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Kirk Sorensen: An Update On The Thorium Story

user profile picture Adam Taggart Aug 31, 2014
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Two years ago, we interviewed Kirk Sorensen about the potential for thorium to offer humanity a safe, cheap and abundant source of energy.

He is an active advocate for developing liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR) technology, the details of which were covered in our earlier podcast: A Detailed Exploration of Thorium's Potential As An Energy Source. That interview concluded with Kirk's observation that the West could have a fully-operational LFTR reactor up and running at commercial scale within a decade, but it won't, because it is simply choosing not to prioritize exploring its potential.

But that doesn't mean other countries are ignoring thorium's promise.

Kirk returns this week to relay what has happened in the thorium space since our last conversation. The East, most notably China, is now fully-mobilized around getting its first reactor operational by as soon as 2020. If indeed thorium reactors are as successful as hoped, the US will find itself playing catch up against countries who suddenly hold a tremendous technology advantage:

I can give you a great update because I was at a conference in Nashville just two weeks ago and one of the representatives from the Chinese Academy of Sciences was there. He gave a presentation, showed us where they were at, what was going on. It was really clear to me that they are making tremendous progress. I saw pictures of test loops. I saw pictures of lithium separation cascades. I saw pumps and heat exchangers and fuels and all manner of things under development.  It was clear to me what I was looking at was hundreds and hundreds of researchers at work building stuff. Things are really happening; things are really going forward.

It was pretty sobering. Here were several of us Americans in the room talking about what we would like to do, what we would think about doing. And I have to admit I was kind of upset that here we were chatting and yapping and there they were doing. So it is very much going forward and making impressive progress. Their latest schedule that I heard at this meeting was a small two megawatt thermal reactor by 2020. It would not have a power conversion system, but it would still be the first molten salt reactor somebody has turned on since 1969.

It turns out the Chinese actually had a molten salt reactor program in the early seventies. And they were unable to develop the proper nickel alloys to contain the molten salt. And so they shut the program down around 1976 not long after we did. We, on the other hand, had developed that nickel alloy and successfully demonstrated it at Oak Ridge during that molten salt reactor experiment. Now of course they have kind of come in from the cold as far as technology exchange. They know what we did and they showed a number of samples of various nickel alloys they are developing for this program. So that is not a problem for them anymore. They have gotten past that challenge.

And they see the advantages of using thorium in the molten salt reactor to be able to produce high temperature, high quality heat not just for electricity generation but also for industrial processes or hydrocarbon generation, desalinization, a lot of different things. They are excited about it. They are going forward essentially on all fronts with nuclear. They want light water reactors, fast breeder reactors, gas cooled reactors, molten salt reactors. There is almost nothing that they are not doing in the nuclear space and putting serious resources on it. And again, I just cannot help but contrast what we are not doing in the United States to what they are doing. It is pretty humbling.

They made a decision that they are going to treat this like a priority. They're going to go make it happen. And we in the US have not, do not.

Not only are they moving out aggressively with nuclear but they are moving out aggressively trying to lay hands on fossil fuel resources all over the world. I mean, the Chinese are not messing around with energy. I think they have internalized the message: Energy is the master commodity. Everything else depends on energy. And if you do not have an energy supply that is reliable and sustainable, you are putting your entire nation at risk. We in the United States—sometimes I think we are cursed by abundance and options. We have so many things we could do that it makes it hard for us to decide what we will do. And we are just sleepwalking through this problem.

Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Kirk Sorensen (42m:55s):


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