Sunday, January 3, 2010

America Needs Disruptive Thorium Nuclear Technology to Re-take the American Nuclear Industry

Americans should care that so much of America's Nuclear Industry is now owned by foreign interests. We will need to expand the nation's use of nuclear energy to preserve American quality of life. The fact that so much of the industry is in the hands of foreign interests should be a matter of some concern. We need to support new disruptive US nuclear technology that will allow American manufacturers to retake this critical industry with better, less waste generating, and safer nuclear technology. The nations’ universities and national laboratories are excellent sources of disruptive nuclear technology. Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors are technically and economically disruptive nuclear technology that would allow America to retake its nuclear industry and build on America’s first six decades of nuclear leadership. The following summary of Foreign Ownership of US Nuclear Industry is provided by respected industry analyst Rod Adams of Adams Atomic Engines and Atomic Insights. “Westinghouse is about 80% owned by Toshiba - 67% (Japan), Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries Co., Ltd. - 3% (Japan), Kazatomprom - 10% (Kazakhstan). However, 20% of the company is in the hands of Shaw Group out of Louisiana. GE Nuclear is in a joint venture with Hitachi (GEH), but remains fully owned by a US based company. Combustion Engineering disappeared into Westinghouse. Part of B&W disappeared into Framatome and then into Areva, but the part that has been focused on US Navy nuclear power remains a US owned company. It is that part that is marketing the mPower™ 125 MWe modular reactor. Many smaller nuclear manufacturers also remain in US hands. A couple of start-ups like Hyperion and NuScale have been funded by US venture capital. The NRC certified designs are the ABWR, the AP-1000, the AP-600, and the System 80+. The ABWR certification is still owned by GE, but they sold rights to a major portion of the technology to Toshiba. Toshiba has filed a modified design certification application to incorporate the replacement parts of that technology as part of its NRG South Texas Project, so there will be two certified ABWR designs - one owned by GE, one by Toshiba. Chinese firms are not owners of US manufacturers or NRC certified designs. However, part of the deal for the first four AP-1000s sold in China is a technology transfer agreement that will allow Chinese manufacturers to produce the design under license without further US involvement. I am not sure, but I expect that license will be geographically limited, sort of like the original Westinghouse licenses to France and South Korea.” The intent of this message is not to demonize foreign ownership of the nuclear industry (we should thank French Areva for continuing to develop nuclear technology and for being willing to sell it to us as allies and friends). We should take wise steps to retake the American Nuclear industry by supporting the development of new disruptive American nuclear technology that would re-level the playing field and allow smaller American innovators to compete.
America can no longer build without help the Light Water Reactors they pioneered in the 1950s. The large 600 ton steel forgings required build the reactor pressure vessels needed to insure safety for this class of reactor can now only be built in Japan or Russia. It is probably not possible to regain the capacity to build these heavy steel forgings associated with traditional Light Water Reactors in the USA. It would be better to concentrate American efforts on developing superior technically and economically disruptive new nuclear technology that does not require the heavy and expensive reactor pressure vessel that currently cannot be built in the USA. We should introduce new disruptive American nuclear technology and create new nuclear design and manufacturing jobs in this country instead of in Japan or Russia. The only Japanese manufacture, Japan Steel Ltd, can only build four reactor containment vessels a year and this is a limiting factor for any plans to improve American energy sufficiency through nuclear energy as there is already a serious backlog on reactor containment vessels from Japan Steel.

Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors could currently be manufactured in USA and do not require a reactor containment vessel because they do not have a traditional solid reactor core that could suffer a core meltdown. Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors are safer because they have liquid cores of molten salt that must be molten to operate. The liquid molten salt expands as it is heated and the atoms of fuel move farther away from each other as the temperature increases. This phenomenon (a strong negative thermal reactivity coefficient) tends to thermally stabilize the reactor temperature and is an important passive safety factor built into Molten Salt reactors that tend to make them safer than many other liquid metal cooled reactor alternatives. A LFTR reactor just cannot suffer a core meltdown in the event of loss of primary coolant because the expansion of the fuel salt will reduce the reactivity and the heat generated by the reactor if it tends to overheat. LFTR Thorium reactors use molten salts as a coolant instead of water. LFTR reactors do not produce high pressure superheated water/steam as most current LWRs do and as a result do not require the heavy and expensive reactor containment vessel which cannot currently be manufactured in commercial power generation sizes in the US. The overwhelming majority of the current NRC certified reactor designs pre-approved for use by US utilities are now owned outright by foreign companies. Profits from sales of the existing NRC certified reactor designs will now go to supporting foreign economies and new nuclear manufacturing jobs will be created primarily in those foreign lands.

The NRC is currently very adept at regulating light-water reactors (the type of reactor currently in use in the U.S.) in a relatively slow growth environment; however, it is not prepared to efficiently regulate a diverse, growing, market-driven industry that could produce reactors both large and small and utilize both Uranium and Thorium Fuel Cycles. This becomes an obstacle to the introduction of new technologies. NRC must be reformed to allow smaller American nuclear innovators to compete with large entrenched foreign interests who currently dominate Light Water Reactor technology within the world-wide nuclear industry.

Our current NRC regulatory approach favors the preservation of the advantage of the foreign owners of the current NRC certified designs and discourages smaller American start-ups from entry into the nuclear industry. American nuclear start-ups are prevented from supplying superior new American nuclear technology because they cannot overcome the hurdle of the initial high million dollar regulatory fees when they submit their designs for NRC review. We need to revise the way we regulate nuclear manufactures and not charge huge million dollar fees to submit new nuclear designs for review as new American designs will be needed to retake this critical industry and the present regulatory system now favors the huge entrenched foreign interests. Small American start-up manufacturers are priced out of participation in the nuclear industry because of the way we fund nuclear regulation at the NRC. We should fund NRC the way we fund other government agencies like the Department of Commerce or Interior. NRC regulators should not have their salaries paid for by the industry they regulate.

With the help of Government and relief from Nuclear Regulatory Commission fee requirements for evaluation of new designs American nuclear innovators could retake the American nuclear industry and provide significantly better nuclear technology to all Americans. Is it in the national interest to give up American technical leadership and leave the American Nuclear Industry in the hands of foreign interests for the remainder of this century?

Respectfully, Robert Steinhaus

Thorium Molten Salt Reactors are good science. Dr. Edward Teller, the founding director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, wrote his final paper a month before his death on the subject of the advantages of Thorium Molten Salt Reactors and the contribution this style of less polluting nuclear energy could provide to achieving energy independence while reducing the need to generate green house gases. This paper can be downloaded from the following URL:


  1. Hi Robert; nice article.

    I don't really agree on one fundamental premise you appear to espouse - that independence from the skills of the rest of the world is a desirable goal in itself. However encouraging a skilled and capable economy is close enough that we can work around that ;-)

    I recognise that in order to provoke change it is often necessary to create dissatisfaction with the status quo. However the light-water reactors in current use are perfectly safe and the industrial re-tooling to produce more high-pressure reactor vessels is not prohibitive. That said, it is a major cost item and the molten-salt thorium reactor designs are very appealing for avoiding high pressure conditions at the reactor itself.

    The direct funding of the NRC, initially attractive, is replete with irony. It achieves two wholly negative results: it allows a grain of truthiness to the canard that the nuclear industry runs its own regulator, and stifles new entry to the market as you observe. The NRC does not even manage to achieve independent security of its funding through this mechanism, since Congress is still involved in setting its budget.

    (Incidentally, the phrase "reactor containment vessel", at least in this context, is both meaningless and confusing - and you appear to be using it in two different ways).

  2. A couple of points:
    1 - foreign ownership doesn't necessarily mean that the companies have no US presence. Look at Westinghouse Electric (the nuclear company)- it employs thousands of Americans here in the US, in Pittsburgh, Windsor CT, Chattanooga, Charlotte, Newington NH, and dozens of other locations. The fact that Toshiba owns the company doesn't mean all the work is being done in Japan.

    2 - the idea that small US startup companies are going to create a 'new' industry here seems pretty unlikely to me. The original LWR industry was created by the joint efforts of the government (congress & senate); the military (especially the Navy); private enterprise companies like (Westinghouse, Dupont, GE, etc); and construction companies like Bechtel, SWEC, and Ebasco. These are all big time operations that can afford the massive costs of experiments and development work. I am sceptical that small time operations can duplicate the success of the original industry. It's just not the same kind of effort as say, the guys at Apple or Microsoft who started out in their garages.

  3. Everybody knew that USA will have that problem because it has been fighting for that and the only thing that they made with it is that another countries manage it in a best way without loose their time in insignificant things. Buy Viagra Generic Viagra