Thomas Jam Pedersen, founder and chairman of Copenhagen Atomics, gave a fascinating talk on his vision for using spent nuclear fuel and building out an advanced nuclear future. He sat down with Asia Nuclear Business Platform to talk about his inspiration.
Asia Nuclear Business Platform (ANBP): What drove you to look at molten salt reactors? What’s the “why” driving your work?
Thomas Jam Pedersen (TJP): Energy is really important for creating prosperity. A lot of the problems we see around the world could be solved, to some extent, at least mitigated, if we have more energy, clean water, etc. The Copenhagen Atomics team thinks that if we have access to all of these nice things – a house with heaters, AC, food, transportation, all that stuff, it would be nice if the rest of the world’s population had access to the same. Really, we see an opportunity – if there’s enough energy – to achieve these things.
So, we started asking questions. Is there enough energy? Maybe there’s not. This has nothing to do with politics. It’s a physical problem. Is there enough oil and gas? Not for the long-term. If eight billion people were to use as much oil as the average citizen in the U.S., it’s pretty difficult to imagine achieving that a low price. Then you examine other energy sources. We looked at wind and solar. I looked at that before I started this project. So, for a number of years I had been looking at this energy problem asking how it could be solved. And then I stumbled upon thorium energy. And I thought this can’t be true. It sounds too good to be true. If it was that simple, why didn’t the existing nuclear industry go that route? And why are the existing reactors so big and so expensive?
ANBP: You’ve said you were really impressed and inspired by the Hanford B Reactor. Tell me about the experience of visiting and what that meant?
TJP: It was just last summer I visited. I had heard from someone it had been opened as a public museum and I was going there, to the U.S., for vacation with my kids. So, I said, we’ve got to plan this vacation so that I get a day at Hanford. Of course, I’d read about it before and I’ve read about the stories from the Manhattan Project, but being there, and seeing the actual thing and listening to some old timers there that are guiding the tours, and they’re telling these stories about the thing when it was actually running, it really gave you the impression of how things were built and how simple it was in the beginning.
Being there in front of that reactor – a 2.5 GW reactor – and thinking this is something we could build today really easily. And even back then, they tell you, that without any of the tools we have today, they built it in 11 months. You can’t help but think that this is not difficult technology…. Being there looking at the Hanford reactor and realizing they built in 11 months and it ran for 25 years without an accident, I thought we must be doing something wrong today. That’s obvious. What we are doing wrong is not really the engineering. We could build the Hanford reactor again tomorrow, if we’re allowed to, but we’re not. We put up rules and regulations for ourselves that have made it incredibly expensive and difficult to build anything.
ANBP: You use the analogy – while you admit it’s an imperfect one – that we build 200,000 cars a day. That humans have the capacity to build out manufacturing to meet big challenges. Do you see the nuclear industry ever getting there?
TJP: I don’t see the nuclear industry – the light water reactor industry – ever getting there. But I do see the molten salt reactor as an option. It’s a low-pressure design. Low pressure, it makes it a lot less complex, a lot smaller. Something that you can build in one factory, put on a truck and drive away and install it. The possibility of assembly-line manufacturing is just a whole different game.
When you want to build a LWR nuclear reactor today, you hire 4,000 people put them in one big site. And for everyone, it’s the first time they’ve built this kind of reactor. It takes 10 years, and many of these projects in the U.S. and in Europe are delayed. Workers are laid off. New ones have to be hired a year later. It’s just about the most expensive way you could build anything. The whole way it’s managed is fundamentally wrong…. Nuclear energy will never really matter in the big picture before we get to assembly line production.
Conversations from Shanghai is a series of interviews with key participants and speakers from the 2018 edition of Asia Nuclear Business Platform which took place 8-11 May 2018 in Shanghai, China. It was conducted by the PR Agency, Potomac Communications Group. Nuclear Business Platform moves to Mumbai, India next for India Nuclear Business Platform this 9-10 October 2018