Terrestrial Energy Inc. (TEI) founded in late 2012 with Dr. David LeBlanc’s patent-pending Molten Salt Reactor (MSR) technology has oil sands production company partners and a plan for oil sand taxes to pay for the MSR development. The U.S. investment in nuclear power using technologies that doesn’t produce an abundance of dangerous waste has escaped.
LeBlanc’s and other’s inspiration and probably the basic designs trace back to the 1960s Oak Ridge National Laboratory project in Tennessee. All the leaders in old technology becoming new again are pursuing the basic goal of building a reactor that runs on liquid nuclear fuel rather than on conventional solid fuel, providing an array of improvements in safety, efficiency and long-lived waste reduction.
LeBlanc’s innovation is departing from the original Oak Ridge process that called for a two-fluid molten salt reactor that would breed its own fuel. Instead, LeBlanc’s design calls for a single fluid reactor that would “burn” rather than breed. In the nuclear lexicon, LeBlanc’s reactor is known as a “burner” or a “converter”, not a “breeder.”
TEI’s goal is to commercialize the Terrestrial reactor by 2021. With oil sand producers and a tax scheme to handle funding the chances are looking very good the technology will get its legs.
There are other aspects the oil sands deal offers. Studies have long looked at using nuclear produced steam for oil sands production. The oils sands are particularly well suited for needing lots of heat as the oil is trapped well below ground and is best heated in place for extraction. No turbine is needed so 30% to 40% the capital cost is saved because steam to drive a turbine for electricity isn’t needed. Just send the steam underground to produce the oil from the oil sands.
Canada has set up the oil sands producers to pay $200 Billion Canadian on carbon taxes over the next 35 years with the funds mandated to be spent on clean technology initiatives. The plan is to use the reactors in the oil sands and then bridge over to nuclear powered electrification. Make a ton of money selling oil and then have a proven and paid off technology for generating electrical power. That’s planning for the long term.
Not all of the LeBlanc technology is ready. A burning reactor based on denatured uranium has the obvious disadvantage of not running forever on the fuel load that gets “re bred”. LeBlanc downplays that, noting a once-through cycle can last for up to 30 years in a single fluid MSR. In addition, the actinides – which are produces at rates much less than in conventional reactor waste – could potentially be removed at the refueling point and recycled into the next fuel batch, minimizing long-term waste storage needs.
The difference is first, the two fuel system could breed its own fuel while LeBlanc would refuel and recycle. Secondly LeBlance offers a far les complex and much less expensive solution. Third, over 30 years a reactor would require annual top-ups of uranium. But as LeBlanc points out, the amount would be only about one sixth of the uranium requirements for today’s conventional solid fuel reactors.
Others are looking at the basic idea that LeBlanc has gotten moving. Toward the end of its molten salt reactor days, Oak Ridge designed and built a single fluid MSR to run on denatured uranium, along with thorium, called a DMSR.
Where LeBlanc is innovating is drawing from the DMSR and the Small Modular Advanced High Temperature Reactor (SmAHTR). The 50-megawatt (electric) SmAHTR is a conceptual innovation at Oak Ridge. It is a small version of the liquid cooled 1500 MWe AHTR. Oak Ridge is collaborating with China on the idea that places the heat exchanger inside the reactor vessel and typically uses helium gas as a coolant, which presents various mechanical difficulties and requires high pressure.
LeBlanc’s concept switches the fuel into the molten salt offering many benefits of liquid fuel while retaining innovative features of the Oak Ridge SmAHTR design. The concept reactor generates heat directly in the liquid fuel permitting higher power density operation along with the heat exchanger mounted inside the reactor vessel rather than outside. TEI is calling the new design the Integral Molten Salt Reactor, (or IMSR).
The benefit is a smaller but equally powerful reactors compared to other small modular manufacturers that are using more conventional solid fuel, water-cooled designs. And it costs a lot less to build, uses less fuel and makes far less waste.
With real time research LeBlanc has already learned to limit the amount of neutrons reaching the vessel wall. The new design will use a core of graphite moderator slabs between which the fuel flows.
The early forecast numbers are impressive. With the right combination of power density and core design Terrestrial could build LeBlanc’s reactor with upwards of six times the electrical output of the same size vessel as a SmAHTR.
LeBlanc projects his reactor sizes would range from 25 MWe to 300 MWe. LeBlanc has not ruled out a breeder design or thorium fuel, but for now he’s focused on the single fluid uranium reactor. “The burner is less challenging than the breeder,” notes LeBlanc. “It greatly reduces technological and regulatory hurdles.”
Le Blanc expects to commercialize the IMSR by 2021. With his simpler single fuel system and SmAHTR combination, he stands a really good chance.
We wish LeBlanc the very best of progress and results. The U.S. industry could catch up and race forward, but the history of the political choices beginning in the 1960s to now of the Congress, the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Agency have stalled and left the lead and potential to others.
At least we can cheer the success of someone while we endure the shame of politics.