The title of this piece may seem “to good to be true”. How can we save the world with a radioactive element, that is as common as lead, and has very little current commercial application? The answer, Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors (LFTR : pronounced “Lifter”).

What is LFTR? How is it going to save the world? Doesn’t the word Reactor mean “Nuclear”?
Short Answers: LFTRs are a form of Molten Salt Reactors (MSR). Long Story, but we will get into that in a bit. Yes it is Nuclear Technology.

The first thing we are going to cover is that fact that, Yes, LFTRs are nuclear. And we know that whenever someone thinks of nuclear power plants 3 things immediately come to mind: Chernobyl, 3 Mile Island, and Fukushima Daiichi. Those 3 nuclear power plants were all the same in at least a couple of respects, They were solid fuel, water cooled, high pressure reactors attached to steam generators. Which, by the way, is what almost all current nuclear reactors have in common.

This has led to the common misconception that the only way to generate nuclear power is with those types of nuclear reactors. But it isn’t the only way, not even close. The truth is that there are hundreds of ways to do it. And using those types of reactors is actually a really inefficient way to generate nuclear power. For example current heavy water reactors are only 0.7% efficient and light water reactors are only 0.5% efficient. Those inefficiencies lead to a lot of nuclear waste.

Conversely, LFTRs are actually VERY efficient. They are nearly 100% efficient with regards to their power production -so, a lot less waste products. In addition LFTRs can utilize and burn up current nuclear waste stockpiles.

They are also inherently much safer than water cooled reactors and would not be subject to the same issues that caused the “meltdowns” at Chernobyl, 3 mile Island, and Fukushima Daiichi. LFTRs can take a direct hit to the Reactor core without issue and, if there is a power failure,  have a passive safety system that shuts down the reactor without issue. If there is a massive power failure at a current nuclear facility, you get exactly what happened at Fukushima Daiichi.

To make a long story a bit shorter, LFTRs are nuclear but are a much different, more efficient, and safer form of nuclear energy power production.

Now we are going to tackle the “Thorium will save the world aspect”. LFTR has some very unique benefits over and above the efficiency and safety we mentioned above:

1. LFTR can not be used for the creation of nuclear weaponry.
2. Waste Heat from LFTR (not nuclear waste, just heat) can be used to desalinate sea water turning it into fresh, potable water.
3. Some of the extractable isotopes that are byproducts of the LFTR process have medical applications for fighting cancer.
4. Thorium is much more prevalent in the earth’s crust than uranium-235.
5. LFTR plants will be MUCH smaller in size than current nuclear plants.


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The first point of that is the real big one that deals directly with current issues in the world. Namely, the Iran Nuclear “deal”. Recently President Barack Obama made a national address wherein he gave details about the deal that was struck with Iran regarding their nuclear material and possible nuclear weaponry. Within 4 hours of the Presidential address Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif accused the Obama administration of misleading the American people and Congress regarding the terms of the deal.

In the weeks preceding the “deal” Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed congress and decried the notion of allowing Iran to continue on any path that could lead to nuclear weapons in Iran. Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) penned an open letter to Iranian officials -signed by himself and 46 other senators- informing them that any deal struck with the current Presidential administration would not be binding without ratification by congress and could possibly be revoked by any future president.

Had the deal been struck to retrofit all of the current Iranian reactors to LFTRs; Iran would not be on a path to nuclear proliferation, the Iranian people would be the recipients of abundant, inexpensive, clean energy, and Israel would be safe from the threat of a nuclear attack from Iran.

A deal such as that would likely earn the support of congress and lead to an international treaty that would not be subject to revocation by the mere stroke of the pen at the hand of a future president. Moreover, if the negotiators from Iran had said no to the possibility of using LFTR they would have sent a clear message to the world that the only thing they cared about was using their current reactors as a means to develop nuclear weaponry.

This too would make Israel safer as there would be no ambiguity on the world stage.  No nation would be able to say that Israel was over reacting to the saber-rattling from Tehran.  It would also allow for a very open and frank discussion about what Mutually Assured Destruction  would mean to the citizens of Iran.

In addition to Iran, we have ISIS who is currently funding themselves, in part, by selling oil from a refinery that they took by force. As well as many despots around the world who fund their operations by selling their nations’ oil. The higher the cost of oil the more money groups like ISIS have at their disposal. LFTR would reduce the need for crude oil in the developing world, thus lowering demand and costs with it.


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Point 2. In large portions of the world our lands are parched. Farms have fields laying fallow due to a lack of water for the crops they grow leading to less food, at higher costs, for our growing worldwide population.

Using the waste heat from LFTRs we can desalinate sea water to provide more fresh, potable water for human consumption and to grow crops. Think of what happens when we can’t grow crops. It is a domino effect that raises the cost of ALL food. Crops are not just used for feeding people, but also livestock. When the cost of feeding and watering our livestock goes up all of the products that we get from them go up as well.

Desalinization of sea water normally takes a lot of energy and is considered cost prohibitive because of the heat involved. LFTRs generate a lot of heat naturally and would incur very little additional cost to add desalinization of sea water to a LFTR plant.


3

Without getting into an exceedingly long explanation on the various isotopes that can be harvested from the molten salt solution in a LFTR. The short explanation is that it generates things that help in cancer treatments, diagnostic testing, and other beneficial medical applications. Please do not misconstrue this as us saying the LFTR cures cancer, it does not. But it can help in the treatment and diagnosis of certain types.


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Point 4. Thorium is extremely abundant in nature. Currently, nearly all nuclear power plants use Uranium-235 as a source of nuclear fissile material. Uranium-235 has a 0.018 ppm occurrence in the earth’s crust. That is on par with a few different precious metals. Silver, Platinum, and Gold are all around that same rate of occurrence in nature.  On the other hand Thorium has a 10ppm occurrence in the earth’s crust. Thorium is three times more abundant than tin in the Earth’s crust and is about as common as lead. According to reports, from FLIBE ENERGY,  6,600 tons of Thorium run through LFTR would equate to the entire current worldwide demand of energy for one year . The International Atomic Energy Agency currently estimates the worldwide supply of Thorium in the earth’s crust at 120 trillion tons . That means if we switched everyone and everything over to thorium tomorrow; the world would have over a billion years to come up with a replacement -when calculating for population growth. Maybe, by that time, solar and wind energy will finally become viable and battery technology will have advanced to the point where we can have a full grid battery back up -just sayin’.


5

Lastly we get into the NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) argument killer. LFTR technology allows for MUCH smaller power plants that generate more electricity. If you have ever wondered why Nuclear power plants have those massive towers, those are there to provide a place for steam to expand in the event of a double ended water coolant pipe break. When those pipes break the water inside of them immediately flashes to steam and increases in volume by a factor of 1000. In order to make sure all of that steam stays contained -in that high pressure environment- the containment chambers must be very large. Those huge towers, those are the containment chambers. In addition to the huge containment chambers, are the steam generators. They are massive, over 100 feet long in some cases and they put out a max of around 250 Megawatts.

So first we can get rid of those big towers, since the LFTRs are not cooled by water we don’t need a gigantic containment chamber for each reactor in the event of a pipe break no steam will be present- since they aren’t water cooled.  Next, since LFTRs won’t be using steam generators we pair each reactor with a 450 Megawatt Super Critical CO2 Gas Turbine -which is roughly 1/10th the size of the current steam generators used in light water nuclear reactors. What we are left with is a power plant that is so small, by comparison, most people would not even realize it is a power plant of any type. And we can’t forget construction costs. With MUCH smaller buildings being needed the cost and time needed for construction will be dramatically lower.


And one more thing -that isn’t one of our above points. This technology is not a groundbreaking, new technology. The first molten salt reactor went on-line for 9 days as a proof of concept back in the 1950’s, so we know it is possible.  Another proof of concept was built in the 1960’s and operated for 4 years, so we know that it works. And they generated ZERO CO2 emissions.
Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors are the future of power generation, water desalinization, nuclear waste disposal, and generation of medical isotopes.  They have the ability to end nuclear proliferation and it will cost less to produce energy than any other form of power production.

It is time that the United States leads the world in this frontier. We can be the example of how to make this work, we can show the world. We need to not only create a viable energy policy but bring LFTRs into the top spot.

There is still room for petroleum, coal, wind, solar, hydro-electric and anything else that may come along. But our planet’s energy needs are only increasing and we can’t keep up with demand without skyrocketing costs unless we bring LFTRs online, and soon.


Here is a great, albeit brief video on LFTR featuring snippets of speeches from Kirk Sorensen.  It is titled LFTRs in 5 minutes.


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