As you can tell from the title of this blog post, I didn't love the book Superfuel, Thorium, the Green Energy Source for the Future, by Richard Martin. I didn't even like it.
I expected to like the book. I like both the subject and the author. I recognize that I am not the target audience for this book, and I tried to take that into account in my review. I still found the book disappointing.
Superfuel is about the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors (LFTR) an advanced reactor technology that uses thorium fuel in circulating molten salts. I think LFTR technology has great promise for the future. The author, Richard Martin, is a technology journalist and contributing editor for Wired Magazine. I admired his January 2009 article "Uranium Is So Last Century--Enter Thorium, the New Green Nuke." I thought the article was an important step in winning mainstream acceptance for new types of reactors.
I'm not the target audience
|LFTR Image from Energy From Thorium blog|
However, I soon noticed that the tone of the book was taking direct aim at the present nuclear industry. There was a little too much differentiation between the brave pro-thorium engineers and the "hide-bound and risk-averse nuclear power industry." Superfuel refers to the people in today's nuclear power industry as the "nuclearati." Apparently, we are the ones impeding the development of LFTRS. Well, it shows that I am not the book's target audience.
I began to feel very distant from the thesis of his book, despite the fact that I support the development of LFTRs. I even made a poster presentation ("poster session") about LFTRs at a scientific research conference in 2010. From the book's point of view, I am just one of the "nuclearati."
The Good and the Bad in Superfuel
The good. Martin is at his best in describing the history of the nuclear industry. Superfuel contains an excellent and understandable section on the various failed reactor concepts in the U. S. It describes the contributions of Alvin Weinburg, a pioneer of the light water reactor and the molten salt reactor. The chapter on the Asian nuclear race was top-notch, including a clear description of the impractical "three-stage program" in India.
The bad. The book makes huge factual errors. When I notice so many mistakes in areas with which I am familiar, then I can't trust the book on areas on which I am unfamiliar. That destroys the book for me.
A secondary issue is that the book raises straw men and uses inflammatory rhetoric about the present nuclear industry in ways that I can't accept. Yes, I realize that the point of the book is to show how LFTRs are superior to the current fleet. Even considering "the superiority of LFTRS" as a legitimate purpose of the book, I think it goes over the top in its rhetoric and loses credibility.
|Fresh fuel pellets|
Superfuel contains a major (incorrect) thesis about fuel rod aging as a weak point for today's reactors. This idea is mentioned throughout the book, but the most succinct statement is on page 74. where the book claims that "fuel rods age quickly" due to the buildup of fission products. ..."they have to be replaced every few years, even though only three to five percent of their energy has been consumed." There are two major problems with this statement.
LWR fuel rods use fissionable material efficiently. In a LWR, fuel rods are replaced when they have consumed over 80% of the energy source (U-235) that they CAN consume. They also burn up some plutonium that they have created. It would take a different type of reactor to consume the U-238 (95%) of the fuel effectively.
LWR Fuel rods are not life-limited by radiation damage. Martin writes about damage to the fuel as a problem the molten salt reactor solves, but such damage is not the life-limiting step for light water reactor fuel. Highly enriched uranium fuel runs Naval reactors for many years, without fuel rod replacement. Navy fuel is a different type of uranium fuel, but it is a uranium-based solid fuel. For the nuclear power industry, LWR reactor fuel is available at various degrees of enrichment, depending on the design of the plant and how long the plant chooses to run between maintenance outages.
Reactor fuel enrichment decisions are engineering decisions. Fuel damage is only one consideration in fuel design, and is not life-limiting for LWR reactor fuel.
The book contains many errors. I chose two. You might say these are trivial problems. However, if you are comparing two technologies (LWR and LFTR) it is important to get the facts right.
Positive and negative. On page 44, Martin says that 19th century scientists "knew that the positively charged protons (red) would necessarily repel the negatively charged electrons (black)." Actually, opposite charges attract.
Actinides and fission products. On page 186, "the buildup of actinides (including xenon, cesium, technetium and so on) eventually ruins conventional solid uranium fuel rods." The author means "fission products," not "actinides."
Attacking the Current Fleet and People
Superfuel sees uranium as dangerous. For example, the third chapter starts a description of a ship carrying yellowcake. The ship encounters heavy weather, and two of the yellowcake casks were smashed open. In my opinion, this is a non-incident. Martin writes that "the Altona averted disaster" by cleaning up the ship and not releasing any yellowcake into environment. What disaster would this have been? Until it is enriched, yellowcake isn't very radioactive.
Superfuel describes uranium as follows: "Uranium is like a finicky child at a buffet: only the right combination of moderator, fuel, core design and materials will produce a sustained fission reaction." (page 65) This is a problem? I thought it was engineering! However, in the book, this statement is a mark against uranium.
The book also attacks the people involved in this generation of nuclear power plants. On page 65: "By the limited standards of the nuclearati, nuclear power is a success."
Well, yes. As a proud "nucearati." I do think nuclear power has been a success. That doesn't mean we can't build better reactors in the future.
How does Martin describe Shaw? Shaw was "known as the admiral's chief henchman, Beria to Rickover's Stalin."
Stalin? Beria? With opinions like that, it's hard to take the book's comparisons between LFTRs and LWRs completely seriously.
A word from a nuclearati
Superfuel often doesn't get the facts right. Demonizing the current industry and its founders is also unnecessary. One can admire Weinberg without simultaneously comparing Rickover to Stalin.
If you want to learn more about the promise of the LFTR I recommend Dr. Robert Hargraves short book Aim High! Hargraves is a physicist and he gets his facts right. Aim High! is a small self-published book, and Superfuel comes from a major publisher, but Hargraves doesn't make so many mistakes. There are good parts of Superfuel, as mentioned above. If you want a general history of nuclear power, Superfuel is one of many books you can read with interest.
I appreciate that a major author and a major publisher have released a book on the LFTR. I wish they had spared some of the "nuclearati-Stalin" type rhetoric, and done more fact-checking. It could have been a book I loved.
Will Davis at Atomic Power Review has a more positive review of this book, Another positive review at the blog ThoriumMSR, by Rick Maltese.
Update: Rod Adams wrote a related post this morning: There are three Superfuels--uranium, thorium and plutonium. Fascinating post and good comments!