In 1955, Dr. Alvin Weinberg took charge of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee and began a personal campaign to try to realize the benefits of thorium. Under his leadership, two prototype nuclear reactors were built, the Aircraft Reactor Experiment and the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment, to demonstrate key technologies needed to bring thorium energy generation to reality.
In 1973, the Nixon Administration made a momentous decision that altered the course of civilian nuclear power: The Administration defunded the renowned Oak Ridge National Laboratory nuclear programs and fired Director Weinberg, preventing the continued development of a nuclear reactor widely regarded as safer and superior to the global commercial nuclear industry of this day. The 400+ commercially active reactors today have served us well over 50 years without producing CO2. Many new reactors are still being built based on those early designs to expand capacity at existing power plant locations. There are also several new nuclear programs in previous non-nuclear countries with plans to build their first nuclear power plant. However, it is time to bring the molten salt reactors to market as the next generation reactor.
President Richard Nixon knowingly banished a reactor that was virtually meltdown-proof, left comparatively little long-lived waste, made it more difficult to fashion a bomb from the waste, ran at normal atmospheric pressure instead of the potentially explosive pressurized environments of conventional reactors, and produced much higher temperatures, making it more cost-effective as an electricity generator and industrial heat source for; aluminum and cement production or saline water desalination, just to name a few. And, for what reason – Politics never change, only administrations.
Under Director Weinberg, ORNL had built and operated a small, experimental version of the first molten-salt reactor that ran for five years back in the late 60’s. Electricity generation was not attached to it so it only generated heat almost flawlessly. It wasn’t perfect but it was a good start, and inventor Dr. Weinberg was preparing to improve it. Then President Nixon’s budget axe fell, leaving ORNL as the keeper of a valuable, clean, safe nuclear energy technology that eventually ended up on a shelve in the backroom.
Well, someone eventually came to the ball park to seriously play ball – China. The United States Government decided not to play but only wanted to coach. DOE plans to sign a 10-year collaboration agreement with China to help that country build at least one molten-salt reactor (MSR) within the next decade based on the ORNL experiments.
China has committed some $400 million for development of two molten-salt reactors at the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics, which is part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. China first announced its plans in early 2011, and at one point was targeting 2015 for completion of a tiny pilot version of its first prototype, on the way to a full scale demonstrator by 2024, rated at 100 megawatts—a size that fits the emerging trend for small modular reactors (SMR) sized for small communities or multiple SMR’s stacked for larger metropolitans areas.
It’s time for the US to seriously get back into the game. There is no reason that we can’t have a winning energy policy here in the US based on the energy’s total life-cycle costs or energy returned on investment (EROI). Existing EROI from best to worst is: Nuclear, Hydro, Coal, Gas Turbine, Solar Thermal, Wind, Biomass, and Solar PV. It only makes sense to me to commit an investment in clean, safe, efficient advanced nuclear MSR technology with thorium as a fuel source.