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Power Hardware Science

Is Safe, Green Thorium Power Finally Ready For Prime Time? 258

Posted by Soulskill
from the much-more-reliable-than-Thor-power dept.
MrSeb writes "If you've not been tracking the thorium hype, you might be interested to learn that the benefits liquid fluoride thorium reactors (LFTRs) have over light water uranium reactors (LWRs) are compelling. Alvin Weinberg, who invented both, favored the LFTR for civilian power since its failures (when they happened) were considerably less dramatic — a catastrophic depressurization of radioactive steam, like occurred at Chernobyl in 1986, simply wouldn't be possible. Since the technical hurdles to building LFTRs and handling their byproducts are in theory no more challenging, one might ask — where are they? It turns out that a bunch of U.S. startups are investigating the modern-day viability of thorium power, and countries like India and China have serious, governmental efforts to use LFTRs. Is thorium power finally ready for prime time?"
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Is Safe, Green Thorium Power Finally Ready For Prime Time?

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  • NO (Score:3, Insightful)

    by mschiller (764721) on Wednesday December 19, 2012 @04:39PM (#42341075)

    Why?
    NIMBY

  • Re:NO (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Captain Splendid (673276) <capsplendid.gmail@com> on Wednesday December 19, 2012 @04:42PM (#42341123) Homepage Journal
    Yeah, Global Warming and Peak Energy are going to fuck NIMBY in the ass soon.

    You'd be surprised what people will put up with when basic survival is on the line.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday December 19, 2012 @05:05PM (#42341433)

    Within microseconds of convincing any "environmentalist" that there is even the slightest possibility of a new class of reactor actually being built you will see the proponents vanish under thousands of lawsuits. Atomic energy is absolutely the only viable method of generating power without carbon emissions that we have, but it is not politically correct and a new reactor design not only won't change that, it will actually provoke a far more extreme response. Too much paranoia, too much stupidity, too much ignorance. It'll never happen, no matter how much it needs to. Americans can no longer deal with reality.

  • Safety is relative (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Urban Garlic (447282) on Wednesday December 19, 2012 @05:07PM (#42341453)

    So there is a trope in the engineering world that the safest reactors are the ones that are confined to paper studies, or, to put it more timely, to PowerPoint slides.

    It's true that the LFTR reactors don't have the same failure modes as the pressurized light-water reactors, but they still have the same basic issue, namely that there is a very large amount of power-generating capacity in a relatively small volume. Even pebble-bed reactors [wikipedia.org], similarly touted as "intrinsically safe" during their design phase, have had a radiation-release accident -- scroll down to "Criticisms of the design" on that Wikipedia page. The lesson (which I learned from Charles Perrow and Fukushima) is that complex systems with high power densities are intrinsically hazardous, because unexpected interactions (which arise from the complexity) tend to be highly destructive (because of the power density). LFTRs are less complex, and so less dangerous, than PLWRs, and that's good, but it doesn't make them safe.

    The stupid cliche you hear over and over again is true -- safety is a process. You can design reactors so that the safety process is easier to implement, but what actually makes things safe is conservative management schemes that retain the redundancy and margin for error that the process demands, and not cutting them out because of the money, or, worse, because of complacency induced by faith in the design.

    There's another industrial safety joke, particularly applicable to complex systems -- accident analysis consists of filling in X and Y in the phrase, "Nobody imagined X could happen whlie Y was true."

  • Re:NO (Score:4, Insightful)

    by mschiller (764721) on Wednesday December 19, 2012 @05:10PM (#42341489)

    I agree, but that doesn't change the fact that there is an awful lot of NIMBY going on. We could've and should've been building new reactors since the 70's, but instead the reactors that are online are mostly still the original first generation designs from the late 50's and early 60's. The same whack job environmentalists who should be all for this, are also typically the most adament against it. Yet watch them and their energy use isn't substantially different then any other American....

    I suspect by the time we figure out that we can't put up with this NIMBY crap we will be OUT of oil OR have completely screwed up the environment once and for all...

    I mean really this was the first new nuke plant licensed in 30 years:
    http://money.cnn.com/2012/02/09/news/economy/nuclear_reactors/index.htm [cnn.com]

    And it's the AP1000. Still a Water based design and Generation 3.. Though from the look of it a lot safer than most of the reactors (Gen 2) in operation

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday December 19, 2012 @05:22PM (#42341633)

    So, what you're saying is, you don't like living next to a building site? What makes you think that subcontractors on wind farms are any worse in traffic than subcontractors on any other building site?

    #shakes head#

  • by AmiMoJo (196126) * <[ten.3dlrow] [ta] [ojom]> on Wednesday December 19, 2012 @05:22PM (#42341635) Homepage

    I have the misfortune of living at ground zero for an ongoing wind farm build. 24/7 truck traffic, massive clouds of dust, hour plus highway shutdowns while they move their superloads, obnoxious subcontractors that ignore traffic laws, etc, etc. Then there's the ecological impact -- acres upon acres of wooded hilltops have been deforested. I truly had no idea how obnoxious it was until Google Earth got updated images. Take a look at some before and after photos of a large wind farm and see for yourself how bad it is.

    Where is this exactly? Come on, don't just give us an unverifiable anecdote, give us hard facts that can be verified.

    A properly designed wind farm shouldn't require mass deforestation or environmental damage.

  • by AK Marc (707885) on Wednesday December 19, 2012 @05:28PM (#42341723)

    Atomic energy is absolutely the only viable method of generating power without carbon emissions that we have,

    No matter how many times I see that lie, it's never going to become true. It's true if the question is: What's one and only one thing we can use to replace coal/gas/oil power generation, considering no other options?

    But if you ask, can we stop burning all petrochemicals by the end of 2013, the answer is "yes" so long as you allow for a variety of options. Hydro can't do it alone, but hydro plus wind plus PV plus concentrated solar, plus geothermal would be able to for the vast majority of the planet, and for where those combinations won't work, energy can be imported, like North Africa imports its power now from Europe.

    But, because no one of those can do it alone, and the better options are hard to control (distributed PV is one of the best options, and least politically popular because it directly attacks utility company business models). But distributed PV with some additional storage mechanisms would be more than enough to power the world, the others may be more efficient, so we should use them where practical.

  • by Rising Ape (1620461) on Wednesday December 19, 2012 @06:13PM (#42342387)

    That doesn't match all with the reports from Fukushima. There were some early thoughts that the fuel pool was leaking, but that proved to be false. The large quantities of short half life radioiodine released show that the leak was from the reactors, not the spent fuel pools.

    The issue is that a containment vessel can only tolerate a certain internal pressure. The reactor core produces heat even when shut down, and heating in a sealed space leads to a pressure increase. In the absence of some way of relieving pressure (such as a functioning cooling system) this will inevitably lead to failure of the containment vessel.

    Some new designs can provide this cooling passively using water tanks above the containment, but the vast majority of reactors require active systems to do this.

    This thorium stuff is just another paper reactor. They're always the safest. It's when they try to implement them that problems show up.

  • by pixelpusher220 (529617) on Wednesday December 19, 2012 @06:19PM (#42342493)
    Renewables are far and away cheaper than coal. Once you prevent coal from emitting millions of years worth of CO2 for free, it becomes prohibitively expensive.

    Hydro doesn't work at scale because there simply aren't enough suitable places to put a damn. It works where it does and large numbers of those places are already doing so. There isn't any 'growth' in gravity based hydro.

    Natural gas is at best a stop gap due to the CO2 emissions. It will have to go away too unless you can cheaply sequester the CO2.

    Renewables aren't the solution of and by themselves. They also need energy storage mechanisms invented/improved. They aren't every 100% reliable because dark/clouds/still days etc. Wave power/ocean current turbines might be more reliable but not a lot of that in Okla either ;-)

    renewables are literally FREE FUEL. When the vast bulk of any power plant's cost is the 'fuel', you simply can't beat them on price when other factors are equal.
  • by bill_mcgonigle (4333) * on Wednesday December 19, 2012 @06:48PM (#42342847) Homepage Journal

    complex systems with high power densities are intrinsically hazardous

    Can we just generalize that to say that producing and distributing energy has inherent risks? IIRC about 30 people have been killed installing and maintaining wind turbines in the US so far. When those big hydro plants were being built by the WPA, lots of people fell, sometimes into an active concrete pour. When solar goes massive, there will be big factories and some people will die in manufacturing, and probably people have fallen from roofs installing solar panels, and we can probably figure in many deaths in China from the areas where the rare earths are mined. There are numbers on the exhaust from coal plants, and of course coal mining is incredibly dangerous (not like fisherman-dangerous, but still high). Even US nuclear, which hasn't had any fatalities at the civillian plants, depends on people driving to and from work. I have to imagine some of them have been killed en route.

  • by Nefarious Wheel (628136) on Wednesday December 19, 2012 @06:57PM (#42342947) Journal

    Still talking about large centralised power plants, are we?

    I'll put my money behind decentralised power. In fact, I already have ... 3.5kw PV system just installed on the roof.

    Cogeneration units for at-home are also gaining popularity, particularly in Germany and Spain. Whispergen.

  • by Artifakt (700173) on Wednesday December 19, 2012 @10:10PM (#42344279)

    Weinberg and others as far back as the 1940s had to work with massive amounts of radioactive heavy metal-fluoride salts, as the gaseous diffusion process itself worked with Uranium Hexafluoride. The first US gasous diffusion plant was run from the early 40s to 1987, and employed over 12,000 people in a building of over 2,000,000 square feet, so it looks like the required safety protocols were very robust and should scale to any desireable degree for power plant use.
              John W. Campbell wrote an Astounding editorial in the early 50s listing over a dozen materials that had been determined to be safe ways to handle fluorine compounds and were publicly declassified by then, and mentioned the various Nickle alloys among them. Surprisingly, many concrete and cement formulas that use Calcium Carbonates as their base are common, easy to produce materials which are highly Fluorine resistant, and various substances already incorporating Fluorine, such as the Flurocarbons and related, including Teflon, give flexable sealants, gaskets, and liners for containment vessels. There's a lot of very tough problems in this area which have already been well solved, often for half a century or more.

  • Re:NO (Score:4, Insightful)

    by ApplePy (2703131) on Wednesday December 19, 2012 @11:07PM (#42344597)

    What are you trying to say here? That we should quit wasting our breath arguing about AGW, and focus on the simple, easy ways we can clean up our environment? Concentrate on finding ways to use less coal and oil, instead of debating how many centimeters the sea level might or might not rise by 2100?

    Whoa.

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