Uranium 233 is a valuable resource, no matter what Robert Alvarez believes

by Rod Adams

Robert Alvarez has issued another misleading report about energy dense fuel materials, titled Managing the Uranium-233 Stockpile of the United States.

According to Alvarez’s report, the United States owns about 3400 pounds of U-233, which is one of two fissile isotopes of uranium. He portrays this resource, which has been in storage since the 1970s, as a hazardous stockpile that somehow puts the world at risk of a rogue group obtaining a nuclear weapons capability. Unfortunately, he is not the only person with this mistaken opinion. The Department of Energy is currently planning to spend nearly half a billion dollars to get rid of the United States’ carefully protected U-233 resources.

Alvarez’s report does not mention the fact that the stockpile contains as much potential energy as 23 million barrels of oil. At current world oil prices, that gives it a comparable energy value of more than $2 billion, even if it is not used for its highest and best purpose, as the seed for an expansive program of thermal spectrum breeder reactors.

Waste not, want not

My Depression Era parents deeply embedded the “waste not, want not” mantra into my brain. As a relatively prosperous adult, I must admit that I do not always spend as much time separating and consolidating materials for recycling as my parents did, but I still respect their teachings that one should not discard items or materials that have future uses. Short-sighted acts of disposal often destroy any potential value because of the difficulty associated with removing contaminants.

I’ve been writing and reading for nearly two decades about the impressive capabilities offered by using a nuclear fission fuel cycle that includes uranium 233 and thorium 232. As anyone who has read Kirk Sorensen’s excellent blog Energy from Thorium or listened to his passionate talks on molten salt reactors knows, U-233 produces about 15 percent more neutrons per thermal fission as U-235 or Pu-239. That difference is significant; it means that a U-233/Th-232 fuel cycle can achieve a conversion ratio greater than 1.0 in a thermal spectrum reactor, resulting in a self-sustaining fuel cycle that might never need any additional fissile material.

Light water breeder reactor

Sometime during the early 1990s, after I had been a nuclear-trained submarine engineering officer for about a dozen years, I learned about the demonstration reactor core that was installed into the Shippingport nuclear power plant. That final core was operated 1977–1982 as a Light Water Breeder Reactor.

That demonstration proved that a well-designed thermal spectrum reactor could use the extra neutrons produced by U-233 to turn thorium into a useful fuel material at a rate faster than the U-233 would be consumed. Unfortunately, one inherent disadvantage of nuclear fuel cycle knowledge development is that it takes a long time. After five years of power production, the light water breeder reactor core was still going strong, with no evidence of the loss of reactivity that accompanies conventional reactor materials as they consume the fissile materials in their low-enriched uranium fuel rods.

Because the project sponsors knew that they might not be able to continue funding the team that would perform the post-operation fuel material analysis, they stopped the experiment. There were no immediately scheduled follow-on cores because any potential customers would have wanted to wait until the final results were known. No large-scale production capacity was ever developed to handle the unique blend of materials involved in the LWBR process.

Analysis

The destructive fuel rod analysis that proved that breeding had occurred was not completed until five years after the experiment had been terminated, which was more than 10 years after the fuel fabrication had been completed. Here is a quote from section IX, Summary and Discussion of Significance from a report titled “Proof of Breeding in the Light Water Breeder Reactor (WAPD-TM-1612),” which was provided to the DOE in September 1987 under contract No. DE-AC11-76PN00014. (I have provided that detail just in case someone thinks it might be worthwhile to file a Freedom of Information Act request.)

The results demonstrate conclusively that LWBR was a breeder. They show that breeding can be achieved in a light-water reactor using 233U as fissile fuel and the naturally occurring, relatively abundant 232Th as fertile material. Thus, the Light Water Breeder Program which the Department of Energy pursued for more than twenty years has demonstrated and proven unequivocally that 233U-232Th breeders can be built, operated in light water reactor plants to produce electrical energy, and breed more fissile fuel than they consume. This means that the plentiful domestic supply of low and moderate cost thorium represents a potential resource for providing about fifty times the amount of energy which could be produced using current light water reactors and the domestic supply of low and moderate cost uranium. This light water breeder system could supply the entire electrical energy need of the United States for centuries.

The primary significance of proving breeding in LWBR is the demonstrated potential for greatly increasing our nation’s electrical energy generation capability for many years to come.

By the time those words were written at the end of the quietly submitted report, the leading proponents of the technology had either died (Rickover) or lost all of their influence on government programs (Radkowsky). Radkowsky, the creative designer of the fuel system, eventually started a company called Thorium Power (which is now operating under the name of Lightbridge) to attempt to commercialize his ideas.

A few years before Rickover and Radkowsky demonstrated the possibilities of using a U-233/Th-232 fuel cycle in conventional reactors, there were a couple of experiments conducted at Oak Ridge National Laboratory that avoided the fuel fabrication and destructive testing issues described above. By dissolving the U-233 and Th-232 into molten salts, those experiments showed that it was possible to design liquid-fueled reactors that might be arranged to enable utilization of the world’s large thorium fuel resource. There is much to be learned about building durable molten salt reactors with closed fuel systems, but the learning process would be made less time consuming if the Department of Energy enabled effective use of the already existing inventory of special material.

Even if one agrees with Alvarez’s stated concern about the need to carefully protect the U-233 from all possibility of being stolen, I cannot imagine any system that is less likely to experience material theft than operating nuclear power reactors. Those devices are surrounded by thick shielding resembling a vault, and they are full of self-protective radioactive isotopes. Sarah Weiner, writing for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, characterized Alvarez’s well publicized report as “alarmism”, but she also supported the DOE’s plans to make it nearly impossible for the energy laden material to be put to any beneficial use.

Knowing what I know about U-233’s potential benefits, I was saddened by Matt Wald’s recent article titled Uranium Substitute Is No Longer Needed, but Its Disposal May Pose Security Risk. It is disturbing to think that so many people have such a huge misunderstanding of nuclear fission technology that they take action to make U-233 an expensive waste product, instead of more accurately treating it as a potent energy resource that would become more valuable the more it is used.

PS—I cannot resist the temptation to compare the DOE’s planned expenditure of $473 million to destroy the potential value in its U-233 stockpile with the $452 million that has been widely promoted as the government’s contribution to small modular reactor development.

______________________________________________

Adams

Rod Adams is a nuclear advocate with extensive small nuclear plant operating experience. Adams is a former engineer officer, USS Von Steuben. He is the host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast. Adams has been an ANS member since 2005. He writes about nuclear technology at his own blog, Atomic Insights.

17 Responses to Uranium 233 is a valuable resource, no matter what Robert Alvarez believes

  1. Rod,

    in addition, we now know that the statement in the quote that it will last for centuries is truly forever, just as it is for uranium, as Bernie Cohen of Pitt explained so well.

    As revealed in several public documents of the Nevada Site Specific Advisory Board, the DOE disposition plan includes shallow burial of the CEUSP fuel (a mixture of HEU and 233U) in a “low-level radioactive waste” site in Nevada.

    Denis

  2. Clearly this is just another attempt to destroy the economic foundations of nuclear energy in the same vein as the downblending of ex-Russian HEU was carried out to assure that small reactors would never become a competitive option.

    This is not a case of ignorance, or public opinion – public opinion in this matter has never been determined. Those carrying out this form of economic assassination always dress themselves in the mantel of public fear without ever showing such fear exists. It is our shame that we continue to buy into this myth without questioning it at every turn.

  3. If only we had a nuclear physicist in charge of DOE. Oh, wait…

  4. The President of the U.S. is, and is supposed to be, in charge of the U.S. DOE; the Secretary of Energy runs it for him.

  5. R.E. Johannesen

    The Brits are smarter than us. They are seriously looking at eliminating their 100 tonnes of ‘excess civil plutonium’ to generate electricity while they zero out it’s terrorist value by using the U.S. developed ALMR/PRISM SFR. They are also exploring coupling PRISM and the cleaner and simpler U.S. developed electroreduction/electrometallurgical/electrochemical/pyroprocessing of LWR SNF to recover the energy remaining in the SNF. I wrote ‘cleaner’ as compared to the messy, complicated aqueous MOX reprocessing that SRNL is having trouble with to produce the MOX fuel that no U.S. utility is willing to buy.

  6. Jaro Franta

    Great post.
    Really appreciate it.
    Realistically though, it’s hard to dispute that DoE is acting in line with existing policies regarding fissile materials:
    Highly enriched fissile material is simply NOT allowed in civilian power plants, therefore a Light water breeder reactor like Shippingport, or any other kind of reactor using a mix of U233 and Thorium, is legally out of bounds.
    And since the U233 is not needed for the weapons stockpile, it automatically becomes “waste”.
    Downblending to LEU with U238, to make it legally usable in civilian NPPs, would mean reducing concentration to less than 12% U233 (for U235 the LEU limit is 20%)
    This destroys the material’s breeding potential in LWRs, so the uniqueness of the material vanishes (in any event, the Shippingport core for thorium fissile breeding was drastically different from commercial NPPs – including absence of absorber rods for reactivity control – that it probably would not be licensable by the NRC today).
    The important point though is that unless and until non-proliferation-related policies change, to allow HEU use in civilian reactors, the thorium fuel cycle using U233 is not going anywhere.
    Assuming otherwise guarantees a dead end exercise.

  7. Dick Toohey

    Actually DOE has also ignored the literally life-saving use of U-233 as a source of radio pharmaceuticals for cancer therapy. Bi-213 can be attached to monoclonal antibodies, and its daughter, Po-213 emits an 8.4 MeV alpha particle, a real cell killer. So the decision to dispose of this material as waste is doubly idiotic.

  8. I recall from Dr. Darrell Fisher’s 2006 efforts to protect the U233 stockpile for harvesting medical isotopes. From Dr. Fisher’s testimony:
    “The medical isotopes actinium-225 and bismuth-213 are used as alpha-emitters in experimental radioimmunotherapy of cancer. These isotopes are decay products of thorium-229, which is itself a decay product of uranium-233. … One result of that strategy would be loss of the primary U.S. supply of these alpha-emitting radioisotopes for research, clinical trails, and cancer patient treatments. That development would obviously be a great concern to stakeholders and the broader medical community.”

  9. Pingback: An Assessment Just Waiting to Happen | JBS News

  10. @Atomikrabbit

    I know you are being humorous, but you’ve given me an opportunity to express one of my pet peeves.

    There is a wide gap between the focus of someone who chooses to be a research scientist and one who chooses to be an engineer, though many outside observers, including journalists, confuse the two groups. (There was a recent Forbes headline, for example, A Pair of MIT Scientists Try to Transform Nuclear Power. Both of the MIT students are nuclear ENGINEERING PhD candidates; they are not scientists.)

    Scientists are generally focused on expanding knowledge about esoteric subjects like discovering the Higgs Boson, which I equate to trying to calculate how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

    Engineers, on the other hand, are generally focused on learning how to apply known principles in new ways so they they can build things that other people find valuable enough to buy.

    The kind of person we need to run the Department of Energy is someone who focuses on producing ENERGY, not on producing more knowledge. We have libraries full of discoveries and knowledge that are not being well applied to solve already existing real world problems.

    Rant complete.

  11. @Denis

    The President of the United States is about as in charge of the DOE as he is in charge of the Navy, the Army, the Air Force, the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department, the Department of the Interior and dozens of other large, complex organizations. I would not expect him to be deeply involved in any of the hundreds of decisions that any of those organizations has to make in order to submit its annual budgets.

    He can, however, use his bully pulpit to make some clear policy statements that state that nuclear energy production is valuable and should be a priority.

  12. If the Brits were truly “smarter than us” they would stand up and tell the world that they do not have any “excess civil plutonium”. What they have is the “seed corn” for a massively capable electricity production system that can supply emission free energy for as long as humans want to use electricity.

  13. Joel Riddle

    Rod, perhaps if they actually do go with the PRISM/pyroprocessing path, they will start to re-craft their terminology of how they classify their enviable/extremely valuable supply of Pu.

  14. Dave Rossin

    Bob Alverez has been around almost as long as I have. He is a known quantity, who tries full time to get his stuff published or circulated. He made his career opposing nuclear energy, and every one who knows him, knows that.

    Memories of dcades ago: Radkowsky sold Rick on the idea of using Th and making a Light Water Breeder that would stay in Rick’s control if he lost the LMFBR.
    Weinberg at Oak Ridge had run many experiments on the thorium cycle. I even worked on design numbdrs for a Thorium-water slurry system as a student at ORNL!

    The problems with the Th breeder were several, though the timing probably was the killer:

    * U-233 is hot. Its fission products are meaner than those from U-235 or Pu- 239. Reprocessing of U-233 in a water cycle, was found to be mean as hell. Its activity also comes from U-233 capturing a neutron or more and getting to be other isotopes. (I can’t remember the sequences and don’t want to take time now to look them up.) But I remember the Chem Eng Div guys at Argonne telling me how mean it was. Ruthenium is almost always the meanest fission product isotope to handle in reprocessing and for some reason with U-233 it was worse.

    *U-235 and Pu-239 are handled in glove boxes to make weapons parts. U-233 would not be able to be handled that way. So not only weapons, but reactor fuel would have to be fabricated remotely. Of course, the IFR handles the whole fuel cycle remotely until waste is separated, thus minimizing the potential for proliferation.

    * The breeding ratio, though it could be made to be greater than 1.00, was not great enough to be commercially interesting. Also other tradeoffs in core design cut down the power efficiency. Rick still got Jimmy Carter to sit in the Oval Office and press a red button, and announce that Shippingport was “underway as a breeder reactor” after he had stopped the fast breeder program in the US and activists were “following his lead” and trying to stop fast reactor programs in Britain, Germany, France and Japan. Shipingport’s breeding ratio as an LWBR was calculated to be around 1.01.

    * While WG-Pu emits only soft alpha rays and is therefore not difficult to store as a weapons device, U-233 is a dog. Keeping U-233-based weapons on alert would be very challenging. It could be tried as a dirty bomb if volunteers would be willing to carry it.

  15. Rod, your basic definition of the boundary between science and engineering is correct, but in practice it’s a little more blurred than that. Not all Physicists are in search of the Higgs boson, or anything similar. Many of them do work that you would find ‘useful’. As is the case for many other people that consider themselves Scientists. Anti-rant complete.

  16. U-233 is hot.

    You mean U-232, don’t you?  It has a decay path to Tl-208, which is a strong gamma emitter (583 keV).

  17. Atomic Rabbit makes a big deal of scientist vs engineer, but having gone thru MIT, I’ll say the difference isn’t as big as who employs you! An engineer can be damned creative at solving problems, so can a real scientist – but neither can develop (or even talk about*) stuff the employer wants silenced!

    Incessantly the Controlers (about whom see “Propaganda” by Edward Bernays who admits hidden folks run govt; also 911missinglinks.com or “Dov Zackheim Mastermind” on youtube if you want hints on brains behind 911 event: clearly controled demolition, as most real scientists and engineers KNOW, even if not allowed to talk about*)… Controlers have had a bad attitude about Thorium. Why?

    Uranium early got into power production and the nuclear industry doens’t want to shake that cashflow. Th/U-233 ideas were developed long ago, and not under patents for corporate control. And Th can be turned into totally fissionable U-233, which makes possible small power units (neutron pumped, and stopped dead by cutting inflow of neutrons, in subcritical mass) – possibly someday no need for any big CORPORATE reactors! Look at some of the work in India which will spin off small U-233 local generating units. (They don’t take smallness message far enough in print nowadays. But it exists.)

    And U-233 might be used by irate groups to make crucial devices in conflict. (USA has been heading to internal conflict for decades while it got de-industrialized, invaded by 3rd world, core citizens got put under more invasive laws, tough economics). That’s what Second Amendment rights are really about! (Not hunting or sport.) But even owning far less defense stuff is severely under attack by NWO/globalist/corporate and opinion-defining PR-Media masters. Let’s repudiate fed interference! Demand complete citizen rights to Th & U-233 mining, ownership & development of Th & U-233, for our POWER many ways.

    Let us talk about having reactors (or even smaller neutron generators)turn Th into U-233 on a LARGE SCALE (U-233 easily separated being very different element) and make small (neutron pumped) sub-critical U-233 power units – to heat and power your village, farm, greenhouse, apartment block, train, 22-wheeler, or even autos. Independence day!