An unlikely pastime: in pursuit of alternative nuclear power

Oct 25, 2013

Dave Earnshaw, in front of one of the sites he envisions could house a liquid fluoride thorium reactor someday.
Dave Earnshaw, in front of one of the sites he envisions could house a liquid fluoride thorium reactor someday.
Credit Stephanie Joyce

Many retired people take up a hobby -- knitting, bird watching, bingo. But two Laramie retirees have decided to spend their days in pursuit of a decidedly less mainstream pastime: solving the energy challenges of our time. Wyoming Public Radio’s Stephanie Joyce has the story.

STEPHANIE JOYCE: It’s a sunny fall day, and Dave Earnshaw is standing outside the central energy plant at the University of Wyoming, staring out over the empty field that sits next to it.

DAVE EARNSHAW: A 200 megawatt nuclear reactor would fit right there. It wouldn’t take up even as much room as the dirt pile down there.

JOYCE: Obviously, Earnshaw isn’t talking about your average nuclear reactor. He’s talking about what’s called a liquid fluoride thorium reactor, or LFTR (pronounced “lifter”) -- and he says comparing the two is like comparing apples and oranges. He sat down recently to look at the licensing regulations for nuclear power plants.

EARNSHAW: And I looked them over and just said, well, not necessary, not necessary, not necessary. Multiple rules about what you have to do about cooling water… you don’t need any cooling water!

JOYCE: You also don’t need huge amounts of storage space for waste, because LFTRs don’t produce much. And because the reactors work at ambient pressure, there’s little risk for a catastrophic blowout. The technology has been called revolutionary and game-changing, but it’s been slow to catch on. That’s hugely frustrating to Earnshaw.

EARNSHAW: It’s just that there’s so many advantages! That’s why I think that it would really be… world-changing. Just world-changing!

JOYCE: So Dave Earnshaw has taken it upon himself to become a LFTR evangelist. And he’s enlisted his friend, Dave Copeland, in the effort. Both are retired scientists: Earnshaw is an environmental scientist and Copeland is a geologist. For the last three years, Dave and Dave have been meeting every week at El Conquistador, a kitschy Mexican restaurant in downtown Laramie, to discuss LFTR.

(sound of door opening, Mexican folk music playing)

JOYCE: The goal of these meetings is to develop a packet of information that can be distributed to legislators, engineers -- and yes, journalists. Dave Copeland explains how they got started.

DAVE COPELAND: We are folk dancers. For the last thirty years or so, we’ve been hard at it.

JOYCE: And so you met through folk dancing. How on earth did nuclear power come up?

EARNSHAW: Well, because we were friends, and I knew he was doing a lot of editing work and so on.

JOYCE: Copeland regularly does editing for geology publications. So, Earnshaw asked him to help write up a slew of documents on LFTR, including a vision paper, several articles and a case study that looks at how it could be used to produce synthetic fuels. Copeland says in the process, he got just as hooked as Earnshaw on the idea.

COPELAND: To me, it’s the key element in a total energy regime. And the opportunity that it offers to the state is just huge. It’s huge.

JOYCE: The two think using a thorium reactor would be cheaper and cleaner than existing sources of energy, and would provide a new use for Wyoming’s largest traditional source of revenue: coal.

EARNSHAW: Just did some kind of scratching on the back of an envelope so-to-speak, said, what would happen if instead of gasifying coal, we hydrogenate coal? And the benefits are multiple.

JOYCE: Hydrogenating coal produces synthetic fuel, which can be turned into a variety of liquids, including gasoline and jet fuel. But it requires a large supply of hydrogen, which is costly to produce because of the energy that’s required to split it from natural gas or water. Enter the thorium reactor.

If you’re wondering what the drawback is, well, there are potentially lots of them. LFTR has never been used commercially. A test reactor ran at Oak Ridge for several years in the 1960s, but there are plenty of skeptics when it comes to whether it would work outside of a laboratory. Those naysayers haven’t dampened the Daves’ enthusiasm. Earnshaw says he’s happy to respond to the critics.

EARNSHAW: I’d have an open debate with them, as a matter of fact!

JOYCE: Whether he’ll get that opportunity remains to be seen. Getting the public interested in LFTR, let alone passionate about it, has proved challenging. Last year, the Daves helped bring an expert on the technology to present to the legislature, but the reception was lukewarm. And the constant talk about it can get tiresome.

EARNSHAW: My friends all run when they see me coming. I said, "I’d talk to anybody," and one of my friends said, "Yeah, you’d talk to a rock about LFTR."

JOYCE: Despite the chilly reception, the Daves have no plans to stop talking. Out at the energy plant, Earnshaw tells me the twenty years he spent researching oil shale were waste.

EARNSHAW: “And so I said before I die, I really want to help the world come up with something that really will work, that really will do some good.”

JOYCE: And he’s pinning that dream on LFTR. Even if for now, he’s the only one who can envision a nuclear reactor in the empty space next to the university’s energy plant.