George gets one right

Hurrah!

Thorium reactors use an element that’s already extracted in large quantities as an unwanted byproduct of other mining industries.

I haven’t run the numbers but I think it would be true to say that you could power a fleet of thorium reactors for some decent amount of time off the wastes that people are currently paying to have stored securely.

Certainly I know some bods currently scratching their heads over what to do with a few hundred tonnes of thorium in a waste stream……

32 comments on “George gets one right

  1. Thorium has had its fans for years. But the fact that there is still no Thorium plant on a drawing board suggests to me that there may be some problems with it.

  2. It has been calculated that there is enough uranium dissolved in seawater to keep our current economy going till the Sun explodes. There is far more uranium in the ground. There is 4 times more thorium than uranium.

    We can have unlimited very cheap power any time we dispose of the thieves and parasites who rule us.

  3. @Neil
    No, the thieves and parasites will just tax that.
    The problem is to get rid of the thieves and parasites.
    That’s the difficult bit.

  4. A very good piece by George, who I usually can’t stand. But, I think, an even better comment from Laserx:

    I agree we need a new reactor type. But it will take a lot of money and time to develop it. I quote Hyman Rickover, a man who knew more than most about reactors (he developed the PWR for the US Navy.)

    An academic reactor or reactor plant almost always has the following basic characteristics: (1) It is simple. (2) It is small. (3) It is cheap. (4) It is light. (5) It can be built very quickly. (6) It is very flexible in purpose. (7) Very little development will be required. It will use off-the-shelf components. (8) The reactor is in the study phase. It is not being built now.

    On the other hand a practical reactor can be distinguished by the following characteristics: (1) It is being built now. (2) It is behind schedule. (3) It requires an immense amount of development on apparently trivial items. (4) It is very expensive. (5) It takes a long time to build because of its engineering development problems. (6) It is large. (7) It is heavy. (8) It is complicated.

    I think George’s analysis has missed a major point: public perception. The public seem to be coming around to Nuclear enough to support the building of a new reactor. That being the case, and assuming we want it to be only the first of a few, the new reactor needs to do two things.

    First, it needs to be safe and reliable and predictable. Nuclear waste is not a big problem in this regard, because it’s an existing problem, and one that has not been making the headlines with disasters. What the Government need is for a nuclear power station to be built and for life to go on much as before. They want to be able to say, in ten or twenty years, “See? Nothing bad happened. Let’s build another.” For this, old, tried, tested technology is undoubtedly the best option. Especially now we know it’s earthquake-and-tsunami-proof.

    Secondly, it needs to be built right now. The public are fickle. Who knows if they’ll still support it next year, or next month? They’re amenable to it now, so you find a proven design, get some people who’ve built a few of them and know what they’re doing, and you give them as much money as it takes to get them to do it as quickly as possible.

    If we were talking about one reactor, George might have a point. But, hopefully, this is the first. If it goes well, it will help to pave the way for more modern reactors a couple of decades down the line.

  5. But we’re back to the question of cost. Why are our beloved leaders signing us up for double-price electricity? Surely even at 1.5x the price, gas and coal generators would be falling over themselves to build new plants?

  6. But we’re back to the question of cost. Why are our beloved leaders signing us up for double-price electricity?

    Because that’s what they estimate the market price will be when the plant is online.

  7. > But we’re back to the question of cost. Why are our beloved leaders signing us up for double-price electricity?

    Because price increases with risk, and some fuckwit promised price caps if he’s elected, that’s why.

  8. ukliberty,
    Except that as George Monbiot points out in his first paragraph, the price we’ve agreed to pay is well above even the most hyperbolic estimates from as recently as 2006.

  9. It has been calculated that there is enough uranium dissolved in seawater to keep our current economy going till the Sun explodes

    I suppose someone may have calculated that, but if so they hit the wrong button.

    Estimated time till sun becomes a red giant (it won’t explode): 5 billion years

    Lifetime of uranium ore resources (5.3m tonnes) at current consumption (68k tonnes/yr): 78 years

    Assume we’ll discover more when we need it: 200 years say

    But assume we’ll increase electricity production from uranium from 13.5% to 50% of global production: 54 years

    Assume we develop breeder technology, so we can use a lot of the U-238 as well as the U-235: 3500 years

    And assume we develop the technology to extract another 4bn tonnes of uranium from seawater (a remote prospect): a million years

    No one knows how much thorium we can plausibly dig up, nor how efficient a breeder reaction fuelled by thorium would be. But, assuming overall it’s similar to the uranium numbers, perhaps we could get another 3500 years from it.

    You can argue with some of my guesses – there could be a fair bit more extractable ore, since we’re not very price sensitive. But the dream of developing a source of power which will last for a seriously long time depends not on getting rid of thieves and parasites, but on creating commercial breeder reactors. All existing breeder reactors are experimental designs funded by government thieves and parasites.

  10. > the price we’ve agreed to pay is well above even the most hyperbolic estimates from as recently as 2006.

    I don’t think much of the current Government, but even I suspect that they investigated the possibility of getting someone to do the same thing in return for less money. Estimates are all very well, but they’re estimates, and should be treated as less accurate than the price agreed to by actual people who have just actually commissioned an actual power station, not just studied the problem academically.

  11. Andrew M,

    Except that as George Monbiot points out in his first paragraph, the price we’ve agreed to pay is well above even the most hyperbolic estimates from as recently as 2006.

    His estimates are for cost of production, not the price. The market price for energy has been increasing since 2000. You only need an 8% increase every year for ten years to reach double today’s price. Between 2000 and 2013 the price of gas doubled; electricity is about 1.7 times what it was in 2000.

    It’s a hedge, isn’t it? If the market price for electricity is below the strike price, we pay the difference. If the market price is above the strike price, EDF pays the difference.

  12. Interested: well, yes, but you can’t have it both ways. If they’re thieves, then it’s they who are paying for the projects, in the same way as Robin Hood gave to the poor. Or if it’s us funding the projects, then the government are public servants directing our money as wisely as they are able.

  13. PaulB – “I suppose someone may have calculated that, but if so they hit the wrong button.”

    Or, alternatively, you do not understand the calculation. Why is it you assume one and not the other? Maybe you would like to consider the credentials and credibility of people Alvin Weinberg?

    “Lifetime of uranium ore resources (5.3m tonnes) at current consumption (68k tonnes/yr): 78 years”

    At current prices. For current uses. You see the mistake you are making?

    “Assume we develop breeder technology, so we can use a lot of the U-238 as well as the U-235: 3500 years”

    You are still assuming current ore bodies. Once we start using breeders, if we ever do, lower grade ores become economically viable. As was recognised way back in the 50s:

    http://www.resilience.org/stories/2006-03-08/nuclear-energy-and-fossil-fuels

    the so-called “low-grade” ores are the phosphate rocks and the black shales which have uranium contents in the range of 10 to 300 and 10 to 100 grams per metric ton, respectively. Even so, such rocks are equivalent to 90 to 900 tons of coal or 390 to 3900 barrels of oil per metric ton for the phosphates, and to 30 to 300 tons of coal or 130 to 1300 barrels of oil per metric ton of rock, for the black shales. Even granite, as has been pointed out by Harrison Brown (1954) and by Brown and Silver (1955), contains about 13 grams of thorium and 4 grams of uranium per ton, which is equivalent to about 50 tons of coal or 220 barrels of petroleum per metric ton of granite.

    What quantity of uranium in rocks of these various types may there be? An indication of the order of magnitude may be obtained by a glance at the map in Figure 28. The Colorado plateau, which is the principal producer of the high-grade ores, has an estimated ultimate reserve of the order of 50>000 to 100,000 metric tons of uranium. The large supplies, however, are to be found in the so-called “low-grade” ores of the phosphate rocks and he black shales. The Phosphoria formation alone, it is estimated from a recent paper by McKelvey and Carswell (1955), contains about ?400 million tons of uranium. Another 0.5 million tons, at least, can be obtained from the phosphate rocks of Florida and the neighboring states.

    The Chattanooga shale in Tennessee contains a stratum, the Gassaway member, about 5 meters thick whose average content of uranium is about 70 grams per metric ton (Kerr, 1955). With a density of 2.5 metric tons per cubic meter, this would amount to about 175 grams of uranium per cubic meter, or to 875 grams per square meter for the total thickness of the member. Then for an area of a square mile the uranium content of this member would be 2.3 X 109 grams or 2300 metric tons. This does not sound impressive, and in fact, as compared with contents of the more familiar metallic ores, it is a trifling amount; nevertheless, the energy content of this member per square mile is equivalent to 30 billion barrels of oil, or to five East Texas oil fields. Uranium-rich black shales of Devonian-Mississippian age, which correlate with the Chattanooga, are widespread in the Mid-Continent area as well as in Tennessee and the neighboring states. In addition, the Sharon Springs member of the Pierre shale of Cretaceous age occurring in an extensive area of North and South Dakota east of the Black Hills is also rich in uranium. No attempt has been made to determine the amount of minable uranium which these shales must contain, but since their areal extent amounts to several hundred thousands of square miles, their uranium content would appear to be as much as several hundred million metric tons.

    In any event case extracting uranium from granite or sea water is energy-positive and hence probably cost effective as well. As Weinberg said about his little “a-ha” moment:

    Phil Morrison could hardly contain his excitement as he showed me his calculations. If uranium were burned in a breeder, the energy released through fission would exceed the amount of energy required to extract the residual 4 ppm of uranium from granitic rock.

    We are not going to run out of granite any time soon.

    “And assume we develop the technology to extract another 4bn tonnes of uranium from seawater (a remote prospect): a million years”

    It has been calculated that we could use uranium from sea water at about the rate it dissolved out of rocks and entered the sea. Which I doubt myself.

    “You can argue with some of my guesses – there could be a fair bit more extractable ore, since we’re not very price sensitive.”

    A fair bit. People have done this you know. At least look up Weinberg’s Burning the Rocks essay.

  14. Going a little O.T. here, but Robin Hood generally didn’t steal from the rich to give to the poor – he stole from bureaucrats (e.g. the sheriff of Nottingham) to give to the poor – a much more laudable activity.

    I could even support a modern day Robbin Hood tax on this basis… indeed in many ways it would be an ideal tax.
    Consider the virtues: taxes usually reduce production of the thing being taxed. Less bureaucracy would be no bad thing.
    Bureaucrats are paid by the state, so evasion would be near impossible.
    The international market for forigen bureaucrats is small, and bureaucrats have few transferable skills) so rates could be very high (90% of salary or so,) without a significant laffer effect.

    What’s not to like?

  15. SMFS: yes, there’s a lot of thorium and uranium at concentrations of a few ppm in the earth’s crust. What on earth has that got to do with the energy obtainable from uranium extracted from seawater?

    More generally, you can do almost anything with fantasy technology. But I was replying to a post claiming “unlimited very cheap power any time”, so took into consideration the fact that the breeder reactors assumed by Hubbert in the fifties to be “standard practice within the comparatively near future” are still not close to commercial use.

    I agree that thorium may be the best prospect for the medium term. But it’s still worth pointing out that Monbiot’s claims about thorium reactors are conjectures, not statements about what can be done now.

  16. PaulB
    October 22, 2013 at 3:13 pm
    “Lifetime of uranium ore resources (5.3m tonnes) at current consumption (68k tonnes/yr): 78 years”

    Are you making the mistake of just counting *proved* reserves and not the including the less precise estimates of *total* U available?

  17. theProle – “Going a little O.T. here, but Robin Hood generally didn’t steal from the rich to give to the poor – he stole from bureaucrats (e.g. the sheriff of Nottingham) to give to the poor – a much more laudable activity.”

    Did he steal from the SoN? It seems to me that in the original story he simply robbed passing merchants – peddlers really.

    PaulB – “yes, there’s a lot of thorium and uranium at concentrations of a few ppm in the earth’s crust. What on earth has that got to do with the energy obtainable from uranium extracted from seawater?”

    Two things – one is that if it is energy-effective to extract the uranium from the rocks, it is probably cost effective in the right circumstances. Which you need to take into account when calculating how long we have using breeders. The other is that the uranium in the sea started out as uranium in the rocks – and new uranium is being washed into the sea all the time. If it is cost effective to extract it from rocks, it probably is from the sea too. Especially as this is a “near technology”. The Japanese are doing a lot of good work on extracting metals from sea water.

    “More generally, you can do almost anything with fantasy technology. But I was replying to a post claiming “unlimited very cheap power any time”, so took into consideration the fact that the breeder reactors assumed by Hubbert in the fifties to be “standard practice within the comparatively near future” are still not close to commercial use.”

    Sure but thorium breeders are hardly fantasies. We have run molten salt reactors. We know the physics will work. Theory is no problem. The rest is just plumbing. Well, engineering. And yes it will be more expensive, take longer and cost more than we think, but it is still not a fantasy in the same way that, say, fusion is. Even if the reactors are not up and running yet – which does make Monbiot’s argument asinine – that does not change the amount of uranium available should we need it.

    “But it’s still worth pointing out that Monbiot’s claims about thorium reactors are conjectures, not statements about what can be done now.”

    That is certainly true. Which presumably explains the cost – it is easy for Monbiot to say we need thorium reactors. I agree. But they may be 10 or 20 years down the track with a lot of money to fund the research. We need a reactor or two *now*. So I would guess that because Brown and Blair would not bite the bullet and Cameron can all but see brown outs on the horizon, the reactor vendors could charge what they liked. And did.

  18. I haven’t run the numbers but I think it would be true to say that you could power a fleet of thorium reactors for some decent amount of time off the wastes that people are currently paying to have stored securely.

    Has TW understood the technology correctly? Oak Ridge came up with a design for a 1000 MWe Thorium (liquid fluoride) reactor. They would have started it with a Low Enriched (20%) Uranium and thorium fuel. The total fissile fuel load to start up such a reactor varies according to design, but a high-end estimate is 1,500 kilograms.

    By way contrast, we have something like 200,000 tons of High Level waste sitting around doing nothing, and we add an extra 12,000 or so tons to that pile every year. About 1% of all spent fuel is various isotopes of plutonium. A lot more than that is U-238 which is not useful but could be turned into plutonium and a tiny amount other transuranics which should be burnt up. Even so that is easy enough spent fuel for a thousand reactors.

    Once fuelled up, the Oak Ridge design called for an extra 800 kilograms of thorium every year. But the point was that the amount of fissile fuel (that could be used to start other reactors) doubled every 20 years or so. So you could continue to run the reactor indefinitely until something wore out given the initial load of mostly waste.

  19. Thorium’s a little different from the high level waste you’re talking about.

    But I am involved in a project where there’s 10,000 tonnes of rubbish from a mining operation which contains some 50 tonnes of thorium. That’s enough to make it radioactive waste that someone must be paid to store. And that’s the sort of thing I was thinking about: that there’s enough easily recoverable thorium in stuff we’ve already got lying around. And that’s what George was saying too: prompted, I believe, by my having told him this some time ago.

  20. Neither Davey at the Dept. of Energy & CAGW nor his equally fanatic acolyte, Barker, have any intention of procuring safe, economical long term energy security for the nation. Shale gas and thorium are just not on their radar. They would rather see the lights go out. Incidentally, one of the principal reasons it seems to me, that thorium has not been developed as a power sources is that nuclear weapons cannot be made as a side-product.

  21. PaulB I have confidence in the mathematical ability of professor Bernard Cohen who calculated the uranium reserves in seawater.

    Also nobody has seriously disputed the maths.

    You are right that the Sun will turn red giant in 5 billion years (it will expand to include Earth’s orbit but I grant that is not a Nova explosion.

    Uranium can, right now, be extracted from sea water it is just that it is cheaper to mine it. However since the uranium is a tiny part of the cost of running a nuclear plant (90% being government parasitism) that is no game changer.

    And yes there are far more resources – uranium in the ground, thorium 4 times greater, solar power satellites, fusion – the point is that if there is effectively unlimited power from the simplest of these at 10% of current costs there is effectively unlimited cheap power.

  22. Thorium has had its fans for years. But the fact that there is still no Thorium plant on a drawing board suggests to me that there may be some problems with it.

    But they’ve already built one and the Chinese and Indians have drawing boards with them on right now. That’s why Chinese scientists visited Oak Ridge – to see what had already been accomplished.

    LFTR looks very exciting. I’m curious to know why it’s not in the public eye so much. What’s wrong with it?

  23. NC: Cohen calculated the uranium content of seawater as being good for 7 million years of electricity generation, assuming 1983 power usage and 100% uranium burn, compared with my 1 million years, Neither number is remotely close to the lifetime of the sun.

    Cohen further calculated the power available from uranium carried into the sea by rivers. (I didn’t consider that in my calculation because it’s not what you said in your post.) He puts in a differential equation, but it’s not much different from saying we could extract about as much uranium as flows in. His number for that is about three times modern estimates.

    Anyway. We agree that there’s a lot of uranium and thorium out there. I’m less willing than other commentators to wave my hand at the difficulties in getting hold of it. Erich Sneider mentions producing a million tonnes a year of elaborately prepared polymer to harvest uranium from the sea. Weinberg observes that the weight of rock he projects mining to extract thorium is comparable to global coal production. But the process he envisages – deep-mining hard rock, and leaching metal out of it – is much more like gold mining. And he’s looking for thorium production about ten thousand times global gold production.

    And, repeating myself, the immediate difficulty is the breeder reactors, which are being assumed into existence. They are certainly not going to be cheap, or someone (China, India) would be running them already. New sources of power, if they can be made to work, will be more expensive than existing sources.

  24. Tim Worstall – “Thorium’s a little different from the high level waste you’re talking about.”

    My mistake. Confused about what sort of waste you meant.

    “But I am involved in a project where there’s 10,000 tonnes of rubbish from a mining operation which contains some 50 tonnes of thorium. That’s enough to make it radioactive waste that someone must be paid to store.”

    A thorium gas-mantle, used in a common run of the mill lantern or stove, would be medium grade waste if you carried it into a nuclear power plant.

    “And that’s the sort of thing I was thinking about: that there’s enough easily recoverable thorium in stuff we’ve already got lying around.”

    There are beaches in India and Brazil that have enough thorium in them that I don’t think people should live there. And I think that low levels of radiation are probably good for you. We have plenty lying around and not much use for it now we do not use gas lighting all that much.

    “And that’s what George was saying too: prompted, I believe, by my having told him this some time ago.”

    I may have told him about using them to burn up nuclear waste as well.

    Kevin Monk – “LFTR looks very exciting. I’m curious to know why it’s not in the public eye so much. What’s wrong with it?”

    It is not part of the nuclear weapons programme. We have got the PWR because it was developed for the submarine programme. That is why everyone uses them – the French, the Russians even the Brazilians have copied American designed because they want nuclear submarines. One of the more unpleasant people in the world of nuclear power, Admiral Rickover, took against molten salt reactors – perhaps because they would have taken away funding from his submarines. He and his allies got them defunded.

    PaulB – “Neither number is remotely close to the lifetime of the sun.”

    I think for all intents and purposes a million years will do. We probably do not have to worry about a longer time frame.

    “Anyway. We agree that there’s a lot of uranium and thorium out there.”

    We do now.

    “Erich Sneider mentions producing a million tonnes a year of elaborately prepared polymer to harvest uranium from the sea.”

    Although, unlike wind power, the technology can only improve.

    “And, repeating myself, the immediate difficulty is the breeder reactors, which are being assumed into existence.”

    We have run breeders before. The science is old and well established. The technical problems are largely know. There is no reason to think that technology as old as the Morris Minor won’t work.

    “They are certainly not going to be cheap, or someone (China, India) would be running them already.”

    That does not follow at all.

    “New sources of power, if they can be made to work, will be more expensive than existing sources.”

    Nor does that. One of the nice ideas in designing newer reactors is to make as much of them as they can last as long as possible. Which basically means keeping the reactor vessel as far away from the radiation of the core as they can – another blow to the PWR. Then reactors would become more like hydro-electic dams. Very expensive to build, but they will last for a hell of a long time, producing very cheap power once the initial costs have been paid off. Again there is no technical difficulty in doing this at all. All newer reactors ought to be cheaper than the older ones.

  25. India has had a Thorium reactor programme for sixty years. But it has no Thorium reactors. That isn’t because there are no technical difficulties at all.

  26. PauB – “India has had a Thorium reactor programme for sixty years. But it has no Thorium reactors. That isn’t because there are no technical difficulties at all.”

    India is full of Indians. They have been trying to do a lot of things for sixty years. Doesn’t mean that other people can’t do them.

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