THE AGE OF ELECTRICITY
The late 1800s. A time in America of unlimited freedom. A time of the rugged individualist. Tom Edison, deep in his Menlo Park laboratory, creating the Electric Age. Nicola Tesla, the immigrant competitor, with his electric motor and alternating current. It was the Golden Age of America. A time of invention, entrepreneurialism, and genius set free.
At least, that’s the popular myth.
But did you ever wonder what happened to those early American electric companies? Where is Edison’s company today? Where is Westinghouse’s company? In fact, where is any private enterprise electric company?
In 1878, Thomas Edison (and English electrician, Joseph Swan) invented the electrical-resistance-heated, carbon filament, incandescent light bulb. Self-contained, clean and long-burning, the light bulb was the first popular application for electricity.
Edison’s goal was to replace gas lighting on city streets. With the help of his young Scottish assistant, Samuel Insull, Edison demonstrated the convenience of his electric light bulbs to the New York City bureaucrats, who granted him exclusive rights to operate a lighting system on Wall Street.
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Edison then built the world’s first electricity generating and distributing system. His Pearle Street plant went into operation in 1881. The station used one direct current generator and provided 100 Kilowatts, just enough to power 1,200 bulbs. The Electric Age had dawned, but because Edison’s plant was powered by burning coal, it was monumentally inefficient.
By 1883, only two years later, electric street lighting was becoming commonplace in American cities. There were more than three hundred such electrical generators in operation around the country — all simple DC dynamos, like Edison’s, mostly locally owned, operated by steam engines or water wheels, providing electricity to a few city blocks or to a single factory. Voltage regulation was poor and bulbs often dimmed or burned out. But the electric age had obviously dawned.
These generators became so commonplace that street lighting was soon considered a “public service.” Most companies, started as private ventures, were rapidly taken over by the cities — and there were logical reasons for it. There were legal obstacles to stringing wires along public spaces and across property lines. With city bureaucrats easing the way, the wires were installed. Practical DC electric motors were invented and found widespread use in factories, mills, mines and industrial plants of all sorts. Electric motors, supplied by city-run electricity systems, replaced locally owned and operated water wheels, boilers and steam engines for mechanical or shaft power purposes. The electric power industry was changing the face of the nation.
Edison’s new goal was to build his first large scale power plant in New York City. He needed money, so he went to J. P. Morgan, and together they founded Edison General Electric Company. They set out to build large, centralized power plants and sell the electricity, not just to businesses, but to the public. There were huge start-up costs — building the largest generators in the world, stringing expensive wire. When Morgan realized his financial return would be too slow to satisfy his investors, he convinced Edison to focus on selling equipment, and leave it to the governments to put up capital.
By 1900, Edison-GE controlled 1,245 power stations around the country. But profits were disappointing. Edison’s dream of selling electricity to the public large-scale for a profit just wasn’t happening. Demand schedules kept electricity expensive for most people — street lighting drew power only at night — the same hours people wanted lighting for their homes, but GE had to operate all day long. It needed to sell electricity 24 hours a day.
It was streetcars that came to the rescue. They had been invented by Siemens in 1890. By the turn of the century, with GE producing electricity to run them, there were streetcars in 850 American cities. Entrepreneurial progress, right? Unfortunately, this only made the cry that electricity was a “necessary public service,” even louder. Consequently, most of the plants that powered street lights street cars became city-owned and buyers of electricity became tax-subsidized customers of Edison General Electric.
Meanwhile, the invention of the induction motor led to the invention of power washing machines (1907), vacuum cleaners (1908) and household refrigerators (1912). A full-scale tech revolution was in play. GE’s demand schedules became balanced. But America left the electricity free market behind.
Edison-GE’s near-total domination of the electricity market would not last long, however. In 1884, Edison hired a brilliant young Croatian electrical engineer named Nicola Tesla — who had conceived of a better way to generate and distribute electricity: alternating-current. It could generate high and low voltages with ease. It allowed the current to be distributed on small wires, enabling generators to expand their service area.
Tesla not only knew how to power Edison’s light bulbs at a distance using thinner, cheaper wire, he had also perfected a simple, rugged, low-cost, efficient A-C (induction) motor that could drive all manner of machinery with little maintenance.
But … Edison didn’t want to hear about it.
Edison had thousands of government contracts in the bag. He thought inefficient government subsidized electricity was all he — or the nation — needed. Why change? He already dominated the market. Like bureaucrats do, he thought he could prevent the future from happening. Tesla had to take his business elsewhere.
While Edison was building and collecting DC power stations, Tesla went to George Westinghouse, instead. And at first, progress was slow. In 1886, the first commercial alternating current power system was built. By 1891, Tesla had built the AC induction motor, the Tesla Coil, and the transformer — the fundamental things necessary for the long-distance transmission of electricity.
Westinghouse’s Niagara Power Plant was built in 1896, a milestone in the history of U.S. electricity. The Power Plant had 37 megawatt power output, making it several hundreds times more powerful than Edison’s Pearle Station. It sent electricity over 25 miles of transmission line at high-voltage (11,000 volts) to Buffalo city — and it was also the world’s first large-scale hydro-electric power plant.
But Westinghouse, too, had to partner with city bureaucrats to get the system built.
Today, we tend to believe the early electric companies were created by daring speculators, mavericks, rugged individualists. But that was only partly true. The truth is, electric companies never were 100 percent private, profit-seeking ventures — they were controlled by politicians from the start.
One thing is true, however. The “Roaring Twenties” did indeed roar. It’s easy to imagine why people believed in a future of endless prosperity. It was the Age of Electricity. The Age of Aviation. The Age of Radio. The Age of Progress. But the party ended with the banking collapse of 1929.
The great depression led to the election of FDR, who promised the government would solve the nations’ economic problems. In the 1932 Presidential election, Roosevelt, a democrat, defeated republican incumbent Herbert Hoover in a landslide. During his time as President, with a sympathetic 73rd United States Congress, FDR issued unprecedented executive orders and created “The New Deal” — a potpourri of government control programs. One of these was the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935 (PUHCA). It took government control of energy production even further than cities had. Electric power production and transmission was taken completely out of the hand of the “profit-seeking capitalists” and put under bureaucratic control.
People today assume government is an intrinsic part of electricity production and distribution. After all, who else could do something so big? The government is needed for stability, people believe.
But here’s something people don’t see. As a result of government control, innovation in energy production has slowed to a crawl.
As the American population grows, energy demand grows. But infrastructure has fallen behind. Because of climate change fears, the emphasis for new building is on “green” energy — but solar panels, wind turbines, and so on, can’t possibly keep up with demand. But there is one green technology that can. And it’s fully able to be implemented, right now.
Thorium Nuclear Reactors.
WHAT IS A THORIUM REACTOR?
Not long after World War II, nuclear fission reactors were designed and built to produce heat that could be used for electricity generation. Uranium-based reactors were built, not just to produce electricity, but also weapons-grade plutonium. This work was initiated by The Atomic Energy commission (AEC), which had been formed in1946 to replace the wartime Manhattan Project. Its stated mission was to develop peaceful uses of the atom. But in many ways, they did just the opposite.
It had been suggested that other, more plentiful elements than uranium might be found to produce nuclear energy. Thorium was the only other naturally-occurring fissionable element known. Thus, since 1950, thorium fuel cycle reactors were built and successfully used to produce thermal energy. Between 1965 and 1968, such reactors operated for over 15,000 hours. This prompted AEC Chairman, Glenn Seaborg, to announce that the thorium-fueled reactor was successful. However, facing the Cold War arms race, the government decided to concentrate on the uranium system for its nuclear bomb-making capabilities, and in 1973 it officially discontinued all work on thorium.
But thorium technology did not die. Physicist Alvin Weinberg, who was the Director of Research at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, (where the thorium cycle and reactor was invented) continued work on thorium. He did so without government support, and he continued his research until his death (on the job) in 2006. Weinberg was particularly keen on the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR).
Weinberg’s accomplishments with thorium reactors was extensive, but they were concealed from the public. So much so, that in 2012, the trade publication, Chemical Engineering and News reported, ”most people —including scientists — have hardly heard of the heavy-metal element, thorium, and know little about it…”. A comment by a conference attendee noted that, “it’s possible to have a Ph.D. in nuclear reactor technology and not know about thorium energy.”
When famous nuclear physicist Victor J. Stenger first learned of it in 2012, he claimed, that thorium was a better alternative than uranium. Others agreed, including former NASA scientist, thorium expert and LFTR entrepreneur, Kirk Sorensen. He said in a documentary interview (viewable on You Tube) that if the U.S. had not discontinued its thorium research in 1974, it could have achieved energy independence with a low carbon footprint by the year 2000.
Only because of government control of energy research and production, did it not happen.
Thorium is a naturally-occurring chemical element discovered in 1828 by the Swedish chemist Jons Jakob Berzelius, who named it after Thor, the Norse god of thunder. He gave it the symbol “Th” with the atomic number 90. Thorium is found in small amounts in most rocks, soils and sands and it is three times more abundant than uranium. Workable ores are found in most of the countries around the Earth.
Natural thorium is a weakly-radioactive, silvery metal that tarnishes black when it is exposed to air, forming thorium dioxide. The metal is moderately hard, malleable and has a high melting point. Thorium metal has long been available from commercial industrial suppliers, having uses in welding and gas lighting. In contrast, virgin uranium metal has never been available commercially (in the U.S., all of it is owned by the federal government).
Thorium is similar to Uranium. They are the only two elements found in nature that can absorb neutrons and transmute into fissile elements. Thus, they are both fertile elements that can be used to fuel nuclear reactors. But unlike uranium, thorium-reactors cannot be started without the addition an autonomous neutron source mixed with the fuel. This fissile material must be either natural U235, extracted from or enriched from natural uranium, or Pu239, bred in uranium-fueled reactors and extracted from their wastes.
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Once started, thorium reactors themselves breed the uranium fissile isotope U233 which sustains the thorium nuclear energy cycle without further use of fissile materials from uranium. Furthermore, Th232 and U233, which comprise the fuel in the mature thorium reactor, are not known to have any use in the making of bombs. Therefore, the thorium fuel cycle is not helpful to a nuclear weapons program.
Natural thorium does not contain any fissile material. Its neutron reactions do not produce synthetic fissile material like Pu239, the preferred material for making bombs. Thus, the thorium fuel cycle is just not conducive to nuclear weapons proliferation. Most people would consider that to be an advantage. But not governments.
There’s another advantage of thorium over uranium for commercial energy production. It is much more efficient then uranium as a reactor fuel. Its high degree of burn-up is a huge factor in reducing the cost of fuel. Thus, thorium reactors generate far less volume of radioactive waste, and the smaller amount of waste has far less high-level radioactivity, with a far shorter half-life. This means much cheaper hazardous waste disposal.
A proven and highly promising thorium reactor technology is the liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR; pronounced lifter) in which the fuel and coolant are one and the same, circulated either by gravity, or by pump. This high-thermal-conductivity / high thermal-expansivity liquid is a fluoride salt that melts at moderately high temperatures and circulates at low pressures without the need for expensive pressure vessels. The molten salt fuel is not corrosive to any of the materials of construction, which are common ferrous types. That means cheaper plant construction.
LFTRs differ from other nuclear power reactors in almost every aspect. First, they use more common natural thorium instead of exotic enriched uranium. Some of the thorium is turned into uranium (U233) by thermal breeding, which replaces the starting charge of U235 or Pu239 as those materials burn up. Refueling and waste management is accomplished continuously without shutdown by pumping from/to external vessels as required. The liquid salt fuel/coolant attains higher operating temperatures with low system pressures, which reduces the cost of construction and increases safety while attaining much higher thermal efficiencies for power generation.
The LFTR uses inherently small, more compact equipment for significant thermal output. LFTR technology, therefore, has unusual flexibility in design — the scaling of plant sizes up and down can be managed with ease. This characteristic also facilitates the manufacturing of plant components in a factory for field assembly, and achieves even further cost reductions. It also provides flexibility in location and scheduling of operations. It creates the possibility of miniature, modular plants for on-site generation of heat and power combined, and ease of scaling up plant sizes. All this is now attracting new entrepreneurial and venture capital interest in nuclear power.
LFTR technology is attracting private company interest in Japan, China, India, the UK, Czech, Canada, and Australia, and also in the U.S. Even though navigating U.S. government bureaucracy is a nightmare, various pilot projects are in progress.
Since thorium has so many advantages over uranium for commercial nuclear reactors, many have questioned why the thorium fuel cycle is not being used? Thorium is a fertile material that is relatively common and cheap to prepare as a reactor fuel, and is safe and simple to use. Reactors can be built with a negligible risk of thermal runaway and meltdown. Furthermore, thorium cycle wastes are minimal, radioactively benign, and devoid of any material that can be used for making bombs.
The advantages of adding electricity to our national electric grid using thorium reactors start from the moment thorium is mined and purified. All but a trace of naturally occurring thorium is Th232, the isotope useful in nuclear reactors. And all of it is used up in the reactor. By comparison, only 3% to 5% of the uranium needed (in enriched form) is used in a uranium reactor before refueling is required.
Not only is thorium 20 to 30-times more efficient in fuel utilization for power production than uranium, it is three times more abundant in nature. And its conversion from ore to fuel is much easier than uranium. That adds up to significant economies-of-scale, when commercialized. All but a trace of the world’s thorium exists in already-useful form, which means it does not require enrichment. Uranium enrichment, on the other hand, is perhaps the most expensive chemical/mechanical refinement operation ever known to humankind.
Thorium-based reactors are much safer than uranium reactors for still more reasons. Thorium fuel is liquid and can be easily drained/pumped from the reaction zone, rapidly stopping the fission reaction, when necessary. The liquid form of thorium is also easy to handle and transport from place to place. By contrast, uranium fuel is solid and fixed in the reactor, which requires sophisticated, expensive and time-consuming handling arrangements. Its fission reaction can be stopped only by removing the neutrons, which requires extremely complicated control rod absorption, shielding, selection, location, sensing and movement. Also, the thorium fission and heat transfer operation takes place in a low pressure environment eliminating highly stressed pressure vessels and piping which is prone to fatigue failure and leaks. Compared to uranium reactors, thorium reactors produce far less waste, and the waste is much less radioactive with a much shorter half-life.
Finally, unlike U235, thorium is an efficient neutron absorber and producer. But it is not a fissile isotope. That means no matter how many thorium nuclei are packed together, they can not go critical. They can’t thermally run away on their own, starting a melt-down, chain-reaction, and explosion. Thorium nuclei split apart and emit several neutrons easily. To stop the fission process, simply turn off or divert the source of the neutrons and the cycle shuts down. The liquid form of the combined fuel and coolant in the LFTR simplifies the cycle process greatly from beginning to end.
THE ONLY LIMITATION OF THORIUM
The growth of civilization will require more and more energy. That’s an irrefutable fact. Will entrepreneurs convince U.S. politicians — who seized power over energy production during the FDR years — to allow this technology? Or will our politicians watch other nation-states develop it, first?
How long will our politicians watch, afraid to act? How long will they hope the future won’t happen?
Thorium-cycle reactors may seem like an panacea. But, unfortunately, there’s one thing they cannot do: stop government bureaucracy.
1. Article: The History of Electricity in the United States by Ruslan Iskhakov, Stanford University: http://large.stanford.edu/courses/2013/ph240/iskhakov2/
2. Alvin Lowi, “Patient Capital: The Real Source of Human Welfare,” May 9, 1996. Essay available from the
author at [email protected].
3. Jill Jonnes, Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World,
Random House, 2003.
4. Marin Katusa, chief investment strategist for Casey Research’s energy division, is an accomplished investment analyst, the senior editor of Casey’s Energy Opportunities, Casey’s Energy Confidential, and Casey’s Energy Report. In addition, he is a member of the Vancouver Angel Forum where he and his colleagues evaluate early seed investment opportunities. https://www.caseyresearch.com/articles/why-not-thorium/