Intelligent Energy

Steel mill mulls thorium nuclear reactor for process heat

Steel mill mulls thorium nuclear reactor for process heat

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?

Nuclear blast? A U.S. Steel blast furnace. The heat that feeds processes like this could come from small nuclear reactors.

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.

Until now.

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."

U.S. Steel boss John Surma might want to chat with Westinghouse chief Shigenori Shiga, who's just up the highway in the Pittsburgh area. Or maybe with Flibe Energy.

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?

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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. :

SmartPlanet looks at the steel industry's other CO2 reduction initiatives, including the "coke light" movement:

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure