How Might LFTRs Fail?

All devices have failures. We have to consider the possible failure methods of any nuclear reactor design.

We don’t know the ways LFTRs would fail, just like we didn’t know decades ago that a 9.0 earthquake and tsunami could knock out all diesel backup generators leading to loss of coolant accidents, or how engineers’ recommendations would be ignored in construction of sea walls, at Fukushima-Daiichi.

But we do know many ways that current reactors fail that LFTRs can’t — we know LFTRs can’t fail from core meltdowns, loss of coolant, or high pressure explosions.

Components that fail, or that sensors detect are out of specifications, would be replaced. Molten fuel that can be easily drained from the reactor, and atmospheric pressure, make replacing components easier than in LWR. Multiple small reactors supplying a region, all normally operating below peak, would eliminate power disruption during maintenance.

Since LFTRs could be mass-produced and installed everywhere a 100MW – 1000MW power source is needed, small problems such as leaking pipes would be much more frequent (though less likely per gigawatt).

Current reactors have leaking pipes, often. Easy to detect, easy to fix, easier to clean up in a LFTR since radioactive material is trapped in a salt that cools to a solid, instead of leaking radioactive water. At atmospheric pressure and with chemicals that don’t react to air or water, repairing the pipe would be the same or easier than for a solid-fueled reactor.

Fire a cannon at it, and the fuel would spill out and collect in the drain tanks. Damages the reactor, you’d have to repair it, but not a radiation disaster. Loss of electric power generation would be annoying to the city; but most cities would have multiple smaller reactors instead of one larger one.

LWR needs fuel for 18 months, so need to have “excess reactivity”. Since all MSRs can be fueled daily (or even continuously), the amount of uranium and all other radioactive materials in a MSR at any time would be less than in any solid fueled reactor. For a LFTR there would be no radioactive fuel stockpile (thorium is pretty harmless unless ingested). No MSR has “spent fuel storage”.

(MSRs designed to consume LWR spent nuclear fuel would be located at the waste storage facilities, which are heavily guarded.)

“MSRs will have an increased potential [compared to solid fuel reactors] for small-scale radioactive materials leaks because the highly radioactive fuel material is liquid and comparatively more accessible than solid fuels. The leak probability will be increased for on-line reprocessed reactor design variants as a result of more intensive fuel salt manipulation. The fuel salt reprocessing manipulation will need to take place within a hot-cell type environment, providing an additional containment structure within the primary reactor containment.” Fast Spectrum Molten Salt Reactor Options, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, July 2011

(MSR leaks would quickly cool to a stable solid, rather than the radioactive water leaks in a water-cooled reactor.)

Terrorists with plastic explosives, to send radioactive fuel droplets into the air? They would quickly cool to glass-like solid, wouldn’t stay in the air (too heavy, about 2.4kg/liter), wouldn’t dissolve in water, wouldn’t flow well in water, but of course would have to be collected. Since there is much less radioactive material in a LFTR than a PWR, just enough to sustain fission, and radioactive fission byproducts would be regularly removed, there would likely be injuries only for people close enough to be hit by explosives spraying shrapnel and hot liquid salts. Installing LFTRs underground would make placing those bombs much harder to do. Put the electric turbine above ground, and in tours of the facility call it “the reactor” so most terrorists would strike the wrong device.

Insiders who have access to the reactor, and can install some high-tech “fire hose” that would handle 700° C highly radioactive liquids and gamma rays, for at least a few minutes?

There would be heat burns from very hot liquid hitting people. I don’t know what happens if radioactive FLiBe gets inside you, from drops landing on you; seems that would be the worst. So we would want to protect the facility against people installing explosives or other things.

Looks like the point terrorists would target is the attached equipment to use heat, air and CO2 to make methanol and gasoline; “It’d be like blowing up a big tank of gasoline, we’d get a big ‘splosion and be in the news!”. There would need to be an above-ground truck loading station or gas pump, easy to attack. Of course, the reactor would be shut down, and methanol/gasoline production would cease.

There are dozens of terrorist targets that would be easier and less expensive to attack. It’s easier and more dramatic to blow up a school bus or bridge or restaurant. But we still have to look at ways to prevent attacks.

Since all MSRs could be factory assembled, sensors for security and reliability can be installed throughout the reactor. These could communicate security status via satellite, electric power lines, local alarms. Tracking devices can be in each component, each batch of fuel, each batch of fission products. Molten Salt Reactors can be extremely difficult targets for theft or terrorists.

4 thoughts on “How Might LFTRs Fail?”

  1. Two things: @ TEA, it is noted in one video that the easiest way to get Th is to go to a Florida beach and scoop it up ___ and ___ Above it is stated that Th isn’t toxic unless ingested. Seems to imply that Florida beach sand is toxic. Comments? Thanks

    1. @John Shilling: Pure Th dust is different than Th chemically bound to the other components of sand. Sand will very likely pass right through you. But don’t eat sand.

      One use of Thorium was for early medical imaging, where tiny particles of thorium was suspended in a liquid and injected into organs. We’ve stopped doing that, knowing that radioactivity can damage cells. But the thorium in a little sand isn’t going to cause much harm (from radiation, I mean; who knows about the cutting edges). Thorium is among the Least radioactive elements.

      Beach sand is easy source of Th, but not in industrial quantities. The concentrated sources of thorium are the same places as rare earth elements, mined for use in TVs, cell phones, headphones, windmills, etc.

  2. Many parties developing and proposing LFTR seem naive to the risks of LFTR and their numerous potential failure modes. These LFTR are potentially just as dangerous as contemporary solid-fuel reactors. Even solid-fuel accelerator driven Thorium reactors (as proposed by Rossi) will become critical if their structural integrity of their coriums are lost. At Fukushima Dai’ichi, the coriums are still melting and lots of spatially local criticalities are occurring as the coriums form lava tubes and melt down, eventually to reach the water table at Fukushima Dai’ichi. All the present time, radiation is leaking into the Pacific Ocean from Fukushima Dai’ichi and all life in this Ocean will soon have been destroyed. Hundreds of million of years of biological evolution will be ruined by just a few years’ of radioactive leaks from Fukushima Dai’ichi, as delicately evolved DNA material is butchered by the released radiation.

    If we have LFTR’s everywhere, there will be lots of accidents and breakdowns, as presently proposed designs are not adequate.

    1. I approved this rant because it is so useful in showing how to evaluate safety.

      Molten Salt Reactors such as LFTR can’t have corium. Wikipedia “consists of nuclear fuel, fission products, control rods, structural materials from the affected parts of the reactor, products of their chemical reaction with air, water and steam, and, in case the reactor vessel is breached, molten concrete from the floor of the reactor room.” MSR has no fuel rods (has molten fuel dissolved in the salt). MSR has no need for control rods (thermal expansion of the low-viscosity fuel/salt strongly regulates the fission rate, and faster than any control rods); and if you need to stop the reactor (e.g. maintenance) operators would simply drain the fuel salt into storage tanks where fission is impossible.

      In LWR, a nuclear meltdown is from loss of water coolant leading to control rods heating above their melting point. In MSR, loss of coolant is impossible. The fuel is molten, chemically bound to the molten salt coolant (fluoride salts chemically bind very strongly to uranium and most fission products). The salt is minimum 400C below its boiling point (the hottest operating temperature of LWR is about 350C, for reference).

      In LWR, overheated fuel and fuel rods can melt through the reactor vessel. In MSR, the reactor materials can withstand the hottest the reactor can get in any circumstance.

      At Fukushima:

      “the coriums are still melting” is nonsense, fission stopped years ago, the most radioactive fission products have already decayed to a fraction of their original radioactivity. The concrete in the reactor floor makes the fuel less dense and also stops neutrons; fission doesn’t occur in spread-out fuel, not enough neutrons.

      “lots of spatially local criticalities are occurring as the coriums form lava tubes and melt down, eventually to reach the water table” — also nonsense. “Of the 10.2 metres of solid concrete that makes up the floor of the reactor building, the corium is thought to have melted and mixed with the first 70 centimetres only. The natural spreading and expansion of the corium, plus the addition of compounds of concrete, would have reduced the intensity of the heat produced until it reached an equilibrium and solidified in place.”

      “all life in this Ocean will soon have been destroyed” — There is far more uranium in the oceans than in all the world’s spent fuel rods combined. Far more radioactivity from radon (in natural gas) and many other sources, than all the world’s nuclear reactors. Far more radioactive material in a single coal plant’s ash ponds, than has been released by all nuclear power plants combined — the one coal ash pond collapsing into a river in North Carolina recently, released more radioactive material (found in all coal) than Fukushima did.

      We may kill off all of most species of plankton, not from nuclear power, but from increased carbonic acid dissolving their microscopic cell walls. That carbonic acid is formed when CO2 enters the oceans. The increase of CO2 over what had been stable for centuries, is from burning fossil fuels, making cement, and deforestation. Look at all the possible actual causes of the problem, not imaginary ones.

      “solid-fuel accelerator driven… become critical if their structural integrity of their coriums are lost” — Maybe he meant the reactor core would lose structural integrity if the coolant is lost? But an accelerator-driven reactor is deliberately low density fuel, so there can not be fission if the accelerator is not providing neutrons; cut electric power to the accelerator, and fission stops long before the core would approach melting point of any materials.

      Why did the Fukushima LWR reactors lose coolant? Because TEPCO didn’t put the diesel backup electric generators where they couldn’t be flooded (unlike other nuclear operators), and because TEPCO decreased the natural seawall (unlike other nuclear operators). The Onagawa reactors, closer to the center of the earthquake, with proper diesel backup and seawall, is undamaged. LWR design, as presently implemented by almost operators, is adequate (to follow Tim’s phrasing).

      LFTRs have no risks from water (no water used at all in any MSR). MSRs have no risks from water pressure. MSRs have no risk of chemical explosion. MSRs have no risk of melting their containment vessel, there is no way for the fuel to get dense enough to get nearly hot enough. With no high pressures, a pipe leak in a MSR would be measured in square meters, and quickly cool to solid, with the fuel and fission products trapped, and be easily cleaned up.

      If we have LFTRs everywhere, we will have Fewer accidents and breakdowns, as the nuclear industry has had fewer accidents over 50 years than the coal and oil industries have each year, per gigawatt-year electricity.

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