First, a caveat (which does not count toward my 500 word limit):
Yesterday I wrote about SEES (Safety, Efficiency, Economy, and Sustainability) as a framework for understanding our energy solutions in the future. I wrote that while solar and wind meet several of these requirements, only nuclear, (and only new forms of nuclear in particular) satisfy the SEES. A friend of mine pointed out on Facebook that it was perhaps illogical of me to judge current forms of solar and wind against the nuclear of the future. He may have a point. But whereas LFTR technology is already developed and waiting to be implemented, proposed solar and wind technologies still seem to fall short. I haven’t seen anything in solar and wind that looks like the panacea the LFTR might be. This is not to say that we may develop viable solar and wind techs in the future. More on that in a few days.
We split the atom at the end of WWII not for energy needs, but for warfare. We developed the atomic bomb in 1945, but we didn’t begin thinking about nuclear as a power source until 1947 (and it wouldn’t be until 1954 that a nuclear plant was connected to a power-grid). In the early days of nuclear, emphasis was placed on heavy water reactors that used uranium (specifically uranium 233/235) as the nuclear catalyst. This is for two reasons. First, we understood how uranium worked within a reactor because we had been building bombs using the same process, and second, heavy water reactors produce plutonium (specifically plutonium 239) which is preferable in bomb tech to uranium due to its more fissionable character.
In a “typical” nuclear reactor (“typical” is used here in quotes because there are many different ways of doing nuclear), uranium 233 or 235 is used to generate heat within a reactor. This heat is then transferred through a heat exchange to outside water sources which boil to produce steam which then spins turbines for power generation. These reactors need to be kept cool in order to prevent meltdown, and water is circulated within the reactor to regulate temperature. However, because the temperature within the reactor reaches 450º Celsius, the reactor must be kept pressurized in order to keep the coolant water in a liquid state. Meltdown occurs when power is lost to the pressurization system, the water flashes to steam, and the reactor can no longer be kept cool.
The Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor mitigates many of the concerns of traditional heavy water reactors. Instead of water, the LFTR uses molten salt as a coolant and propellant. Since salt is already liquid at 450º Celsius, the reactor does not need to be pressurized, and the chance of meltdown is therefore virtually non existent. Thorium is also “fertile” as opposed to “fissile”, meaning the nuclear waste created within the reactor cannot be made into a bomb. Thorium is one of the most abundant rare-earth materials in the earth’s crust, and since the LFTR consumes 98% of the inputs (as opposed to 0.7% in uranium based reactors), we have a virtually limitless supply of thorium energy.
Like I said, the thorium based reactor is an already developed technology. Chinese and U.S. firms are already working together on developing market ready LFTR technologies as a way to combat climate change and secure our energy future. I can’t tell you how excited this technology makes me. It may be a silver bullet. Tomorrow I’m going to talk about LFTR implementation: how it might take shape, and how the LFTR might change the very way we view the world and each other. As LFTR evangelist Kirk Sorensen often says, when humanity learned to do without slaves, and made carbon our slave, we began to learn what it meant to be civilized people. Imagine the profound changes to our society when we free ourselves from slavery of fossil fuels.
Next Up: The Backyard Thermo-Nuclear Reactor