LFTR: Energy too Cheap to Meter? Part 2

With part 1 of the “LFTR: Energy too Cheap to Meter?”, some very promising facts and ideas were given about the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor. Almost too good it seems.

So why hasn’t this technology caught on? Why aren’t there LFTR power plants all over the country? What killed the LFTR reactor?

Good questions. But to answer this requires some history on a particularly tense era in US History: the Cold War.

The date is August 1, 1946 and Harry S Truman has just signed the McMahon Atomic Energy Act which transferred all authority of atomic energy from the military to the newly formed Atomic Energy Commission.

Eight years later, Congress replaced that act with the Atomic Energy Act Amendments of 1954, which for the first time made the development of commercial nuclear power possible.

To achieve it’s goals, the AEC was given extraordinary powers and oversight. And the Agency used that power to its limits. During the years of the late 40’s and the decade of the 50’s, the AEC controlled all aspects surrounding this new “Atomic Power”.

We were in a cold but still smoldering war with the Soviet Union and EVERYTHING was being used to create more and stronger bombs. Plants were being constructed all over the US to supply power or process weapons grade materials. Dur­ing the peak of the US Bomb mak­ing in the 50’s, half of all the stain­less steel and 30 per­cent of all the elec­tric­ity pro­duced IN THE COUNTRY went to the process of mak­ing bombs.

This AEC viewpoint of atomic power took on an almost “God-like” quality, with the AEC being the only gatekeepers to this deity. It addition to creating this huge atomic monolith, the AEC also took great precautions to preserve its image.

Any information on atomic safety and radiation problems were squashed with extreme prejudice. Any scientific opinion that was not the official AEC goal was dealt with in a swift manner. Nobody was immune, including the person considered the Father of the Atomic Bomb, Robert Oppenheimer. Resources not used for making bombs was a diversion, any criticism a foe.

Right or wrong, that was the political and scientific climate at the time.

Now let’s switch over from the AEC overview to a key scientist in this story…

Alvin Weinberg was born April 20, 1915 in Chicago, Illinois. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in mathematical biophysics in 1939. He then worked at the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago until the war intervened.

From Chicago, he went to work at a newly formed laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee known as the Oak Ridge National Laboratory  (ORNL). There he worked on a project for the Air Force to develop a Nuclear Airplane called the ANP project. Much progress was made in the reactor side of the project, but the Nuclear Airplane was doomed from the start and the project was canceled in 1961. This freed up Weinburg from working on this “daft project” to further development of the reactor that was going to be used for the ANP.

This reactor technology was the molten salt reactor and a working unit was built for experimentation and further development. The molten salt reactor experiment (MSRE) was able to produce up to 7 megawatts of power throughout it’s operation from 1964 to 1969. This allowed several technological improvements in design, improvements in reaction, and metals used such as Hastelloy-N.

This was a major shift from the reactors designed that created bomb fissile materials but it had large advantages in safety and efficiency.

During this development period, Weinberg advocated for the increased nuclear safety and advantages of the molten salt reactor. But this was not the design preferred by the AEC and it’s director at the time, Milton Shaw.

Advocating for safety implied that the AEC Atomic Deity was somehow unsafe to begin with. Also this would be taking away fissile material resources to make bombs.

Two of the important “Thou shalt not” rules mentioned about the AEC above.

So the AEC applied pressure on the Nixon Administration and Alvin Weinburg was fired from the ORNL after 18 years of service. To add insult to injury, all development halted on the molten salt reactor, as it was virtually unknown by other nuclear labs and specialists.

The molten salt design was never was taken any further and the other designs went from the testing stage to production.

A nuclear reactor design is a huge endeavor, requiring major commitments in money for development and sticking with that design to achieve a profit. It is not a high volume product. Current designs also allow for a continued profit by selling the fuel rod assemblies, which can be more than what was made with the initial sell of the reactor.

That is why the LFTR is not in commercial use for producing electricity.

But hopefully that will change in the future. For the future of our country.

(The car shown on the avatar? Cadillac Thorium concept car)

Additional resources and links…
Energy from Thorium
Wired magazine article
Thorium Energy Alliance

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Posted by on June 18, 2010. Filed under Commentary. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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8 Responses to LFTR: Energy too Cheap to Meter? Part 2

  1. Sam

    June 22, 2011 at 9:39 pm

    ummm, not a bad idea, though salt is still a finite resource which requires extracting and processing. I agree that the consolidated power of the AEC rendered LFTR the electric car of the 1950s

  2. Everett

    March 23, 2011 at 4:19 pm

    I want a 25KW LFTR in my own backyard wired into my home and selling excess power to the electric utility. In mass production, how much would it cost and how small could it be?

  3. Pingback: Giving a Bad Situation a Lift | Biology Of Technology

  4. osori

    June 18, 2010 at 6:11 pm

    After meeting Oppenheimer Truman supposedly said “Don’t bring that fellow around again”.

    Thank you for the posts on the subject. Having grown up in the era and doing “duck and cover” and being petrified at 10am every Friday at the end of each month when they tested the Air Raid sirens, this hits close to home.

    • Krell

      June 18, 2010 at 7:36 pm

      You are right Oso. Oppenheimer proposed a international plan for atomic control right after WWII, before it got out of control. Bringing the plan to Truman, he was basically thrown out of the meeting and Truman stated what you said.

      Later Oppenheimer would compare the situation to “2 scorpions in a bottle. Each facing the other, willing to strike, but knowing that to do so would mean death to each other.”

      Oppenheimer lost his security clearance because he was publicly against development of the H-Bomb. A national tragedy almost as great as Britain throwing Alan Turing in jail for being gay.

  5. Krell

    June 18, 2010 at 11:23 am

    The difficulty in this post is trying to convey the absolute power that the AEC had over all things atomic without it becoming an AEC post.

    Some of the actions of the AEC, at that time, would make things like extraordinary rendition today seem trivial.

  6. Mother Hen

    June 18, 2010 at 8:47 am

    Science and religions both tend to stomp out any iconoclast with an original thought. Once money and politics become involved, it gets even worse. We can only hope that the oilpocalypse is a catalyst that will encourage a new era of research.

  7. Tim Waters

    June 18, 2010 at 7:07 am

    I hope this picks up momentum. I do have to Marvel at so called experts. Their minds seem closed to any idea they didn’t come up with. We need think tanks that allow for free flow ideas to be considered. I believe what we have now is pre-determined goals.
    Of course that means notions are overlooked.
    What I used to tell people who worked for me was to not tell me why something wouldn’t work, but tell me what might work.