Friday, 7 January 2011

Follow up on China's "breakthrough"

From research on the web, my best guess is it looks like China's "breakthrough" new nuclear processing technology is a variant of the fast breeder reactor which uses highly radioactive highly processed plutonium isotopes or higbly processed Uranium-238 in order to generate fast neutrons which allow "spent" nuclear fuel to be re-processed into higher grade fuel.

Given that spent nuclear fuel is typically up to 5% "used" there is 95% of the extractable energy still remaining, as long as it is processed.

This, however, is a stable and well understood technology. Several nations have worked with fast breeder reactors in the past and there are a handful of functioning fast breeder reactors outside China.

In China's case, however, you could at a stretch say this is a breakthrough for them since they only have a limited supply of Uranium within their borders. The utilization of fast breeder technology allows them to use all of it rather than just the 50 years supply (at current rates of usage).

To get to the 3000 year quoted figure, however, they must be using something else other than just their Uranium reserves, since 50 x 19 comes out to 950 years instead of 3000.

I speculate that they might be using Thorium since a fast breeder reactor is quite capable of using Thorium to breed Uranium-233 which while still a very useful fissile material, is not suitable for the production of Nuclear bombs, yet another bonus.

Given that Thorium is up to 10 times as abundant as Uranium, it's conceivable that this is the answer.

Interestingly, Thorium could theoretically be used in very small modular reactors which would be perfect for shipping or air-freight applications. India has a research program underway to try to develop small scale cluster Thorium + Uranium seed reactors. Their program is called advanced "twin" fast breeder reactors.

We should support India's efforts to do this as everyone would benefit from nuclear power that did not lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

EDIT: I note that China has in fact publicly declared support for a molton fluoride thorium reactor program. Interesting. The race is now on.


Anonymous said...

This is indeed very interesting, but I wonder what the implikations might be.

You said in an earlier post that this could limit the ability of the west to control chinese attempts to control the barket for their own benifit.

If our own Eare-earth mines are ten years away, is it possible that people might advocate war inorder to secure them?

The same can be considered when it comes to the large group of people you mentioned in your christmas post. Is it possible that public refusal to support alternate energy steps when they become needed, could result in warfare for oil rather then a switch to other sources?

If this would be the case, then the doomers would be right when predicting the end of the world, cause either victor would be unable to restore itself once the dust would have setterled.

I dont believe in this myself per say, it is just another doomer position i ran into some time ago, and wondered what your position is on it

DB said...

Thanks for you comment anonymous.

My take is the following:
Firstly, we ALREADY went to war to ensure our access to oil.
Secondly there's no WAY we will start a war with China (or indeed Russia) for ANY reason.

As to people refusing to support alternate energy steps, I think the major problem is that vested interests and sunk costs are acting as a drag. With all that said, there's been massive progress in the last decade and this continues.

As for a big dust-off with China, it would have to come from the Chinese themselves and although I don't buy that the Chinese couldn't live without us as a market, I do buy that they couldn't live without access to food and oil. In a major dust-up with the west, food supplies and oil supplies would be shut off immediately. China would be struggling to feed its population inside of a couple of months.
Additionally, the use of nuclear weapons notwithstanding, we are still well ahead of China in terms of conventional warfare.

For those reasons I suspect that China will continue to play hardball but will not actually fight us, though they may stir things up by proxy.

Also: it's worth pointing out that though China has 95% of the production, they also already use most of that themselves. The total exported volume last year was some 30,000 tons compared with 50,000 tons the previous year.

This should be compared with 10,000 provided by the Australians.

Since it's EXPORTS we care about and not total production, if the Australians can increase production to 20,000 tons next years as they said, then any potential export shortages could be alleviated.

If Australia can continue to increase production during the five to ten years it will take Canada and the USA to start their mines again, then we may not see any effect at all other than very short term (say this year through 2012).

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your reply DB
speaking about miniral production, how likely is it that Aurstalia will increse its produktion?

I remember reading somewhere (though I cannot remember the soruce) that Australia lacks the most needed heavy rare-earts, which could be a problem

I am basing this on the rather pessimistic forcasts I read at places such as the new york times and other areas, where our ability to get our own mines online is bashed and questioned (due to competition between our companies and the lack of skilled workers outside of mainland china)

all in all, how do you count our chances of getting though this without severe pain and halts in post-oil technological production?

DB said...

Hi Anon,

With regards to your questions: mining equipment is generally speaking electgric powered by diesel generators. The diesel isn't a bottleneck because worst case scenario the electric equipment could in theory be powered by windmills combined with large format batteries (see my previous posts about batteries).

As for rare earth production:
Molycorp (USA) plans to re-start production of Mountain Pass and Lynas Australia will be ramping production up from 10,000 tons sourced from Malaysia to 20,000 tons sourced from Australia by the end of next year.

An interesting fact is that Mountain Pass facility in California supplied the entire world's exports up till 8 years ago.

From that I can extrapolate that the human resource and the knowhow to process the rare earths still exists in the US but the facilities probably don't. Thus inititally, any rare earths would have to be processed in Japan or Malaysia