Tuesday, April 3, 2012
Kirk Sorensen Co-Founder of Flibe Energy and Speaker at the Global New Energy Summit, April 9-11, in Colorado Springs, Colorado – Are Liquid Thorium Fluoride Reactors the Key to Affordable, Sustainable Energy?
Even during the latest political wrangling’s, there is one area where American’s generally seem to agree: We love our access to energy. The average household owns 26 electric gadgets that we recharge without a second thought. But where we get that energy? Well, that’s where viewpoints diverge. Several years ago Newsweek columnist Roger Samuelson summed it up this way: "We Americans want it all. Endless and secure energy supplies; low prices; no pollution; less global warming; no new power plants (or oil and gas drilling, either) near people or pristine places. This is a wonderful wish list, whose only shortcoming is the minor inconvenience of massive inconsistency."
Is our desire for an endless supply of clean energy enough to open our eyes to new business models and new technologies? Ask Kirk Sorensen, Chief Nuclear Technologist for Teledyne Brown Engineering, Co-Founder of Flibe Energy (“Flibe”), and speaker at this year’s Global New Energy Summit (www.globalnewenergysummit.org) in Colorado Springs, and I believe that he’d say that we should keep an open mind about nuclear power and in particular, Thorium. Flibe was founded on technology to use Thorium as a nuclear fuel to create energy. Thorium is natural, abundant and inexpensive. Indeed, Thorium is common in the Earth’s crust, approximately three to four times more common than Uranium. Thorium energy can be inexpensive and clean if made by a liquid-fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR), pronounced “lifter.”The primary concern with the traditional approach to nuclear power generation is the use of low-enrichment uranium (LEU) in solid-uranium-oxide-fueled light-water reactors. These reactors produce significant plutonium from the uranium-238 that makes up 95-97% of the original fuel. Irradiation produces by-products including other isotopes of plutonium called transuranic nuclear waste. After years of irradiation, spent fuel rods are stored in repositories to move towards stability. Reducing the amount of transuranic waste is critical for nuclear power generation. According to Sorensen, by using Thorium in a fluoride reactor as opposed to uranium in a solid-oxide reactor, it is possible to reduce the amount of transuranic material generated by a very large factor.
Thorium and the fluoride reactor present an entirely different model. The primary difference is that the thorium is in the liquid fluoride form and is therefore chemically stable. Only products that are generated during operation are removed and the fluid can be continually reused. The ability to reuse is a profound advantage.Nuclear energy however, can’t be mentioned without addressing safety concerns. So how does Thorium compare? Sorensen is very outspoken about the safety record of the nuclear industry and emphasizes that the safety record in the nuclear industry is unparalleled. That safety record, however, is purchased at a price because the safety systems are engineered. LFTR on the other hand, is passively safe in case of an accident. In simple terms, the LFTR is equipped with a frozen plug, kept frozen by an external cooling fan. In the event of failure, the freeze plug in the reactor melts and allows the core salt to drain into a passively cooled configuration where nuclear fission and meltdown are not possible.
Flibe Energy is currently leading the charge in the design of LFTR technology. They have proposed to design, develop and demonstrate a small modular liquid-fluoride thorium reactor (SM-LFTR) for the U.S. Military having a design power level of 20-50 MWe. According to Sorensen, “the SM-LFTR is the precursor to much larger, utility-class LFTRs operating at the 250-300 MWe power generation scale.” Flibe further envisions production of modular units with capital costs in-line with gas turbines.The benefits to implementation of LFTR technology are seemingly overwhelming. The technology has relatively small land use footprint compared to energy output, Thorium is abundant and we don’t need much (according to Sorensen a small grain silo of Thorium could power North America for a year and known Thorium reserves could power society for thousands of years), and the technology has built in passive safety – just to name a few benefits. In addition, however, while LFTR can produce safe, sustainable electricity, lifesaving medical radioisotopes, desalinated water and ammonia for agriculture and synthesized fuels are produced in the process. In other words, LFTR technology could have other impacts in global energy, medical, agricultural and industrial sectors.
What I haven’t mentioned is that this work is based on Alvin Weinberg’s vision of our energy future as director of the Oak Ridge National Lab from 1955 to 1972. It’s not a new concept. Moreover, the Department of Energy has put the burden on industry to lead in the design, development, and implementation of new nuclear energy according to market principles. As attorneys that work with industry to overcome barriers to successful commercialization of emerging technology, we recognize that there are challenges - whether regulatory or otherwise, to deployment and market integration, no matter what the solution is and what the benefits are. We look forward to learning more about Flibe Energy and next steps for private industry at the Global New Energy Summit in Colorado Springs, Colorado, April 9-11, 2012. To find out more go to http://www.globalnewenergysummit.org/.