In this chapter, we’ll go over the first technology that provides the electricity-generating base of the Universal Energy framework. It’s an advanced type of nuclear reactor known as a Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor, and what makes it special is the fact that it’s both ultra-clean, ultra-powerful and allows us to avoid nearly every complication we face with nuclear power today (we’ll call it a LFTR for short). After reviewing its capabilities, we’ll then shift gears to the other technologies that work alongside this reactor to generate enough energy to produce critical resources at acceptable costs.
Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors
To put it mildly, nuclear power does not have a ton of public support today. And it’s understandable. Considering the meltdown and radiation leaks at Fukushima, the unrivaled toxicity and longevity of nuclear waste, and the fact that nuclear power plants can also be used to make nuclear bombs, much of the ire is justified. But a point of importance is that these problems have very little to do with nuclear power as a concept. These problems, rather, stem from how nuclear power plants are constructed and, more importantly, how they are fueled. A LFTR is fueled by the element thorium – as opposed to uranium – to provide clean and safe nuclear power that avoids most obstacles to nuclear power today. Here’s a short list of its benefits:
- LFTRs are highly efficient, hundreds of times more so than Pressurized Water Reactors (the uranium-fueled reactors that we use today).
- LFTRs are extremely safe. Because their fuel and reactant is liquid and they are not pressurized, it is physically impossible for the catastrophic results of a traditional “meltdown” to occur.
- LFTRs produce far less waste than Pressurized Water Reactors and can also consume nuclear waste and weapons-grade nuclear material as fuel. Of what small amounts of waste remain, it takes only decades for it to become non-radioactive, as opposed to thousands of years with uranium-fueled reactors.
- The primary fuel supply of LFTRs, thorium, is highly abundant – about as common as lead, making it thousands of times more plentiful than fuel-grade uranium (only about 0.7% of all uranium on Earth).
- The thorium fuel cycle in LFTRs is prohibitively difficult to weaponize, and even if one was able to make a nuclear weapon from the reactor it would likely not be feasible to deploy in a military capacity.
- As a result of their efficiency and safety, LFTRs can be much smaller than Pressurized Water Reactors, on the order of a house as opposed to a multi-acre compound that requires a large buffer zone in case of emergencies.
- These factors make LFTRs less expensive to build than Pressurized Water Reactors, and due to their small size, allows them to be mass-produced on assembly lines in a modular and standardized capacity, meaning that nuclear reactors can become iterations of a product model as opposed to single entities.
LFTRs are superior to today’s Pressurized Water Reactors in most every way they could be and their proven designs have been known to science for decades. But that prompts a natural question: why aren’t we using them today? To answer that, we’ll need to provide some background that is easier to understand by first reviewing a few terms surrounding atomic energy. Don’t worry, this isn’t a textbook! It’s just a quick overview if you’re not familiar with nuclear power (or you’re like me and slacked off in high-school science classes).
Atom: the building block of matter. Generally speaking, each atom has a central nucleus that contains two types of particles – protons and neutrons, which are orbited by a given number of electrons. The different elements in the world are made up of atoms, and each element has a specific atomic composition, as shown by the periodic table of elements. [nifty video]
Radioactive decay: the process in which an unstable atom spontaneously emits radiation in the form of atomic particles or energy. An element or substance that naturally undergoes radioactive decay is considered to be radioactive.
Isotope: an unstable atomic variant of an element, usually as a result of radioactive decay and/or transmutation (explained next). Isotopes have number designations reflective of their atomic composition. For example: uranium-233 and uranium-235 are isotopes of the element uranium.
Transmutation: the process in which one isotope of an element becomes an isotope of another element through a nuclear process. For example: thorium-232 becomes uranium-233 inside of a LFTR after absorbing a neutron.
Fission: the splitting of an atom’s nucleus, releasing tremendous energy and fission products (usually radiation + isotopes of other elements). For example: uranium-fueled power plants today work by using a neutron to split the atomic nucleus of uranium-235 into kryptonium-92 and barium-141.
Fusion: the joining of atomic nuclei together to form a new element, releasing more energy than even fission. For example: fusing tritium and deuterium (isotopes of hydrogen) into helium, which is how our sun works.
Fissile fuel: an isotope of an element that can undergo fission directly inside a reactor. Uranium-233 and uranium-235 are fissile fuels.
Fertile fuel: an isotope of an element that can’t undergo fission directly, but can if transmuted into a fissile fuel. Thorium is a fertile fuel.
Breeding: a process in certain reactor designs that uses transmutation to transform a fertile fuel into a fissile fuel. Any reactor that undergoes the breeding process is considered a “breeder reactor.” LFTRs are breeder reactors.
Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR): 1950’s-era reactor designs that use highly pressurized water to help regulate and make possible a fission reaction inside a reactor core. Pressurized Water Reactors use solid fuel, and are the most common nuclear reactors operating today.
Molten Salt Reactor (MSR): advanced reactor designs that use a special type of non-radioactive salt that becomes liquid at high temperatures to act as both a moderator for the reactor and a carrier mechanism for nuclear fuel. They operate at standard atmospheric pressure and have a liquid fuel supply. MSRs can be fueled by most any nuclear material, similarly as breeder reactors. A LFTR is a highly efficient form of a Molten Salt Reactor.
With these terms defined, we’ll from here go over a bit of our history with atomic energy – specifically why we aren’t using LFTRs to generate power today.
Electricity AND bombs? How could anyone say no?
Most nuclear reactors today, including those within the United States, are fueled by uranium-235, an isotope representing less than 0.7% of all naturally existing uranium on Earth. Uranium-235 is a fissile fuel, meaning that the possibility exists for its atomic nucleus to split into isotopes of other elements if hit by a fast-moving neutron, releasing levels of energy that are millions of times greater than any chemical fuel source. For comparison, the energy released by burning a molecule of methane is 9.6 eV (electron volts), whereas the fissioning of a single uranium-235 atom releases 200 MeV (million electron volts) of energy. That’s a big difference.
For nuclear fission to work for energy production, it involves a concept known as “criticality,” a threshold in which there is enough fissionable material present for the reaction to sustain itself (a “critical mass”). As it exists in nature uranium is not capable of sustained fission, yet the isotopes uranium-233 and uranium-235 are if enriched to sufficient percentages within a fuel supply. If the reaction is sustained in a controlled environment like a reactor, it produces energy over long periods of time. This heats water, which creates steam that turns a turbine and generates electricity. But during World War II, government scientists discovered that certain fissile materials had a unique property: if enriched high enough, it could reach a super-critical state. And if it were to be rapidly bombarded with neutrons, it could create a nuclear detonation – the most powerful man-made force in existence.
As it was two of those detonations that ended World War II, the significance of atomic weaponry could not be discounted, especially once the Cold War unfolded in earnest. Thus, as civilian nuclear power developed as an energy source, so did the development of nuclear arms and their delivery mechanisms. These two sectors would eventually converge to ensure our continued use of uranium-235 as fuel.
For several reasons, uranium-235 is a less-than ideal fuel for nuclear power. For one, it’s very reactive, akin to filling a car’s gas tank with jet fuel. It’s also primarily employed within Light Water Reactors (and to a lesser degree, Heavy Water Reactors). Both Light and Heavy Water Reactors are Pressurized Water Reactors, which pressurize water to a level equivalent to a mile below the ocean’s surface so that it stays liquid at 626°F (330°C) in order to help regulate the nuclear reaction. So, why are these systems not optimal for society’s energy needs? The issues essentially boil down to risk management and efficiency.
Pressurized Water Reactors were invented in the 1950s and their designs have remained largely unchanged since then. As Light Water Reactors are by far the most common variants, we’ll focus primarily on them. They are fueled through rods filled with uranium-oxide pellets (that can contain no more than 4.5% fissile material). Those fuel rods must be replaced every 18 months – along with the reactor core. This requires shutting down the reactor; both the fuel rods and reactor core remain radioactively contaminated. If a reaction was to run awry and the fuel rods couldn’t be extracted, they could potentially melt and pool in the water-filled reactor core, generating extreme heat to the extent that a steam explosion could occur and spread radioactive contaminants over an area. That event is called a “meltdown” and is effectively what happened in Chernobyl. This is very bad.
These risks require Light Water Reactors to be built with extensive safety features: containment domes of steel-reinforced concrete several feet thick, massive cooling and pressurization apparatuses and redundant mechanisms that engage in case any of these systems were to fail. Light Water Reactors also must be built in sparsely populated areas with large buffer zones in case an area had to be rapidly evacuated in the event of a meltdown. All of these factors make Light Water Reactors extremely expensive to build and furthermore carry catastrophic consequences if anything was to go wrong. So, why are we using uranium-235 as nuclear fuel within Light and Heavy Water Reactors, especially since better alternatives exist?
Simply stated: because it was discovered that as part of the uranium-235 fuel cycle, it’s possible to reprocess spent fuel rods to artificially produce plutonium-239, and you need plutonium-239 to build hydrogen bombs.
Nuclear bombs come in varied shapes and sizes. Building a basic weapon is fairly straightforward if one has the materials. The general idea is to find a way to rapidly combine highly enriched fissile material together into a critical mass (explosives usually do the trick), introduce a neutron source to spark a fast fissile chain-reaction, and bam! You’ve got yourself a nuclear bomb.
The top part of the image below reflects a gun-type assembly device, the bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 (first of the two). As you can see, it’s conceptually simple. However, building a very powerful bomb that is still small enough to fit into a warhead requires an implosion-type assembly design, a means of reaching a critical mass by imploding a larger sphere into a smaller sphere by means of explosives (read: very difficult). Implosion-type devices can not only be much smaller than gun-type devices, they are also far more efficient and thus far more powerful.
But the thing with uranium-235 is that it isn’t very effective in implosion-type devices due to a high critical mass requirement – a trait not shared by plutonium-239. Yet plutonium-239 does not exist naturally in nature, leading our government to rely on the reprocessing of spent uranium-235 fuel rods in power plants to source it. Once acquired, we then took weaponization a massive leap further.
As implosion devices can be built to small size (basketball or smaller), we discovered that the energy released from its detonation inside a bomb’s casing can be harnessed to facilitate the fusion of isotopes of hydrogen, providing a dramatically more powerful explosion. Thus, the hydrogen bomb was born.
The following image shows the basic stages of a thermonuclear detonation, employing what is known as a Teller-Ulam device design:
By using the heat, radiation and pressure of an implosion-type bomb, thermonuclear weapons fuse isotopes of hydrogen together to create helium, forming a second sun anywhere one is detonated. With potential yields in the megatons, bombs can be built that make the ones dropped on Japan seem like firecrackers:
Yet as plutonium-239 is required to produce a thermonuclear detonation, without it, none of the thousands of hydrogen bombs in the world could exist. And without using uranium-235 as a nuclear fuel, there would not be a reprocessing cycle in which to efficiently produce plutonium-239. So today, we fuel our power plants with nuclear dynamite that creates waste products that last for thousands of years and rank among the most toxic substances in existence… for the primary purpose of building nuclear arsenals. We have corrupted the most powerful energy source that we have ever discovered and ignored its true potential to make a better world, all so we could feed the war machine and instead ensure our future allows us to do this:
In the face of such reckless disregard for our civilization and the lives of the people within it, words seem insufficient to describe what thoughts come to mind, especially since most of them are unfit for print. However, they should come with the realization that in spite of our current approach to nuclear energy, we do not have to keep doing this anymore. That’s where thorium comes in.
Thorium-232 in LFTRs can be compared to our current use of uranium-235 in Pressurized Water Reactors in the sense that they are both sources of nuclear energy. But in terms of operation and effectiveness, in reality it would be like comparing a spinach salad to a 4,000-calorie cheeseburger because they’re both food items. This is because thorium fuel and the reactor designs associated with it systematically avoid nearly every complication we experience with Pressurized Water Reactors, while at the same time providing a long list of benefits.
Thorium to the Rescue
Although thorium attributes its name to the Norse god of thunder because of its silvery appearance, thorium isn’t as reactive as its namesake suggests, ranking among the least reactive radioactive elements. It is safe to handle in its raw form and by itself isn’t remarkable. However, its natural lack of reactivity and radioactivity makes it ideal as a fuel source if implemented in specific types of reactor designs. Cue LFTRs.
As a LFTR is a type of Molten Salt Reactor (MSR), it facilitates nuclear fission through a liquid core that is self-regulating, as opposed to solid fuel rods within a liquid moderator like Pressurized Water Reactors. MSRs undergo fission at normal atmospheric pressure – no water needs to be pressurized to keep the reaction regulated. And because MSRs use liquid fuel as opposed to solid fuel rods, the reactor is always designed to be in a “meltdown” state - except in this case that's a good thing.
Meltdowns are problems with solid fuel reactors because the runaway reaction can’t be controlled, which leads to catastrophic results. But a MSR is designed to operate in those conditions naturally. In the case of a LFTR, it’s one of the few circumstances in which thorium is sufficiently reactive – and even then, it’s a slow and steady reaction at that. If your mind goes to the tortoise versus the hare fable, you’re on the right track. But where LFTRs really shine is through efficiency, safety and cost.
In concept, the reaction works like this: thorium-232 and uranium-233 (the kind that's difficult to use in bombs) are dissolved into molten lithium-fluoride salts and fed into the reactor. The purpose of the molten salt is to act as a carrier for the thorium fuel and as a catalyst for the reaction. This keeps it at a high heat, but at the same time both moderates the reactor’s temperature and refuels the reactor over time through breeding (in this case, transmuting fertile thorium-232 into fissile uranium-233).
This self-regulating reaction is very efficient and long-lasting, which through a series of heat exchangers, heats an inert gas that is sent through turbines to generate electricity. The result? Leftover heat that can power auxiliary functions such as water desalination and hydrogen production on-site (which we’ll discuss in a minute).
The benefits of the system come from this concept of breeding. All LFTRs are breeder reactors, which is a term used to describe a nuclear reactor that is capable of producing its own fuel supply by transmuting fertile fuel into fissile fuel. A fissile fuel, such as uranium-233 and uranium-235, can undergo fission inside a reactor; however, fertile fuels such as thorium-232 can do so only once subjected to transmutation, which breeder reactors make possible by design.
A LFTR’s core fissions uranium-233, releasing heat, energy and three neutrons (one of which is absorbed by a graphite moderator inside the reactor). These remaining two neutrons combine with the fertile thorium-232 that is suspended within the liquid molten salt to form uranium-233 through transmutation, feeding it back into the reactor core for sustained fission and thus power.
(Note: all LFTR/thorium-specific figures for the rest of this chapter, unless otherwise stated, were sourced from Thorium, Energy Cheaper than Coal, Robert Hargraves, pages 177-257.)
As LFTRs can reprocess and resupply their own fuel from the waste products of the original fission reaction, in addition to a hefty supply of fertile thorium (known as the “blanket”), LFTRs ensure abundant fuel for long periods of time at high efficiencies. One ton of thorium-232 in a LFTR outputs the energy equivalent of 250 tons of uranium-235 in a traditional Light Water Reactor, or 4.16 million tons of coal in a coal-power plant. The average efficiency of power plants today is around 35%. A LFTR is 54% efficient – and uses 99% of its fuel.
Of that 46% efficiency loss, it is primarily in the form of heat, which can be re-captured through other processes for auxiliary resource production. The breeding process can allow the reactor to continually reprocess and produce its own fuel from thorium for up to 30 years without replacement, whereas if you recall with Light Water Reactors, the fuel needs to be replaced every 18 months.
A Dramatic Improvement to Nuclear Power
Even at the onset, the superiority of thorium compared to uranium-235 in a Pressurized Water Reactor is clear. The benefits continue:
Safety. Because LFTRs operate at normal atmospheric pressure, there’s far less that can go wrong and even if something were to the remedy is simple and effective. As the reactant is in liquid form, if it were to get too hot a drain valve at the bottom of the reactor opens and channels the liquid reactant into smaller storage tanks by force of gravity, where there would be insufficient mass to sustain the reaction.
This measure makes it physically impossible for a LFTR to melt down in the traditional sense, even under catastrophic circumstances. Even if a LFTR were targeted by a terrorist attack and blown up, the liquid reactant would flash-freeze into a solid once exposed to the open air. Additionally, the amount of radioactive material present in LFTRs is substantially less than with Light Water Reactors and it is also short lived – remaining radioactive for decades as opposed to millennia. These are benefits that are in no way shared by our current approach to nuclear energy.
Thorium is plentiful and sustainable for long-term use. About as common as lead, the global supply of thorium is more than 400% greater than all forms of uranium (where only 0.7% is useful for power). There is enough in the United States alone to power the country for the next 10,000 years. Combined with worldwide reserves, there is enough to power the planet for hundreds of thousands of years. Thorium is also a common byproduct of rare earth metal mining, presenting opportunities for easy acquisition.
LFTRs have a greatly reduced environmental footprint. By virtue of the molten salt reaction, the radioactive fission products inside a LFTR’s core are naturally consumed by the reactor itself as fuel. With Light Water Reactors, they are absorbed by the reactor components and become radioactively contaminated, requiring sophisticated (read: dangerous and expensive) decontamination processes.
Additionally, LFTRs can consume varied types of nuclear material as fuel, including weapons-grade fissile material and even the nuclear waste generated by Light Water Reactors – acting as nuclear garbage disposals that slowly and surely generate electricity for decades. And of what radioactive waste remains once the reaction consumes all fuel, the physical amount is less than 1/1000th of Light Water Reactors. It decays quickly, with the most toxic radioactive isotopes having a half-life of only 30.17 years, meaning that a supply of radioactive waste from a LFTR would become less radioactive than natural uranium within a period of 300 years or less. Radioactive waste from Light Water Reactors can last for more than 10,000 years.
LFTRs significantly reduce the possibility of weaponization. The weaponization of a nuclear reaction is unique from a physics standpoint, for only uranium-235 and plutonium-239 have been known to make a militarily effective bomb. However, while not to the scale of either it is technically possible to create a bomb using material produced in LFTRs, a point that warrants specific consideration. It has been proposed that a LFTR’s fuel cycle could be hijacked to extract uranium-233 and neptunium-237 to make a nuclear weapon, so some make the argument that perhaps LFTRs aren't as safe as originally thought. Yet their arguments fail to fully consider a few crucial factors as there are reasons why neither of those isotopes have ever been used to make deployable weapons. Chief among them are:
- Purification difficulties and inherent dangers. As part of the breeding process to transmute uranium-233 from thorium, an invariable amount of uranium-232 is produced as well. Uranium-232 decays with high energy gamma radiation, which although safe in the confines of a reactor, makes it too lethal to handle by human hands – a trait not shared by other weapons-grade nuclear material. Without the use of remote/robotic equipment to manipulate and enrich the material, any individual seeking to build a nuclear weapon with uranium-233 would likely not survive to see it completed.
Additionally, gamma emissions from uranium-232 severely damage electronics, rendering devices incapable of facilitating the precision detonations necessary to force nuclear material into criticality and initiating fast fissile reactions. The presence of these factors make it unlikely that a weapon fueled by uranium-233 would ever be successfully built – let alone deployed with military effectiveness.
In certain cases, it is technically possible to chemically purify uranium-233 of the uranium-232 contaminant. But chemical purification to this degree requires highly expensive and purpose-built infrastructure that is unobtainable to entities other than states with active nuclear programs – infrastructure that is also detectable by international monitors. At the levels of sophistication needed to accomplish this feat without detection, making a bomb with traditional nuclear materials becomes possible regardless.
It's also been theorized that if the LFTR is using something called a fluorinator, neptunium-237 can be extracted via a chemical process. Although nobody has ever made a bomb with neptunium-237, it is technically possible due to its potential to undergo a fast fission reaction. However, the critical mass requirement for neptunium-237 is roughly 60 kilograms, making it higher than even uranium-235, which would make a militarily effective device less practical to build even if the research and expertise to weaponize neptunium-237 were present.
Even so, most LFTR designs include mechanisms to intentionally contaminate the reactant with materials that would hinder weaponization from the start. In short: if a state is able to make a bomb from the thorium fuel cycle, they don’t need thorium to make a bomb in the first place.
- And regardless, it’s still crappy bomb fuel. Even if they could be efficiently extracted, uranium-233 and neptunium-237 are ineffective, fast-reacting fissile fuels compared to highly enriched uranium-235 and plutonium-239. There are no known nuclear weapon tests that have ever used neptunium-237, and only two that have used uranium-233.
Both devices were largely considered failures due to weaker-than-intended explosive yields, respectively at 22 kt (U.S. – 1955) and 0.2 kt (India, 1998) – relative pittances compared to modern nuclear weapons. Of those devices, the uranium-233 was chemically purified (which remember is highly difficult to do) and was complemented by plutonium-239 to increase yield. As a consequence of those lackluster tests, there exists little research or expertise to weaponize uranium-233/neptunium-237, nor effectively/inexpensively avoid the dangers of doing so.
With these considerations in mind, it’s highly improbable that fissile materials produced through the thorium fuel cycle could be used to build a bomb. All the more so considering that the effort required to do so is on the order of extracting and purifying fissile materials from natural sources within a state's national territory.
It is for these reasons that every state with nuclear ambitions has instead invested in uranium-235 and plutonium-239, for their use is easier and safer than hijacking the thorium fuel cycle to produce weapons-grade material. While this does not totally alleviate concerns of proliferation through thorium, it does reduce them significantly, which is by all means an improvement over our circumstances today.
LFTRs are simpler, smaller and less expensive than Pressurized Water Reactors. As Pressurized Water Reactors have to be pressurized to 160 atmospheres just to function (which is equivalent to a mile below the surface of the ocean), they require redundant processes and complex systems to manage the reaction and ensure nothing goes wrong. Additionally, as the radioactive fission products of the uranium-235 fuel cycle present the potential for catastrophic environmental damage should a reactor melt down or be destroyed through sabotage, Light Water Reactors require massive security infrastructure. Combined, these factors cause Light Water Reactors to rank among the most expensive and over-engineered systems on the planet:
Light Water Reactor fueled by uranium-235
Liquid Fluoride Thorium Molten Salt Reactor (LFTR)
|Fuel: Uranium-dioxide solid fuel rods||Fuel: Uranium-233 and thorium-232 in a solution of molten lithium-fluoride salts|
|Fuel lifetime: 18 months. Requires reactor shutdown to replace. Core + fuel rods remain radioactively contaminated||Fuel lifetime: 30 years without replacement. Current graphite core lifetime is in excess of six years|
|Fuel input per gigawatt (gW) output: 250 tons uranium-235||Fuel input per gigawatt (gW) output: 1 ton thorium-232. 250 times more efficient|
|Annual fuel cost for 1-gW reactor: $60 million||Annual fuel cost for 1-gW reactor: $10,000 (estimated)|
|Total unit construction cost: $7.0 billion||Total unit construction cost: $1.0 billion*|
|Coolant: Highly pressurized water with a graphite moderator||Coolant: Self-regulating with passive gravity emergency shutdown|
|Weaponization potential: High||Weaponization potential: Low|
|Physical footprint:300,000 square feet.
Requires large buffer zone
|Physical footprint: 2,000-3,000 square feet (size of a house). No buffer zone required|
*Unit cost is expected to reduce over time due to scaling the learning curve of manufacturing. In Thorium: Energy Cheaper than Coal, Robert Hargraves estimates the 1,000th commercially produced reactor would cost 60% less than the first commercial unit based on economic assessments of the aerospace manufacturing industry from the University of Chicago.
As LFTRs are spared the size, expense and security requirements of Light Water Reactors, they can be built far smaller and less expensively. They can also be built closer to population centers (as opposed to Light Water Reactors that need to be geographically isolated), considerably reducing the infrastructural requirements to transmit power to electric grids.
LFTRs can be built in a modular, prefabricated capacity. Today’s nuclear reactors are designed and constructed as unique entities, significantly increasing their total cost as they're essentially made to order. However, recent improvements in manufacturing today allows for LFTRs to be built on assembly lines as iterations of product models, providing two main benefits:
First: the efficiencies inherent to modern manufacturing allow us to lower how much it costs to build things over time as more units are produced. This speaks to the concept of scaling the learning curve, or “learning ratio” which is the percentage in cost reduction each time the number of manufactured units doubles. Keep this concept of learning ratio of mind, as it will be referenced extensively throughout the remainder of this writing.
In computing, Moore’s law has shown that computer processing power at a given price doubles every two years. In aerospace manufacturing, the reduction in per-unit cost has been roughly 20% every time the number of produced units has doubled (R. Hargraves, p. 221). As applicable to the manufacturing of Light Water Reactors, the University of Chicago estimates a learning ratio of 10% in their 2004 study The Economic Future of Nuclear Power. (R. Hargraves p. 220). As LFTRs can be built on assembly lines, their learning ratio would likely be higher, expected to be on the order of aerospace-grade manufacturing.
But even at 10%, this would mean that by the time the 1,000th LFTR was constructed, it would cost around 40% of the first commercially produced unit. Robert Hargraves, an expert on thorium energy and the author of Thorium: Energy Cheaper than Coal (2012) explains further:
This means that while the estimated price tag for a LFTR stands at $200 million dollars currently (for a 100-gigawatt reactor, as estimated by Hargraves), as more units were produced, that price tag would fall significantly over time, making them increasingly more affordable and economically viable.
Second: manufacturing LFTRs on an assembly line ensures standardization, and standardization provides modularity. This becomes important when building smaller reactors because not only are smaller, modular and standardized reactors considerably less expensive to construct, they are also easier to deploy.
If you recall from earlier, a core requirement of Universal Energy is universal deployment, for many regions that suffer from the consequences of resource scarcity are geographically remote and/or feature terrain hostile to the construction of something as large as a power plant.
A smaller LFTR manufactured on an assembly line can be built rapidly and plugged into any grid in a relatively short time period. So if for example a region needed to quintuple its electricity generation capacity in a matter of weeks, modular LFTRs make this possible - and they make this possible effectively anywhere. Frozen climates? No problem. Overcast climates? No problem. Desert climates? No problem. This also would pay dividends toward disaster-relief efforts, peacekeeping missions and space exploration.
The transformational benefits of the thorium fuel cycle and the associated reactor designs make thorium one of the most attractive energy sources we have available. However, thorium power does require additional research to make it commercially marketable and economically viable. While in no way diminishing its capabilities to serve as a component of Universal Energy, this does warrant additional consideration when planning how to move forward with its use.
A consequence of the nuclear arms race during the Cold War is that the lion’s share of research and infrastructure behind nuclear power concerns Pressurized Water Reactors and the uranium-235 fuel cycle, and minus two successful experiments in the late 1960s domestic research on LFTRs is limited. This is beginning to change as several domestic and foreign companies are investing deeply in LFTR technology. In 2010, Japan launched a highly successful thorium-fueled MSR experiment that created a prototype reactor that could generate electricity at 2.85 cents per kilowatt-hour. Applied with cost reductions due to learning ratio, this is well within Universal Energy’s target price for electricity generation.
Other companies, such as Robert Hargraves' ThorCon power, TransAtomic Energy and LightBridge Energy are working to eventually create viable MSR/LFTR prototypes for larger-scale deployment. As nuclear energy regulations are geared for uranium-235, public agencies must adopt forward-thinking regulatory approaches to help pave the road for their future success as investment in LFTRs abroad is accelerating.
This investment in manufacturing expertise and solving the last remaining engineering challenges to charting the most efficient path for LFTR deployment is essential, as we can't afford to depend on foreign research and development to keep us on the cutting edge.
It’s well within our capabilities to address these challenges, as we’ve done so in other industries already. And if we were to truly invest in these technologies and work to shift social focus toward their benefits, we would have a clean, sustainable, affordable and rapidly deployable means of nuclear energy.
But by themselves, advanced reactor technologies are not alone sufficient. The idea isn’t to simply generate enough energy to power civilization, but rather to generate levels of energy many times beyond that – for only this can enable us to end resource scarcity in totality. Doing so requires a technology that can not only generate lots of energy, but can also do so strategically and transmit it efficiently. That goal is met through solar power, and we'll dive next into the first way (of two) Universal Energy seeks to deploy it: solar road surfaces.