As Dad, Mom, Nancy, and Junior drove to school for the parent-teacher meetings, Mom quizzed Junior as to what they should expect to hear from his teachers.
“I’ve been doing all right in most things. My seventh grade English class has been a little rough this semester. I’m passing everything, but English punctuation is driving me nuts!”
“Oh, honey. You’ll get it. We all struggled with punctuation. What about you, Nancy?”
“Mom, you already know I am a little weak in math, but I’m passing everything, too! My math teacher, Ms. Brooks, will probably tell you that I have made great strides since earlier in the year. My favorite subject this year is, of course, science with Mr. Morrisey. I think I told you that he used to work in the nuclear industry. He’s a really smart teacher and really knows how to explain things that just were next to impossible for me to understand last year!”
Dad was preoccupied with contemplating the conversation he had had with his daughter last week regarding the thorium process being taught in science class.
“Nancy, I looked at those websites you gave me and they seemed to make sense, but they were awfully complicated. This thorium element just sounds too good to be true. If we have time, I’d like to ask your teacher a little more about it. Especially since he was a nuclear expert.”
“The conference schedule has us seeing Mr. Morrisey last thing. He really likes to explain things and answer questions in class so I don’t think he’ll mind at all.”
The family was right on time with all the conferences. Each teacher in turn gave a rundown on their student to the parents. Precisely as predicted, the math teacher, Ms. Brooks, said Nancy had made great strides since earlier in the year. Mr. Albertson, the English teacher, complimented Junior on his creativity in writing but noted that his punctuation needed some work.
Last on the list was Mr. Morrisey. Entering the classroom, Dad and Mom shook hands with Nancy’s favorite teacher.
“Hello, I’m Bob Johnson.”
“And I’m Frieda Johnson, and this is our son Albert. We’re Nancy’s parents.”
“Glen Morrisey. I’m really pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“Nancy’s told us a lot about you,” said Dad.
“First of all, I must tell you that having your daughter in my class is a real delight. You really have a great kid!” Nancy suppressed a strong desire to blurt out “I told you he would say that!” She just smiled broadly and looked at Mom and Dad as they swelled slightly with pride. “Nancy is really doing well. She has a firm grasp of the concepts. It’s still pretty early but I believe she would benefit next year from advanced placement in the STEM track.”
“STEM track?” Dad asked.
“Yes. It’s the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics concentration. Many more girls should be enrolled than at present. It tends to lead to careers in science and engineering, which are the best paying and most needed by our society.”
“That sounds great, but it will be up to Nancy if she wants to pursue it.” Mom said.
“Speaking of science and engineering careers, Nancy told us that you were in the nuclear field for many years. What brought you to teaching?”
“Yes. I was an operations specialist at a nuclear power plant for about eighteen years. During my time there, I began to develop some misgivings about my career track. Nuclear is still the safest and most efficient way to produce electricity. But there were several accidents that were, in my opinion, avoidable, and several near misses that the public never heard about.”
“Oh, dear! Really?”
“Yes. Like I told the class, the light water reactors all use very high pressure water to both moderate the nuclear reactions and carry the useful heat to electricity generating turbines. If something happens to the water or the system somehow depressurizes, very bad things begin to happen. Many of which are unrecoverable, like Chernobyl and Fukushima. If the reactor products get loose in the environment, they contaminate the region for centuries.”
“We all heard about Fukushima and saw that reactor explode on the nightly news, with the stories about all the contamination forcing thousands to lose their homes. That scares the daylights out of many people. When they hear about nuclear power that is the first thing that comes to mind!” Mom said. Dad listened intently, as did Nancy. Albert, hearing Mom raise her voice slightly, began to pay closer attention to the conference and less to his video game he was replaying in his mind.
“Well, the utility companies and reactor personnel really do a truly remarkable job day by day running things safely. The government regulators had become complacent in oversight responsibility because of the companies’ high performance. When things are running well, it’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of security. Also, most of the operating reactors are literally ancient; and well past their designed lifespan. I thought it time to find a new career and chose teaching science to the next generation of future engineers and scientists as the most responsible way to help our society.”
Dad said, “That’s admirable, Glen. Few industry experts are willing to take a teacher’s salary. If you don’t mind, I’d like to find out a little more about this thorium reactor Nancy told us about. If I understand correctly, it doesn’t use pressurized water at all in the reactor so it can’t explode in an accident like we saw with Fukushima and Chernobyl. And it uses melted salts as fluids inside to work the nuclear reactions and carry the heat that aren’t under pressure? That seems to make it a much safer alternative to these water–based uranium reactors you described.”
Wow! Nancy thought to herself. Dad really did read those websites I gave him!
“Yes,” Mr. Morrisey continued, “I never heard of a thorium reactor in college even though I studied nuclear engineering. I happened to hear about it from a retiring friend who knew a gentleman who worked on the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment in Tennessee back in the sixties. The MSRE was pretty radical in its day. It was fueled with the fluoride salt of thorium dissolved into a lithium fluoride with beryllium fluoride salt combination that was heated until the salts melted into a very runny uniform liquid mixture. They used a fissionable starter of uranium 235 in a critical configuration to get the reactor going.
Dad said, “That’s remarkable!”
“Yes. What’s more is extra neutrons absorbed by the thorium 232 converted it to protactinium 233 that decayed into uranium 233 in about a month. This isotope of uranium will also fission like uranium 235 and is the very fuel for the thorium cycle. It produced huge amounts of heat just like in the light water reactor that can likewise be used to make electricity. But the uranium 233 is trapped in the molten salt, and molten salts can handle temperatures of over a thousand degrees with no pressure. The higher temperatures for this kind of reactor make the system much more efficient.”
“I think I understand,” Dad said.
“And, in this reactor design, the most dangerous waste fission products like cesium and strontium are also trapped in the salt and can be chemically separated for disposal while the reactor is running. These highly radioactive elements decay away much more quickly—with half-lives of about thirty years each—than the wastes from the light water reactor with half-lives measuring in the thousands of years, and there is about a hundred times less of them with the thorium reactor compared to a uranium or plutonium reactor.”
“So, why don’t we use thorium instead of uranium?” Dad wondered out loud.
“In a word? Politics!”
“It turned out that president Nixon and his staff was advised to develop another type of uranium reactor built in California, and there wasn’t enough funding to do both. The so-called liquid metal-cooled fast breeder reactor made plutonium, which was needed for national defense during the Cold War with the Soviet Union but for commercial power as well. The thorium reactor’s uranium 233 was not suitable for bombs. So the plutonium breeder won the day and the thorium project got canceled. Later, it turned out that the plutonium breeder was a poor choice that used solid fuel rods like today’s reactors and extremely reactive and dangerous liquid sodium metal to cool them. It too was canceled.”
Mom was thinking about maybe some hot chocolate when they got home as she hushed a restless Albert. Nancy listened patiently. Dad said, “That really is incredible.”
“And the reprocessing of the solid fuel was extremely expensive and led to proliferation dangers with the extracted plutonium as well as a great deal of long-lived transuranic elemental wastes. But by then, the die was cast to proceed with the uranium-based reactor since it was a known entity that was functional and very inefficient in fuel burn up. But even so, the uranium reactors are still much more energy-efficient than fossil fuels, which is one reason they are still running the antique reactors. Did you know that the natural fissionable uranium isotope, uranium 235, is about the same percentage in the Earth as platinum? And much more expensive to concentrate from the ninety-nine percent natural uranium 238 that doesn’t easily fission?”
“Platinum?” Dad asked. “The same metal used for expensive jewelry?”
“Yes, the same. Platinum is quite rare in the environment and is found in commercial concentrations in only a few places like South Africa. Thorium, however, is relatively common, available almost everywhere, and much more easily mined and concentrated. Thorium’s natural radioactivity is very low with a half-life measured in the billions of years. I don’t think the people who designed the first reactors using uranium 235 really got the concept that they were burning a fuel as rare in the Earth as platinum just to make electricity! But making bomb fuel for the military was the primary goal, and cost was not the real driver. To make uranium more acceptable, the public relations people ducked the mass destruction issues and sold it as ‘electricity too cheap to meter’ with the peaceful atom and plowshare programs in the 1950s. Dr. Herbert York, the first director of Lawrence Livermore Labs, in an interview for the documentary program Race for the Superbomb, noted that they even went so far as to call measurements of radiation from bomb test fallout ‘sunshine units’!”
Dad asked, “What do you see as the next step for the thorium reactor? It seems like it has all the advantages that were promised in the 1950s with few of the drawbacks of uranium. As an accountant, I can see real value in its pursuit. If the reactor can be built and engineered safely, it should be worth the investment needed to make it happen. I apologize for taking up so much of your time tonight with this question. I would like to find out more. Would you be available someday to talk to my colleagues at my office? Many of our clients would love to find profitable long–term investment opportunities.”
“As to the next steps for the thorium liquid fuel reactors, one of the biggest hurdles to overcome is the current state of government regulation. For one, thorium is classified as a ‘source material’ for nuclear weapons, making it highly regulated and controlled like uranium, even though it has never proved a viable pathway to a bomb. And it is literally dirt cheap to mine and refine. In my opinion, it’s extremely difficult to make bomb grade uranium from thorium, even though it is theoretically possible. So thorium should not be considered as a true source material.”
“Another hurdle is overcoming the mindset of the regulators who don’t understand the fluid fuel reactors. They still try to apply the same rules to liquid reactors as for reactors using uranium solid fuel and pressurized water. For example, as the molten salt reactors are not pressurized, they have no need for an expensive and massive pressure containment structure with stringent performance requirements. But the regulators insist on making molten salt reactor developers include one in the plans. There are many more examples, but the inertia in government regulation has been insurmountable. So things move between slowly and not at all in the approval processes.”
Mom called to the fidgeting Albert, “Honey, we’ll be leaving shortly.”
“So where does that leave us? Dad asked.
“Well, the thorium liquid reactors are under development in several foreign countries right now, where the governments are being helpful rather than a hindrance to the idea. We may see an operational liquid fluoride thorium reactor—or LFTR—overseas first long before we see one here. And that is really sad since it was invented here. There are American companies also doing LFTR research awaiting changes to the regulatory system and, if the regulators change their tune, I’d wager that the profits to be made for an investor would be truly immense! An American LFTR could be producing safe power in as little as ten years with the right incentives. But anyway, I would be very pleased to talk to your colleagues about the subject. Just let me know a good time and date for you, and I will try my best to accommodate.”
Dad said, “Thank you, Mr. Morrisey. It has been extremely interesting to listen to your explanations. Nancy was right on in her opinion that you are an excellent teacher! We really appreciate your comments regarding Nancy in the class. We feel that with her interest in science, she may well choose the STEM track if offered. But Mom is right. It will be up to her to take advantage of the opportunity.”
“And, Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, it has been my great pleasure to have met you. You really do have a great kid!”
Latest posts by mike.clark (see all)
- Dad’s Introduction to Thorium - May 12, 2017
- Not Your Olympic LFTR - May 12, 2017
- Nuclear Explosion Test Detection: The Seismic Technique - February 6, 2017