SCGI News Bits - June 2022

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Newsletter of the Science Council for Global Initiatives
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SCGI Newsletter - June 2022


 

A Letter From the President of SCGI

Fourteen years ago the publication of Prescription for the Planet (P4TP), and the response it got from politicians, scientists, energy professionals, and environmentally tom portraitconcerned citizens, led to the formation of The Science Council for Global Initiatives. The original—and continuing—vision was one of providing abundant clean energy to people all over the globe while repairing the environmental damage that had been caused by over a century of fossil fuel use. In pursuit of that vision, we’ve worked with scientists, representatives of industry, and policymakers in many countries to promote international collaboration on potentially game-changing technologies.

 
Our focus has been predominantly on nuclear power, particularly on advanced nuclear power designs like the sodium fast reactor I wrote about extensively in Prescription. Shortly after its publication, I was contacted by Kirk Sorenson, who asked me why I hadn’t written about molten salt reactor technology. I told him it was because I wasn’t familiar with it. During the years I’d been uncovering and eventually writing about the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) project—which had been foolishly abandoned by the US government—Kirk had been doing his own sleuthing and uncovering the history of the molten salt reactor, the prototype of which had been built and operated at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the Sixties. As enthusiastic as I was about the future of the IFR, Kirk at least matched my enthusiasm with his vision for the molten salt reactor (MSR).
 

The MSR was certainly intriguing for a number of reasons, and over the years I discussed it with many of its advocates, the number of which grew quickly once Kirk began to educate the public about its compelling attributes. But one question about it left me hesitant: What would they use to build it? The reactor at Oak Ridge had run for four years, yet nuclear power plants in use today are expected to last at least sixty years or, in cases like Canada’s CANDU heavy-water reactors, to be capable of indefinite lifetimes as components are replaced when necessary.
 

The materials challenges were not to be lightly dismissed. The reactors would operate at about 700° Centigrade, whereas today’s light-water reactors (LWRs) operate at about 350°C. Molten salt would potentially be highly corrosive, especially at those temperatures, and there was always the issue of embrittlement of the metal due to neutron bombardment. So my question to MSR proponents was what materials would work. The response was usually what I would call too glib: There are all kinds of new alloys that can be used that weren’t available in the Sixties. While I could readily grant that such a statement was true, nobody had yet built and operated a reactor with any of them. Dismissive answers to the question of materials weren’t convincing. Yet if that issue could be satisfactorily dealt with, the potential for MSRs was exciting, partly because they’re a relatively simple system compared to most reactor types, and they could likely be mass-produced very quickly.
 

At the beginning of 2015, I was introduced to people who it seemed had finally solved the materials problem that might otherwise keep MSRs from successful development. The founders of a new startup called Thorcon wouldn’t rely on hopeful suppositions about new alloys. They were accomplished industrialists who had designed and built some of the biggest ships in the world, before turning their attention to nuclear power systems. Their quest to find a nuclear design that would lend itself to shipyard construction techniques led them to molten salt reactors. Their deep knowledge and experience of designing and building ships, now re-targeted to the reactor building, led them to the conclusion that they could be built so cheaply that they could simply be replaced every four years. The economics would still work. They knew that the reactor at Oak Ridge—even with the alloys available in the early Sixties—had run for four years. Of course, the odds are very good that such reactors, especially with the optimum modern alloys, will last far longer. But that could be determined with experience. For now, building them with a plan to replace them every four years would work fine.
 

Since my first introduction to the Thorcon team in 2015, I hoped that their efforts to develop and build this system could happen as fast as they intended. If they could find a country that would clear away most of the bureaucratic tangles that hampered innovative nuclear development in the USA and most other countries, they could build and test their MSR in just a few years. I spoke with people from national labs and engineers from major nuclear power suppliers, who all agreed that while such a timeline was bold, it could likely be done that quickly if not for the stifling effect of regulatory agencies.
 

A key development came when Thorcon designed a ship that would be a fully self-contained power plant. As I engaged with energy professionals around the world at conferences and corporate meetings, it became clearer than ever that the development of the Thorcon power ships—or something similar—represented a truly disruptive Thorcon power plant 400x225Two 500 MW ThorCon shoreside power plants
supplying the power grid.
technology. A study of the world’s shipbuilding capacity revealed that using only currently unused shipyard capacity (there’s a glut of it compared to demand), as much as four hundred gigawatts of such power ships could be built every year. That’s the equivalent of the entire world’s nuclear power plants, generating about 10% of all the world’s electricity. A single large high-tech shipyard like those in South Korea could produce as many as 30 gigawatts of such ships per year.
 

The people who’d appraised the shipyard capabilities brought their findings to EPRI, the Electric Power Research Institute. EPRI is the main R&D hub and think tank for the electric utility industry in the USA, a very credible organization based in Washington D.C. Having been told that Thorcon could build these ships so quickly and at a price of just one dollar per watt (a billion dollars for a one-gigawatt power plant), the people at EPRI realized that this could be a global game-changer. They decided to dig into the economics to see if that buck-a-watt claim had any substance. After doing their due diligence, they came to the conclusion that the ships could be built for somewhere between eighty cents and a dollar per watt.
 

But of course, electricity isn’t the only thing you can use a high-temperature reactor for. Over the years I’ve studied a whole range of technologies that could benefit from a massive build-out of nuclear power. Desalination is an obvious target. The creation of carbon-neutral synthetic fuels would also be practical, as would process heat for a variety of industries. Since I’d become convinced that the development and deployment of such systems was just a matter of time (and hopefully not too much time), I decided to write a book about the impact that would have on the world.
 

Having been somewhat unwillingly, yet repeatedly, drawn into the “nuclear vs. renewables” debates over the years, I know that publishing such a book now would be met with not just skepticism but derision by anti-nuclear individuals and organizations. The accusation that it was all based on “a paper reactor” that will never be built, would be inevitable. After too many years of dealing with such people, I didn’t want the credibility of the project to be undercut by disingenuous critiques, because millions of people listen to all-renewables zealots who dismiss out of hand any alternatives to their preferred fantasy. So I resolved to write the book but to wait to publish it until after the MSR was built and tested. That way the “paper reactor” critique would be moot. In fact, the working title of my book is Moot Point.
 
The covid pandemic, of course, curtailed much of my international activity, which now could only be carried out remotely. Meanwhile, I continued my research into the multifarious aspects of a global energy transformation that would be possible once we could deploy MSRs in vast numbers. Now it looks like the Thorcon project is proceeding well after some years of preparation, fundraising, and diplomacy so I’m hoping to see the first one fired up within a few years. But there are so many ways in which this development will affect the world, and so much ink is spilled every day on the topics of energy policy, water policy, global poverty, desalination, hydrogen, electric cars, and other issues. So I’ve decided to follow the example of my friend Jim Hansen and write and distribute chapters of my book as I finish them. Of course, there will be further developments over the next few years that will require some editing and/or excision once it comes time to publish, but at least this way I can share what I’m learning and hopefully generate discussion on a range of important and timely topics.
 

I hope you’ll indulge me and take the time to read upcoming and far-more-frequent SCGI newsletters and offer me feedback/criticism/corrections that can improve the final product. I’ll do my utmost to make them engaging and informative, dealing with issues that are really important in the modern world. It seems like so many thorny problems when pursued to their source, come down to energy: how we make it, how we use it, and who gets it. I look forward to sharing these discussions with you in the coming months.
 
 
Tom Blees
President, SCGI



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