrication costs.

Update December 14th: The SMR design to be prioritised through U.S. federal funding is the NuScale design, an incredibly portable reactor concept with a nominal electrical output of 45 MW. Read about it here.

Here is an animation of the construction of the first Babcock & Willcox mPower plant. The mPower will be rated at 180 MWe per module.