Mike the Mad Biologist

More on Thorium-Based Nuclear Power

I’ve written about the need and potential of thorium-based nuclear power:

It’s always seemed to me that nuclear power would have to be part of the solution of the global warming problem: even if the planet’s population were to remain constant, and even if planet-wide energy use were to remain steady, we would still have to dramatically cut CO2 per capita emissions. The problem with nuclear power–or more accurately, uranium-based nuclear power–is the waste product. Not only is radioactive waste produced, but the byproducts of the reaction can be used to build nuclear weapons.

At The Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard writes:

There is no certain bet in nuclear physics but work by Nobel laureate Carlo Rubbia at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) on the use of thorium as a cheap, clean and safe alternative to uranium in reactors may be the magic bullet we have all been hoping for, though we have barely begun to crack the potential of solar power.

Dr Rubbia says a tonne of the silvery metal – named after the Norse god of thunder, who also gave us Thor’s day or Thursday – produces as much energy as 200 tonnes of uranium, or 3,500,000 tonnes of coal. A mere fistful would light London for a week.

Thorium eats its own hazardous waste. It can even scavenge the plutonium left by uranium reactors, acting as an eco-cleaner. “It’s the Big One,” said Kirk Sorensen, a former NASA rocket engineer and now chief nuclear technologist at Teledyne Brown Engineering.

“Once you start looking more closely, it blows your mind away. You can run civilisation on thorium for hundreds of thousands of years, and it’s essentially free. You don’t have to deal with uranium cartels,” he said.

Thorium is so common that miners treat it as a nuisance, a radioactive by-product if they try to dig up rare earth metals. The US and Australia are full of the stuff. So are the granite rocks of Cornwall. You do not need much: all is potentially usable as fuel, compared to just 0.7pc for uranium.

Evans-Pritchard then asks:

The White House has approved $8bn in loan guarantees for new reactors, yet America has been strangely passive. Where is the superb confidence that put a man on the moon?

Good question.

This actually seems a little optimistic; I think it will be harder to do this than Evans-Pritchard claims, as the devil is always in the details. But, in the face of global warming, we don’t really have a choice.

Comments

  1. #1 Left_Wing_Fox
    September 9, 2010

    I keep hearing about the wonders of thorium, but never hear the technical objections. It would be interesting to red an article as to why we don’t have thorium reactors yet.

  2. #2 Dunc
    September 9, 2010

    Has anybody ever actually built a real, working, commercial-scale thorium reactor? I’m old enough to remember apparently serious promises of “electricity too cheap to meter” from uranium fission, so I’m not going to take these promises seriously without seeing some results.

    Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice… Won’t get fooled again.

  3. #3 Nomen Nescio
    September 9, 2010

    one good reason we don’t have this yet is that developing it to fiscal viability would be a long, expensive, and politically controversial process for uncertain results. at the end of it, what you’d get is just a nuclear power plant, and we already have those; what investor will finance inventing that wheel again?

    i’d guesstimate we could go from where we are now to practically deployable thorium power plants in thirty years’ worth of effort. i could be wrong, but given a traditional nuke plant — already researched technology — can take ten years or so to build, i doubt i am. what will global energy policy look like in thirty years? do we have time for thorium?

  4. #4 NoAstronomer
    September 9, 2010

    Well, one reason modern nuclear reactors are designed around a uranium fuel cycle is precisely *because* the by-products can be used to construct nuclear weapons.

    In the 1940s and 1950 a great deal of government money around the world was spent on research into uranium and plutonium. The first reactors were constructed solely for the purpose of generating plutonium with no provision to actually generate electricity. Pile 1 at Windscale (site of Britain’s worst nuclear accident in 1957) is a prime example.

    So today there’s a huge, government-funded, body of knowledge around uranium fission. There’s also a large entrenched industry focused on uranium-based power (mining, shipment, refinement, construction, generation etc).

    Furthermore the history of nuclear accidents have soured the pitch for everybody else. Heck even fusion has to defend itself against the ‘nuclear’ tag.

    So thorium-based power faces a serious uphill struggle for funding and public acceptance.

  5. #5 Immunologist
    September 9, 2010

    You should check out a company called “Thorium Power.” Back in 2002 or so they had a contract with a nuclear lab in Russia (the same one that operated the first graphite reactor in Russia and produced the first material for their nuclear bomb, and still active in design of nuclear plants for ships, submarines, and satellites) to build and test thorium fuel rods in their research (light water) reactor. This initiative was supported by Jim Gibbons, then Senator from Nevada and an opponent of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage facility. I have heard nothing about is since, but the idea that you could use thorium rods in existing plants was very interesting, and could significantly reduce the costs associated with a switch to thorium-based nuclear power.

  6. #6 NJ
    September 9, 2010

    Some of the issues and potential issues are discussed on Wikipedia:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thorium_fuel_cycle

    which also includes a list about a dozen thorium reactors that have been tested (or are running) worldwide.

  7. #7 Paul
    September 9, 2010

    Dunc: “Has anybody ever actually built a real, working, commercial-scale thorium reactor?”

    I believe India has one small plant using Thorium right now, with a larger Pilot Plant in construction. They plan to move forward with 5 more once they work out the issues with the pilot plant. The United States is in real danger of being “behind the curve” on this issue.

  8. #8 TheBrummell
    September 9, 2010

    “Uranium cartels”? Uranium is mined like other metals, and the major world reserves currently are found in (order from Wikipedia):
    Kazahkstan
    Canada
    Australia
    Namibia
    Russia
    Niger

    Production varies a bit from this list; Canada and Australia produce more refined Uranium than does Kazahkstan, but this gives an idea of what’s out there.

    The point about Uranium preference in reactors for its bomb-making uses is well taken, and I can believe the industry would be reluctant to change fuels. But “cartels”? That implies a certain unpleasant conspiracy-type phenomenon is occuring.

  9. #9 Roland
    September 9, 2010

    Sounds good-see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thorium_fuel_cycle
    But this sounds even better:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traveling_wave_reactor
    There’s a lot of Thorium available, but there’s also a lot of natural uranium. A TWR can use both. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TerraPower

  10. #10 daedalus2u
    September 10, 2010

    Comparing energy yields from 100% fissioning of thorium (which does require the breeding of fissionable isotopes from natural thorium) with the 0.7% fissioning of only the fissionable U235 isotope is disingenuous. U238 can be bred into fissionable plutonium just as thorium can be bred into fissionable U233.

    The primary advantage of thorium is that the fissile U233 it produces can be denatured with non-fissile U238 so the U233 can’t be used to make nuclear weapons. I think the US did make a nuclear weapons out of U233, just to see if it could be done.

    Chernobyl was designed as a plutonium producing reactor too with many of the “bugs” that contributed to the disaster being included as “features” to optimize plutionium production and recovery.

  11. #11 Left_Wing_Fox
    September 10, 2010

    Some interesting reading there folks, so thanks. :)

    Personally, I do see nuclear reactors as being a necessary component to future energy production, since they can provide stability to a renewable-resource based power grid. The idea of nuclear reactors which are safer, result in less waste, and don’t contribute to the proliferation of nuclear weapons is certainly appealing.

    Still, I don’t see it as the ultimate answer to humanity’s long-term energy needs. Like fossil fuels, there’s still the issue of locating and extracting a limited resource. The more we can focus on efficiency and renewable resources, I think the better off we’ll be when trying to create an energy infrastructure that dosen’t rely on a single disruptable resource.

  12. #12 BAllanJ
    September 10, 2010

    I remember something about a proposal to use mixed Uranium-Thorium fuel in the Canadian Candu reactors back in a reactor physics course I took in 1979. Candus are a bit odd compared to the PWRs in that they use unenriched uranium as a fuel and heavy water as a moderator. This may have made them easier to use as partial breeders since the neutron flux is higher.

  13. #13 Richard Ong
    September 13, 2010

    What “global warming problem”?

  14. #14 Charles
    September 21, 2010

    Interestingly enough, it is also theoretically possible to design a uranium-based fuel cycle that produce their own fuel and generates no long-lived radioactive wastes.

    It turns out that the non-abundant (less than 1% of natural uranium deposits) uranium isotope U-235 is much easier to burn than the abundant (99% of natural deposits) U-238 isotope, which is not directly usable as fuel. With clever design, a fuel cycle could be built that uses U-238 by converting it to the plutonium isotope P-239 (a usable fuel) in a process called neutron capture, and thus make use of the vastly larger supply of U-238. Once P-239 is obtained, things get more complicated but basically the P-239 and daughter isotopes are burned.

    Thorium reactors actually would operate on a similar principle, with Th-232 (not directly usable as fuel) being converted to U-233 (usable as fuel).

    Since these fuel cycles involve breeding usable isotopes from non-usable fuel, the reactors based on them are called “breeder reactors.”

    The most important characteristic of the thorium fuel cycle is that it is necessarily a breeder-type cycle, while a once-through uranium fuel cycle is viable. (The once-through cycle is the one used in all commercial reactors, and involves enrichment by concentrating U-235, a process we hear a lot about these days.)

    And why haven’t people been building and operating breeder reactors? Real-world engineering and economic reasons are mostly to blame: It turns out that building and maintaining a breeder reactor is very expensive and hard to do in practice. Also, some people have proliferation and safety concerns about the plutonium stage in the uranium cycle.

  15. #15 Ronald du Plooy
    February 23, 2011

    India is proof to what we have been waiting for. A thorium plant will be completed in 2011 and further more projects will commence after that.
    With energy in abundant 3rd world country’s will be able to commence to the next level witch is 1st world states.

  16. #16 Wow
    February 23, 2011

    “With clever design, a fuel cycle could be built that uses U-238 by converting it to the plutonium isotope P-239 (a usable fuel)”

    Which clever design had the USA threatening to invade North Korea.

    If your solution cannot be globally provided, it is no solution.

    PS why does the USA need nuclear power when it has so much coal and oil in its borders (which was the “proof” of NK and Iran’s perfidity in their nuclear power program)?

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