19 Jun 2012

Is Thorium a Super Fuel?

Yesterday, I pitched up at Cambridge University's Engineering Dept to hear thorium evangelist Rick Martin talking about his new book, Super Fuel, subtitled Thorium, the Green Energy Source for the Future.

For those of you not familiar with the buzz about thorium, it's an alternative to using uranium as a fuel for nuclear reactors. It's abundant, it's much easier to manage and the waste and proliferation issues are greatly reduced (though not eliminated). I could go on, but you'd do better to look at the book.

What's just as interesting to me is that thorium has evangelists. Evangelists like Apple used to have evangelists? Yes, not so very different. But why would anyone evangelise nuclear power? Well, just as Apple was once a David pitching itself against Microsoft's Goliath, so thorium is very much a minnow when pitched against mainstream nuclear power. It's not just the fuel, it's how you use it and the buzz is all around liquid fluoride thorium reactors, known in thorium circles as Lifters, which don't need pressurising and have in-built passive protection against meltdowns.

This is not new technology. A Lifter was built and run for a while at the Oak Ridge Labs in the USA in the 1970s by Alvin Weinberg, the godfather of the thorium brigade. It worked fine but it got closed down because the USA decided that uranium reactors suited them better (at least in part because they could be used to produce enriched uranium for bombs). Since then very little has happened until very recently; the Chinese are now building a couple of lifters, and India is also starting to use thorium though as a solid fuel, not a liquid.

In the West, it's mostly down to the evangelists, notably Kirk Sorensen in the USA - you can watch his TED talk here:it's only 10 minutes and, boy, does he sound like Steve Jobs. Rick Martin seems to be his John the Baptist, not as technical but just as keen. Sorenson's and Martin's enthusiasm is infectious because, due to them, we know have our very own British evangelist, Bryony Worthington, who just happens to have a seat in the House of Lords. Worthington started out as an anti-nuclear campaigner at Friends of the Earth but re-assessed her views after coming into contact with Kirk Sorensen and finding out about thorium. There is also a Weinberg Foundation dedicated to spreading the thorium message.

I'm afraid I'm a sucker for all this. I don't know enough about nuclear physics to judge whether thorium is quite as wonderful as the evangelists make out, but there is such a buzz about it that it's hard not to get excited about the possibilities, especially as I feel so bleak about so many of the other options facing us. Hell, thorium even has its own skeptic, Arjun Makhjani, who makes nit-picking points about why it might not be such a great idea. You can hear him debate with Rick Martin here. Somehow, having a tame skeptic makes it all the more believable.

Martin made the telling point that nuclear R&D pretty much ground to a halt after Weinberg was sacked from his job by Nixon in 1973. Then, after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, it all just froze up. Nuclear power went right out of fashion and no young grad student worth their salt ever considered dedicating their life to nuclear research. Renewables were just so much more fashionable. But now it's changed. Martin said the current situation reminds him of Silicon Valley c 1980 when there was IBM who were everything in computing and all these little start-ups with very different visions of what might happen.

This tacitly acknowledges that thorium lifters are not the only nuclear game changers in town and that there are other vision of where we could go with nuclear slowly gathering momentum, notably the travelling wave reactors which are being backed by Bill Gates. There are other designs too - known generically as 4th Generation Reactors. And let's not ignore the €10 billion being spent on the experimental Iter fusion reactor in France.

After decades in a semi-moribund state, nuclear research has once again come alive, promising solutions to many of the age-old issues that have dogged the industry. But to date it's only thorium and its lifters that seems to get evangelists excited. It's hard to know quite why this is but I feel that in large part it's because of the back story of how the initial research was shelved and forgotten and how it's been unearthed by an unlikely, non-establishment hero. There is a touch of the fairy tale here, a touch of magic. Nuclear power badly needed re-branding and Kirk Sorensen may just be the man to do it.

13 Jun 2012

Is there anything good in the Green Deal?

Yesterday, I went to a meeting in London put on by SPAB (Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings) called to update people about their research into energy efficiency measures used in older properties. SPAB have become remarkably active in this field recently and there were nine presentations, each on different projects.

At the very heart of this research is a central fear that adding piles of insulation into old buildings (or indeed new ones) may cause havoc with the moisture levels in the fabric and may end up causing more harm than good. All across the country, researchers are beavering away measuring temperatures, U values, airtightness, relative humidity levels, rainfall, trying to work out what happens to homes both before and after treatment. What emerged was how little we really know about the behaviour of buildings, and how little research has been done.

The establishment view is summarised by two standards, BR 443 which deals with heat loss and sits behind the SAP calculations and BS 5250 which deals with condensation risk. In theory, if your wall assembly (or roof or floor) meets BR 443 and passes the BS 5250 test, then all is hunky dory. But in real life, most of the researchers were saying that neither standard really cuts the mustard and that the moisture modelling suggested by BS5250 is so simplistic that it's a veritable danger.

Which begs the question, what should replace it? Much was made of the more complex, dynamic WUFI model, though some pointed out that not everyone agrees that WUFI is the answer. Surely the Germans would know the answer? Maybe, but Neil May made the interesting point that he had reviewed much of the German language literature and wasn't convinced that their understanding was much better than ours. It seems that moisture behaviour in wall and roof assemblies remains poorly understood and therefore unpredictable.

So what's this all got to do with the Green Deal? Actually, it's pretty central because here we have a government policy which is designed to bounce us into both internal and external wall insulation in older properties, precisely the sort of measures which SPAB are highlighting may cause future problems. The Green Deal wasn't the purpose of this meeting, which was arranged months ago, but nevertheless the Green Deal did rather dominate proceedings and several interesting things came to light. To their credit, DECC (the government department behind the Green Deal) provided two spokepoeple, Nicola O'Connor and Steven Daniels, who explained some of the logic behind the recent publications, but they shot off pretty soon after their presentation and weren't around to hear the deluge of disquiet that followed.

One issue that kept emerging was the initial survey. There are, apparently, 45 measures which might be eligible for Green Deal finance, but which of these are suitable in any given household depend on the survey assessment by a professional who, it emerged, is going to be paid the princely sum of around £30 for undertaking this work. How much time is that going to buy? 10 minutes, if you are lucky. And will the advice be any good? More likely, it will be sales advice with commission for any number of supposedly Clean Tech businesses. "Will the survey be independent?" rang out the question from the floor. "We can't insist on this, but it will be impartial," replied DECC. "Hmmm", went the audience. A good independent survey, it was pointed out, like the ones Parity Projects undertake, is more likely to cost around £300-£500. Are "ordinary people" going to be happy to fork out an amount like this for a proper survey which might tell them to do nothing?

Then there is the warranty/guarantee. Apparently, there is to be some such scheme in place for Green Deal work, but exactly how it might work is hard to fathom. 25 years was mentioned, but can any building work be guaranteed for 25 years? This seems fanciful. And the loan is to be attached to the utility bills of the house, rather than the person who negotiated it, so if the house is subsequently sold, the loan goes with it.

Can you imagine what a sales boost this will be? "Oh, by the way, you have to pay £500 a year extra on your fuel bills until 2030 for all that insulation we stuck on the bedroom walls, and that air source heat pump which is in the garage but which we don't use very much."

More to the point, can you imagine big finance houses wanting to lend money on these terms? Combine the risk of an-as-yet unknown borrower with a warranty for work undertaken by others and just what would the interest rate be? That's a key point, and one that remains to be addressed. But if it can't beat a bank loan, or peer-to-peer lender Zopa, then what's the point bothering?

All in all, not a good word was to be heard for the Green Deal. I was almost beginning to feel sorry for it by the end of the day. Almost, but not quite.