Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A Book I Loved: THORIUM: Energy Cheaper Than Coal by Bob Hargraves


First of all, let me acknowledge that I know Dr. Robert Hargraves and have worked with him on various energy projects, such as co-teaching the Energy Safari course last fall, and founding the Coalition for Energy Solutions.  In the acknowledgements at the end of THORIUM: energy cheaper than coal, Hargraves thanks me and my husband, George Angwin (among others) for editorial reviews of an earlier draft of the book.

I wanted to say this upfront, because I think this is a terrific book, and I would think the same if I didn't know Bob Hargraves at all.  This is not just a book about thorium reactors. It's a book about energy policy and energy choices.  Even if you don't care a bit about thorium, you will benefit by reading this book.

You can buy the book at Amazon: THORIUM: energy cheaper than coal.

Hargraves also has a useful website about this book: THORIUM: energy cheaper than coal.  In this website, he includes the chapter headings, giving you an idea of the sweep of this book.  A partial list of chapters:
  • why we need energy (energy and prosperity)
  • analysis of energy sources 
  • the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor LFTR
  • safety 
  • sustainability 
  • energy policy
Cheaper than Coal and why it matters

The idea behind this book is not fear.  It is not about doom from existing nuclear plants, or even from global warming. The title tells much of the thesis: nuclear energy can be cheaper than coal.  Why is this important?

Prosperity and birth rate,  from Hargraves
Coal was the fuel that brought the industrial revolution and made Western nations prosperous. Now that Western nations are prosperous, we are beginning to turn away from coal, at least to some extent.  However, many developing nations are following the Western path to prosperity: "We'll start with coal."  If the wealthy countries wag their fingers at the developing world about coal, they quite rightly get fingers wagged back at them: "When our people are even half as prosperous as your people, we will enjoy a conversation with you about optimum energy sources.  Until then, you rich guys, don't be such a bunch of hypocrites."

Throughout the book, Hargraves emphasizes that nuclear power (specifically LFTRs) can undercut the price of coal, or the price of cheap natural gas. Hargraves stresses that carbon taxes are not going to be a global solution to the problems of fossil fuel use. LFTRs can be inexpensive and they produce almost no greenhouse gases or air pollution. They can be a large part of the solution.  People all over the world will attempt to lift themselves out of poverty.  Hopefully, people will use nuclear energy instead of coal, and thereby make a better world for all of us.

Technologies Reviewed

Fossil or nuclear?  Are those really the choices?

For those who may say: "We don't need fossil or nuclear, we can do everything with renewables" Hargraves has a well-researched answer.  The book includes almost 100 pages of "doing the numbers" on renewables, and showing they are not a solution for a modern society's energy needs.

One feature of the Hargraves book is that he estimates costs for the different renewable technologies, and explains his estimates.  David MacKay's excellent book, Sustainable Energy--without the hot air, also analyzes renewable technologies. However, MacKay's book mainly asks whether the renewable technologies will provide enough energy for society (without using all the land for energy production). Hargraves estimates the costs, because, after all, the book is titled: THORIUM: energy cheaper than coal.  Hargraves knows that people will choose inexpensive energy to lift themselves from poverty to prosperity.  Cost matters.

Though Richard Martin's book Superfuel was all about LFTRs, the technology of LFTRs was not particularly well-expounded in that book. In THORIUM, there are over 100 pages about LFTRs. The information includes charts and illustrations, description of the different varieties of LFTR, information about the technical challenges that LFTRs have overcome, and about many of the technical challenges remaining.  I don't know anywhere else you could obtain this information so clearly and concisely. The information is out there, no doubt, in thorium forums and papers (and Hargraves references these).  But if you want a quick-course on LFTRs, not a personal-research-project on LFTRs, this is the book for you.

Hargraves also reviews other types of advanced reactors: Integral Fast Reactors, pebble beds, etc.  All sections of the book contain very helpful illustrations (and lots of them) and references. The list of references and bibliography is truly impressive.

Technology Overstated?

I can hear it.  Somebody is going to say that I have been taken in by a paper reactor.  Do I know that the LFTR will work? Do I know that the LFTR development task section of Hargraves' book (pages 227-247) lists all the necessary tasks? Do I know that all the development tasks, listed or not, will be completed?  Of course not. I don't know these things, and neither does Hargraves, and neither does anybody else. I also know that materials development work is often much harder than it looks at the beginning.  LFTR development is not certain.

Molten Salt FLIBe
However, several advanced reactor concepts are in development at this time. New types of reactors will be developed in the near future.  In my opinion, the Hargraves book makes an excellent case for expanded work on the LFTR.

My One Gripe

Early in this post, I said:

This is not just a book about thorium reactors. It's a book about energy policy and energy choices.  Even if you don't care a bit about thorium, you will benefit by reading this book.

As a matter of fact, that statement also expresses my one major problem with the book.  The sections on energy policy, renewables and costs are top-notch (as are the sections on advanced reactors).  The energy policy sections should interest every citizen and every policy maker.  But will  the average citizen or policy maker pick up a book about advanced reactors?

I think that this book consists of two fine books packed in one cover:
  • a book on energy choices and energy policy 
  • a book on advanced reactors, especially the LFTR  
Of course these two topics are related, but putting them in one book makes a rather thick book (470 pages). Though it is well-written and well-illustrated, I think its size alone is a bit intimidating.

I urge you to buy it.  You can read the whole thing and enjoy it. Or you can just read the sections of interest to you and use the rest as reference.

In either case, this book is a major achievement, and should be on the bookshelf of people interested in energy in general, renewable energy, nuclear energy, and advanced reactors.  In other words, it will be helpful to pretty much everybody.

Reminder: You can buy the book at Amazon: THORIUM: energy cheaper than coal.

Note: The book cover is by Suzy Hobbs Baker of Popatomic Studios.  I am on the board of directors of Baker's not-for-profit, and I love her work.