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EMMA: After Uranium Fission Comes... Thorium?


Very interesting Daily Mail article about Britain's Electron Model of Many Applications (EMMA) ring accelerator, and its potential in both energy generation and medicine:

"One ton of thorium can produce as much energy as 200 tons of uranium, or 3.5 million tons of coal, and the thorium deposits that have already been identified would meet the entire world's energy needs for at least 10,000 years. Unlike uranium, it's easy and cheap to refine, and it's far less toxic. Happily, it produces energy without producing any carbon dioxide: so an economy that ran on thorium power would have virtually no carbon footprint.

Better still, a thorium reactor would be incapable of having a meltdown, and would generate only 0.6 per cent of the radioactive waste of a conventional nuclear plant. It could even be adapted to 'burn' existing, stockpiled uranium waste in its core, thus enormously reducing its radioactive half-life and toxicity."

The technical catch?

Particle accelerators like the "'non-scaling, fixed-field, alternating-gradient' (NS-FFAG)" EMMA must continue to become better, smaller, and cheaper - because without those accelerators working, a Thorium reactor can't run and starts to cool off.

That's the good news, of course. In a Fukushima style disaster, the reactor just turns off.

It's also the bad news. Improved accelerators that combine small size and reliability are not a trivial technical advance. Until we really try, it will be hard to even know where the alligators are, let alone get it down to an economical level. It's wise to expect some unexpected difficulties along the way, as well as unexpected costs, and not see this as some kind of near-term fix. Or even a certain fix, in any time frame.

The ray of light? A 400 MeV relative called "Pamela" (Particle Accelerator for Medical Applications) promises new possibilities in treating heretofore untreatable cancers, and the demographics of cancer and aging are likely to make Pamela-style accelerators reasonably popular public projects. As long as a steady trickle of good news results, and the setbacks are manageable, a path is laid for continued improvement in the underlying technology.

This is definitely one of those technologies we'd all love to see succeed.

See also the Thorium Energy Amplifier Association's 2010 report, "Toward an Alternative Nuclear Future" [PDF].


Fascinating... my gut reaction is 'FUND THIS' but I know better.

I wonder what private investment has been done along these lines? Assuming government restrictions don't get in the way, I can't imagine investment not pouring in by the truckload the closer this comes to reality.

I've been hearing about next generation thorium reactors for a while now. I'm not any kind of expert on nuclear technology, but I have little reason to doubt the benefits I've heard, maybe modulo a little hype on the part of the designers.

I do have reason to be skeptical that anything will ever come of it in this country, though, and while I usually try to be pretty even handed in my criticism, I'll lay my gripe right at the feet of environmental lobby on this one.

Even environmentally friendly technologies like solar, wind, and wave power are ritually challenged and held up for years on environmental grounds. Nuclear is so regulated and so fraught with challenge that even proven designs take years and many millions of dollars to get approved-- getting new designs is all but impossible. That makes them difficult to insure and difficult to finance, too, making it even more expensive.

Just to avoid being completely gloomy, though, apparently the TVA is planning to build more nuclear plants.

And to avoid chewing exclusively on American environmentalists, I'll note that Merkel, selling her soul to the Green Party by installments, committed to closing all German nuclear plants over the next decade. Because of a nuclear plant in Japan, hit by both a massive earthquake and a massive tsunami, both larger than any recorded in that location.

Guess the Germans will just have to get lots of natural gas from Israel, via a pipeline to Greece, and from Poland (shale gas).

In so many dark ways, just how funny would that be?

The obvious way through the enviros on this one is to push Pamela-style NS-FFAGs for medical treatment, and the moment resistance is apparent, come in with all guns blazing that they're killing seniors by denying life saving treatments. Senior lobby > Enviro lobby. Finis.

That won't happen in the USA, of course, because the reality that we're worse than broke is beginning to dawn. But that line of attack will soon be attractive in Europe, as energy issues bite and aging continues. Ditto China, where there is no serious enviro-priesthood. That medical push model is already attractive to Japan, who is already old and about to desperately need an energy answer - but may see a debt bomb mushroom cloud that prevents much funding.

My bet? Wild extrapolation, but here goes.

  • The Euros get there first for medicine.
  • The Chinese get there first for energy.
  • The USA follows the Euros with a couple of medical-related projects, but nothing big. Japan is actually a bit ahead in trying this stuff, and Germany is a step in front of them.
  • Once China starts demonstrating Thorium power, it triggers a rush from most corners. France, which suddenly sees all its uranium fission experience and state champions obsoleted, joins with Germany to drag the EU in. India, who also needs the energy and doesn't want to turn to China, and can provide lots of engineers. Japan, who has a crying need for Thorium energy, and also wants to avoid dependence, will fund the idea once someone shows it can work. They begin working together to catch up.

The USA may at that point have enough natural gas not to care much, and enough fiscal problems to constrain action. Or, it may step in as the last major player in the catch-up coalition.

The more frightening German scenario, Joe, is that they miss their various green energy targets and end up more reliant on Russia. Frightening, I should add, for any country between Germany and Russia. There's a reason Poland wants missile defense sites.

(And yes, I think it's beginning to dawn on people here that we're broke. In the past few weeks, I've heard my co-workers admit that they'd be willing to trim defense spending and raise taxes, and heard dyed-in-the-wool Democrats evince willingness to slash health care. And on the national scale, New Jersey and Wisconsin are successfully reforming their finances, and of all things AARP is now supporting Social Security reform, on the theory that it's better to try to steer the bus than to get run over by it.)

Addendum to the above: Apparently, Cantor hasn't gotten the memo, on this one.

It will be interesting to see how much additional C02 gets pumped out of Germany given their surrender on nuclear.

In a rational world Fukushima should be a ringing endorsement for the nuclear industry- you couldn't imagine a much worse scenario and nobody has died to date... even worst case the tsunami and earthquake will have killed far more than the radiation ends up. Somehow dying 15 years later is more terrifying than a giant wave sucking you into the ocean today.

Still I do think fission is hardly the wave of the future. The shotgun approach is probably best- between fusion, thorium, and space based solar there ought to be a long term solution that sorts itself out and basically solves the energy problem we're so willing to impoverish ourselves over.

That being said, whether the heart of the green movement actually cares about pollution so much as conspicuous consumption is an open question. Ubiquitous, pollution free energy is a lot of enviros worst nightmare. Something will need to be invented to demonstrate that it is horribly detrimental, if not evil.

IMHO, the Germans are driven by two forces: their industry and their fear.

Their industry would tend to evolve, as it has done until now, to explore the niches where they have an advantage, that is, chemical and electro-mechanical energy production. Their efficiency combined with their fear, - a product of two world wars, hyperinflation in-between and the Red armoured divisions waiting before the Fulda corridor for forty years - would push for costly and unpractical green-looking solutions, sold to the rest of the world by the enviros backed by lobbies ready to get an easy profit.

Of course, a reality check may change this for a while, but in the end, I think these two forces will prevail and put them far away the nuclear solution, as it has happened with the E. Coli outbreak, blamed (although not fully confirmed) to organic products, whilst Germany opposes the approval of the European regulation that enables the irradiation of food as a way to sterilize it, that is, they prefer a very ecologic death.

Angela Merkel has simply acknowledged this fact.

Subcritical reactors were rather unpractical when Rubbia devised them (then ten 100 MW units in separate buildings were fed by a single accelerator). The technology has evolved so rapidly in the last decades that modern accelerators used in medicine seem just science fiction compared to the old Cobalt device from the 1970's, and indeed, firing protons at high energies would be another giant leap forward in some treatments, putting a huge amount of energy just right where it is needed.

Yeah, almost science fiction.

However, although these eases somehow the use of subcritical reactors, their advantages are still not clear for me. IMHO the best of all is that they can burn nuclear waste fuel from the uranium reactors, that is, they are a way of destroying such dangerous substances, but beyond that, today's industry is focused in Uranium, and commercial fission reactors are as safe as a subcritical could be. Furthermore, there is a lot of experience in uranium units, even a destructive testing was carried out not long ago on a wide sample of ten of them, resulting in no major problems.

Feasible. Probably Japan, China and India interested in them. And check that also might be a way to improve proton concealment and accelerating devices in order to be applied to nuclear fusion.

MB #7:

In the long term, I'm optimistic. There are too many good options out there for them all to fail-- solar, space-based solar, efficient fission, and synthetic biology (to generate hydrocarbons directly) are all good candidates in my opinion. In the short term, we seem bound and determined to make it as fucking painful for ourselves as possible.

And I don't understand the environmentalists at all, especially not their niche in the liberal end of the spectrum. Better access to food and better access to energy are undisputed ways to improve the lot of poor people, and yet environmental policies in the aggregate seem designed to make both of those things as expensive as possible. That just does not seem like it fits with the core liberal agenda which aims to improve the lives of poor people.

J Aguilar #8:

I'm not sure if I understand your analysis, and I'm pretty sure I don't agree with it. I don't see any reason for German industrialists to prefer one energy supply to another, as long as it's reliable and cheap.

Ripping 15-20% of your entire national energy infrastructure out can't possibly be cheap. And making a high stakes gamble whose failure path is dependence on Russian hydrocarbons is almost the opposite of reliable. And that's even without Russia's decades-long game of jerking central Europe around on energy supplies.

Marcus (#8)

I agree with your first part. Although not as fast as in other fields, technology has been steadily improving in energy production during the last decades. I think many interests don't want to recognize this fact, as they don't want to recognize that after Fukushima's data is retrieved and analysed, fission reactors will become a mature, in the sense of tested to its limits, technology.

Regarding Germany, please, take into account that Germany has made a huge investment in photovoltaic energy, although it is a country not fitted for it. However, they refine silicon and produce facilities and chemicals to do so in other countries. Their industrialists don't mind to pay more for energy and backup systems, as long as they produce them; and the population is kept agreeing using fear. In fact, the German 2% decrease in overall consumption during April was blamed on fear at... Fukushima's radiation!

It is true that a reality check may change this, but I think what the German industrialist are thinking right now is precisely that, an agreement with Russia in which natural gas is exchanged for gas turbines (built probably by Siemens). If someone in Germany complains, the German units could be fitted with alternative coal gasification devices, coupled to gas depuration units (all German built). Moreover, this gas turbine units could be turned off if photovoltaic production increases on a sunny day.

That is the costly, complicated and green-looking solutions they like. The fear argument is somewhat risible if you take into account the +50 reactors at the other side of the Rhein and the prevailing eastbound winds.

J Aguilar, @9:

Okay, I think I understand your argument better, but I am still very skeptical.

Let me preface by saying that I agree with you that in the long term-- decades, plural-- solar energy becomes very attractive in some regions. If you look at long term cost curves, the price per watt of solar energy falls about 7% a year. That seems anemic compared to electronics, falling about 30% every year, but over the long term, the solar cost curve halves cost about once a decade. That's significant, especially in sun-drenched areas like the Sahara and the American Southwest.

Still-- and here's where the skepticism comes in-- that's the amount of time Germany has allotted itself to rip out and replace a fifth of their energy infrastructure and replace it. That's a staggeringly large amount of power and a staggeringly large cost, and the majority of it needs to be done before the price is (optimistically) cut in half by cost trends.

I don't doubt that this would benefit a small sector of the German industrial complex, but even if all goes well (i.e., no disruptions in power supply, no lashing the mighty German industrial wagon to the fickle Russian gas and oil engine) it seems like a lot unproductive make-work benefiting a few at the expense of many. Far better to spend all that money for new energy sources and keep the old ones. Which sounds like a political payoff, which isn't far from what I alleged at the outset-- Merkel making another installment payment of her soul to the Green Party.

India is inaugurating a thorium reactor that uses plutonium fuel instead of proton bombardment, and is projected to have a lifespan of 100 years. As I understand it, the major difference between this and the ideal reactor Joe describes is cost efficiency.

When the ideal model comes, India will build it, while we sit over here in the dark listening to the government blither about more wind and solar.

I really do want to love solar energy. Bulky, inefficient, superstitious crap that it is, I really do want to love it. I know it is useful and can be improved, but as a Cargo Cult God I find it to be ungenerous.

Glen, #11:

Superstitious? I know you're not talking about me, Glen. I've got thirty years of data on my side.

Here's the magic of a diverse technological base: it doesn't have to be either/or as regards solar and nuclear energy.

"That just does not seem like it fits with the core liberal agenda which aims to improve the lives of poor people."

Paradox is impossible, check your premises.

it doesn't have to be either/or as regards solar and nuclear energy.

I entirely agree with you, but Obama and the green-heads don't. For them it's "green technology" or nothing.

After 60 years of major industry research in solar energy, with record growth over the past decade, solar power is 1% of our energy production. That doesn't make it useless, but it demands a certain realistic perspective that they flatly refuse to adopt.

Actually, Glen, I sympathize more than you might think. Until a few, three or four years ago, I had basically the same opinion-- interesting, but not worth making or shifting policy for in my lifetime.

I'll try not to drone on too long, but three things have happened to make me think about this at length, and ultimately re-evaluate.

First, we actually have 100 MW+ solar stations in operation today. That's my own semi-arbitrary cut-off for when I take an energy supply seriously. Large power stations today are typically single-digit GW, so that number is at least in the right order-of-magnitude ballpark. (The largest solar station in the world, at about 350 MW, is in California. So is the largest station under current construction, projected to be about 950 MW.)

Those are pretty recent developments.

Second, the 7% cost curve per installed Watt that I mentioned before. That's been going on for three or four decades, and the numbers are pretty carefully documented. As much as I believe in any technical cost-curve, I believe in that one. (And it's not all pie-in-the-sky academic exotic materials research, either. A lot of it is just roll-your-sleeves-up engineering and manufacturing.)

Third, much more pronounced, is the exponential year-over-year increase in installed, grid-connected solar power. I've seen the figure of a 40% annual increase per year flying about, but that's for the US system only, and only going back a decade or so. The numbers aren't as well documented globally or as far back in time, though. To the best of my ability to see, though (take it for what it's worth) I'd peg it at something like 20% annual increase. That makes intuitive sense to me, that it would be a substantially bigger than the cost curve per installed watt, because once installed it doesn't go away. I don't really see a reason for that to change too much either (although I think it's more susceptible to political initiatives than the underlying technology curve.)

And when you get down to it, a 20% increase in actual connected potential per year does get to be pretty significant. You can think of it either as a doubling every four years or so, or a multiplication by ten every thirteen years or so.

To put that in perspective, one of the big tangents that started this line of discussion was the German plan to replace all their nuclear capacity with "renewable" capacity (not necessarily solar) over the course of 11 years. Without worrying about the exact numbers, what means is that they need to multiply their solar power base by a factor of about 15 in only 11 years (if they were to do this solely with solar power.)

If they can make the 40% annual increase happen, they should have no problem. If they can make the 20% annual increase happen, they'll miss their target by about four or five year. And if I'm way off and they can only achieve 10% annual increase, it'll take them about 30 years. (Oddly, that gives me confidence that my 20% number may be off a little one direction or the other, but it's probably not WAY off.)

That, in more detail that I expect anyone wanted, is what I mean when I say things like, "I am optimistic about solar power in the long term." I'm defining the long term to be 20 to 30 years, because that's how long I think it will take to build out enough solar capacity that first world economies get 10, 20, 30% of their power from solar. My back-of-the-envelope numbers tell me that 25 years is around the right time frame for a factor of a hundred increase in capacity, and that still only get the US to around 10% of today's capacity. (I think we're less than 1%, currently.) Still, 10% of the US is a staggering amount of energy.

And none of that, I point out, makes it a good idea to actually shut down other power generation plants, especially not clean compact ones like nuclear.

We apologize for the unseemly amount of droning on, despite my best intentions. But as I said, I've thought about this a lot over the last several years, and I've been forced to change my position based on what I've seen.

The bit in the article I found most fascinating was that the U.S. had already built a thorium reactor. I wonder what became of it, and what it would take to restart it. At the least, it could be used to demonstrate proof of concept.

"and that still only get the US to around 10% of today's capacity. (I think we're less than 1%, currently.) Still, 10% of the US is a staggering amount of energy."

But that's todays capacity. Since 1980 US consumption has grown on average 3% per year. In 25 years our consumption likely will have at least doubled... so you're talking about replacing more like 5% at that point. Still a increase but not really anything you can consider a serious solution.

And that's not even accounting for electricity 'game changers' like moving to electric cars. 28% of our total energy consumption is transportation, and 95% of that is petroleum based.

Lets say we switched 10% of our transportation energy to electric- thats about 7 PWh of additional consumption. That will dwarf whatever additional capacity we pick up from renewables.

Its really energy consumption growth that kills all the talk of renewables taking over- our choices will be to radically alter our consumption (basically by allowing prices to rise due to restricted supply and the accompanying loss off wealth) or to take the 'all of the above' option for energy production which will still mean a lot more coal and natural gas... plus any renewables we can lay our hands on. Today fission is really still the only player capable of interrupting this progression. Without a game-changing technology we're absolutely kidding ourselves about 'switching over' to renewables... we're going to need whatever we can from them just to try to keep up, but we'll need even more (not less) from the traditional sources. Taking the fission card off the table is lunatic.

MB #17:

Yes, I agree. I phrased it carefully because I didn't want to inadvertently compare 10% of today's energy budget to 10% of the energy budget in 20 years. I don't even really want to put a numerical estimate on it (or especially the composition of that budget 20 years from now) because I think it would be more misleading than helpful.

I have a few counter-arguments, though:

First, because the exponents are so different they're tricky to understand by inspection-- I usually have to graph them out to really understand them. And in this case, having done so, I point out (under our respective assumptions of 3% and 20%) that in 20 years, solar would get to about 10% of our current energy budget while the energy budget itself would grow by factor of about 1.85. But in 25 years, while the energy budget would about double, the solar would grow to about 20% of our current budget.

Now, obviously, I would not bet money on those exact scenarios playing out. That's not the point. The point is that the differing exponents mean a lot, and that looking at only a single point on the curve is not always helpful.

Second, my guess is that we're going to be making the shifts you point out, anyway, for reasons of energy security even if not for the environment. I think we're all tired of getting jerked around by OPEC and letting them play us against China against India will be intolerable.

So I'm not sure it makes sense to argue against more solar power (if you are) just because we're going to need a lot more.

As always, I'd advocate for continued solar investment and continued nuclear investment for the long term, and continued development of domestic petroleum and natural gas for at least the short term.

I agree with everything you said Marcus, we're on the same page. I'm pro-solar, i'm pro-everything. What scares me is that there are strong elements of leadership in this country (the president included) essentially selling us a bill of goods that solar and wind can indeed replace our current fuel sources in the near future, and that is just impossible. Either they are being willfully ignorant or they are lying to us, and either way is disturbing.

Mark: Yeah, on that we definitely agree-- environmental energy is not a job producer by virtue of employing people to construct it. It's a job producer in the long run, by virtue of providing energy to let more people do more jobs more cheaply.

And the level of automation employed in constructing plants like these means that, in a way, the few jobs produced in the primary construction get more expensive (per job) over time.

The most optimistic thought I can have on that score is that at the upper levels, most policy makers know this, and are basically lying to us like children, "for our own good," they'd say, because the benefits down the line will be large. I'm not a fan of that approach, any more than I'm a fan of not making clear our actual reasons for going to war. I am not a child; I don't like being treated as such; and it's toxic to civil society.

But it's so common on both sides that if I resolved never to vote for anyone who treats me like that, I'd never vote for anything more important the municipal dog-catcher.

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