Sunday, May 12, 2013

LFTRs, a Disruptive Technology; Guest Post by Fred Moreno

This is a letter written to me and Robert Hargraves, which I obtained permission to share on my blog.  I have edited it a little:

Dear Robert:

Thanks for your book Thorium Energy Cheaper than Coal which I have just completed.  Besides providing a further education on the topic, in reading the first page reviews, I saw one by Meredith Angwin which caused a distant memory to light up... I found her email address and we have struck up a conversation of shared interests.

I was motivated to write after reading your appendix with the paper that again retraces the history of LWRs and the evolution of the latest generation systems from Westinghouse et al.  Their investment causes them to have little interest in any new technology that may detract from their established history and embedded corporate strategic heading.  As you know, this is common in companies/industries that grow long in tooth.

Disruptive Technologies

If you are not aware of the work of Clayton Christensen at the Harvard Business School, you should review his work on "disruptive innovation" in light of the Westinghouse strategy and disruptive characteristics created by LFTR.  In short, Christensen showed through research that markets change need, and differing needs cause changes in buyer preference which old suppliers can not adjust to meet. So they die.  He started with disk drives, and broadened his research.

Some examples:

In disk drives, for years the driver was lower cost per megabyte which meant huge disk drives.  I am
sure you remember the refrigerator size drives, lined up in rows, that serviced IBM 360's at computer centers to which we brought stacks of punch cards.  Mini-computers (DEC VAX being most notable example) could be put in a closet so that small hard disk drives were preferred despite much higher $/MB cost.  Small size was more important.  The 8 inch Winchester and then 5 inch Winchester drives emerged, and a whole new industry of disk drive companies thrived.  Interestingly, IBM did not make the transition, and the 8 inch guys could not transition to 5 inch who could not transition to 3 inch shock hardened units for lap tops.  Once established, the established players could not match the cost structure and demands of the next smaller step.

Research showed this happened in the past again and again. American clipper ships were unsurpassed in ability to sail around the Horn at low cost with high reliability. Steam ships were unreliable, expensive, and exploded.  But clipper ships could not navigate rivers and canals, and it was on the Mississippi River and elsewhere that steamships found a solid footing and matured to eventually take over.  Number of clipper ship companies that made the transition:  zero.

Earthmoving was dominated by huge steam shovels.  Figure of merit: dollars per cubic yard of soil moved.  Bigger was better.  Until the post WWII housing boom when somebody cobbled together a small hydraulic powered scoop that fitted on the back of a Ford rubber tire ag tractor and was driven by the agricultural power take off coupling.  It was a kludge, but for cutting trenches around tract houses, it beat hand work by miles.  Time goes on, and hydraulic backhoes have become huge and dominant in earth moving.  Survivors from the steam shovel days: a couple that now make huge drag lines for open pit mining.
Avant Loader in Sweden

Bigger seems better, until it isn't

You see the pattern is clear in the context of LFTR: The proposed GEN III huge "modular" LWRs are derelicts of the past.  They must be bypassed because the market demands something with different requirements - mass production, easily shipped and quickly erected at smaller, easier to find sites, economy from production line manufacture instead of economies of scale, and all the other benefits you know so well.

So as you pursue your quest for LFTR, and given your bully pulpit, I suggest you incorporate the lessons of "disruptive innovation" to show that costs, risks, performance, and other benefits arise from adaptation to the changes in market demand.   "Disruptive innovation" needs to be a primary strategic element of LFTR commercialization attracting a new generation of business entrepreneurs not bound to the views of the past.  It is a message that rings strongly with the venture capital set, all of whom have carefully read Christensen's work.   It needs to be part of the LFTR equation.


Fred Moreno, a retired Yankee Techie now resident on the SW coastline of Western Australia

 I worked with the author, Fred Moreno, at Acurex in the 70s.  Moreno has a BSME from University of California and an MSME from Stanford University. He retired from his position as Chief Operating Officer and Executive Vice President of Silicon Valley technology company. The company made robotic systems for use in the semiconductor manufacturing business.  Moreno now lives in Australia.


Kit P said...

Please check your assumptions at the door. A disruptive technology is better technology that can be practically applied.

When the admiral figured out how to put a reactor inside the hull of a sub, that was a disruptive technology.

There is a big difference between selling book and making power. A good book and useful power plant are different.

Smilin Joe Fission said...

I think LFTR should be the long term goal, but in the short term, the "disruptive innovation" will come in the form of the simplified version of the LFTR: a denatured molten salt reactor.

Do away with the breeding capabilities, even any sort of advanced fission product removal system and simply run a molten salt reactor on low enriched uranium.

For these things to make it to market, simplicity is key. The NRC has likely been the biggest contributor to the slow to non-existent development of nuclear reactors outside of the typical light water variant in the U.S.. To get past this regulatory hurdle, simplicity must be a key design criteria and running a simple MSR on LEU is a lot easier for a regulatory body to process than one which involves breeding and other advanced concepts.

Paul Ebert said...

Actually, Kit P, if you look into Christensen's research one of the characteristics is that the disruptive technology is typically considerably inferior initially to the extent that it is not seen as a threat to the established market (think minicomputers to mainframes and, subsequently, PCs to minicomputers). Early adopters that the established market ignore create the new market which grows in size and performance/features until it supplants the established market.

Anonymous said...

Looking at most of these examples, I also see a common trend - *initially* the cost/unit of the disruptive technologies is generally higher - but once they start going into mass production and further R&D, it's often the case that they eventually get better economics than the thing they replaced, by being fundamentally superior technology.

Take disk drives for example - increasing the data density, which was necessary to produce smaller drives, also allowed them to eventually reduce prices, as they could produce smaller devices which were cheaper to manufacture and also happened to have *more* storage per square inch of surface area, thus resulting in improvements in $/MB.

I really think that for Small reactors, in particular LFTR, that very well could prove to be true as well.

Kit P said...


The NRC regulates one country. Other countries have the skills to determine what the best choices are for their needs.

I will happy to explain the merits of LWR but I do not know much about paper reactors. Furthermore those that promote off beat ideas are universally unqualified to have an opionion.

Lots of people write books with interesting theories. The more useless the theory the more interesting it seems to be.

Engineer-Poet said...

It's amusing that Kit P describes the ARE and MSRE as "paper reactors".  There's a lot of fluoride salt with fission products in it in Oak Ridge due to this "paper".  Perhaps he'd like to store it in his bedroom until it can go to recycling.


I'd like to see us pick up where we left off in 1969.

Kit P said...

The “E' in Molten-Salt Reactor Experiment (MSRE) stands for an experimental.

I first trained at the prototype for the USS Seawolf (SSN-575) submarine. It started as a liquid metal cooled reactor using pure sodium to cool the core instead of water but had converted to a LWR by the time I got there.

The point is that when it comes to producing large amounts of power, LWRs were the disruptive technology or the time and the mainstay of power reactors now. People like to talk about paper reactors. LWR are more interesting than commuting to work with a jet pack unless science fiction is more interesting than science. When it comes to science there is no compelling reasons to build paper reactors.

The debate goes like this. Paper reactors are better because .... My response is that I am totally ignorant of paper reactors because a lot of very smart people decided before me that LWRs were better. When an experiment is done, what were the results

Robert Steinhaus said...

There are dangers in applying analogies and lessons drawn from very lightly regulated industries like computers and disk drives and apply them to very heavily regulated industries like nuclear power. For any disruptive technology to rise up and gain a market foothold, it first has to receive design certification and licensing. This can be a multiple decade process, particularly for innovative nuclear startups that have great disruptive ideas but no real experience preparing document packages for NRC and enjoy marginal financial support.

Current US regulatory requirements greatly favor players in the existing nuclear industry and effectively eliminate potential disruptive technology contenders by high license fees and long delays involved in getting regulators up to speed understanding and licensing new technology.

If you want new disruptive technology that might actually be able to clear the regulators and have a significant impact in less than a decade, you might have to look to nuclear fusion. It is not clear in the fusion area that NRC even has jurisdiction and so far regulatory barriers to fusion are low where even high school freshmen can build real fusion producing table top experiments (Farnsworth Fusor) and produce fusion energy without NRC regulatory interference. Taylor Wilson's Fusor assembled at the University of Nevada produces a respectable 10^6 neutrons/cm^2/sec, good for this class of fusion device. NRC allows high purity fusion fuels like deuterium to be purchased on eBay (2ml of 99.999% pure D2O for $8.50) -
Note: To get the Deuterium fusion fuel for D-D fusion from the D2O you can purchase you typically have to use electrolysis.

Engineer-Poet said...

"LWRs were the disruptive technology or the time and the mainstay of power reactors now."

LWRs were one of several technologies of the time, but the only one allowed by phobic regulators to go to market.  The inventor of the PWR, Alvin Weinberg, believed that molten-salt reactors were superior and went off to prove it... until he was removed from his position as head of ORNL because of PWR-favoring Milton Shaw.

The LMFBR, exemplified by the EBR-II and its successor project the IFR, was also killed by politics.  The one IFR technology so far unproven at commercial scale, pyroprocessing, is being picked up by S. Korea.  The NRC's reach does not extend to other nations.

HWRs were proven by Canada and have a pretty good track record, yet we don't have a single CANDU or equivalent in the USA.  You can claim this is due to technical inferiority, but looking at the regulatory burden imposed by the NRC says that the best explanation for this one is also politics.

Kit P said...

“best explanation ”

The reason almost all power reactors being built today are LWR is that they do a very good job of making electricity. South Korea is building LWR and marketing to other countries. So is Russia, France, China, and the US.

There all kinds of paper reactors. My company and most ever other reactor vendor will design and build whatever you pay us to build. We do have to meet safety standards of our home country and the country we build in.

It takes very little money to produce a glossy marketing brochure. It takes about $300 million to develop the design in sufficient detail that regulators will approve building it.

Why are all the major reactor designers working on large LWRs? That is what our customers want.

So why are SMR and HTGCR also being designed? That would be politics. Some companies have lobbied governments to spend money on R&D. I think that is great. Just because I do not see a market does not mean that there will not be one in the future.

When your paper reactor becomes a real reactor with a track record, then I will stop calling it a paper reactor.

Engineer-Poet said...

"The reason almost all power reactors being built today are LWR is that they do a very good job of making electricity."

But they really don't do anything else, and they don't even make electricity with particularly good efficiency.  If a MW-day of uranium wasn't so cheap, that last would be a big deal.  It is a big deal anywhere that it's expensive to get rid of waste heat.

LWRs can't provide high-temperature industrial process heat.  They can only drive the weakest of thermochemical processes.  They aren't very well suited to areas where cooling water is scarce.  All of these niches remain unfilled because of the politically-mandated dominance of the LWR (the HWR is no better).

"Why are all the major reactor designers working on large LWRs? That is what our customers want."

It's the type with the most experience, but that doesn't make it the best even for electric generation.  Reactors cooled by liquid metal or using molten-salt fuels also work, have their backers, and can go into applications the LWR could never touch.  Only about 40% of the world's energy goes for electric generation, so those other applications represent a very large potential payoff.

"So why are SMR and HTGCR also being designed? That would be politics."

The mPower SMR is also a LWR.  It's designed for "politics", if consideration of much smaller incremental size, radically shortened construction schedule, and consequent lower financial risk is "political".

The S-PRISM is designed to burn plutonium and other transuranics.  I'm sure somebody would like to get rid of that stuff, as it is politically inconvenient to have around and takes an awfully long time to decay.  It is also an alternative to dependence on natural uranium, as it can be fueled by DU tailings in breeder mode.