Uranium and Thorium Part #1
BUSINESS PROPOSAL FOR ENERGY COMPANIES
by Daniel A. Meneley, PhD, PEng, FCAE
The goal of this proposal is to put forward a business opportunity that arises from the need to mitigate climate change. This proposal responds to the urgent effort to steadily reduce (to zero) most, if not all, combustion of fossil fuels as part of the effort to mitigate the coming rise in average temperature of the earth.
It is proposed that all power plants should be either replaced or repowered to use uranium fuel, along with the associated steam production and electricity generation facilities. The fuel supply chain would, of course, change over to uranium mining followed by various steps to prepare the fuel for use. Power plant installation capability should, of course, be greatly expanded.
This specific proposal is intended first to reach companies in need. Specifically, it is aimed at fossil fuel suppliers whose future has become uncertain because of the impending disaster of worldwide climate change. Dealing with this natural phenomenon takes priority over commercial and political interests; indeed, it serves those interests closely in the longer term because our favorite social state, usually named “Business as Usual” will, if it continues, lead directly to the utter wrack and ruin of modern society. Fully implemented, this proposal will make possible a gradual transition to a sustainable future.
Business is the task of earning money on behalf of the shareholders. Business operates in a climate of risk, and sometimes the reward is substantial. This proposal seeks to present one profitable pathway, within this evolving new world. This is not a prescription for profit, but rather a series of building blocks, tools, and techniques that must be combined with some degree of skill or even genius in order to reach the goal. What goal?
Simply, this proposal hopes to result in one or more successful business enterprises whose leaders, or their daughters and sons, can honestly lay claim to have helped save the world from chaos and destruction, while the leaders who earned that honor will be duly recognized. This paper claims that all the elements of success are available – nothing new needs to be “invented” in a hurry. References cited in this paper reveal that much work still remains be done, with great enterprise and urgency.
Nuclear fission energy is new, at least since we are considering controlled nuclear fission in a power plant. The first fission chain reactor operated in December 1942, and the first industrial-scale power plant first started in September 1944. Now, only some seventy years later, some 450 large power plants are in operation around the world.
Rapid changes such as this, especially when their initial role was warlike, are bound to arise widespread fear. Other examples are common – such as the first large-scale mining of coal and the first stem-powered locomotives. Uranium power is no exception [Weart S., 2012]. At the same time, a broad literature is available written by health experts [e.g. Allison W., 2015]. Inevitably, the scary side of the news spreads rapidly, while the truth is promulgated much more slowly. As time goes on and nuclear energy becomes commonplace, such fears will find their proper place in the hierarchy of human concerns. In recent years there is sound evidence [e.g. Emshwiller, J., Fields, G., 2016] that many people are coming to the conclusion that nuclear fission energy is not nearly as dangerous as a minority of citizens claim. [e,g. Alonso et al, 2015]. Table 6 below, taken from the quoted paper, summarizes the results published by the World Health Organization. World operating experience is now accumulating rapidly and is reconfirming these safety statistics every day. Nuclear fear will dissipate as the generations pass.
The Building Blocks
The following elements are seen as the major technological requirements for success in reducing and then eliminating the negative aspects of our changing climate. “Success” in this context is a dynamic thing. Every business executive hopes to make money every day, but inevitably there are good days, bad days, and investment days. The third type of day is most interesting here, as this proposal, by necessity, must lead to a step-by-step buildup of facilities and resources under conditions of financial constraint. Profit-making intervals must be part of the continuous development process.
Only Uranium-fuelled generators are discussed here. Thorium as a fuel seems feasible; however, as was pointed out [Stanford, G., 2013] the uranium cycle is already fully operational around the world while thorium systems are still at the early prototype stage of development. Whenever full-scale thorium-fuelled reactors are market-ready, customers are sure to consider them, but today’s urgent situation demands immediate installation of a large amount of capacity. Only uranium-fuelled reactors are ready NOW. Further, a large amount of uranium is readily available for use [Blees T., 2008] so there is plenty of time for new reactor types to complete the essential development and commercialization steps.
Uranium contains a large amount of potential energy, stored in the nuclei of each of its atoms. (Ref. any good physics text). This natural metal was formed some 6.5 billion years ago, in a single star explosion called a “supernova”. This energy stored in uranium is released slowly under normal conditions by radioactive decay. The total uranium (and thorium) decay energy emitted in the earth supplies nearly half of the heat emitted from the earth’s surface each day.
It was discovered in recent decades that it is possible to speed up this natural energy release in a so-called neutron chain reaction, controlled to release a steady amount of heat. (This is what is called a neutron fission reactor). Heat can be used to boil water at high pressure and temperature, and the steam can be used to spin a turbine-generator to make electricity. Other than using this unique energy source, a nuclear power plant looks about the same as the familiar coal- or oil- fired power plants now operating around the world.
The chain reaction releases no greenhouse gases. Here is the prime value of this energy source. The source is known to be effectively infinite, so this energy source is inexhaustible, or perhaps “renewable” to use a bit of modern jargon. The rest is economics.
Counting those nuclear power plants operating and under construction, we now have about 500 large nuclear reactors in the world, with average power of 1 GWe (one thousand million watts) each. Roughly, a 1 GWe reactor discharges 2 gigawatts of heat via its turbine condenser. Condenser water flow (assuming 90% capacity factor and 10 Celsius temperature rise from inlet temperature of 20 C) is about 4.3 x 104 kg per second. Thus, about 6.5 x 104 grams of CO2 passes through each reactor’s condenser per second, presuming that the water is saturated in carbon dioxide. Five hundred reactors therefore pass about 1012 kilograms, or about 1 billion tons of CO2 per year through their condensers. This is a significant quantity, but still small when compared with the total amount released into the atmosphere each year from all sources, which is more than 35 billion tons.
Replacing each coal-fired power plant that now produces 1 GWe of electricity [eia.gov, 2016] with a nuclear plant of the same capacity will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by more than 8 million tons of CO2 per year. Further, removing the dissolved CO2 from the condenser cooling water (CCW) of each of the 1000 nuclear plants would enable the removal of a further 2 million tons per year. It follows that doubling today’s nuclear plant capacity could reduce net annual world CO2 emissions by about 4-6 billion tons per year, or about ten to fifteen percent of today’s total emissions.
The best fuels are uranium and thorium from the point of view of future climate control, and the best products from them are electricity, synthetic hydrocarbon fuel, and process heat for use in Portland cement manufacturing, specialty metallurgy and similar purposes [Meneley D., 2014]. Once the facility is established, the cost and quantity of energy that will be available for is well known for the whole life of the facility, which is about 100 years.
A further advantage of nuclear fission technology is that production equipment can be scaled up or down almost without limit, from milliwatts to Gigawatts, as the application demands. From the prospective owner’s point of view, this feature makes it possible to scale the financial commitment to match restrictions at any given time.
MATURE ENERGY PARKS
The old idea of concentrating nuclear facilities into some form of “energy park” has been revived recently [Wade D. 2010] to include an integrated worldwide network of a few large capacity sites and a larger network of small-capacity facilities, each more or less dependent on a large-capacity site for services, especially for fresh and used fuel management.
As is true for the usual industrial park, an energy park might be home to a number of owners, and each owner may be both a supplier and a customer for other facilities. First, the most obvious site restriction of this enterprise is that it must have either an ample supply of cooling water for once-through condensers, or generation designs that can be adapted to either wet or dry cooling towers.
URANIUM RESOURCES AND RESERVES
Conventional uranium reserve figures are published regularly [World Nuclear Association, 2016] for each resource country of the world, along with mining, recovery, refinement activities, etc. that are underway and those that are planned. Natural uranium (as mined) contains only 0.712 percent of the isotope U235, the only naturally occurring isotope that can be used to start a neutron chain reaction. Before use in some reactors the bulk of mined uranium, specifically the isotope U238, first must be discarded in a process called “enrichment”; that is, the U235 percentage must be increased up to about 3-5 percent of the total product.
Here lies the first distinction between civil processing of uranium and processing that may be intended for military purposes. Unless the U235 is first “enriched” to a very high percentage (about 90 percent), the uranium product is useless for making weapons. International agreements draw the distinction much lower, at 20 percent “enrichment”. Research reactors and civilian power plants must be fuelled with less than 20 percent “enriched” uranium.
The second distinction between civil and military uses is found in the different isotopic concentration of specific isotopes in the material at hand. For example, significant amounts of Pu240 make the material highly problematic for weapons, in spite of the fact that an explosion of uncertain yield is still possible in material containing a high percentage of plutonium.
The industry considers fuel supply questions ranging all the way from original mining to final disposal of used fuel. The following Figure [Benedict,M., Pigford, T., Levy, H. 1981] shows the relative ingestion toxicities of the fuel streams of the usual LWR fuel cycle. It can be seen that in the long term, U238 toxicity of used fuel is almost exactly the same as that of the original fuel, before mining. This fact leads directly to the correct goal for the long-term fuel cycle: “Put the material back where you found it”. This is, effectively, the goal of designing a waste configuration equivalent to that chosen by Nature in the first place – after all, humans have evolved successfully in the presence of uranium and all of its radioactive “daughters” over a very long past time period. Designers have plenty of examples to guide them – the long-term stable storage systems known as uranium mines. We can do it. [SKB, 2016], [NWMO, 2015].
Obviously, the high level wastes from used fuel rapidly become less dangerous; their toxicity decays below the level of uranium 238 after only a few hundred years in safe storage. Fast reactors of the IFR type require only about one percent as much uranium mining as do thermal reactors, so their post-operation picture is quit different. The number of fissions for a given power output is about the same in both cases. However, the uranium ore toxicity chargeable to a fast reactor operation is at least one hundred times less. Furthermore, the long-term behaviour of the “high level waste” component from a fast reactor decreases more rapidly after the first few hundred years because most of the “actinide” heavy elements are consumed during operation and so do not contribute to the long-term toxicity, which is once again dominated by “natural” uranium, material that was long-ago identified as unused U238 from the reactor fuel cycle.
Top countries with recoverable uranium resources are Australia, Kazakhstan, Canada, and the Russian Federation. These recoverable reserves are sufficient to fuel all existing and planned power plants for a few hundred years, though at a progressively increasing market price. A new reactor type is now in commercial service in Russia that requires only about one hundredth as much uranium. This is called the FNR, or fast-neutron reactor. (ref. Lightfoot et al) India, China, and France are now installing FNR reactors in prototype power plants; Japan is in the advanced planning stages for another. [Marcus, G., 2010], [Knief, R., 1992], [Till, C., Chang, Y.I., 2011]
Uranium is found dissolved in rivers and oceans; ocean concentrations are about 4 parts per billion. Japanese and American engineers have devised chemical adsorption methods for extracting uranium from seawater in relatively small amounts. It is interesting to note that the seawater that passes through the condenser cooling system of a fast neutron reactor every day contains enough uranium to make up the small amount of uranium required to indefinitely sustain the plant’s fuel supply.
Extraction, refining, and production technologies are known today [Till, C., Chang, Y.I., 2011] that are capable of utilizing essentially all of the stored energy in mined uranium. This “FNR” technology requires only a small amount of fuel mining (about 1.5 tons of new uranium per GWe of electricity for one year) and finally leaves only small amounts of dangerous waste; essentially only the broken parts of the atoms that have already undergone fission. [Meneley, D., 2017] as posted to website, “Where it All Began”) These wastes are easily confined until they inevitably decay to stable atoms, and as such they return almost to their original, natural state.
The FNR design concept known as the Integral Fast reactor, or IFR, includes a fuel reprocessing facility built right into the power plant, so that active fuel (which contains plutonium and other trace heavy elements) never moves outside the plant, but is recycled until almost all of the heavy “actinide” elements are consumed. This capability, and the choice of metal fuel instead of oxide fuel, greatly simplifies FNR plant safety, operation and maintenance, as well as improving plant economics.
Nuclear fuel is carefully guarded because it is one of the components of nuclear weaponry. The IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) enforces this guardianship regime on behalf of the United Nations. All 168 IAEA member states, including the US and Canada, are bound by the terms of this agreement.
Scarcely appreciated is the large fraction of our population that is now occupied in searching for, developing and delivering energy products, especially oil and gas, for our own use. A brief look at television advertising will tell us that this is a major employer.
Inevitably, as time progresses, these energy-winning activities will cease, and the miner’s descendants will become the high-technology workers in new energy-related fields. Such a large social change takes time, of course. It will cause some amount of disruption. To realize that such changes are possible, and even welcome, we need only look back in time to think of our grandparents farming with real horsepower, or sailing across oceans under the force of the wind. Education and training are essential, but equally essential is forgetting and rethinking. Who among us now remembers how to harness a four-horse team to a plough, or to set the sails on a square rigged sailing ship?
Such a large transition as the one from fossil to nuclear energy supply will take time, at least one human generation and possibly much longer. No coal miner need be put out of a job, and no oil searcher need be left behind. Still, their children need to be given the opportunity to do other things – which means education, of course. Institutions charged with organizing this coming transition must include this as a rather large portion of any humanitarian plan.
This proposal involves some large capital expenditures, as do many other infrastructure projects such as oil and gas ventures, roads & bridges, and military defense systems. As such, this effort will certainly require some participation of national governments along with support from those few unusually wealthy groups and individuals. At the same time the evolution of this new energy supply will certainly be a profit-maker for all of those participants, in the long term.
It has been shown that nuclear energy, properly applied, can play a major part in reducing the existential threat of climate change. It can do this at a much lower cost, and with much greater certainty, than can any other workable option.
There is at least one method of funding the construction of many of the new nuclear plants that are called for by the stable climate project. These clean plants could be financed mainly by steady reduction of current government subsidies to fossil fuel companies. Worldwide, these subsidies supported the fossil fuel industry (mainly coal and petroleum, including externalities) to the tune of 5,300 billion US dollars in 2015, [Coady et al, 2015, Appendix 4, Table 3] an amount sufficient to finance a large-scale new build nuclear program [Hansen et al, 2016].
Notably, coal consumption (and its subsidy level) is decreasing rapidly in the US [Energy Information Administration Agency, 2015], as the consumption of natural gas increases.
Power plants with smaller output will be feasible in some applications such as merchant marine shipping and local industrial facilities. Careful attention must be paid to design simplicity, project time to completion, and regulatory permitting effort in order to make some of these applications feasible.
THE POLITICAL HORIZON
Change often begins when the younger elements of society think, or observe, that their future is being placed at risk. Recent developments [Hansen et al 2016] indicate that such a time may be now. Climate change realities are now openly discussed in the press, such as periodic flooding in coastal areas, increasing local temperatures, and melting polar ice sheets.
On the other hand there are strong forces of people holding to the climate positions that “nothing is happening” or “that won’t happen for many years, so we need not change yet”. These patterns are normal in any large human society. In these times, such positions are dangerous to the future society, because the negative consequences of today’s human activities are delayed, sometimes for many years.
Fortunately, we can look forward and see that consequences are coming upon us now, inexorably. Furthermore, the coming generation of citizens is aware more and more, that those consequences will fall upon them or on their children.
The political outlook is optimistic.
TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE
Those who best understand the phenomenon of climate change urge all of us to “get on with the job” of preparing for the oncoming climate crisis. Preparation is needed on many different aspects of this “wicked” problem; this small paper outlines only one of these problems and a few possible solutions.
The world community now operates 448 nuclear power plants, each generating almost 1 GWe. Fifty-eight more plants are at various stages of construction and 167 more are on order or planned. Total operational plants will number around 600 to 700 by md-century.
Given a reasonable initiative, especially on the political side, this number could be increased to more than 1,000 plants by 2050. The resulting decrease in world carbon dioxide emissions due to the new plants would then be about 3 billion tons per year. Installation of CO2 extraction facilities on each plant would permit the removal of at least a further 1 billion tons per year.
HOW TO BEGIN
This major industry is best initiated in small steps. A combination of several facilities and skills is required; starting small and then building steadily minimizes financial and programmatic risk. There are many sources available from which planning and organizing steps can be derived (ref. Agustin Alonzo).
Collaboration and partnerships between private-sector companies as well as State and Federal governments will be essential for success. Building up to the immense scale of a mature world nuclear energy economy will entail cooperation of national governments and several international organizations such as the IAEA, WNA, and WANO.
Building a Clean Industrial Base
Following are outlines of some possible “accessory’ industries that could be associated with an energy park containing one or several nuclear plants. Specific choices in each particular case will depend on local needs and local business opportunities.
Conventional steam turbines and associated generators represent a mature technology. Some adjustments may be needed if repowering is the chosen strategy. As discussed below, addition of direct current generators on the main shaft may become a normal practice. Also, back pressure turbines may be chosen in some cases.
Supercritical CO2 turbines are now under development. These machines offer high efficiency and small size, and so could become the reference design for power reactors operating at high temperature.
David Sanborn Scott (Scott, 2008) showed that hydrogen and electricity together can provide the essential energy currencies on which to base a strong industrial society. The reverse process, that is converting electrical or chemical energy to internal energy in the nuclei of hydrogen or hydrocarbons, is more difficult. The most promising method for hydrogen production is a combined chemical-electrical process now under development [Naterer et al., 2013]. This process splits water into hydrogen and oxygen; hydrogen then can be combined with carbon to produce synthetic petroleum or natural gas. Some of the valuable energy is lost in this chemical reaction, but the resultant hydrocarbon molecules are much easier to manage than hydrogen. The massive infrastructure currently used to store and transport natural petroleum products can be utilized directly for this purpose.
To give an idea of the scale of electrical systems required, the direct energy equivalent of
300,000 barrels of gasoline, the average amount consumed in Ontario each day, equals the total electrical energy output of eighteen large (1.0 GWe) nuclear units. In other words, Ontario’s daily gasoline demand corresponds to the total electrical output of about twenty nuclear units. Manufacturing synthetic gasoline is an energy-intensive industry due to the process of storing energy in the nucleus, according to Einstein’s famous equation (E=mc2). Aside from inevitable efficiency losses inherent in this conversion process, energy remains stored in the gasoline product to be released later on as needed.
But where does one find carbon to combine with the nuclear-produced hydrogen? Commercially, the correct answer is “from the cheapest source.” One’s first thought might be that any artificial petroleum process proposed here must add to the atmospheric carbon inventory. However, a patented process [USNavy Patent, 2016] is available that extracts CO2 from water to finally produce methane or other hydrocarbons. This process is carbon-neutral, so that (if scaling is feasible) this process could begin to replace refined natural petroleum and methane gas – given the abundant availability of cheap electricity from uranium and thorium. Thereby, the net amount of CO2 released to the atmosphere could be reduced. (Note, to avoid double counting, that this process is equivalent to extracting and solidifying CO2 from condenser cooling water as mentioned earlier in this paper.
HIGH TEMPERATURE PROCESS GAS
High temperature process steam produced through electrical heating of high-pressure water can be supplied cheaply by a CANDU reactor, because ofthe design’s natural uranium fuel. While the economics of this supply of high-temperature process fluid are unknown at this time, there is no question that such an operation is technically feasible, for gas temperatures up to 1000C (ref. Sylvania OSRAM).
The process steam temperature associated with a fast neutron reactor system is about 550 Celsius, high enough to support the Copper-Chloride process of water splitting (Naterer et al., 2013). A number of other industrial processes such as steel-making also depend on the availability of high temperature process gas, usually provided by combustion of hard coal. Much of this gas could be provided from a fission reactor, thereby saving both coal consumption and reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
High temperature gas for Portland cement manufacture is another potential application whereby fission heat can replace fossil fuel combustion.
A new design, designated IMSR (Integral Molten Salt Reactor) offers high temperature gas for numerous industrial purposes. [Irish, Simon, 2016]. While the first IMSR plant may be built for utility power production, Terrestrial Energy sees industrial heat and power as a major area of untapped potential for the nuclear industry and targets significant growth across a range of energy-intensive processes.
Continuous heat and power provided by IMSRs are a good fit for industrial users needing energy 24 hours a day. The IMSR plants operate at 650 degrees C and could be used to drive industrial heat processes, for example ammonia production, hydrogen production, desalination, petrochemical, chemical and mining operations.
WATER PURIFICATION & DESALINATON
Several processes are already being used commercially. Of special note is the advanced reverse-osmosis process developed in Israel, which has allowed that country to establish an export market to neighboring water-scarce states, at a commercially competitive price. Cheap electricity from nuclear plants obviously could replace fossil-fuel-powered generators.
Beyond the shadow of a doubt, this is the dominant issue now restricting the wholesale expansion of nuclear energy installations throughout the world. To approach this subject objectively, a few basic principles must first be clarified.
A. First and foremost, it must be recognized that the overall objective of this work is an INFRASTRUCTURE project, and as such it must be undertaken with a national perspective, by national governments. In addition it must be undertaken first by large, wealthy nations. Other countries should and probably will follow, but it remains true that poor nations simple do not have the resources to undertake this great enterprise.
In the US, there is a singular event that shows how this job must be approached. In 1956, president Dwight Eisenhower signed the “Federal-Aid Highway Act”. According to Henry Petroski, that bill authorized $25 billion over twelve years for constructing a “National System of Interstate and Defence Highways”. It set the federal share of interstate construction costs at 90 percent, and provided a number of other enabling standards and laws. Adjusted for ensuing changes in the CPI over the past 60 years, this first commitment would be in the range of $250 billion today, intended to cover 12 years of federal expenditure. This is roughly the scale of national commitment that is needed to make a fair start at financing the coming buildup of the international clean energy inventory.
Poor countries should, at first, be released (temporarily) from any binding restriction on use of fossil fuels. The heavy load of “getting away” from fossils will land on the rich countries. They also will be expected to help the poor in efforts to reduce GHG emissions.
B. Second, ownership of first-rank energy production facilities likely will be held by the state or province in which those facilities are located. Private ownership of generation facilities is expected to be limited to unit sizes equivalent to 300 MWe or smaller, simply due to the capital demands of large, full-scope facilities. Nuclear energy generating facilities in this category of “SMR” will report operationally under direct supervision by management of a designated central facility [Wade, David and Walters, Leon, 2010], designated as a “nuclear energy park.”
ach nuclear energy park will, generally, include all staff and equipment needed for support of generation, fuel supply, waste management, and human resource complement of the complex under its designated command. Sharing of resources and materials between energy parks may be advantageous, under strict control be national and international authority.
C. Performance of all nuclear facilities will be audited by the appropriate national safety regulator, as well as by the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO).
Allocation of capital for construction and for rehabilitation of nuclear energy facilities should be decided by national authorities upon application for project funding by state or provincial jurisdictions. These applications must include firm commitment to finance the agreed percentage of total capital required. An “Owner’s Representative” technical organization likely will oversee the design and construction progress, and then allocate justified progress payments to vendors upon completion of major project milestones.
SMR projects may be initiated by privately owned organizations, which will then occupy the role and place of state or local jurisdictions as described above in the case of major projects. Local approvals will, of course, be subject to local authority. Their operation will be supervised by the staff of the appropriate energy park, on behalf of the appropriate state or provincial authority.
Capital requirements must be satisfied, as discussed above, through the support of national governments. Nonetheless, private investors can and should participate in government/industry-shared ventures, as has been the normal practice in other large-scale infrastructure projects.
Summary & Conclusions
The author’s stated objective is to make the case for Industry leaders to commence the slow transition away from fossil fuels. This transition is both absolutely essential and gargantuan in scale, as we understand the earth’s impending future climate changes, as of today.
This transition will be much broader than a change in primary energy sources, though this one aspect will constitute a greater change than mankind has ever before experienced, at least in modern historical times. The change in primary energy must involve the coordinated efforts of virtually all nations of the world, and of all the major energy supply companies and agencies in these countries.
This author makes no pretense toward directing the ways, means, or timing of the energy transition. This paper amounts to only a suggestion of how we might get started on the path toward a sustainable, healthy future for our descendants.
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