23 March 2011

Safer nuclear energy - via thorium ?

Excerpts from an article at the Telegraph:
A few weeks before the tsunami struck Fukushima’s uranium reactors and shattered public faith in nuclear power, China revealed that it was launching a rival technology to build a safer, cleaner, and ultimately cheaper network of reactors based on thorium...

China’s Academy of Sciences said it had chosen a “thorium-based molten salt reactor system”. The liquid fuel idea was pioneered by US physicists at Oak Ridge National Lab in the 1960s, but the US has long since dropped the ball...

“The reactor has an amazing safety feature,” said Kirk Sorensen, a former NASA engineer at Teledyne Brown and a thorium expert. “If it begins to overheat, a little plug melts and the salts drain into a pan. There is no need for computers, or the sort of electrical pumps that were crippled by the tsunami. The reactor saves itself,” he said.

“They operate at atmospheric pressure so you don’t have the sort of hydrogen explosions we’ve seen in Japan. One of these reactors would have come through the tsunami just fine. There would have been no radiation release.” ..

The earth’s crust holds 80 years of uranium at expected usage rates, he said. Thorium is as common as lead. America has buried tons as a by-product of rare earth metals mining. Norway has so much that Oslo is planning a post-oil era where thorium might drive the country’s next great phase of wealth. Even Britain has seams in Wales and in the granite cliffs of Cornwall. Almost all the mineral is usable as fuel, compared to 0.7pc of uranium. There is enough to power civilization for thousands of years.
If this has been known since the 1960s, why hasn't it been pursued?
US physicists in the late 1940s explored thorium fuel for power. It has a higher neutron yield than uranium, a better fission rating, longer fuel cycles, and does not require the extra cost of isotope separation.

The plans were shelved because thorium does not produce plutonium for bombs.
Well, that certainly explains it. 

China is developing the technology, Norway is considering it.  The U.S., as the Republicans have repeatedly pointed out, is "broke."  We don't have the money for projects like this (which in any case should be pursued by private enterprise, not a socialist government).  And the Obama administration considers it more important to try to tip the balance in a Libyan civil war -
As of Tuesday, the coalition had fired at least 162 sea-launched Tomahawk missiles priced at $1 million to $1.5 million apiece and dispatched B-2 stealth bombers -- round-trip from Missouri -- to drop 2,000-pound bombs on Libyan sites. Total flying time: 25 hours. Operating cost for one hour: at least $10,000.
- with the ultimate goal of garnering favor with those who will control Libyan oil production preventing civilian deaths by a ruthless dictator. 

It's all comes down to priorities chosen by politicans who can't look beyond the next election cycle.


  1. Thorium sounds like a fantastic solution, and I think we're definitely victims of government/industrial distaste for real innovation when it comes to energy. My problem is that the Telegraph and other non-scientific publications describe it in almost miraculous terms, and I get a little suspicious when I see that ...

    I have heard thorium referenced several times on programs like NPR's Science Friday, and the nuclear experts all have responded by saying it isn't a practical solution. Forgive me for not having more details on this; I will try to find specific links to credible sources and post those soon.

    I have always wondered why other advanced countries, ones with smaller nuclear arsenals but similar energy needs, have never tried thorium. In short, if something sounds too good to be true ...

  2. I agree with your sentiment and suspicions. A brief search I did suggested only that it was expensive technology to develop compared to relatively cheap uranium.

  3. You can find reams of information about the most promising version of Thorium technology, the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) at the Energy from Thorium Blog: energyfromthorium.com . There are a number of helpful links in the right sidebar, including a 16-minute remix of the highlights of three one-hour Google Tech talks from 2008 and 2009.

    Today's entry is an interesting rebuttal of a "fact sheet" published by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER) and Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR).

    The fact sheet is more of a listing of the drawbacks of various straw men Thorium proposals. LFTR and other Molten Salt Reactor concepts are not considered.

    I think we have kind of a national Post Traumatic Stress Disorder regarding nuclear energy, arising from the long years of fear during the cold war and the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. There are always dangers in large industrial processes, but the record of nuclear energy is far safer and orders of magnitude less risky than oil, gas or coal.

  4. Well ironically enough I remember a proposal to build several small Thorium reactors in rural Midwestern towns.

    But Congress eventually put down the proposal because the reactors would have been made primarily in Japan.

    This was a long time ago so a quick google search did not come up with the article. I will try Slashdot next, I think thats where I read it.

  5. The US has not "dropped the ball". Thorium reactor technology was spun off of Los Alamos and was consider for use by Hyperion. But Hyperion believes that it is inferior to Uranium Nitride reactors, so they are commercializing these. However the reactors they are building could use thorium as a fuel if they wanted to. Hyperion explains why THorium has no advantages and many disavantaged to uranium nitride here:

    Another technology under development that may turn out to be potentially suited for smal "failsafe" reactors is traveling wave reactors. These burn U235 or depleted uranium. These are called "fast" reactors because they use fast neutrons rather than the slow neutrons (via a moderator) that conventional U235 reactors use.

  6. The trouble with any type of Nuclear reactor, is when things go bad, Things go BAD!

  7. It is not surprising that the Norwegians are biased in favour of a nuclear fuel that is called THORium...

  8. Yah, you betcha, Dirac. Thorium was actually first discovered in Norway and named after the god.

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

  10. Stan, I am very glad to see you picked up on this. I just posted a brief comment on the solar energy post, mentioning Thorium MSR. This is the first real step forward in decades on the energy front. I am pleased the Chinese are pursuing this. And they can't make Plutonium out of it, meaning they are aiming at peacetime nuke stuff instead of the U.S.'s choice you mentioned.

    As an engineer, I am VERY encouraged about this. It would mean no Peak Oil worries, no dead end out there for humanity. The article I read said the Chinese have 200,000 years supply of Thorium. And the U.S. has even more.

  11. LPJ, Germany tried this, back in the 1980s, but they closed down their reactor and turned it into a coal-fired one, based on what I heard.

    Recent NY Times articles on pebble-bed reactors:




    I haven't quite figured out what the connection of pebble-bed reactors is to Thorium MSR. If anyone could enlighten me, I'd appreciate it.

    I've seen these latest NYT articles talking about the Chinese deciding on building 50 pebble-bed reactors (with some small mention of Thorium) and earlier articles elsewhere that talked about the Chinese building a large number of Thorium MSR reactors. The two do not sound like the same reactors, not at all.

  12. About a year ago I read a very similar article to this about the benefits of thorium and how it was only rejected because it could not be weaponised.
    More recently I was having a discussion about it and I wanted to show my sources. I was convinced that I had read it on this blog so I spent a long time searching through the archives without success and never found it.
    It was therfore very amusing to see this article appear covering very similar ground except for reference to the tsunami and Libya.

    That wasn't particularly relevant but I felt like sharing.


  13. Actually, Squib, you were right.

    Your commment triggered my memory, and instead of searching the archives the way you did, I used the Lijit search box in the right sidebar (which searches only this blog) and found this -


    That was posted six months ago. Same newspaper source, but a different article. Probably rewritten and reposted in view of the situation in Japan.

  14. Stan -

    Yes, to that September article here. It was with a smile that I noticed you say it would probably be developed by the Chinese.

    Nice prognostication.


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