Thorium Reactors: Nuclear Redemption or Nuclear Hazard?

Could thorium save the nuclear industry – or is it a mirage?

“We should do our best to develop the use of thorium,” former UN weapons inspector Hans Blix recently told BBC News. “I’ve been told that thorium will be safer in reactors – and it is almost impossible to make a bomb out of thorium.”

Thorium is up to 200 times denser than uranium and as common as lead. It could be a safer and cheaper nuclear fuel, GTM reported shortly after the Fukushima disaster in 2011: “China, India, Japan, France, Russia and the USA are currently all developing thorium-based reactors.”

However, thorium-based nuclear power is still a hypothesis. As Blix noted, in addition to the technical barriers, there is a multi-billion dollar uranium-based nuclear industry that is “tied to interests” that could hamper development efforts.

“Uranium, which is much better suited for making bombs, took the stage in World War II,” said Richard Martin, SuperFuel writer and thorium attorney, on NPR’s Science Friday last year. Thorium was “pushed aside”.

It could come back. India, with the world’s largest thorium resource, is committed to a program to use “thorium compounds as a breeder fuel to produce more uranium”. According to the November Economist, plans are “to get 30 percent of its electricity from thorium reactors by 2050”.

China is developing “a next-generation reactor that its proponents say is much safer to use than uranium,” according to BBC News. And Norway’s Thor Energy is developing thorium technology through an “evolutionary approach” using thorium “in existing reactors with uranium or plutonium”.

TerraPower, supported by Microsoft billionaires Bill Gates and Nathan Myhrvold, is a uranium-based SMR (Small Modular Reactor) technology that reuses stored nuclear waste. The New York Times recently called it “a very long-term bet”.

Thorium technologies fit in with the nuclear industry’s move towards SMRs. Flibe Energy’s modular liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR) and “known thorium reserves” could power a “progressive society for many thousands of years,” according to a claim on the company’s fact sheet.

The external nuclear chain reaction of LFTRs also reuses stored nuclear waste and certainly makes containment superfluous, as they are automatically shut down in the event of a fault. Thorium is cheaper and more efficient than uranium, and modular LFTR reactors could be mass-produced cheaply, use less water, and provide waste heat and marketable by-products.

Nobel laureate and former CERN director Carlo Rubbia advocates an alternative accelerator-powered thorium technology (ADS) that gives thorium “absolute priority” over other fuels, Rubbia said recently. Norwegian nuclear industry player Aker Solutions acquired Rubbia’s patents earlier this year and is investing US $ 1.8 billion in their development.

Andrew Hutton, associate director of the Jefferson Laboratory, said ADS could “change the landscape of the waste disposal and storage problem.” It is minimally radioactive, switches itself off automatically and offers “proliferation resistance”.

However, critics have cited some concerns about thorium. The President of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, Dr. Arjun Makhijani, Martin responded to the NPR program last year. Pure uranium-233 can be obtained from the molten salt that comes from thorium reactors, “with which bombs can be made more easily than with plutonium”. And the waste, Makhijani added, contains cancer-causing radioactive materials.

The derivation of U-233 is “practically impossible, even for a highly developed nuclear power laboratory, let alone for a rogue nation or a terrorist group”. Thorium reactors generate waste, he admitted. But they use stored wastes as starters, their wastes are “tenths of a percent of the comparable volume of a conventional reactor” and their half-life is “a few hundred years as opposed to tens of thousands of years”.

Dr. Alvin Weinberg, the “guru” of thorium nuclear technology, called it a “fist bargain” and said it was “a great source of energy, but one has to worry about proliferation and waste,” Makhijani replied.

“OK, you have concerns about thorium-based nuclear power,” replied Martin. “But what is the answer? Renewable energies will not solve our problem in the next 30 to 50 years in the time we need. “You have the choice between“ an innovative form of nuclear energy ”and“ an increase in global temperatures of three degrees Celsius in the next 50 years ”.

“My reactor is free. It’s in the sky 93 million miles away. You can store its energy in molten salt. It is done today. They can generate electricity 24 hours a day, ”replied Makhijani.

Even with large investments in thorium technology, it would take ten years to build the infrastructure and ten years to introduce regulations. “I took an honest, unbiased look and didn’t think that we could use renewable energies. And I found out that my guess was wrong: we can generate 100 percent renewable energy. “

Thorium will not be found in the US “because of licensing problems,” Martin agreed. It happens in China, India and Western Europe. “The resuscitation of the thorium is inevitable. The question is whether the United States will be a supporter or a leader. “

“Let them raise venture capital and do it,” said Mark Cooper, Vermont Law School researcher on energy and the environment in nuclear economics. “[There are] Low carbon and low carbon technologies, the cost of which has come down, and which can stop the light. In 25 years [there will likely be] A whole host of inexpensive ways to keep the lights on that are emerging from current technologies. “

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