Europe’s expertise in nuclear science and engineering will take thorium technology forward, John Laurie

image0024This is part 2 of our conversation with John Laurie, author of the biggest blog on thorium energy in France. Now we are talking about countries’ and regions’ role in advancing the thorium energy technology, important players on the market, sharing information on production and research and development costs for molten salt reactors and thoughts about 2016.

– How do you think Europe could work together to achieve significant progress in Thorium Energy?

– The conference in Delft in the Netherlands in April 2015 was a great example of people from all over Europe coming together to build the molten salt reactor community. In 2013 there was an international thorium conference at CERN is Switzerland. As the community grows and more work is carried out, it’s important to have more of these events, to encourage sharing of information and ideas. Europe’s academic and research institutions have an important role to play in this regard, and it’s important to use the internet to ensure that media captured at such events are made available as widely as possible. In terms of deploying the technology there are two possible routes – national labs and startup companies. The Chinese, as a centrally controlled regime, are following the national lab path, whereas in North America, significant sums are now being invested in nuclear energy startups. My view is that investing in national lab research is the best way to build credibility and public acceptance, and that privately financed startups will be the best way to get the technology to market. So both public and private investment is urgently required. It’s also important to realise that Europe has always tended to look to the USA for leadership in nuclear energy – after all, they invented it. But molten salt reactors are not going to be pioneered by the USA, because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission there has essentially prohibited new reactor concepts. Europe needs to have confidence that our strong expertise in nuclear science and engineering will allow us to take this technology forward.

– How do you see the role, if any, of the existing nuclear industry, Areva, Westing House, etc. ?

– When you read the literature on disruptive innovation, you realise that large established industries are just not capable of making fundamental changes to their technology – their cost structures are tied to an existing base of customers who will lead them down a path of technological inertia, which means continuing to do what you already know how to do. Companies in the existing nuclear industry have had 50 years to try molten salt reactors, and they still go to some lengths to avoid even talking about them! Personally, I don’t think that they will play any significant role in the future molten salt reactor industry – the new start ups will enter a gap in the market with small, cheap, reliable reactors and grow the technology to gradually replace the existing industry. So existing companies are not likely to change, but people in those companies wil. One of the most exciting developments this year was seeing Robin Rickman, previously Director of Westinghouse’s Small Modular Reactor program, join Terrestrial Energy as Vice President of Corporate Development.

– How important do you think the waste burning argument is in starting a new nuclear area in the OECD countries? And in non-OECD countries?

– The really great thing about the molten salt reactor family is inherent flexibility. For instance, they can have different powers, physical sizes, fuels, breeding ratios, operating temperatures, chemistry etc. according to the problem that we’re trying to solve. Being able to much more easily filter out minor actinides so that the waste stream contains only fission products, with a relatively short half life, is a brilliant feature of liquid fuels which will allow us to design waste burners. That’s a massive argument when it comes to the social acceptability of the technology, but it’s also quite a big constraint, because strapping a chemical reprocessing plant onto a nuclear reactor hasn’t been done yet. Right now, the problem that needs to be solved is getting to the first commercial reactor, and the new startups need to keep their eyes on that prize with the simplest designs possible. When one of these things is producing useful energy, more people will start to believe in it and the money will start to come in to explore the many other possibilities that the technology offers.

– What do you see as one of the major events that could happen in 2016, which would lead to a large step forward for Thorium Energy?

-The biggest step forward will be when the first reactor is started up, but that’s not going to happen in 2016. Big breakthroughs need to happen in funding, pathways to regulatory approval, international cooperation and communication. The UK government is running a competition in 2016 for £250 million of funding for advanced nuclear. Terrestrial Energy are expected to begin engagement with the Canadian regulator. On the communications side, some high profile media coverage would be welcome. It would be great to see someone like Bill Gates promoting the advantages of molten salts – Terrapower, the company he is financing, is developing a molten salt reactor concept as a plan B alongside their travelling wave reactor. The number one priority is getting the message out to the billions of people who don’t yet know about this technology.

 – Do you think it is important for the MSR community to come up with public cost estimates for MSR reactor system production cost and R&D cost? (Why / Why not?)

– Yes. Do I think that the MSR community will publicly share cost estimates? Probably not.

As an observer of this community it’s interesting to see how people get interested, communicate a lot, and then start or join a company which restricts communication according to the corporate interest of that company, in order to protect investments. Cost estimates are strategically important information, and we have to understand that there is considerable uncertainty in those estimates at this stage of the technology’s development, so it’s normal for people to be nervous about sharing them.

But as the technology moves towards production and commercialisation, uncertainty will reduce and cost information will become more widely available. I think that cost will turn out to be the Unique Selling Point of liquid fission, with a levelised cost of energy cheaper than coal. The key factors which will ensure this will be

  • The inherent safety of the chemically stable liquid fuel
  • Elegant, simplified design and well thought out architecture of the whole reactor system
  • A modular approach to building construction, component manufacture, assembly and commissioning

Interview by Olga Belorusova, Copenhagen Atomics

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