Molten salt reactors are to succeed where safety is a priority, John Laurie

In summer we met with the author of the biggest blog on molten-salt reactors in  France, John Laurie.

In early 2012, the British engineer living in France, watched a TED talk about thorium and molten salt reactors by Kirk Sorensen. Like most people his first thoughts were “this is too good to be true”. But he dug deeper into the fascinating history of this technology and realised that the huge potential of changing nuclear fuels from a solid to a liquid form is perhaps the 21st century’s biggest opportunity for humanity and for the environment.

He felt an enormous sense of injustice that we have been denied this technology for so long, and was wondering what he could do to help. He made some research on the web and found several well-documented sites in English, but very little in French. That’s how the biggest blog on thorium energy for a French speaking audience http://energieduthorium.fr started.

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John is married with 3 kids and is bilingual in English and French.

Please tell us how thorium energy is developing in France?

Nuclear energy in France is tightly controlled by the French state, which owns most of AREVA, EDF and the CEA. On the research side, the national research centre CNRS has been doing excellent work for many years, which resulted in the French MSFR reactor concept being selected as the reference molten salt reactor by the generation IV international forum in 2008. But the amount of money going into that research is nowhere near what would be needed to make a serious development of the technology. The logical next step would be for the CEA (whose role is to take technology “from research to industry”) to take on the development of a prototype, but they are mainly interested in building on France’s experience with sodium cooled fast reactors and have so far rejected the advantages of moving to liquid fuels. In fact most of the money for molten salt reactor research in France currently comes from the European Commission, such as the SAMOFAR project announced earlier this year.

Which country can benefit most from thorium energy?

To be honest, this really isn’t about one country versus another. Humans are causing the most rapid change ever to this planet’s climate, and we all live under the same sky. As a species we desperately need to find a way to produce enormous amounts of energy which is reliable, sustainable, clean, safe and cheap. And also, it isn’t really about thorium versus uranium, at least initially. I prefer to talk about “liquid fission” because the key advantages come from changing from solid to liquid fuel – the thorium will be the icing on the cake. Having said that, those countries which recognise that the cost of nuclear energy is driven by the inherent safety profile of the reactor system will be more likely to create the conditions where molten salt reactors, with their inherently safe liquid fuel, can be successfully deployed commercially.

Do you think the past of thorium energy helps or hinders its acceptance in public and scientific circles?

In October, Oak Ridge National Laboratory held a workshop to celebrate 50 years since the startup of the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment (MSRE). That reactor was built in 3 years on a shoestring budget, operated successfully for 4 years, and then the technology was killed by politics. It all goes back to the dawn of the nuclear age and a disagreement between Enrico Fermi and Eugene Wigner. Fermi saw power reactors as mainly mechanical devices, while Wigner thought of them as mainly chemical ones. Fermi was a better politician…

The main problem is that very few people know this. When they do find out, the fact that MSRE proved out the technology in a US national lab in 1965 brings huge credibility to the thorium movement.

How would you explain thorium energy to a kid?

I actually took on that challenge earlier this year – I offered to give a talk at a local middle school, to a class of 12 and 13 year olds. I started the presentation by talking about energy, and once I’d told them that no energy would mean no video games I knew I’d really grabbed their attention! It was a great experience, and the kids wrote me some fantastic feedback afterwards. I reckon that if I can get the message over to 12 and 13 year olds then I stand a chance of being understood by (some) politicians.

 

Interview by Olga Belorusova, Copenhagen Atomics

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