By Mark Halper
Posting in Energy
Small nuclear reactor could replace CO2-belching natural gas furnace at southern U.S. plant. Watch video of the molten, fiery action. Shouldn't U.S. Steel and other giants be thinking this way?
I've been hearing a lot from the nuclear power industry over the last year about how small "modular" reactors could serve as efficient, cost-effective and CO2-free sources of process heat to industries like steel, cement, chemicals and others that rely on extreme temperatures to manufacture their products.
While plenty of CEOs, scientists and engineers on the vendor side of the industry have been beating that drum, I can't say I've heard anyone from the user community put a nuclear reactor on their wish list.
For visual proof that industry is thinking "nuclear," I got an early glimpse a roiling, boiling and sizzling YouTube video, in which the operator of a steel recycling plant somewhere in the southeast U.S. hankers for a little reactor that could replace the gas-fired heat furnaces he now uses to melt scrap metal at 2,400 degrees and refashion it into shiny new stuff.
He's particularly interested in a reactor that would run on thorium fuel instead of conventional uranium.
The operator describes his ambitions to use a less costly heat source that would make it economical to recycle other products, not just steel.
"Pipe dream right now, but get the thorium going in 10 years and we could use it for other things," he says to a tour group that includes Baroness Bryony Worthington from the UK House of Lords, and Kirk Sorensen, co-founder ofHuntsville, Ala.-based thorium reactor developer Flibe Energy.
Earlier readers of this blog would have seen the video, which I had embedded in the story.
Unfortunately, a few hours after I posted, the video maker took down the link - apparently the video did not yet have clearance. It should go live again at some point, and I will endeavor to post it again.
For now, consider my description in the previous paragraphs, as a "preview of coming attractions!" The version that I saw gets my Oscar nomination for "best short feature prognosticating the future of energy and industry."
It got me thinking. I've got to believe that plant operators and CEOs at other steel mills and industrial plants are also contemplating nuclear heat sources.
And allow me to leave my journalistic station for a moment, and play matchmaker to two large companies from Pittsburgh, Pa. (where I grew up), neither of which would give me the time of day on my visit to the area last month.
John Surma, CEO of U.S. Steel, meet Shigenori Shiga, acting CEO of Westhinghouse Electric Co.
John, Shigenori's company is helping the U.S. Department of Energy commercialize a type of modular reactor known as an "FHR" (fluoride salt cooled high temperature reactor), with an eye on process heat applications. Westinghouse and the DOE are also working with China on the project which could involve thorium-fueled reactors.
Shigenori, John's company isn't quite the force it used to be in the global steel industry, but it's still pretty good. And you might be able to help it regain prominence by providing a progressive, cost-effective, CO2-free heat source. If you're not interested, others would be, like Flibe. (To be clear: I'm not sure who the steel company is in the video, but I'm guessing it's not USS).
Both John and Shigenori - you could also generate electricity with the reactor.
Over to you guys. You're only about a 30 minute drive from each other on I-279. Finders fee waived. Just talk to me, would ya?
Note: Story updated at around 8:10 a.m. PDT July 9 to reflect take down of video. Updated again around 6:20 a.m. PDT July 11 to remove the blank, still video fragment.
Photos: Blast furnace and John Surma both from U.S. Steel.
SmartPlanet is rich in stories on thorium and other alternative nuclear technologies. Click here to open the door to them. The list below is a sampler. :
- Westinghouse enters U.S.-China nuclear collaboration
- U.S. partners with China on new nuclear
- The Thorium Lord
- Safe nuclear: Japanese utility elaborates on thorium plans
- New Jersey fusion firm ratchets up Iranian collaboration
- Safe nuclear: UK eyes thorium
- Safe nuclear: Let the thorium debate begin
- Safe nuclear: India’s thorium reactor
- Fukushima’s lesson: ‘Alternative’ nuclear, not ‘no’ nuclear
- Why safe nuclear will rely on rare earth minerals
- Meet the future of nuclear power: 8 guys in China
- How nuclear will make oil greener
- The new face of safe nuclear
SmartPlanet looks at the steel industry's other CO2 reduction initiatives, including the "coke light" movement:
Jul 8, 2012
PS: 2400 Fahrenheit (=1316 Celsius) is too hot for the outlet temperature of even the hottest "high temperature reactor" design. While graphite, tungsten, and a few other materials can withstand those temperatures (if there is no oxygen present), under heavy neutron bombardment it has been shown that even the best high-temperature reactor containment system begins to leak fission products at around 1300-1500 Celsius. So the recommended maximum temperature for the most ambitious high temperature reactor designs is set near 1000 Celsius maximum. That is hot enough for many industrial processes including petroleum extraction from tar sands, but not hot enough for a steel blast furnace. I guess some applications were just not meant to be nuclear. Those darned neutrons! and pesky fission products too...
Although this is not widely appreciated outside the nuclear engineering community, a "small reactor" (small volume) application like a steel plant or tar-sands oil well heat source strongly favors the neutron physics of a conventional enriched uranium reactor or a liquid-metal uranium/plutonium reactor rather than a thorium thermal breeder reactor. To use thorium effectively, the core has to be large enough to recapture at least 89% of the neutrons emitted from fission-- 40% just to keep the reaction going, another 45% or so to convert enough Th232 to U233, and an extra 4% margin to make up for the unavoidable loss of fuel from the undesired neutron capture reaction (n + U233 > U234). It can be shown from neutron diffusion models that the minimum core size for a high-temperature thorium reactor is at least 3.5 meters in diameter (including the graphite neutron reflector). A reactor of that size, when the shielding and supporting structures are added, barely qualifies as "small modular." Efficient enriched uranium cores and fast neutron liquid metal uranium breeder cores can be made to operate in much smaller volumes, which would be much more portable or modular. Therefore, while I think that using small modular nuclear reactors is a great idea to replace fossil-fuel heat sources for industrial processes; and I think that thorium breeder reactors are a great idea to replace coal-fired power plants in the near future-- I don't think that those two applications are solved by the same nuclear reactor. We should be developing medium-sized to large (300 to 1000 megawatt thermal) thorium breeder reactors for electricity generation and hydrogen fuels production, and developing small modular uranium reactors for industrial applications. It is a simple matter of neutron diffusion physics.
isn't this great. the chinese make everything. they buy or steal US technology. They insist on plants being built in China to capture the the technology. The military contractors sell our technology to them, and now we are bending over backwards to share the development of thorium nuclear; so apparently the US hasn't learned a thing. Good luck US steel makers.