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A Forgotten War Tech Could Could Safely Power Earth for Millions of Years

A Forgotten War Tech Could Could Safely Power Earth for Millions of YearsThe lifeblood of modern civilisation is affordable, free-flowing energy. It gives us the power to heat our homes. Grow and refrigerate food. Purify water. Manufacture products. Perform organ transplants. Drive a car. Go to work. Or procrastinate from work by reading a story about the future of energy.

Today's cheap, bountiful supplies make it hard to see humanity's looming energy crisis, but it's possibly coming within our lifetimes.

Our numbers will grow from 7.36 billion people today to 9 billion in 2040, an increase of 22 percent. Rapidly developing nations, however, will supercharge global energy consumption at more than twice that rate.

Fossil fuels could quench the planet's deep thirst for energy, but they'd be a temporary fix at best. Known reserves may dry up within a century or two.

And burning up that carbon-based fuel would accelerate climate change, which is already on track to disrupt and jeopardise countless lives.

Meanwhile, renewable energy sources like wind and solar, though key parts of a solution, are not silver bullets - especially if the world is to meet a 2050 deadline set by the Paris Agreement.

Energy from fusion is promising, but it's not yet proved to work, let alone on a commercial and competitive scale.

Nuclear reactors, on the other hand, fit the bill: they're dense, reliable, emit no carbon, and - contrary to bitter popular sentiment - are among the safest energy sources on Earth.

Today, they supply about 20 percent of America's energy, though by the 2040s, this share may drop to 10 percent as companies shut down decades-old reactors, according to a July 2016 report released by Idaho National Laboratory (INL).

The good news is that a proven solution is at hand - if we want it badly enough.

Called a molten-salt reactor, the technology was conceived during the Cold War and forgoes solid nuclear fuel for a liquid one, which it can "burn" with far greater efficiency than any power technology in existence.

It also generates a small fraction of the radioactive waste that today's commercial reactors - which all rely on solid fuel - do. And, in theory, molten-salt reactors can never melt down.

"It's reliable, it's clean, it basically does everything fossil fuel does today," Kirk Sorensen, the chief technology officer of nuclear-energy startup Flibe Energy, told Business Insider.

Sorensen was speaking during an episode of Business Insider's podcast Codebreaker, which is produced with National Public Radio's 'Marketplace'.

"And it does a whole bunch of things it doesn't do today, like make energy without emitting carbon," he added, though the same could be said of any nuclear reactor technology.

What's more, feeding a molten-salt reactor a radioactive waste from mining, called thorium (which is three to four times more abundant than uranium), can 'breed' as much nuclear fuel as it burns up.

Manhattan Project scientist Alvin Weinberg calculated in 1959 that if we could somehow harvest all the thorium in the Earth's crust and use it in this way, we could power civilisation for tens of billions of years.

"The technology is viable, the science has been demonstrated," Hans Gougar, a nuclear engineer at INL, told Business Insider.

Demonstrated, because government scientists built two complementary prototypes during the 1950s and '60s.

They weren't good for making nuclear weapons, though, among other reasons, so bureaucrats pulled funding for the revolutionary energy technology. The last working molten-salt reactor shut down in 1969.

Today, entrepreneurs such as Sorensen are working tirelessly to revive and modernise the technology. So are foreign governments like India and China.

China now spends more than $US350 million a year developing its variation of the Cold War-era design.

The story of how we got here is neither short nor simple, but it explains why Sorensen and others are betting big on humanity's coming 'Thorium Age' - and why governments are stumbling at its dawn.

The argument for nuclear energy

Its brutalist architecture may not be sexy, but nuclear energy unlocks a truly incredible source of carbon-free fuel. Ounce per ounce, uranium provides roughly 16,000 times more energy than coal and creates millions of times less pollution.

The argument to support growth in nuclear energy is so clear to James Hansen, a seasoned climatologist and outspoken environmentalist, that he passionately advocates for the use and development of the technology.

"To solve the climate problem, policy must be based on facts and not on prejudice. The climate system cares about greenhouse gas emissions - not about whether energy comes from renewable power or abundant nuclear power," Hansen and three other well-known scientists - Ken Caldeira, Kerry Emanuel, and Tom Wigley - wrote in an editorial for The Guardian in 2015.

"Nuclear energy can power whole civilisations, and produce waste streams that are trivial compared to the waste produced by fossil fuel combustion," they wrote.

"Nuclear will make the difference between the world missing crucial climate targets or achieving them."

Climate science aside, the economics of nuclear energy are enough of a draw to make the technology worthwhile.

Today, the industry is already profitable, albeit well subsidised.

Still, if you level the energy playing field against other power sources by taking into account government subsidies and tax breaks, capital costs, fuel costs, and other factors that affect the price-per-megawatt-hour of a power plant, nuclear energy remains a financial win in the long run.

Nuclear power's 2016 levelised costs make it about twice as cheap as natural gas 'peaking' plants (which fire up to meet sudden peaks in energy demand). Nuclear also beats the overall cost of many coal-fired power plants.

And that's before you account for the extraordinary hidden costs of fossil fuels against public health and the environment, including particulate pollution (which kills tens of thousands of people a year) and exacerbating climate change.

Nuclear also wins financially against solar rooftops, many fuel-cell energy schemes, and some geothermal and bioenergy plants.

That isn't to say that current nuclear power plants are flawless. However, they're irrefutably amazing power sources, currently meeting one-fifth of the US's energy needs with just 61 power plants.

They're also incredibly reliable, always-on sources of baseload electricity, heat, and medically useful radioisotopes. Yet great titans fall hard, and the reasons why are key to the continued delay of the Thorium Age.

Why nuclear energy use is collapsing

While new reactors are planned or are coming online soon in the US, many have stalled and the industry has stagnated, with eight of the US's 99 decades-old reactors planned for shutdown by 2025.

What gives?

Subsidies

Flibe Energy's Sorensen partly blames aggressive government subsidisation of wind and solar energy, which leads to the problem of negative pricing.

"We've created rules that disturb the energy market substantially," Sorensen said.

"The first rule is that whenever wind and solar come online, we have to take the power. That's called grid priority. The second rules is, they're paid no matter how much power they make."

Sorensen characterised this as the "murder" of nuclear energy, since those plants can't be shut on and off quickly. He also said this is hurting the environment by causing companies to invest more heavily in gas plants (which can be ramped up and down quickly).

"These two put together create negative prices, and if you're a nuclear power-plant operator, and you're trying to obviously make money selling power to the grid and the prices go negative for large portions of the day, that's economically unviable," he said. "That's what's causing reactors to get shut down."

But other issues are kneecapping nuclear too.

Time and cost

Energy sources such as hydroelectric and wind are still cheaper than nuclear, and a fracking boom has fuelled investment in natural-gas-fired power plants.

As a result, nuclear is having a harder time finding a seat at the energy-pricing table.

Reactors also take many years and billions of dollars to permit, build, and licence for operation: They're exceedingly large and complex works of engineering (though you only need a high school diploma to operate one once they're finished).

Old age

The average US reactor is about 35 years old. They can run for decades with constant maintenance. The Oyster Creek nuclear generating station outside of New York City, for example, has operated since 1969.

But many are being eyed for shutdown, and once they're shut off, reactors can take more than a decade to decommission, demolish, and bury.

A dysfunctional uranium fuel cycle in the US has not helped, where just 3 to 6.5 percent of solid uranium fuel is burned up - and the remaining 93 to 97 percent is treated as radioactive waste and not reprocessed and recycled.

Fear

Then there is society's pervasive anxiety toward nuclear power, often amped to irrational levels. While events such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and the Fukushima Daiichi disaster stand out in people's minds, the reality does not match up by a long shot.

"Nuclear radiation ticks all the boxes for increasing the fear factor," David Spiegelhalter, a statistician at Cambridge University, told New Scientist after the Fukushima disaster in 2011:

"It is invisible, an unknowable quantity. People don't feel in control of it, and they don't understand it. They feel it is imposed upon them and that it is unnatural. It has the dread quality of causing cancer and birth defects."

But as Spiegelhalter, Sorensen, and others have said, the actual safety record of nuclear power is remarkable.

Fukushima's reactor meltdowns killed no one, according to a 2013 World Health Organisation report. Even in "the two most affected locations of Fukushima prefecture", people in the first year would receive only two to three CT chest scans' worth of radiation exposure.

"Let me throw out other names you might not be familiar with: San Bruno. Banqiao Dam," Sorensen said, referring to the two accidents that killed eight (in a 2010 California gas-line explosion) and as many as 230,000 people (in a series of 1975 Chinese dam collapses), respectively.

"These are catastrophic incidents with hydropower and natural gas that really did result in large losses of human life," he said. "And yet the public doesn't have a terror of hydroelectric power or natural gas."

There's still a long road to the Thorium Age

Addressing all of the niggling details, according to current government estimates, might take until 2050 to fully realise a commercial LFTR or other type of thorium molten-salt breeder reactor.

"I don't know when we will build an economically viable molten-salt power plant that is a squeaky clean, reliable, and burns nuclear fuel as well as Kirk [Sorensen] promises," Gougar said.

He also said that fusion - an oft-cited alternative to fission reactors - is "still decades away from a […] power plant that generates more energy than it consumes."

Similarly arduous timescales are true of other 'generation four' nuclear reactors, which is why they, too, aren't yet powering US homes and businesses.

"Manoeuvring the licensing process is a huge challenge. The regulatory framework is not currently streamlined to support these novel innovative technologies," Rita Baranwal, a materials engineer at INL, told Business Insider.

Long-established nuclear-energy companies aren't interested in overturning decades of 'business as usual' to gamble on a technology that's radically different from anything in their portfolios.

After all, the LFTR may work but end up being outcompeted on price for the energy it generates.

So instead, most companies are riffing on current LWR and related designs to improve efficiency, safety, and the tortuously slow speed of licensing a reactor.

"To their credit, though, the [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] recognises this and is working with the [Department of Energy] to improve the licensing process as well, while keeping its mission at the forefront: the safety of the public," Baranwal said.

Baranwal is also trying to help companies advance more disruptive designs. After 11 years working in the nuclear-power industry, she left in August 2016 to be the founding director of INL's new Gateway for Accelerating Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) program.

Per Peterson, a nuclear scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, likened GAIN to NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services - a program that helps commercial spaceflight startups like SpaceX get going.

"You can look at a large company like [United Launch Alliance] and compare its capability to develop rocket designs with SpaceX. The big, incumbent nuclear firms face issues around technological lock-in. And they can't avoid it because of the scale they have to work and operate," said Peterson, who is also on Flibe Energy's board of advisors.

"I think there's real potential for small-scale businesses," he said.

"It's like with biotechnology: a small company will get a drug through phase two or three trials, then large pharmaceutical companies pick it up."

Even if a small demonstration LFTR works, it isn't guaranteed to scale up. Some unforeseen design issues may rear their ugly heads. And there are two other things that Baranwal, Gougar, Petti, and others can't help with: market forces and people.

LFTR could be a super-safe slam dunk for commercial power, but antinuclear (or anticompetitive) interests could threaten its future.

And if the technology can't compete with natural gas, wind, solar, hydroelectric, legacy nuclear power plants, and more, it could just be a failed business venture - Weinberg's desert-oasis metropolises be damned.

That doesn't mean it's not worth trying: The stakes will only get higher as we use up fossil fuels and humanity's numbers grow.

And as for Sorensen, the LFTR is certainly a dream worth chasing.

"This is something that's going to benefit their future tremendously; it's going to lead to a new age of human success," he said, speaking to readers.

"And if they want that, they need to be talking to their elected officials and demanding it, in fact, and saying 'we want to see these things happen.' Because only a society that decides to embrace this kind of technology is going to ultimately realise its benefits."
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