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Does Thorium Deserve a Role in Next-Generation Nuclear Energy?

Thorium China and Nulcear

There is a lot of innovative thinking about the next generation of nuclear power plants. With so many bright minds, an extensive supply chain and some far-sighted research and development work underway throughout the world, I wonder how long we’ll have to wait until a truly bigger, better, game-changing nuclear power process or technology grabs center stage.

The nuclear industry doesn’t exactly need a game-changing alternative to significantly grow its prospects. Except in the U.S. and perhaps Japan, Germany and Italy, the nuclear industry is poised to grow steadily. At last count there were about 430 reactors operating worldwide and about 70 reactors under construction or ready to break ground.  The latter number includes last week’s announcement by UK Prime Minister David Cameron about plans for two new conventional, uranium-fueled nuclear reactors on a coastline about 200 kilometers west of London.

What gets me is that the world is still using the raw materials and components with one of the basic designs that built the first commercial nuclear power reactor more than a half-century ago. Sure there have been some advances and numerous tweaks along the way for boiling-water and light-water  reactors, but nothing that I would categorize as a dramatically cleaner, less-wasteful, lower risk  — and yet still affordable — technology.

Several of the nuclear advocates I spoke to agree that today’s reactors essentially are new versions of old cars.  We have yet to witness a significant leap forward. Does that do justice to the future of nuclear? I would argue it does not.   

There are dozens of R&D efforts underway. If you’re focused on how electricity is generated in the U.S. you might not be aware of them. Prospects for real change seem best in China and India because they need lots of additional generating capacity.  I spotlight these two countries because they have cost-effective access to a raw material that could fuel one of the next-generation options AND and they appear willing to do something with it:  mining and using thorium as a substitute for uranium and liquid-fueled, instead of solid-fueled, reactors.

Thorium you say? This is naturally-occurring radioactive chemical element discovered in 1828 by a Swedish chemist who named it after Thor, the Norse god of thunder. It is mined along with valuable “rare earth” elements used in the manufacture of numerous products such as solar panels and smart phones.

To hear thorium advocates talk about it, the nuclear industry has stuck to uranium and the basic engineering that gave the world the atomic bomb in the 1940s and the means to power nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers heading into and out of The Cold War.  Along with it came – and remains — the legacy of possible meltdowns, long-lived radioactive waste, a good deal of public mistrust after highly publicized accidents and certain troubling maintenance issues involving tritium and other byproducts.

Nuclear power in the U.S. was enjoying a renaissance of sorts through the 1990s and early 2000s. But the increasing availability of natural gas from shale rock formations deep underground drawn to the surface by hydraulic fracturing has made nuclear simply too expensive for any energy utility in the U.S. to consider buying it without a massive federal subsidy and/ or upfront payments by ratepayers.  That might work for utilities in South Carolina and Georgia, but not elsewhere.

For China, India and other countries demanding more electricity, every option is on the table. Their appetites span the universe of possibilities from conventional to next-generation reactors, some relying on uranium, some with thorium and some using both. New reactors might be built for always-on, base load generation; or they might arrive as smaller, modular reactors close to major electricity loads.  

Thorium-fueled reactors have been on the drawing boards since the first uranium-fed, commercial nuclear power plant in the world began generating electricity in Shippingport, PA in 1958. During the ensuing years, co-incidental research by Alvin Weinberg at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) on a “molten salt” water reactor using thorium was demonstrating certain advantages over uranium-fed reactors.  The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and its chairman, Glenn Seaborg in a 1962 report on civilian nuclear energy, (see report cover) recommended that President John Kennedy “guide the program in such directions to make possible the exploitation of the vast energy resources latent in the fertile materials, uranium-238 and thorium.”

Thorium China and Nulcear

This report spotlighted a recommendation to pursue civilian nuclear power not with uranium as the raw fuel but with thorium. CREDIT: Energy From Thorium Foundation

But amid lobbying by companies heavily vested in uranium-fed, solid-fuel, water-cooled reactors, there wasn’t enough support in Congress to follow through on the Atomic Energy Commission’s recommendation.  Some historians assert the case for thorium reactors ran out of steam after Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas 50 years ago. Weinberg hung around ORNL until he was effectively pushed out in the early 1970s.

“It was like building an Edsel when you have the blueprint for a Porsche . . . It was one of the great technological missteps in history,” asserts Richard Martin in Super Fuel, which unabashedly paints a way for thorium.  

Today the science and vision forged by Alvin Weinberg lives on at the Weinberg Foundation in London and is actively discussed at events such as the annual Thorium Energy Conference taking place this week in Geneva, Switzerland.

One of the major nuclear R&D efforts underway is a Chinese-U.S. collaboration led by the Department of Energy’s (DOE) assistant secretary for nuclear energy, Peter Lyons and Jiang Mainheng of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. According to a March 2012 presentation by the Chinese Academy  on thorium-fed, molten salt, reactors reported here by Mark Halper, the blogger-in-residence at The Weinberg Foundation, China has demonstrated keen interest in thorium. (See accompanying slide from that presentation.)

China and Thorium

This slide is from a presentation asserting that the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) intends to mine, use and control thorium for next generation nuclear reactors. The full video is embedded at the end of this post. CREDIT: SmartPlanet.com

A DOE spokeswoman denied thorium is the focus of their collaboration. Rather it is to “foster nuclear energy collaborations among scientists, laboratories, research institutes and universities in the U.S. and China” to “expand a safe, reliable and secure domestic nuclear energy industry in both countries” covering “molten salt coolant systems; nuclear fuel resources; and nuclear hybrid energy systems.” It should be noted that thorium could work with either or all three of those options.

The U.S.-Chinese collaboration is one of many U.S. coordinated bilateral nuclear R&D programs in place with countries such as France, Russia, the Czech Republic, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Ukraine and South Korea.  

James Kennedy, a consultant in St. Louis, MO, expresses concern about the U.S. – Chinese accord.  At a recent conference by the Thorium Energy Alliance in Chicago, he said, “You can’t have the world move on without you with what for all practical and measurable purposes is a safer form of energy. . . Why are we sustaining the energy system that was the byproduct of the Cold War?” These and related remarks start around the 10 minute mark of video findable at the embedded URL above.

To be sure, any transition to thorium-fueled reactors would take decades.  Seth Grae, CEO of nuclear consultancy Lightbridge in McLean, VA, which makes its living serving countries with existing, uranium nuclear power reactors, is one of many who cautions that thorium is no panacea and would have its own set of technical, political and regulatory issues.  

For one, thorium is still “nuclear” and still likely to draw vocal opposition.  But what if there is a real value-added by deploying thorium, such as using the massive piles of spent nuclear fuel stored around the country as a fuel? The next generation of nuclear power could run, at least in part, on the energy still accessible in those fuel rods. And in the process, go a long way toward answering: what do plant operators do with the highly-radioactive waste?

“Now is the appropriate time to take another look at all the realistic options, especially with respect to how one or more of them could burn spent fuel as its fuel,” said Wendolyn Hollard, a clean energy consultant who has served as Director, Strategic Development & Technical Partnerships at the Savannah River National Laboratory.

The advantages of thorium and liquid-fueled reactors deserve to be researched and, if practical,  developed and offered to the world in ways that could measurably tackle the world’s climate challenges while sustaining and expanding a valuable industry with high-paying jobs. That’s what China, India, as well as, Norway, South Korea, South Africa and other nations seem to have in mind.

How this plays out remains to be seen. At a recent conference commemorating the 40th ‘anniversary’ of the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo against the U.S. by Securing America’s Future Energy, GE Chairman & CEO Jeffrey Immelt said he doesn’t foresee nuclear being a high priority for his successor. But for his successor’s successor, nuclear could be part of the equation, even in the U.S.

How the myriad visions in around the world for thorium translate into new nuclear power plants remains to be seem.  It could boil down to two things: 1) The ability of advocates to re-create a research and development path for thorium supported by the U.S. government and enabled by a less-restrictive U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission; 2) Whether enough industry suppliers are willing to support it.

I look forward to readers’ comments on these and other next-generation nuclear options and writing about them.  I’ll close with some additional examples to keep your eyes on. They may, or may not, use thorium as a fuel:

  • Thor Energy in Oslo, Norway has begun testing thorium in a reactor there;
  • Indian planners are moving towards a three-stage development program, the last of which would be powered by thorium. One plan is to build 60 reactors and convert all of them to run on thorium by 2032.
  • Flibe Energy co- founded by Kirk Sorensen in Hunstville, AL, is reportedly working with the U.S. Defense Department on a thorium-fed reactor;
  • A research program by Candu of Canada and China National Nuclear Corporation is developing a design that could use thorium fuel as well as recycled uranium; and
  • Microsoft founder Bill Gates and his Terra Power startup in Bellevue, WA are drawing lots of interest, especially when thorium enters the conversation.

Content Discussion

Paul Ebert's picture
Paul Ebert on October 30, 2013

Of course, it should!  There’s no rational reason it should not be aggresively pursued.  By the way, the 2013 international thorium energy conference is going on in CERN.

http://thoriumforum.com/watch-webcast-thorium-conference-cern

http://thoriumenergyconference.org/

Jim Pierobon's picture
Jim Pierobon on October 30, 2013

Paul,

Thank you for chiming in. I make reference to the Thorium conference at CERN in the column and would look forward to you or anybody there offering the latest developments and perspectives that came out of the conference..

~Jim

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on October 30, 2013

Thorium is an especially promising fuel when it powers a Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR).  As discussed here by Robert Hargraves and here by Kirk Sorenson, it is expected to provide cost effective, safe, rapidly scalable, and sustainable energy.

“…nothing that I would categorize as a dramatically cleaner, less-wasteful, lower risk  — and yet still affordable — technology.”

Well, it is true that LFTR is one of the more economically promising ways to meet all of these goals.  

However, today’s light water reactors (LWRs) have made great strides in getting the risk of Fukushima-type accidents very  low, and the risk of more serious (Chernobyl) accidents is basically non-existant.  Overall, they are much safer than fossil fuels, and have much lower environmental impact than renewables.

LWRs are also pretty good for cost.  Their large up-front cost is offset by very long life and low fuel/operating cost, so that the fleet average cost is actually cheaper than for other large sustainable options.  The price-point that the new SMRs hit should be much easier to build a business case around.

The waste recycling and sustainability issues with LWRs can be addressed by using them in combination with reprocessing and fast reactors (traditional sodium-cooled w/ solid fuel or even with new liquid fuel designs which are being studied).  The sodium-cooled fast reactors that were part of the 1960s view of how to do nuclear have also undergone dramatic evolutionary improvements; as discussed here, the IFR (Integral Fast Reactor) features improvements to the safety, cost, and proliferation resistance.

In the 1970s, we let our nuclear build-out stall, and had a massive relapse into fossil fuel, which is taking a terrible toll on the environment.  We need to get our nuclear program moving forward again.

Jessee McBroom's picture
Jessee McBroom on October 31, 2013

I actually think there is room for both LFTR and LWR technologies in the Nuclear mix of the future. I do believe it will come down to Safety vs Longevity of applications based upon the Secututy Issues present at the moment with respect to sabatoge by unfriendly forces. Spent fuel continues to increase in supply and security issues continue to be a bother. I believe a rational address of the security issue will determine the logical choices as to how much of what technology will be employed in the nudlear energy industry. At any rate safety is a higher priority than what methodology is employed in future nuclear energy ambitions. IFRs may be a method of choice as well as WAMSR technology to address security issues. At the end of the day; I can think of no Nuclear Reaction technology that is immune to a catastrophic failure due to grid failure in extreme solar events and the adverse impact on cooling pumps. I suppose this can be addressed with suitable back up generation in situ and is a must as the incident at Fukashima has taught us. We could probably reduce the stockpiles of spent fuel rod and still manage to have enough to utilize in extremely long life thorium reactors; which in my semi educated opinion would best serve mankind as underground facilities themselves.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on October 31, 2013

“Every kg will generate enough energy to displace 13,000 barrels of oil”…

Ya, with that, we might even be able to reverse global warming from excess CO2 by removing that excess. That kind of awesome power from the MSR is required to have machine automation to do the work of making more machines that extract the materials necessary.

Go LFTR!

One way is olivine mining and crushing…

http://www.innovationconcepts.eu/res/literatuurSchuiling/olivineagainstclimatechange23.pdf

Here’s my little “pro LFTR” vid…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7vI0dQd0wg0

Paul O's picture
Paul O on November 1, 2013

Nathan,

LWR’s may be a solution for advanced countries like the USA, with deep enough pockets for the steep up front cost. However, if we are looking at providing a worldwide solution for replacing CO2 power generation like coal, it still seems to me that poorer and less sophisticated countries would rather burn coal than pay steep up-front costs for LWR reactors that they may not have  the know-how or training to run properly.

Thorium is very appealing because it won’t cost as much to install and it can be operated without the fear of melt-down (however unlikely in today’s lwr) and in the abscence of highly trained/educated staff.

Rightly or wrongly there are real and percieved disadvantages to the current style of nuclear reactors and LFTR completely sidesteps the issue.  My preference would be to continue building LWRs while completing the next gen  MSRs. A lower up front cost would mean that many more reactors can be brought online, sooner, and these can/should become the dominant technology when current LWRs become due for retirement.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on November 1, 2013

“… I can think of no Nuclear Reaction technology that is immune to a catastrophic failure due to grid failure in extreme solar events and the adverse impact on cooling pumps.

The Fukushima type accident is a “station blackout – after heat” accident.  If the cooling pumps don’t keep running, for at least a few weeks after the reactor shuts down, then the fuel can overheat, leading to cladding rupture and volatile fission product release (though the containment building would prevent most releases into the environment).

This is a well understood type of accident (the same as Three Mile Island), and it is addressed in every modern nuclear plant design.  As we saw, the Fukushima reactors (typical of Gen II) used a combination of 4 hours of battery power plus diesel generators to power the cooling pumps. Newer Gen III designs employ larger tanks of water in the containment building, located above the reactor so that gravity can push it into the core without need for electrical power; such designs typically have days before electricity or addition water is required to keep the fuel safe.  The new SMR designs, which also use Gen III safety principles, because of their small size, can transition to passive air cooling before running out of water for evaporative cooling.

Most of the proposed Gen IV designs are high temperature types.  This means that they are effectively immune to station blackout accidents, since they don’t require electricity for after heat removal: passive air cooling always works.  This includes LFTR, IFR sodium cooled fast reactor, Lead-cooled fast reactor, Pebble Bed Modular reactor, VHTR, and the salt-cooled TRISO-fueled reactors (FHR and PB-AHTR).

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on November 1, 2013

Jim, thorium-powered MSRs truly do have the potential to be game changers – and ironically, that may be their weakest link.

The game is currently dominated by uranium – a $multi-billion industry that cheap, plentiful thorium could render obsolete (as a breeder design, an LFTR could theoretically run for decades after being initially seeded with a small amount of U-233).

Senators Harry Reid and Orrin Hatch co-sponsored a bill in 2009 to allocate $100 million/year to thorium/molten-salt research, but it went down three congressional sessions in a row. Why? The international uranium consortium URENCO has largely dominated not only the supply of uranium fuel assemblies, but the political dialog as well. With a $2.1 billion manufacturing facility located in New Mexico, the concern has had an outsized voice in U.S. energy – senators from that state have been chairmen of the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee for the last 12 years (for fifteen years before that oil-state senators were chairmen, guaranteeing that no new voice in nuclear could be heard).

Now that Ron Wyden (D-OR) is chairman, maybe we’ll see a bill that makes it to the Senate floor. In my opinion, it’s long overdue.

Roger Blomquist's picture
Roger Blomquist on November 1, 2013

You are right that we should pursue thorium-uranium breeder reactors because of the plentiful supplies of thorium. But we should first complete the commercialization of the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR), which enjoys all of the advantages of the various thorium-fueled reactors but is close to ready now. See http://www.ne.anl.gov/About/reactors/integral-fast-reactor.shtml for more information. For 30 years until 1994, Argonne National Laboratory operated Experimental Breeder Reactor II, a 20 MWe electric-generating prototype in Idaho. The reactor can be fueled with used fuel from our commercial reactors and with our vast depleted uranium stocks (already mined) and is inherently safe (demonstrated by performing test accidents at EBR-II). The pyroprocessing technology produces recycled fuel material that does not separate plutonium and includes lots of fission products, making it extremely proliferation resistant. This system increases uranium resource utilization by about a factor of 100, making the cost of uranium extraction quite unimportant to the economics. Although developed in the US, other countries are pursuing this technology, but we are not.

Steve K9's picture
Steve K9 on November 2, 2013

My current interest in nuclear began about a decade ago with an essay by Charles Barton on Nuclear Green regarding the liquid-fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR).  I’m very enthusiastic about it.  But in the last few years as the nuclear renaissance slowed due to the Fukushima incident and  Wall Street driven speculation in hydraulic fracturing, I have little enthusiasm for those writers who take the attitude that these are sooo much better than current LWR’s that we should slow or halt development of current reactors.  

That would be a very serious mistake.  We need to build out reactor fleets now as quickly as possible to have any chance at all in addressing climate change (and even that is not a great chance).  We can continue research, but when we have an additional 500 reactors of current LWR type working, and the benefits become (more) obvious, it will be a lot easier to fund development and implementation.  

The world is going to need 10,000 — 15,000 reactors in this century.  There will be opportunity for advanced designs that are better, but that cannot come at the cost of delaying.  We need to get going … NOW.

Jim Pierobon's picture
Jim Pierobon on November 2, 2013

SteveK9:

Thank you for your input. At the rate it takes to certify a new reactor design and then license it, your point is well taken. But part of the reason is that thorium-fed reactors appear to solve many of the complications of sticking with existing uranium-fed reactors. I wish we could find a more efficient and faster way to accomplish this. If anyone has some ideas, please do share!

~Jim

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on November 2, 2013

The factory setting is what’s needed to reduce costs enough to compete with fossil fuels.

http://nucleargreen.blogspot.com/2009/04/lftr-and-thorium-molten-salt-reactor.html

Hopefully, LFTR or similar, will be easy to maintain and operate by all the nations. It’s already proliferation resistant. A few extra years for factory development of a molten salt based SMR would far outweigh the advantages of limited deployment of already perfected but publicly feared LWR based designs.

Swapping coal out for fission would be the least expensive way towards zero carbon energy because the infrastructure is already in place. I believe the inherent safety of LFTR is the selling point for fission in close proximity to population centers. The tech is available, just not the political will.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on November 2, 2013

Yes, I agree that once developed, LFTRs (and FHR salt-cooled TRISO-fuelled reactors) are likely to have lower up front costs than LWRs or IFRs, as well as providing host communities with assurance that there will never be an accident with serious off-site consequences.

But that does not mean that they will necessarily be easier to operate, or require less staff training than LWRs.  Some LFTR variants include on-site fuel reprocessing, which can be fairly sophisticated (the simpler ones will likely hit the market first). 

I also agree that we should develope MSRs while continuing to deploy LWRs.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on November 3, 2013

Nathan, upon reflection I agree that it is the MSR with a closed fuel cycle that I am enthusiastic about. The particular style/flavor of MSR is irrelevant.

In the end, what I desire is Safe and abundant, Low-Cost, useable anywhere/anytime, steady, reliable and scalable energy, that preserves our current lifestyle and infrastructure, without resorting to rationing or employ inconvieneient “smart” gimmickery, CO2-free energy, for the future of our species and our planet,

Robert "Bob" Mitchell's picture
Robert "Bob" Mitchell on November 4, 2013

My question is, “What’s the hold up?”  Why are they still wanting to build older generation nuclear power plants?

 

Bob “The Clean Energy Guy” Mitchell

Lewis Perelman's picture
Lewis Perelman on December 1, 2013

This is an excellent presentation and discussion. The consensus seems clearly that thorium reactors should be pushed more aggressively than they have been, even against the resistance from vested interests in LWR technology.

How best to do that, and who can/should lead the effort is not quite so clear. Having some commercially viable models of success likely would help build momentum.

I’m not sure that carbon is the most persuasive argument for thorium, though it will influence some. Cost and reliability may be more convincing, especially for the “energy poor.” Cost also includes immediate, tangible environmental costs/benefits like air and water quality impacts.

Thorkil Soee's picture
Thorkil Soee on October 23, 2016

Sure Thorium is the future.
But the anti-nuclear establishment is in the process of using Thorium as an excuse for delaying the use of “traditional nuclear”.

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