THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 874, May 29, 2016
Conservatives are collectivists—right-wing
socialists—to whom there are many issues
(national security, for one) more important
than the health, well-being, and rights
of the individual.
Nuclear Energy: How the State Stole Our Future … Again.
Attribute to L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise
"Peaceful nuclear power"
During WWII, the people at the Manhattan project were evaluating different metals for use in nuclear reactions. The three candidate metals were Uranium 235, Plutonium 239, and Uranium 233.
All three could be used, but U235 was difficult to separate from the mostly inert U238 it was mixed with, and U233 required a large mass (over 200 lbs.) to create an explosion, and the U232 it tended to decay into made it a strong gamma ray emitter, and difficult to handle in a bomb.
Pu239 required more effort to make it explode, but could be manufactured by toasting U238 with neutrons in a reactor.
The Oakridge facility concentrated on the difficult separation of U235, and newly made reactors sent spent fuel to Hanford for Pu239 extraction. Eventually, enough U235 was scraped up for a single bomb (Little Boy), and Pu239 was chemically extracted for the test device at the Trinity site (the Gadget), as well as enough for the bomb used at Nagasaki (Fat Man).
It became clear to the War Department that U233 was mostly useless for bombs (they did manage to get mixed U233-Pu239 devices to explode during the Teapot test series later, but gave it up as expensive and difficult), and that separating U235 enough to get to bomb grade was way too slow. So they chose water cooled reactors with partially enriched Uranium to toast inert U238 in the fuel rods to Pu239 for use in bombs from that point forward.
During this time, Alvin Weinberg and his staff had discovered that U233 could be bred from Thorium. If you hit a Thorium 232 atom with a neutron, it would turn it into Thorium 233, which decays with a half life of 20 minutes into Protactinium 233, which decays with a half life of 27 days into U233.
Thorium is extremely plentiful, any rare earth mine dropped up to 50% of its production of rare earths as unwanted Thorium, a problem for them, as I will discuss later. This easy supply of Thorium would provide ultra cheap fuel (miners will literally give slightly radioactive Thorium away to get rid of it) for breeding into U233.
This was not the road followed, however. The government of the United States wanted nuclear weapons, and the only route there at the time was using U-235 fueled fast neutron pressurized water reactors to toast U238 into Pu239.
Fast water U235 reactors were what they were familiar with, so such a reactor was chosen for the Navy's atomic submarine and ship program, and experience with these reactors was used to create fast water reactors for civilian power use. And of course, all the spent (i.e., partially used) fuel was sent to Hanford for Pu239 extraction at the PUREX plant at Hanford for use by the Department of Defense. This resulted in enough Pu239 for them to make tens of thousands of bombs, for everything from city killers to sub kiloton bombs for air to air missiles, backpack demolition charges, and the Crocket nuclear recoilless rifle.
Just what any State wants ...
There is a big problem here, though. Solid core fast water reactors do not use all the U235 in the fuel rods. Fission products build up in the rods, including Xenon gas, which both cracks the rods, and poisons nuclear reactions. Xenon is a much "bigger" target for fast neutrons, and eats neutrons needed to continue the reaction. So, after a small fraction of the U235 is used, the rods stop working, and have to be sent to Hanford for recycling. The recycling process at Hanford requires the rods to be cut up and dissolved in acid, which leaves an unholy mess afterwards, liquid waste which has a large fraction of Strontium-90 in it, which emits a lot of heat (500 C in pure form), which means the waste, as well as being highly radioactive, will also heat itself to boiling just by sitting in the tank.
On top of that, fast water reactors keep the water liquid by maintaining very high pressures inside the reactor vessel. If the vessel is breached, you have an instant steam explosion. If the water gets too hot, it disassociates into Hydrogen and Oxygen, which requires a recombiner to turn it back into water, and it will also react, at runaway temperatures, with the fuel rod's Zirconium coating, producing more Hydrogen to deal with.
In short, high pressure fast water reactors require active measures to prevent meltdowns and explosions.
There was one bright note to all this stupidity. Weinberg was asked in 1955 by the Airforce if it was possible to make a small reactor to power a nuclear bomber aircraft. He said yes. He didn't think such an aircraft was necessarily a good idea, but the small reactor he wanted to build would run on a molten salt of U233, Fluorine, Lithium, and Beryllium. It did not require heavy pressure vessels, because it operated at one atmosphere of pressure, the salt was liquid at reactor tempurature. And it would be the first step to making a Thorium breeder reactor.
Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors (LFTR), the road not taken
The liquid salt U233 reactor was smaller and lighter, operated at room pressure, and did not use solid fuel, the fuel was homogeneous. Graphite rods had to be in the fuel chamber to moderate the neutrons for it to have a reaction. Any Xenon produced would bubble out of solution, and not be chemically held by the liquid salt, or mechanically held by the fuel.
Waste products held by the fuel could be removed via simple chemical reactions on the salt, avoiding the issues with processing solid fuel. And the useful waste products could be separated as well. Xenon is bloody expensive and useful. Palladium is a precious metal. Pu238 (non-explosive isotope that produces a lot of heat) is badly needed by NASA for Radio-Thermal generators (RTGs) for deep space probes. The remaining waste is extremely radioactive, but has a short half life of 30 years, which means it only needs to be stored for 300 years to be made safe.
The test reactor Weinberg built at Oakridge was dead safe. The liquid salt was held in the reactor by using fans to freeze a plug of salt in the reactor's drain pipe. If the fan stopped, or was turned off, the plug melted, and the salt flowed into a tank with no moderators and radiator fins buried in the earth. The salt would stop releasing neutrons, and freeze in that tank.
It was a reactor you could shut down by turning the power off and just walking away from it. Which was exactly how the Oakridge team shut it down each day. Dead safe. No power for the fan, and it just shuts itself down.
The next step would have been to make a bigger one, with a thorium liquid salt blanket around it to trap neutrons and breed more U233 fuel, but it ran afoul of Richard Milhous Nixon. The Airforce had killed their nuclear-powered bomber project, and Nixon wanted to shift funding to fast Pu239 breeders in California. A tape recording of Nixon dropping the axe on this is here: [Link to YouTube]
The project was funded again a few years later, but was finally killed completely During the Carter administration. Everyone at the Oakridge reactor was told to clear their desks, and go home. The surviving documentation ended up in a storage closet in the Children's museum in Oakridge.
The fallout ...
The nuclear industry is dying, these days. After three water cooled fast reactors had spectacular failures, at Three mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, nuclear power is now the public's boogieman. The only western country still making new reactors is France. They still use light water reactors, but have matured the technology and recycling to the point their reactors are safe, and are making 80% of their power needs using nuclear power. They are also the only industrialized country meeting their carbon emission goals (admittedly only important if you believe in something as improbable as Anthropogenic Global Warming). Currently, the only countries working seriously on LFTRs are Russia, India, and China. The NRC recently sold ALL of its U233 stocks to China, fuel created at great expense through isotope separation during WWII and the 1950s. At least that was better than their original boneheaded plan of denaturing it back to natural levels by mixing it with U238.
NASA is now suffering from a severe shortage of Pu238 for spacecraft RTGs, Oakridge was their only source. Oakridge is now experimenting with making Pu238 through neutron bombardment in an accelerator, but this is slow, bloody expensive, and only tiny quantities are made.
Meanwhile, the Rare Earth mining industry is dead in the US. We have plenty of good Rare Earth mines in the US, but Thorium is a large byproduct of refining, most miners get an output that consists of 50% Rare Earth elements, and 50% Thorium. It has a few uses, lantern mantles are dusted with Thorium Oxide as a catalyst, and some TIG welding electrodes are made from Thorium-Tungsten alloy, but for the most part Thorium is a slightly radioactive waste no one wants. You can't dump it because it emits electrons, and is considered nuclear waste by the NRC. And if it gets into the environment, the mine owner gets sued into oblivion, and the EPA insists on insane levels of clean up, even though the metal is already in the sand and soil at the site naturally.
The only country seriously mining Rare Earths today is China. The PRC government just carts off the Thorium for storage and future use. And they have embargoed exports. If high tech manufacturers (like Apple) want Rare Earths for their products, they have to relocate manufacturing to China to make them. And hand their intellectual property over to Chinese manufacturers.
We could undo this, simply by storing the Thorium ourselves, but due to the NRC and the EPA, and political fears, this probably won't happen. Obama railed against the Chinese Rare Earth Embargo, but, of course, completely ignored why we can't mine our own.
Taking the road not taken
Thorium is plentiful. The US and Australia are tied for third in world reserves, behind India and Brazil. Using it will resurrect our Rare Earth mining and US based high tech industry from the dead. One Rare Earth mine in the US was forced to stockpile 5000 tons of Thorium before they shut down, enough Thorium to power the entire planet for a year.
Thorium reactors are safe, and can be made small enough to fit in an aircraft. Small reactors can be built, and small turbines using triple point CO2 (the pressure and temperature where CO2 is equally likely to form a gas, liquid, or solid) can be built to be both smaller, and far more efficient than steam turbines. Need to shut one down for maintenance? Just flip the power off, and walk away.
Cheap, unlimited, and safe power has been in our grasp since 1955, but we didn't go there. The US government wanted light water reactor produced bombs.
NASA is screaming for Pu238 for RTGs. Pu238 is a waste product of a LIFTR. Thorium is easily available on the surface of the Moon and Mars. Solar power won't work for colonizing the Moon, the two week Lunar night makes solar panels useless. Mars is far enough from the sun to double the amount of solar panels needed, and you still need batteries at night. This problem was solved for the Curiosity rover by mounting an RTG on it. Thorium reactors will absolutely be needed for colonization.
LIFTRs can resurrect the coal industry. The Nazis invented synthetic diesel fuel creation by Hydrogenation of coal using lots of heat. These plants used coal for that heat, and were incredibly inefficient as a result. A LIFTR, plunked down next to a coal mine, can cheaply convert that coal into diesel fuel. It can also synthesize fuel directly using seawater and the CO2 dissolved in the seawater. The US Navy is using this process right now to make jet fuel on board aircraft carriers. The fuel is expensive in amortized terms, but cheaper than shipping it out to the carrier at sea.
Cheap energy will make every-damned-thing cheaper. And high energy civilizations all have low birth rates. You don't like overpopulation? Then make cheap energy available. Cheap energy means a better living standard, longer lifespan, and less incentive to churn out more children as a survival strategy.
The only real obstacle to a safe and clean high energy future is our own government. The governments of China, Russia, and India can see the writing on the wall here. They are investing a lot of money into make these reactors work. China is currently picking the brains of the folks at Oakridge (with Obama's blessing!), and have grabbed copies of that archive from the Oakridge Children's museum. And these retards sold them the US U233 reserve.
Our own NRC is currently putting its foot out and tripping efforts in the US with regulatory insanity, trying to enforce rules that only make sense with ticking time bombs like light water reactors.
We can have the future now. We need to batter the state into submission to get there.
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