As a nation we have failed to address many of the fundamental weaknesses that have contributed to the largest budget deficits and trade deficits in world history.
We have failed to hold our trading partners accountable to the same environmental regulations and standards for energy generation to which we hold our own industries, thereby giving our foreign trading partners an advantage when competing in our own domestic markets. We have instituted a broad range of unnecessary environmental regulations, policies, and mandates that have increased compliance costs for industry, increased core development costs in energy production, and produced negative effects for our environment and economy, while increasing uncertainty for would-be investors in the U.S. economy.
We have maintained a policy of not developing our most economically impactful energy reserves that would most benefit our economy. We have continued our reliance on foreign sources of energy, missing the opportunity to develop and commercialize domestic energy resources, while putting our nation’s safety and security at risk by trading with nation states that sponsor and promote terrorism. And we have failed to make any sufficient long-term investments in our nation’s energy infrastructure, while our nation’s electrical grid and transmission systems have aged and have, in some respects, become antiquated while our national security and international competitiveness has eroded due to failing and uncompetitive infrastructure induced costs.
Postponing action until more damage to our economy and competitiveness has occurred is not an acceptable approach. The time has come for U.S. policymakers and industry to take meaningful action to institute a pro-manufacturing agenda that supports the long-term realistic economic viability of domestic energy production. Our nation requires an adequate domestic supply of energy to maintain our economic security, to contribute to our national defense, and to provide sufficient domestic resources to help ensure the recovery of U.S. manufacturing.
Normally, clean and carbon-free energy is associated with unreliability, intermittency, and high cost.
MSR (Molten Salt Reactor) technology is a technology that holds much promise in redefining clean and carbon-free energy as a very affordable and as a very reliable and safe energy resource. MSR technology originated in America and has spent more than 50 years in the research and development phase with many other countries maintaining active MSR programs to this day. Many experts believe that while there are some technology hurdles to commercialize MSR technology, these hurdles are very solvable with American expertise in a very short time frame (3-5 years).
Molten Salt Reactors work on the principles of next generation fission technologies to produce a very small reactor, a reactor that can produce baseload power with load following capabilities, a reactor that can produce electricity and heat cheaper than the cheapest fossil fuels (coal), a reactor that is inherently safe (cannot melt down) and produces no long-lived nuclear waste (waste that needs to be sequestered from the environment for more than 300 years,) a reactor that is very proliferation resistant, and a reactor that can be adapted very economically and safely for many manufacturing and production processes. Like traditional nuclear reactors, MSRs produce no air pollution and create no greenhouse gas emissions.
Why haven’t MSRs been commercialized?
MSRs were rapidly developed after the Manhattan Project during the 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s. The technology was very close to commercialization leading up to the Nixon administration, which ended the American Molten Salt Reactor program due to budgetary constraints and focus upon the development of the Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactor.
During the 1970’s the Three Mile Island accident occurred, and with the help of radical environmentalist and sensationalist, but highly scientifically inaccurate, Hollywood movies, Americans began to fear nuclear energy. Meaningful research and development and commercialization was essentially put on hold as other forms of energy were explored. For more than 30 years no new nuclear reactor were put into service as the regulatory environment grew to be cost prohibitive and radical environmentalists mobilized a strategy of litigation against proposed nuclear reactors.
Today’s polling data demonstrate that more than two-thirds of Americans attitudes have warmed toward nuclear energy, and in spite nuclear energy being the most heavily regulated industry on the planet, with the best safety record, the nuclear energy industry has found a way to make a profit and survive. Next generation reactors, such as Molten Salt Reactors, are less complex, safer, and much cheaper to build than legacy nuclear reactors, but government agencies have not yet drafted rules and regulations for such reactors, nor do they have the budget to do so. Absent reactor rules and regulations, these new type reactors cannot be licensed, sited, or built.
The issue is, who will pay the cost to develop the regulatory environment for new type reactors? The development of rules and regulations can cost billions of dollars.
The expense to formulate and adopt rules and regulations, added to the litigious uncertainty of the licensing environment for nuclear reactors, creates an economic environment where private industry is unlikely to foot the bill for the development of new reactors due to the regulatory risks and costs.
Currently, U.S. energy policy is focused on the development of renewable energy sources, traditional nuclear reactors, and storage and sequestration of high-level nuclear waste. This emphasis is misplaced.
Consumers of electricity generated at nuclear energy facilities have committed more than $34 billion since 1982 to the Nuclear Waste Fund for the federal program that was supposed to have begun removing used fuel from commercial nuclear power plant sites 14 years ago. The Department of Energy continues to collect more than $750 million per year from consumers, and the fund accrues almost $1 billion in investment income on the remaining balance of over $26 billion. The collection of Nuclear Waste Fund fees is ongoing, despite the fact that the Department of Energy, without any technical basis for doing so, terminated the Yucca Mountain Nevada repository project in 2010.
Yet, Molten Salt Reactor technology can be used to consume 98% of high-level traditional nuclear waste (contaminated unspent nuclear fuel), while producing electricity in doing so. The cost to commercialize MSR technology is conservatively estimated to be less than $5 billion, less than $2 billion to develop the rules and regulations for MSRs, and potentially another $10 billion for a facility to handle and process the nuclear waste into a form that can be used by MSR technology. Utilizing $17 billion from the nuclear waste fund to commercialize a technology that will reduce nuclear stockpiles by 98% while producing pollution free electricity makes economic sense and political sense.
So why have legislators not embraced such a development policy of the commercialization of MSRs utilizing the nuclear waste fund? The perception of legislators of the public perception of nuclear energy is that nuclear energy is still widely feared, even though many public opinion polls and surveys show widespread support and popularity of nuclear energy.
Over 40 years of experience with Molten Salt Reactors and numerous studies show that MSRs can conservatively produce electricity at, or less than, $.02 per kilowatt hour. This $.02 per kilowatt-hour cost is half the cost of what China and India, two of America’s largest competitors in the world marketplace, can produce electricity for. Obviously, this difference in resource costs will help level the playing field for American manufacturers, especially those that are high-energy users. This competitive advantage by itself could spark an American manufacturing revival. But there is more!
MSRs are high temperature reactors, and such high temperatures generated at so little cost have tremendous potential to convert all types of resources into usable products that are economically attractive.
Plasma gasification of MSW (Municipal Solid Waste) creating SNG (Synthetic Natural Gas) or synthetic gasoline and/or synthetic diesel fuel can have the benefit of reducing landfill costs and provide energy independence.
Landfills have been the standard answer for disposing of waste for many years-not because they are a good solution, but because the alternatives were not viewed as being economically viable. For many years no one understood the “true” cost of operating a landfill. Initially we just dumped waste in open pits and covered them up. After a number of years we learned that contaminants in the waste were leaching into the ground water and contaminating aquifers. Landfill gas was escaping into surrounding neighborhoods and into basements of homes.
We then began to line the landfills and over time have developed fairly sophisticated liner systems. However, even the best liner system will eventually leak and cause environmental damage. A variety of programs have been developed to reduce the amount of waste going into landfills. We have developed recycling programs, composting, anaerobic digestion and a variety of other techniques to reduce the waste. However, we are still dumping most of our waste into landfills because of a lack of viable economic alternatives. Molten Salt Reactors, however, make plasma gasification of trash very economically attractive.
Because MSRs can be made very small and still deliver electricity and heat at an exceptional price point, many industries such as the steel and aluminum industry may choose to purchase their own power source for co-location to ensure delivery and reliability of electricity and process heat.
Such a small power source has other applications as well within the petroleum industry. Heavy Oil and Unconventional Oil Reserves need a tremendous amount of heat to liberate pumpable usable crude oil from geologic formations. Small MSRs could be just the ticket to harvest massive U.S. heavy oil reserves on Alaska’s North Slope or to transform the world’s largest kerogen (shale oil) formation in America’s Southwest (the Green River Formation) into sweet crude oil.
Additionally, transforming coal into liquid transportation fuel or into synthetic natural gas using the heat from a Molten Salt Reactor, produces ammonia and high purity carbon dioxide as by-products. Ammonia can be used by itself to produce fertilizers for agricultural industries. Ammonia mixed with carbon dioxide can be used in forward osmosis desalination systems to produce cheap, clean, drinking water. High purity carbon dioxide can be used by itself for enhance oil recovery from thousands of America’s previously played out oil fields.
Probably the most interesting humanitarian aspect of Molten Salt Reactors is their ability to produce highly valuable medical isotopes as a by-product of energy production. Molybdenum99 is produced in large quantities in an MSR and is used in about 320,000 medical imaging tests in the United States per week. Currently, there is no major domestic U.S. source for Molybdenum99. Actinium225 is a highly sought after isotope that potentially holds the cure for cancer and HIV AIDS.
From agricultural production, manufacturing production, fresh water production, and medical applications, Molten Salt Reactors have the potential to affect many different industry segments positively.