Energy From Thorium – Last year, Kirk Dorius and Kirk Sorensen traveled to London to participate in the kickoff of the Weinberg Foundation, an advocacy group for thorium energy. I am pleased to announce with them the formation of an “All-Party Parliamentary Group” or APPG that contains members of both the House of Commons and House of Lords, to consider the potential of thorium as an energy source.
Many of the APPG members have backgrounds in science, climate policy and the energy industry and are well placed to examine the need for the UK to take a considered position on Thorium. Energy-hungry nations like China, Japan, India and others currently look to be leading the march on exploiting the benefits offered by Thorium-fuelled reactors.
Here are some fuel price numbers normalized to a consistent unit of measure:
FUEL Market Price Price per MMBTU coal $40 per ton $1.80 natural gas $2.50 per 1000 cubic feet $2.50 oil $120 per barrel $21.00 diesel fuel $4.00 per gallon $30.00 commercial nuclear fuel 0.5 cents per kw-hr $0.65
NOTE: MMBTU = million BTU (M – Thousand, MM is thousand x thousand)
My pitch to the coal industry would be to use cheap, clean nuclear heat to convert H2O and their carbon rich fuel into a refined hydrocarbon that could compete with petroleum products.
The Germans, Japanese and South Africans have proven that the technology exists to convert heat, water and coal into excellent diesel fuel, gasoline and aviation gasoline on an industrial scale.
Much of the post-accident speculation was constrained only by people’s imagination (which can be pretty wide ranging), and utterly failed to resolve the fact that RISK is probability X impact. Instead, anti-nuclear types typically choose a huge, speculative impact, and then try to attach a large probability (often near certainty) to it. For truly catastrophic outcomes, the product of the many low-probability events required for initiation make the mathematical risk a vanishingly small one.
In any field of endeavor,” wrote physicist Bernard Cohen in his classic 1990 study, The Nuclear Energy Option, “it is easy to concoct a possible accident scenario that is worse than anything that has been previously proposed.” Cohen goes on to spin a scenario of a gasoline spill resulting in out-of-control fires, a disease epidemic, and, eventually, nuclear war.
Cohen concludes his fantastical thought experiment by saying, “I have frequently been told that the probability doesn’t matter—the very fact that such an accident is possible makes nuclear power unacceptable. According to that way of thinking, we have shown that the use of gasoline is not acceptable, and almost any human activity can similarly be shown to be unacceptable. If probability didn’t matter, we would all die tomorrow from any one of thousands of dangers we live with constantly.”
It was perfectly reasonable for the Japanese authorities to have imagined and considered the very worst possible course of events in the aftermath of Fukushima meltdown. But it’s a mistake to oversell the risks of such a scenario in hindsight. Yes, things could have turned out much worse—just as they could have turned out much better.
One subject we have not discussed here is the “worst possible nuclear accident,” because there is no such thing. In any field of endeavor, it is easy to concoct a possible accident scenario that is worse than anything that has been previously proposed, although it will be of lower probability. One can imagine a gasoline spill causing a fire that would wipe out a whole city, killing most of its inhabitants. It might require a lot of improbable circumstances combining together, like water lines being frozen to prevent effective fire fighting, a traffic jam aggravated by street construction or traffic accidents limiting access to fire fighters, some substandard gas lines which the heat from the fire caused to leak, a high wind frequently shifting to spread the fire in all directions, a strong atmospheric temperature inversion after the whole city has become engulfed in flame to keep the smoke close to the ground, a lot of bridges and tunnels closed for various reasons, eliminating escape routes, some errors in advising the public, and so forth. Each of these situations is improbable, so a combination of many of them occurring in sequence is highly improbable, but it is certainly not impossible.
If anyone thinks that is the worst possible consequence of a gasoline spill, consider the possibility of the fire being spread by glowing embers to other cities which were left without protection because their firefighters were off assisting the first city; or of a disease epidemic spawned by unsanitary conditions left by the conflagration spreading over the country; or of communications foul-ups and misunderstandings caused by the fire leading to an exchange of nuclear weapon strikes. There is virtually no limit to the damage that is possible from a gasoline spill. But as the damage envisioned increases, the number of improbable circumstances required increases, so the probability for the eventuality becomes smaller and smaller. There is no such thing as the “worst possible accident,” and any consideration of what terrible accidents are possible without simultaneously considering their low probability is a ridiculous exercise that can lead to completely deceptive conclusions.
The same reasoning applies to nuclear reactor accidents. Situations causing any number of deaths are possible, but the greater the consequences, the lower is the probability. The worst accident the RSS considered would cause about 50,000 deaths, with a probability of one occurrence in a billion years of reactor operation. A person’s risk of being a victim of such an accident is 20,000 times less than the risk of being killed by lightning, and 1,000 times less than the risk of death from an airplane crashing into his or her house.
But this once-in-a-billion-year accident is practically the only nuclear reactor accident ever discussed in the media. When it is discussed, its probability is hardly ever mentioned, and many people, including Helen Caldicott, who wrote a book on the subject, imply that it’s the consequence of an average meltdown rather than of 1 out of 100,000 meltdowns. I have frequently been told that the probability doesn’t matter — the very fact that such an accident is possible makes nuclear power unacceptable. According to that way of thinking, we have shown that the use of gasoline is not acceptable, and almost any human activity can similarly be shown to be unacceptable. If probability didn’t matter, we would all die tomorrow from any one of thousands of dangers we live with constantly.