With all the fervor of late in righteously railing against carbon-based energy, you would think the environmental movement might pause to reconsider a moment about coal’s greatest enemy for the last 60 years: uranium.
However no such reconsideration has taken place. Most major environmental organizations like The Sierra Club, Greenpeace and the National Resources Defense Council zealously denounce nuclear energy. Many others such as the Earth Policy Institute and the Environmental Working Group are deafeningly silent on nuclear.
In super-green Germany where they strive to meet ambitious emissions targets, environmental protesters have pushed a complete phase out of nuclear energy while paradoxically Germany is constructing 23 brand new coal plants. Meanwhile next door in France, 59 nuclear plants produce the cheapest electricity in Europe while maintaining the lowest carbon footprint in Europe. In fact they’ve been exporting electricity to most of their European neighbors for some 40 years. With this information and the fact that nuclear energy has the fewest fatalities per kilowatt hour of any source of energy, it begins to paint a puzzling picture for the thinking man…
Fortunately for the Earth, other technologically advanced countries who have not only a ‘high science quotient’ but also a ‘low hippie quotient’ are stepping in to carry the torch of safe, dependable, and cheap zero-carbon energy.
MIT’s Technology Review has an excellent article illustrating how the forgotten technology of the Molten Salt Reactor (MSR) and Thorium fuel cycle is being extensively researched and developed in China. The advantages of an MSR over most reactors include substantial waste reduction, vast fuel availability, and idiot-proof safety. Controversially in the US, the Chinese scientists and the Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratories (where the MSR was invented and tested in the 1950s) have substantially collaborated on the project. China has plans for operational MSRs to be built within the next decade which is VERY soon for the highly-vetted process of reactor development. China has 34 operating reactors and 20 under construction, with a plan to meet most of its massive future increase in electricity demand with zero-carbon nuclear technology.
As some background for why the brilliant technology behind the MSR never caught on in the United States you may like to read a previous post I’d written way back in 2013. In short, an inability to produce nuclear bomb material was a major factor in the funding being cut. Because of that decision, this treasure trove of painstaking research information had laid dormant for 2 generations until the Chinese realized the incredible potential for peaceful applications. Too bad the USA had too many conflicting interests, militarily and socioeconomically to exploit this remarkable innovation.
Also as of August 2016, Russia has successfully deployed a commercial Fast Breeder Reactor. Why is that significant? Because it uses uranium fuel FAR more efficiently than a regular Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR)**. The FBR represents something significantly more advanced than the vast majority of today’s nuclear fleet which will enable humans to extract nearly 100% of the energy value of uranium. This means virtually no nuclear waste, and an absolute guarantee that humanity will NEVER run out of nuclear fuel. (Friendly reminder that the energy contained in fissile material like Thorium, Uranium, and Plutonium is unfathomably huge, like 1.8 million times more energy per kilogram than crude oil.)
All this praise for the Russo-Sino bloc is not to say that no one in the West hasn’t been passionately trying to bring us up to speed too. Many excellent teams of scientists and engineers have created plans for commercial reactors and pitching them to various military and government agencies in North America and elsewhere around the world.
Transatomic Power is an MIT spinoff with plans for an MSR in the testing phase
NuScale Power which has recently made a site proposal in place in Utah
Terrestrial Energy plans to have a MSR reactor operational by mid 2020s
Flibe Energy has recently been in talks with US military and India
TerraPower Bill Gates’ darling has an interesting design for a static-fuel reactor which can be built anywhere
Also, SOME environmental organizations have seen the light of the atomic-decay-heat flame! The Ecomodernist Society is comprised of some smart and critically-thinking hippies, God bless ’em.
Another Facebook group you may want to check out is the Thorium Energy Alliance!
**As some background, the vast majority of the world’s fleet of nuclear plants are PWRs. Even though they have served humanity well, PWRs are very inefficient and represent seriously outdated technology. On a fundamental level PWRs represent a scaled-up version of a military reactor found on a nuclear submarine. Back in the late 40s when nuclear was brand new, the US Navy put the money up for prototyping a nuclear reactor, and then the industry built up around that knowledge-base. That is generally why nuclear plants today need to be located near a large source of water for cooling.