Thursday, June 21, 2012

Superfuel: A Book I Wanted to Love

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
Superfuel begins well. The book starts with an effective story about how Kirk Sorenson learned about LFTRs and how they could be deployed. It describes Robert Hargraves and his Aim High work, and Charles Barton's important blog Nuclear Green. I know and admire both Hargraves and Barton, and I admire Sorenson, though I don't know him.

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
NRC photo
Factual Errors: Fuel Rod Aging

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.

Careless Errors

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.

When he describes the nuclear founders, Martin can be especially vitriolic.  For example, he blames Milton Shaw for the end of the Molten Salt Reactor program at Oak Ridge.  Shaw may well have been responsible for the end of that program. Shaw was also the project leader for the first nuclear submarine, the Nautilus.  I don't know much about Shaw except that he was a project leader in the early days.

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.

Other reviews:
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!


Rick Maltese said...

Thanks for the mention Meredith. Very good review and I'm glad to hear from someone knowledgeable.

Jaro said...

Thanks Meredith.
I never bought this book, because I figured I'm not the target audience either: You confim my suspicions.
The part about Beria & Stalin is particularly insulting to me, as someone who has lived in the Soviet Block and studied its history as well.
If I had actually bought the book, it would have went straight into the waste basket after reading that.

Paul said...

I like the LFTR concept and I think that we as country could do much better putting $$ into LFTR R&D than into wind and solar power. The nuclearti tone plays straight into the anti-nuclear groups' hands, by suggesting that Gen II and Gen III reactors are "not safe" and that used fuel is prone to weapons proliferation. I strongly doubt anti-nuclear groups would be prone to support LFTR's if they existed.

Unknown said...

The LWR bashing did make me a little uncomfortable. I think from the first commercial LWR reactor upwards, they are excellent pieces of technology, and a testament to the skill of the nuclear engineering establishment. No question, given everything we have available today, LWRs should be every utility's top choice for their base load power, until we develop and commercialize something EVEN BETTER. Yet I should note, nobody in the main body of the LFTR community is talking at all about shutting down LWRs. Rather everyone is talking about opening up new markets that the LWRs have not even touched. Yet, there are members of the established nuclear community trashing LFTR without scientific justification.

However, the point of disagreement I have with members of the established institutions is over future development plans and where nuclear R&D funds should be spent. Their point of view is the best way forward is slow incremental changes of LWRs.

My rejoinder to this is first, the LWR represents a superb local optimum in design space, BUT there are other, radically different design paradigms that promise even better performance, closer to a GLOBAL optimum, in the form of liquid fueled reactors. I have yet to hear from the established community a single scientific reason why I am wrong, especially with all the data from Weinberg's program supporting this contention. Second, LFTR appears to enable us to open up markets that the LWRs have failed to reach and well, as much as I would like to, I think the new LWRs have what it takes to open up these markets. Make no mistake, I am absolutely convinced that the world needs nuclear, but for the last 30 years, for whatever reason, nuclear has not broken past ~20% U.S. market penetration when I think the we need it at 80%. The new LWRs represent small incremental changes, and as much I wish these changes would succeed, I'm just not buying the argument from the established community that we can make really tiny changes to how we do things and expect a radically different result from these last 30 years.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Meredith, for a frank review. I bought the book but have been unable to finish it. For me the somewhat snarky tone is a big turnoff. When I encountered "nuclearati" the first time I had to bookmark the page and take a walk.

I'm a fan of the LFTR concept and would like to see development of the thorium fuel cycle. I hoped this book would cover the engineering challenges. At some point I will finish reading the book but I expect to be disappointed.

Rod Adams said...

Meredith - Martin and his publisher should thank you - I just bought the book for Kindle and have already finished the forward. It looks like it will be one of those books that lasts a weekend for me.

Like Martin, I have spent my life thinking about energy. I also share the backpacking experiences with him.

I know and love Kirk, Charles and John. Though I might bristle a little at being called a nuclearati, I'm not sure I would want to be called a "thorium-head" either.

For several years now, I have tried to tell thorium, IFR, light water, and heavy water people that they need to recognize that they are all fission people and that the real competition is the combustion people.

Our rivals in fossil seem to have a much better grip on the "divide and conquer" strategy, but that is really what seems to be motivating Martin's book.

I'll stop now and come back after I have finished, but my message for anyone who reads your blog is that the world has three superfuels - uranium, thorium and plutonium. They will all be useful in a fission centric world that is the only possible technical path forward from our "hydrocarbon economy."

It is not going to be a smooth path - the purveyors of petroleum and its cousins are not going to give up their wealth and power without a lot of fighting.

Howard Shaffer said...

Great job.

As and ex Navy nuke I know Admiral Rickover was no saint, but you can't minimize his accomplishments.

Mike Mulligan said...

Fundamentally uranium ceramic fuels and naval based metal fuels are a completely difference breed of reactor fuel. Advancements in separation might get us to the point where we move to a more highly concentration form of U 235 and it being metal based fuel.

Imagine that, only refueling a huge domestic reactor once every 20 years and I'll bet we could make much bigger reactors...smaller reactors producing much more power.

I do believe the ideological "nuclearati" is wrecking the industry. It is not the technology that is the problem.

Atomikrabbit said...

Thanks Meredith, for writing the review I never got around to – but then I sure saved a lot of Post-it notes!

The next time Richard writes a book on a complex technology he needs to sit down with a panel of acknowledged experts in the field and have every word reviewed before release. Nevertheless, he is a smart guy and a damn fine writer, and I believe he will do better in subsequent iterations.

Meredith Angwin said...

Charles Barton, blogger at Nuclear Green, wrote me this email. He then gave me permission to post the email as a comment.
I would like to thank Meredith Angwin for her review of Rick's book, and for her very kind words about me. I have set for myself the tasl of thinking about the future of nuclear power,. I am not so much an opponent of light water reactors, as a critic of projected sales of LWRs. I have taken the stance that LWRs are our safest energy technology. It is not the safety of G III+ reactors that should be questioned, but whether the public will accept the safety, and whether the similar or even better safety features can be built in in to other reactor technologies. My view is that it will be easier to convince the public of the safety of the MSR than to convince the public of the safety of LWRs, but that MSRs might well help to convincre the public of the safety of LWRs. It is also my contention that a very high level of reactor safety can be had at a lower cost if MSR technology is used.

I believe that costs are the single most important issue facing the nuclear industry, and that MRS technology provides the royal Road to lowering huclear costs. There are a variety of U-235 and mixed mixed U=235 + U-U233 paths available. Some use techmp;pgy tested in the ORNL MSRE. Building a U=235 fueled, MSR might not require either a long development time, or a high development expenxe. The UMSR could be brought on line fae sooner than the LFTR, and would primarily compatition to G III+ LWRs.

It is unfortunate that Rick failed to mention the UMSR option. - Charles Barton
Here's a link to the Nuclear Green blog