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Salt for the Earth

Over at the Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard is extolling the virtues of molten salt nuclear reactors, suggesting that these represent the future and could be cheaper and safer than the pressurised water reactors that are currently in vogue.

The Alvin Weinberg Foundation in London is tracking seven proposals across the world for molten salt reactors (MSRs) rather than relying on solid uranium fuel. Unlike conventional reactors, these operate at atmospheric pressure. They do not need vast reinforced domes. There is no risk of blowing off the top.

The reactors are more efficient. They burn up 30 times as much of the nuclear fuel and can run off spent fuel. The molten salt is inert so that even if there is a leak, it cools and solidifies. The fission process stops automatically in an accident. There can be no chain-reaction, and therefore no possible disaster along the lines of Chernobyl or Fukushima. That at least is the claim.

It's an idea, anyway.

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Reader Comments (25)

You have to watch Ambrose as he gets carried away with maybe's, in the last few months he predicted that Fossil fuels were on the way out as Solar power has now producing power at competitive rates.

Sep 25, 2014 at 9:07 AM | Unregistered CommenterBreath of Fresh Air

There is much to commend about this design of reactor, and it has been around for quite a while. It is one of the reasons to support the notion that the energy problem is a solved problem: we know how to get as much energy we might ever need. We know how to provide ourselves with abundant energy. That of course is a nightmare for eco-sociopaths everywhere.

Sep 25, 2014 at 9:40 AM | Registered CommenterJohn Shade

Ambrose seems to be in doubt why PWR reactors became the norm in the 50s and 60s - the west needed weapons grade material which thorium MSR's don't produce. Hence Magnox in the UK.

This comment / plea from a US reader of the Telegraph is worth repeating:

steveleake • 2 hours ago

Power Plant Construction Cost Estimators'
Liberation Army to the rescue

1. For a nuke plant, you can count on dropping about $3,500/KWhr installed, or
for a typical 1,600 MWe unit, $ 5.6 billion;

2. for a 663 MWe dual-purpose 90% carbon captured coal gasification combustion
turbine (called IGCC's or integrated gasification combined cycle) plant with
MEA carbon capture, hydrocarbon emission-derived nitrogen fertilizer plant, and
the catalytic steam reforming ammonia skid and oxygen plant, around $2,300/KWhr
installed, or $1.5 billion in USD's.

3. For a 1,200 MWe duplex (twin 600's)oxyfueled 90% carbon capture
supercritical fluidized bed steam turbine job with MEA (monoethanolamine)
carbon extraction, with no secondary nitrogen fertilizer production, around
$1,800/KWhr installed or around $2.16 billion a throw.

4. The most important bit, which everyone marginalizes as an afterthought when
in fact it is the entire megillah, your transmission system needs to be upgraded,
preferably from alternating current to easy-to-handle, low-line loss
high-voltage direct current for the long runs. Who cares how efficient the
power plant is if you are experiencing 25% in thermal and corona effect and EMR
line losses, as you do with conventional AC power towers? With HVDC you can fit
600 MWe/hr into a 9-inch diameter cable you can bury anywhere and basically
forget about maintenance, significant thermal line losses or environmental
impact, as there aren't any by comparison. Runs about 2.9 million per mile USD.
You needed about 2,400 miles of this about ten years ago.

5. And of course, everyone's favourite, wind farms. Depends if you want to have
load-following thermal natural gas fired combustion turbine peakers or not to
keep the wind power variable output monster from downing your grid. You don't
have a chance at a stable grid without load following power sources.

Practically speaking, based on the experience thus far in upstate New York, where we have
around 3 gig's of whirligig's going in in two counties alone, with all the
administrative and land acquisition mess (they're property hogs, okay? You
can't place a shopping mall or school or residences directly under them or
within a lucid safety radius) and subsidies included, around $3,500-4,000/Kwhr
installed, minus load-following Rolls Royce 50 MWe Trents or Avons. For the
latter, I figure around $ 1,600-2,000/KWhr installed.

In short, I think you would have been well out of the woods power-wise by now,
with change to spare. At an average cost of $3,000 USD per KWhr, and committing
half the trillion (USD) spent on the bailout to upgrading transmission, the UK
could have had around 150 Gigawatts of electrical power generation installed,
plus a healthy fuel and maintenance and staff training budget, and no need to
float "bridge" financing to cover construction and engineering costs
after the jobs got the go-ahead.

Present needs are for a piddling 40-80 Gig's, half baseload, half peakshaving
and niche load following.

Sorry to be a bore, but since you asked....

The idiocy is that all one need do as a British politician is get on your bike
and ask the Yanks or the Japanese or the Germans, and they would PAY FOR
EVERYTHING out of their own pockets to put the plants in, and do a build
operate transfer deal where you use the plants, they run it, and the title to
the plant becomes yours as a nation or municipality or whatever over the course
of 20-30 years through the governmental entity paying on installments. Do it
before it is too late. steveleake • 2 hours ago

I would much prefer the UK to go down the MSR route and back the Moltex Project - especially if it can achieve parity with gas and coal on cost, as Ian Scott suggests. But I think we should quickly order a few American AP1000 reactors as a fail-safe rather than pay way over the odds for the proposed French/Chinese reactor at Hinkley Point.

Sep 25, 2014 at 9:56 AM | Registered Commenterlapogus

"For a nuke plant, you can count on dropping about $3,500/KWhr installed"
Does "steveleake" mean "KWhr" (I pay around 20p per kWh peak rate retail) or kW?

Sep 25, 2014 at 10:08 AM | Unregistered Commenterrotationalfinestructure

I love the idea of Thorium the idea is feasible but needs so much [too much?] research and development, and to think of all the £billions we waste literally gone in the wind - on whirlygigs - Thorium reactor technology should be explored NOW.

Next, why do we have to build massive plant, RR have a small nuke reactor near Derby - do they not?

Small is beautiful.

Sep 25, 2014 at 10:16 AM | Unregistered CommenterAthelstan.

Th molten salt reactors sound like a no brainer, too good to be true. So where's the catch? I don't know, can't find someone to write me an authoritative post. I've heard there are metallurgical issues. Norway, surprisingly, is one of a handful of countries doing research into this. Just as well the UK will have CCS to provide us with all the energy we ever need.

Over on Energy Matters this week, Roger has an interesting post on species extinction and climate change. I am still looking into the C cycle, preparing to boot the Bern model into the long grass.

Sep 25, 2014 at 10:17 AM | Registered CommenterEuan Mearns

You have a point, Lapogus, but then you also have to think of the bank-balance of the politicos who are pushing the more expensive option – I mean, who else is going to give them a gold-plated pension when they retire are voted out of office? (Oh, yes. The tax-payer… forgot about them – as everyone else seems to.)

Rotationalfinestructure, I think he was talking about the installation costs to generate that level of power, which is then spread through the expected life of the plant, and added to the actual costs of generation.

(Hush, Athelstan – and it is not near Derby… Oh. That RR. Sorry.)

Sep 25, 2014 at 10:22 AM | Registered CommenterRadical Rodent

The fact that "steveleake" uses kilowatt hours when he means kilowatts suggests that the rest is gibberish too.
All the stuff about significantly upgrading the distribution network is a red herring.
Small local nukes should mean not having to transport the electricity over long distances, which itself should save on network costs.

Sep 25, 2014 at 10:34 AM | Unregistered Commenterrotationalfinestructure

In the early 80s, I remember having to write responses to government requests for proposals that were so detailed they just about spelled out the manufacturer and vendor to be providing the systems. Various systems could have been more efficiently and less costly answered if artificial requirements had been absent.

The EU energy problem is needlessly self-inflicted and driven by a belief in future sustainable supplies of carbon neutral Unicorn horns & Pixie dust.

If we do not remove non-problems and artificial requirements from our Energy legislation I fear Unicorns & Pixies will be slaughtered needlessly.

Sep 25, 2014 at 11:27 AM | Unregistered CommenterPaul in Sweden

Euan Mearns, there have been some surprisingly good TV documentaries made on the subject. For example: (caution: contains Bryony Worthington, but she's on her best behavior).

The general take seems to be that there are still some unresolved engineering issues, which were nearly solved before the US program was axed. The problems seem no worse than other ones that were resolved. But the scientists/engineers involved are now nearly dead due to old age so much of the development cost/time was ultimately wasted. China/India may get there first. But for the likes of Bryony Worthington (before her road Damascene conversion to nuclear), we could be decades further down the development path.

There are some other exciting developments around, such as the dual-fluid reactor. It won a popular nomination for the Green-Tech awards in Germany, so they changed the rules to exclude it. I didn't hear the end of the story, but there was a court case involved.

Sep 25, 2014 at 11:28 AM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart

The biggest drawback to any new design of nuclear reactor is that the regulatory system gives the likes of FOE , WWF and Greenpeace plenty of opportunity to drag the process on for decades. No commercial body can afford the R&D necessary to overcome the metalurgical problems mentioned by Euan Mearns when they know that the payback period will be delayed by the eco-warriors.

Sep 25, 2014 at 11:45 AM | Unregistered CommenterBloke down the pub

One bonus of the MSR's or LIFTRS (liquid floride thorium reactors) is that they can be used to dispose of the highly radioactive products of uranium reactors.

The radioactive footprint is also small, and due to their safety and size every town could have one and the fuel. thoruim, is cheap and plentiful.

Sep 25, 2014 at 12:24 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Marshall

Euan Mearns -
My take on this is much along the same lines as michael hart's above. The working fluid is highly corrosive, which leads to some difficulties the solutions to which have not yet been demonstrated at scale (to my knowledge). But, from a distance, these difficulties do not seem to be nearly as challenging as, say, those which have to date precluded a practical fusion reactor. Were I a benevolent dictator, I would fund development of this technology, which has a much higher "ceiling" than e.g. wind or solar.

Sep 25, 2014 at 12:34 PM | Registered CommenterHaroldW

Euan, I thought I posted this link on your forum when it first appeared.

Sep 25, 2014 at 12:36 PM | Unregistered CommenterA C Osborn

What sort of unit is " MWe/hr"?

Sep 25, 2014 at 12:51 PM | Unregistered Commenterdearieme

You can tell that Ambrose Evans-Pritchard does not know what he is talking about when he uses the phrase "There can be no chain-reaction". If there is no chain reaction, there is no nuclear fission reactor (Unless you use a sub-critical reactor, actuated by a particle accelerator, which I seriously doubt he would understand)

I used to regulate nuclear power plants. I have designed, built, operated, maintained, and licensed them. All of this talk about these new reactor designs is mostly by people who have had very little practical experience in making nuclear power actually work. They are taking a lot of work that was done by the Atomic Energy Commission (of the US), back in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, and think that now that we have computers, we can take these old ideas and make some really neat power plants. Unfortunately, they do not realize that those old ideas are not used because they are highly impracticable, mainly because they have fatal flaws in containing fission products, which are the waste material that is produced when U or Th or Pu atoms fission (“split into two”).

The practical problems surrounding nuclear power are entirely focused on controlling fission products. These substances continue to release substantial amounts of heat for years after they are created, because they decay in a long chain, from the original unstable chemical elements produced by fission through many other unstable elements, until they eventually reach a stable element. And these decay chains release radiation (mainly beta and gamma rays) that can affect biological processes.

A substantial focus of nuclear engineering involves containing these fission products and ensuring that the heat that the decay chain releases does not cause loss of containment. As a result, throughout the world we have developed a small number of nuclear reactor designs that reliably contain the fission products in metal tubes or plates. The design, manufacturing, and operational processes for these metal tubes is focused on ensuring that the integrity of the tubes is maintained, during all modes of normal operation, transients, and accidents that the reactor might experience. And in the case of a loss of the integrity of the tubes, there are multiple, independent, physical barriers in place to keep the fission products from escaping the power plant. This is not to say that there is not some leakage from the fuel in commercial power plants, but it is small, and the radiation dose received by the public from it, has generally been small. The amount of material that we are talking about here are miniscule – in the vicinity of nano-grams of material.

The problem with all of the new designs that are being proposed is that their fuel designs have not been tested, in a real reactor, at design rated conditions, to show that they provide a barrier to the release to fission products that is as good as that provided by the currently used reactors. The Pebble Bed reactor fuel was very hard to produce reliably, in Germany. The molten salt reactors (like the Thorium Fluoride design proposed here) have terrible problems with the containment of fission products, at all of the valves and joints and connections that exist in a read power plant. The US and the Soviet Union had terrible problems containing fission products in the liquid metal reactors, and eventually gave them up. The concept of being able to get a molten salt reactor to generate a chain reaction was proven, but there are a LOT of materials and maintenance issues that were not addressed.

Unless someone is willing to construct a prototype plant to actually test new designs, they will remain just that – proposals without proof. And this is exactly what the nuclear industry does NOT need right now – speculative designs that do not work well, or end up costing an arm and a leg, and end up leaving behind a contaminated site that naysayers can point to as another failure of the nuclear promise. Instead, the nuclear industry needs a long-term, stable environment with the construction of known technology and the development of an industrial base and an experienced workforce. All of the old guys like me have/are/will be retired soon, and without expertise, new plant designs and construction is sure to experience a LOT of problems, because nuclear construction is different from other types. It requires a discipline and rigor that is not generally available in other industries, for things like piping, metallurgy, welding and concrete. There are elements of this in the airplane and electronics industries, but with the shifting of those industries overseas, the expertise is evaporating.

I think that nuclear power (fission reactors) will eventually become the primary source of energy on this planet. The fusion plants are always about 50 years away, in terms of commercial applicability. Nuclear power can be used as a heat source to create all sorts of other fossil-like fuels, and I think that the need for liquid fuels will never go away, unless someone can invent an electrical storage device with the same energy/mass and energy/volume ratios as diesel oil. Nuclear heat is really pretty cheap. But until we develop a stable nuclear industry, none of this will happen, and as long as the green movement is opposed to it, nuclear will be shunned.

Sep 25, 2014 at 1:52 PM | Unregistered Commenterrxc

Many thanks for your lucid and thorough summary. What exactly is the nature of the degradation of the valves, joints, etc?

Sep 25, 2014 at 2:27 PM | Unregistered Commenterbernie1815


Thank you,

Very informative stuff, if slightly depressing reading.

I guess, no - I know that we [in the UK] should have stuck with the tried and tested but the British nuclear industry fell between two stools [AGW's PWRs] and post Cernobyl never regained the trust of the British [public or government]- although we still rely on old reactors.
For myself, the standards of safety and the rigorous procedures and inbuilt mechanisms of said safety 'what if scenarios' always quite reassured me, notwithstanding the Three Mile Island incident, Fukushima was something else - something that you can never cater for, incidents of major earthquakes in the UK are relatively rare [though, I never rule out tsunamis with the Canary islands in mind]. We need fission, fusion is better but not in this or, the next generation [or two unfortunately].

Sep 25, 2014 at 2:35 PM | Unregistered CommenterAthelstan.

" tracking seven proposals across the world for molten salt reactors (MSRs) rather than relying on solid uranium fuel."

Is it just me, or does this sentence above make no sense?

Great post, rxc. Your comment about evaporating expertise is spot-on. To it I would add the now 30-ish year-old ubiquitous CAD and semi-automated engineering (piping stress analysis software, for example) which can easily hide the nuts-n-bolts detailed knowledge that used to be common. Not that these newer technologies aren't welcome and powerful, rather that fewer and fewer people are exposed to the intricacies and less glamorous aspects of detail design.

Not to mention a not-infrequent mistaking of precision for accuracy.

Sep 25, 2014 at 2:38 PM | Unregistered CommenterPiperPaul

What rxc has to say is very wise. In a more ideal world we would be seeing research dollars in large amounts being spent on promising "unconventional" reactor types as well as incremental and very conservative improvements to existing types. I have always been fond of the molten salt idea, but the heat exchangers scare me, as do sodium-water heat exchangers. A very significant issue with nuclear is capital cost which is aggravated by long build times. So if the "greens" can slow the process down, they win. I would like to see, I think, conservatively designed, slightly smaller plants coming off an assembly line with strict quality control and being popped into place with very little "environmental assessment" - e.g don't put it on a fault zone or on top of a volcano and it will be fine, and the control system maybe reaching towards Edward Teller's goal - you could let little children play with it.

Sep 25, 2014 at 2:55 PM | Unregistered CommenterWilliam K.

IIRC, the EU were asked to investigate this.
They asked CERN and they said ask the French. The French said conventional nuclear was much better.

After all, they do know a lot about it and have a lot invested in it.
Why let a good opportunity go to waste?

Sep 25, 2014 at 5:45 PM | Registered CommenterRobert Christopher

Rxc - Commercial nuclear fission has ALWAYS been forty years away, but now you say its fifty years!

British expertise is retiring, but work has been continuing in India, the USA, Japan and other countries. We should at least keep up with the pack.

As you say, until it is tested, it is only a plan, but keeping up with the pack, where we could still contribute highly useful skills would cost peanuts compared to the wasteful windmill folly.

I don't know that we even have an expert on the subject. Why did the EU ask CERN?

Sep 25, 2014 at 5:58 PM | Registered CommenterRobert Christopher

Molton salt reactors have at least two serious problems. As Rxc pointed out, corrosion of the materials of construction is a very difficult problem. Those experienced with ocean going ships know that salt water eats the h--- out of everything. Now remove the water from the salt, increase the temperature to several hundred degrees C, and imagine the consequences. To my knowledge, there are no current materials that can reliably do the job for the decades that such a reactor would need to operate. Successful research in this area is necessary for MSR's to work.

The second issue is fission product removal. As the reactor operates, fission products (radioactive residues of the fission process) are formed in the fuel. Some are gasses. Some are long lived. Some are difficult-to-handle elements. Some will poison the nuclear reaction and must be removed to keep the reactor operating. Thus continuous processing of the molton salt is needed. In the US, reprocessing of conventional depleted fuel was tried using what was thought to be sophisticated very secure systems. They failed. France reprocesses successfully with what I expect is a great deal of hard, careful, and constant work. Can such reprocessing technology be successfully applied to a mixture of molton salt, nuclear fuel and numerous fission product? I don't know but for an MSR reactor to run successfully, much research and successful testing is needed.

There are other issues as well. For example, MSR's would be so-called "fast reactors" which have unique control difficulties that water reactors do not have. Whether these issues can be successfully addressed is not at all clear to me. Perhaps they can, but if so, I suspect the cost of the necessary features will increase the cost of MSR's significantly. Recall that some wag once said in the 1950's that nuclear power (meaning at the time, water reactors) would produce electricity "too cheap to meter." Mr. Evans-Pritchard may be one of those wags.

Sep 25, 2014 at 11:32 PM | Unregistered CommenterDHR

An ancient Brit once wrote a song titled "Imagine".
Instead, the UK went all US with "Blowing in the Wind".
Imgaine all the windmills, being part of thorium reactors.
Imagine all the bird bodies saved.

Sep 25, 2014 at 11:36 PM | Unregistered Commentercedarhill

A really good article this time by AEP in the Torygraph, even if they screwed up the units in places. Naturally problems with molten salt technology need to be addressed, just as they have been with conventional reactors over more than half a century at enormous expense. But with the will such challenges can be overcome as they were at the very genesis of the nuclear industry when a reactor was developed from scratch in record time that was not only safe to operate but was small enough to be shoehorned into a submarine and at the same time capable of being throttled. A staggering achievement. Billions are now being fire hosed at a technology which is a complete waste of time and money (renewables). The German government alone estimates that renewables have already added an extra hundred billion euros to their electricity bills since 2000 with their "green" revolution on track to cost a trillion by 2040. And every last cent of that money squandered for no gain whatsoever. Compared with that the cost of a prototype Moltex reactor at a billion or so doesn't even stack up as chicken feed.

Sep 26, 2014 at 10:44 AM | Unregistered CommenterMartin Reed

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