- CRITTER TALK
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)