I have written this article exclusively for The Thorium Network(1) on the basis that I remain anonymous – my livelihood depends on it. I completed my nuclear engineering degree in the late 2000’s and shortly thereafter found a position in a semi-government owned nuclear power station – with several PWRs to look after. One year after graduating and commencing my professional career, I discovered the work of Dr. Alvin Weinberg(2) and began conducting my own research.
My anonymity is predicated on my experience during this time of intense study and learning. As a young female graduate when I shared my enthusiasm for this technology I faced harassment and derision from my male colleagues, from high level government officials and also, unfortunately, from my university professors, whom I initially turned to for help. It wasn’t long before I started to keep my research and my thoughts to myself.
I have found Women In Nuclear(3) to be most supportive and conducive to fostering and maintaining my interest in this technology, though even there it remains a “secret subject”.
So when I discovered The Thorium Network(1), I decided it was a good platform to tell my story. I look forward to the time when there is an industry strong enough to support engineers like me full time, so we can leave our positions in the old technology and embrace the new.
My Studies – No Thorium?
As a nuclear engineer, I was trained to understand the intricacies of nuclear reactions and the ways in which nuclear power could be harnessed for the betterment of humanity.
During my time in university, I learned about various types of reactors, including pressurized water reactors, boiling water reactors, and fast breeder reactors.
However, one type of technology that was never mentioned in my coursework was the Thorium Molten Salt Burner (TMSB). Or “Thorium Burner” as my friends like to say. “TBs” for short. I like it too. Throughout my article I also refrain from using traditional words and descriptions. The nuclear industry must change and we can start by using new words.
Shortly after graduating I stumbled upon information about TBs from the work of the famous chemist and nuclear physicist, Dr. Alvin Weinberg(2). TBs have enormous potential and are the future of nuclear energy. I can say that without a doubt. I was immediately struck by the impressive advantages that TBs offer compared to the technologies that I had learned about in school. I found myself wondering why this technology had not been discussed in any of my classes and why it seemed to be so overlooked in the mainstream discourse surrounding nuclear energy and in particular in today’s heated debates on climate change.
What are TBs – Thorium Burners
To understand the reasons behind the lack of knowledge and recognition of TBs, it is first important to understand what exactly TBs are and how they differ from other types of fission technologies. TBs are a type of fission device that use Thorium as a fuel source, instead of the more commonly used uranium or plutonium. The fuel is dissolved in a liquid salt mixture*, which acts as the fuel, the coolant and the heat transfer medium for taking away the heat energy to do useful work, like spin a turbine to make electricity, or keep an aluminum smelter bath hot**. This design allows for a number of benefits that old nuclear technology does not offer.
*A little tip: the salt is not corrosive. Remember, our blood is salty but we don’t rust away do we.
** I mention aluminum smelting because it too uses a high fluorine based salt – similar to what TBs use. And aluminum is the most commonly used metal on our planet. You can see more on this process here: Aluminum Smelting(4)
Advantages of TBs
One of the most significant advantages of TBs is their inherent safety. They are “walk away safe”. Because the liquid fuel is continuously circulating, and already in a molten state, there is no possibility of a meltdown. If the core region tries to overheat the liquid fuel will simply expand and this automatically shuts down the heating process. This is known as Doppler Broadening(5).
Additionally, the liquid fuel is not pressurized, removing any explosion risk. It just goes “plop”.
These physical features make TBs much safer than traditional machines, which require complex safety systems to prevent accidents. Don’t misunderstand me, these safety systems are very good (there has never been a major incident in the nuclear industry from the failure of a safety system), but the more links you have in a chain the more chances you have of a failure. TBs go the other way, reducing links and making them safer by the laws of physics, not by the laws of man.
Another advantage of TBs is their fuel utilization. Traditional machines typically only use about 3% of their fuel before it must be replaced. In contrast, TBs are able to use 99.9% of their fuel, resulting in effectively no waste and a much longer fuel cycle (30 years in some designs). This not only makes TBs more environmentally friendly – how much less digging is needed to make fuel – but it also makes them more cost-effective.
TBs are also more efficient than traditional machines. They are capable of operating at higher temperatures (above 650 degrees C), which results in increased thermal efficiency and a higher output of electricity per unit of fuel. This increased efficiency means that TBs require even less fuel to produce the same amount of energy, making them even more a sustainable option for meeting our energy needs.
Ever wonder why all the recent “conspiracy theories” have proven to be true? It looks like Thorium is another one. It’s just been going on for a long, long time.
So why, then, was I never taught about TBs in university? The answer to this question is complex and multi-faceted, but can all be traced back to one motive: Profit. The main factor that has contributed to the lack of recognition and support for TBs is the influence of the oil and fossil fuel industries. These industries have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo to preserve their profits. They have used their massive wealth and power to lobby against the development of competitive energy sources like TBs. Fossil fuel companies have poured billions of money into political campaigns and swayed public opinion through their control of the media. This has made it difficult for TBs to receive the funding and recognition they need to advance, as the fossil fuel industries work to maintain their dominance in the energy sector.
First Hand Knowledge – Visiting Oak Ridge
During my research I took a trip to Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, where the first experimental Thorium Burner, the MSRE – the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment – was built and operated in the 1960s. During my visit, I had the chance to speak with some of the researchers and engineers who had worked on the MSRE – yes some are still around. It was amazing to speak with them. I learnt first hand about the history of TBs and their huge potential that they have. I also learnt how simple and safe they are. They called the experiment “the most predictable and the most boring”. It did everything they calculated it would do. That’s a good thing!
The stories I heard from the researchers and engineers who worked on the MSRE were inspiring but also concerning. They spoke of the tremendous potential they saw in TBs and the promise that this technology holds for the future of meeting world energy demands. They also spoke of the political and funding challenges that they experienced first hand. The obstacles that prevented TBs from receiving the recognition and support they needed to advance. They were told directly to destroy all evidence of their work on the technology when Dr. Alvin Weinberg was fired as their director in 1972 and the molten salt program shut down. This was done under Nixon’s watch. You can even hear Nixon do this here on this YouTube(6) clip. Keep it “close to the chest” he says. I am surprised that this video is still up on YouTube considering the censorship we’ve been experiencing in this country in the past few years.
The experiences at Oak Ridge confirmed to me that TBs are a promising and innovative technology that have been marginalized and overlooked clearly on purpose. On purpose to protect profits of other industries. It was inspiring to hear about the dedication and passion of the researchers and engineers who worked on the MSRE, and it reinforced my belief in the potential of TBs to play a major role in meeting our energy needs in a sustainable and safe manner. I am hopeful that, with increased investment and support, TBs will one day receive the recognition and support they deserve, and that they will play a significant role in shaping the future of energy.
Moving On – What is Needed
Despite the challenges, I believe that TBs have a promising future in the world of energy from the Atom. They offer a number of unique benefits that can clearly address the any minor concerns surrounding traditional nuclear energy machines, such as safety and waste management. They are also the answer for world energy.
Countering the Vested Interests – Education and Awareness
In order for TBs to become a more widely recognized and accepted technology, more funding – both public and private – is needed to revamp the research and development conducted in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Additionally, education and awareness about the potential of TBs must be raised, in order to dispel any misconceptions and address the stigma that still surrounds nuclear energy, and to counter the efforts that are still going on even today, to stymie TBs from becoming commercial.
In order to ensure that TBs receive the support they need to succeed, it is necessary to counter the influence of the oil and fossil fuel industries and to create a level playing field for competitive energy sources. This will require a concerted effort from the public, policymakers, and the private sector to invest in and promote the development of TBs.
Retiring Aging Assets and Funding New Ones
There’s also another factor that also needs to be addressed the same way as the oil and fossil fuel industries and that is the existing industry itself. The nuclear industry has long been dominated by a few large companies, and these companies have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and investing in traditional reactor technology. This includes funding universities to train people such as myself. This has made it difficult for TBs to gain traction and receive the funding they need to advance.
An Industry Spawned: Non Linear Threshold (LNT) and As Low As Reasonably Achievable (ALARA)
A third reason is the prodigious amount of money to be made in maintaining the apparent safety of the existing nuclear industry. This was something else I was not taught in school – about how fraudulent science using fruit flies was railroaded by the oil industry (specifically the Rockefellers) to create a cost increasing environment for the nuclear industry to prevent smaller and smaller amounts of radiation exposure. Professor Edward Calabrese(7) taught me the most about this. You must watch his interviews.
What has grown from this is a radiation safety industry – and hence a profit base – with a life of it’s own. I see it every single working day. It holds tightly to the vein that radiation must at all costs (and all profits) be kept out of the public domain. Again a proven flawed premise but thoroughly supported by the need, and greed, of the incumbent industry to maintain the status quo.
Summing Up – Our Future
In conclusion, as someone who studied nuclear engineering but never learned about Thorium Molten Salt Technology, I am disappointed that I was not given the opportunity to learn about this promising and innovative technology during my time in university. However, I am also grateful to have discovered it now, particularly with my professional experience in the sector. I am eager to see how TBs will continue to evolve and change the face of energy worldwide. With the right support and investment, I believe that TBs have the potential to play the main role in meeting our energy needs in a sustainable and safe manner, and I hope that they will receive the recognition they deserve in the years to come.
Miss A., Space Ship Mother Earth, 2023.
References and Links
- Nixon Ends Thorium https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mj5gFB5kTo4
#nuclear #thoriumburner #thoriummoltensalt #energy #university #womeninnuclear