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Published on September 12th, 2012 | by Zachary Shahan

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Rebuttals to Paper Criticizing Thorium

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September 12th, 2012 by Zachary Shahan
 
 
The other day, I published a post on “Why Thorium Nuclear Isn’t Featured on CleanTechnica.” The key portion of the post was a paper on thorium nuclear power put out by Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. A reader dropped in two good rebuttals to that paper in the comments below my post, and they seem worthy of reposting here.

Thorium image via Shutterstock

Now, before reposting those, two of the comments on the second piece that I’m reposting remain unanswered, so I’m going to repeat them in case someone can answer them here:

  1. If thorium in a liquid-fluoride reactor (LFR) is so wonderful and was approximately 50 years ago discovered to work, why do we still not have any working example of this, or any clear investment in developing at least one of these reactors?
  2. “Could you explain the materials necessary for building the reactor core? The temperature and radiation flux require some exceptional materials to survive for many years of operation. This is the one question I have not yet seen specific information about.”

The second question seems like it would be very relevant to a discussion on cost (and perhaps, thus, to the first question).

I greatly appreciate the responses in the reposted articles below — they are much better than pretty much everything I have read / been directed to from thorium enthusiasts on this or other sites. But they still leave some questions completely unanswered, including those two above.

In addition to the above, I wonder why countries and companies moving forward with nuclear energy (i.e. the U.S., China, Poland, GE, etc.) continue to pursue the type of nuclear power no sane person wants (for financial and safety reasons). Why do they not change their focus to thorium?

Furthermore, if thorium nuclear in a LFR is so simple, and thorium is so abundant and cheap, and there are no clear limitations to the LFTR design, why has no entrepreneur or company found a way to develop and commercialize a modern LFTR?

Additionally, on the issue of cost, saying that one process is cheaper than another and explaining the theory behind that in a simplistic way is fine, but where are some numbers to back that up? I have never seen numbers showing the price of a LFTR…. perhaps, I guess, because the technology is so far from being developed that nobody has numbers on it. Or perhaps they are out there somewhere and I just haven’t found them. Is LFTR really so cheap? If so, could someone please provide numbers on that based on an actual facility?

Beyond the above, it seems that thorium reactors don’t at all address the issue of energy centralization and monopolization (it doesn’t seem like they are going to help democratize our electricity system any time soon). This is another big issue, but I think it is a discussion for another day….

For now, I’m reposting (what seem like) good rebuttals to the paper I posted the other day. The title of each article below links to the external pages from where I am reposting them.

Cannara’s Rebuke of PSR/IEER

12 May 2010
Physicians for Social Responsibility
1875 Connecticut Ave, NW, Suite 1012
Washington, DC, 20009
psrnatl@psr.org

Nuclear Information and Resource Service
6930 Carroll Avenue, Suite 340,
Takoma Park, MD 20912
info@ieer.org

Dear Sirs/Madams:

Taking encouragement from your (PSR’s) website’s promise: “We encourage the submission of any comments…”, I’m writing you in hopes you’ll correct errors in a particular paper you’ve apparently promulgated to many interest groups like NIRS/IEER, worldwide, resulting in misleading them and our fellow Americans on an extremely important issue. As doctors give oath “to do no harm”, scientists & engineers too work under an implied oath to serve the needs of humanity, and to do so honestly & completely. The PSR/IEER ‘Fact Sheet’ you’ve unfortunately published fails that test. It lacks completeness, accuracy and so, responsibility.

I’m referring to “Thorium Fuel: No Panacea for Nuclear Power”, by Makhijani & Boyd:
www.ieer.org/fctsheet/thorium2009factsheet.pdf

I’ll begin at the heart of the inaccuracy and misleading nature of the piece – it considers only solid nuclear fuels. As a result, it achieves three major failings: 1) it displays the authors as unaware of nuclear-reactor designs that are indeed safer than present LWR/BWR solid-fuelled systems; 2) it suggests PSR and/or IEER don’t have proper review procedures; and 3) it illustrates the danger of bias in content that gives the appearance of motivation to mislead readers.

None of the above are excusable, especially not for any organizations using the words “Responsible“ or “Resource Service” in their names. In other words, the result of the report’s failings is to mark it as an example of exactly the kind of misleading document we need less of today and in the future. Perhaps it’s served as a lobbying tool, but we have far too much of that everywhere today, as well. So, in the interest of responsibility to our fellow citizens across the globe, here are comments you say you “encourage”:

a) Paragraphs 2, 9, 10 & 13 are mutually inconsistent as to the danger of natural Thorium (isotope 232), apparently attempting to strike fear in the reader about a mildly radioactive metal that’s still half here because its half life is the age of the known universe. By definition, such a long-lived nucleus is hardly a danger. In fact, about every cubic meter of rock on Earth, Moon & Mars has 12 grams of Th232, which turns out to be enough to feed a reactor that meets an American’s energy-consuming needs for about a decade.

b) In additional sentences you refer to Th232 mining as “posing long-term hazards”, yet you fail to mention that mining for it is unnecessary, because Thorium is a byproduct of most “rare-earth” mining around the world and with a 14-billion year half life, constitutes not only no danger when treated properly, but has been stockpiled by DoE in sufficient pure-metal quantities to obviate any mining to meet all US energy needs for about a decade. How is it that the authors didn’t report this?

c) By the way, the company you list as “advocating for Thorium fuel” is no longer under the name you list, but is now LightBridge.

d) Again in the 2nd paragraph, the authors evidence ignorance of the liquid-fuel cycle successfully developed and used at ORNL between 1954 and 1974 – discontinued because it could not be used for weapons. So, saying: “Thorium doesn’t solve the proliferation, waste, safety…problems and still faces major technical hurdles…” simply underscores ignorance, intentional or otherwise, of the well-documented successes of Alvin Weinberg’s team at Oak Ridge over 40 years ago. They used liquid (molten-salt) fuel cycles, of which Th232-U233 is most relevant & promising today. So the generalizations of paragraph 2 are specious.

e) The 3rd paragraph continues the error above and fails to mention that not only can Th232 be easily bred to U233 in molten salt, but the resulting U233 (which doesn’t occur in nature) fissions far more completely than other U or Pu isotopes, leading immediately to lower waste production. See reaction diagram attached summary (your authors could easily have found this).

f) The 4th paragraph is irrelevant for the same reason – the authors for some reason are unaware of the very safe, successful, anti-proliferation fuel cycle invented by Weinberg. The reason we should respect him is not least that he stood up for nuclear safety, despite having patents on the light-water reactors we’ve been deploying, and which he rightly considered dangerous in operation as well as in waste. In other words, we should all be grateful and study what his team did, in service to the oath scientists, engineers & doctors make for benefit to all.

g) The 5th paragraph is oddly wrong, even manipulative of the facts – “U233 is as effective as PU239 for making bombs”. Later in the same piece the authors warn of the natural coexistence of U233 & 232, the latter being highly radioactive (gamma). It can’t be had both ways – if a bomb is attempted with U233, enough U232 will naturally occur such that not only will workers be killed very soon, any successfully-constructed weapon would be so radioactive in penetrating gammas that its surrounding controls & delivery mechanisms would be ruined. And, it would be extremely hard to hide & easy to detect. U233 is in no way a military or terrorist weapon, rather it would eliminate any terrorists foolish enough to try to use it. But again, this paragraph is irrelevant because it assumes existence of solid U233 fuel, which is exactly not the Wienberg MSR design. The authors should know this.

h) Paragraph 5 continues the odd ignorance of ORNL’s MSR program and talks about enriching Uranium to start “existing reactors using thorium fuel”. This is, of course, not at all the issue relating to Thorium & MSRs. In fact, DoE also has a U233 stockpile, which could be used to start a Th232-fed MSR, but there would never be any “enriched fuel” sitting around for theft – it would all exist as, say, Fluoride salts, dissolved into the simple MSR chemistry. The Th232-U233 transmutation can even be started with a medical proton-accelerator, as the Japanese have done. This again is a surprising hole in the authors’ writing that proper review would have corrected. We all like our medical procedures & drugs to be properly developed & reviewed, but apparently this has not been PSR’s or IEER’s objective.

i) The paragraphs from here through 8 are equally irrelevant to Thorium use in MSRs. But, paragraph 7 contains the relevant U232 information cited in g) above.

j) The 8th paragraph is singularly misleading, because there’s no “spent fuel” in an MSR – all Th232 & U233 are consumed, and there’s never a scheduled shutdown for refueling, because of the very nature of the design – an unpressurized,liquid. ThF4 or UF4 (or even higher U & Pu isotopes as salts) are simply added into the molten mix as it’s pumped around the reactor & heat-exchanger plumbing. It’s what every chemist understands & loves: liquid, unpressurized chemistry. And, since all fuel is consumed, an MSR can be used to reduce nuclear wastes down to any level desired, even on the site of a de-commissioned U/Pu reactor. This is exactly the kind of ability responsible scientists, engineers, doctors, politicians and citizens care about. PSR/IEER proliferation of this paper hides what is perhaps the most important knowledge we need today to pursue a weapons-free world — MSRs can consume them all. Why the authors say nothing of this deserves intense scrutiny. For details…

www.thoriumenergyalliance.com/downloads/TEAC2_LarsJorgensen.pdf

k) The 11th & 12th paragraphs continue on the irrelevant tack of “reprocessing” and loose, solid U232/233. The MSR has none of this outside an 800degC molten salt.

l) Paragraph 13 makes an oddly unscientific guess that a “thorium fuel cycle is likely to be even more costly” that a Uranium one. As any nuclear engineer or physicist knows, the enrichment process for Uranium fuel is very expensive. Since Thorium is a common byproduct of such mining as for “rare earths” (ignoring our decade stockpile), and 100% of Thorium supplied to an MSR is consumed over its years of operation, then it’s indeed incredulous that anyone would try to say a far less abundant element, whose isotopic concentration must be strenuously altered from its natural state, and which, in solid-fuel form, can only be under 1/10 consumed, is less “costly”. For use in an MSR, Thorium simply needs to be Fluorinated to a salt that gets dumped into a pot of sister molten salts sitting aside a reactor.

In summary, it’s not a bad deal to have a byproduct of strategic materials mining serve to safely provide power around the world, even in space, at about $2/Watt, with no proliferation risk, 0.1% of current Pu waste, and about 50lbs of other wastes per GW-year. Of course, that’s what the liquid-salt reactor gives us, when using Thorium as the fertile input. But the same liquid process can even be used to consume all existing and future wastes, as desired. These all exactly result from Alvin Weinberg’s sense of honest dedication & responsibility.

Rather than attempting to mislead the world about Thorium in narrow uses, PSR & IEER, and all who passed around, unquestioned, the Makhijani & Boyd paper as gospel, owe the world’s citizens an apology and a rewrite of Thorium as a likely useful tool to environmentally meet our energy and fresh-water needs via molten-salt reactors.

Sincerely,
Dr. Alexander Cannara
Menlo Park, Calif.
650-400-3071

 

IEER/PSR Thorium “Fact Sheet” Rebuttal

In January 2009, the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER) and Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) issued a “fact sheet” called “Thorium Fuel: No Panacea for Nuclear Power.” The authors of this sheet were Arjun Makhijani and Michele Boyd.

Last year, Dr. Alexander Cannara wrote a letter to IEER/PSR pointing out errors and omissions in the “fact sheet” and requesting IEER/PSR to implement corrections. To the best of my knowledge no amendment or correction was ever issued.

This is an extended rebuttal of the claims made about thorium by Makhijani and Boyd; the entirety of their original statement is included in the rebuttal and denoted by italics.

Thorium “fuel” has been proposed as an alternative to uranium fuel in nuclear reactors. There are not “thorium reactors,” but rather proposals to use thorium as a “fuel” in different types of reactors, including existing light-water reactors and various fast breeder reactor designs.

It would seem that Mr. Makhijani and Ms. Boyd are unaware of the work done at Oak Ridge National Laboratory under Dr. Alvin Weinberg from 1955 to 1974 on the subject of fluid-fueled reactors, particularly those that used liquid-fluoride salts as a medium in which to sustain nuclear reactions. The liquid-fluoride reactor was the most promising of these fluid-fueled designs, and indeed it did have the capability to use thorium as fuel. It was not a light-water reactor, nor was it a fast-breeder reactor. It has a thermal (slowed-down) neutron spectrum which made it easier to control and vastly improved the amount of fissile fuel it needed to start. It operated at atmospheric pressure rather than the high pressure of water-cooled reactors. It was also singularly suited to the use of thorium due to the nature of its chemistry and the chemistry of thorium and uranium.

Thorium, which refers to thorium-232, is a radioactive metal that is about three times more abundant than uranium in the natural environment. Large known deposits are in Australia, India, and Norway. Some of the largest reserves are found in Idaho in the U.S. The primary U.S. company advocating for thorium fuel is Thorium Power (www.thoriumpower.com). Contrary to the claims made or implied by thorium proponents, however, thorium doesn’t solve the proliferation, waste, safety, or cost problems of nuclear power, and it still faces major technical hurdles for commercialization.

Mr. Makhijani and Ms. Boyd may wish to update their document since “Thorium Power” is now called “Lightbridge” and no longer advocates for the use of thorium, whereas the community of supporters of liquid-fluoride thorium reactors (LFTR) still maintains strong support for the use of thorium because it is indeed a solution to the issues of proliferation, waste, safety, and cost that accompany the present use of solid-fueled, water-cooled reactors.

Thorium is not actually a “fuel” because it is not fissile and therefore cannot be used to start or sustain a nuclear chain reaction. A fissile material, such as uranium-235 (U-235) or plutonium-239 (which is made in reactors from uranium-238), is required to kick-start the reaction. The enriched uranium fuel or plutonium fuel also maintains the chain reaction until enough of the thorium target material has been converted into fissile uranium-233 (U-233) to take over much or most of the job. An advantage of thorium is that it absorbs slow neutrons relatively efficiently (compared to uranium-238) to produce fissile uranium-233.

On the contrary, thorium is very much a fuel because in the steady-state operation of a LFTR, it is the only thing that is consumed to make energy. Makhijani and Boyd are correct that any nuclear reactor needs fissile material to start the chain reaction, and the LFTR is no different, but the important point is that once started on fissile material, LFTR can run indefinitely on only thorium as a feed—it will not continue to consume fissile material. That is very much the characteristic of a true fuel. “Burning thorium” in this manner is possible because the LFTR uses the neutrons from the fissioning of uranium-233 to convert thorium into uranium-233 at the same rate at which it is consumed. The “inventory” of uranium-233 remains stable over the life of the reactor when production and consumption are balanced. Today’s reactors use solid-uranium oxide fuel that is covalently-bonded and sustains radiation damage during its time in the reactor. The fluoride fuel used in LFTR is ionically-bonded and impervious to radiation damage no matter what the exposure duration. LFTR can be used to consume uranium-235 or plutonium-239 recovered from nuclear weapons and “convert” it, for all intents and purposes, to uranium-233 that will enable the production of energy from thorium indefinitely. Truly this is a reactor design that can “beat swords into plowshares” in a safe and economically attractive way.

The use of enriched uranium or plutonium in thorium fuel has proliferation implications. Although U-235 is found in nature, it is only 0.7 percent of natural uranium, so the proportion of U-235 must be industrially increased to make “enriched uranium” for use in reactors. Highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium are nuclear weapons materials.

Since so many nuclear weapons have already been built and are being decommissioned, one might assume that Makhijani and Boyd would welcome a technology like LFTR that could safely consume these sensitive materials in an economically-advantageous way, beating swords into plowshares and using material that was once fashioned as a weapon as a material that can provide light and energy to billions. Enriched uranium or plutonium can’t simply be “thrown away”. LFTR puts these materials to productive use as they are destroyed in the reactor and uranium-233 is generated.

In addition, U-233 is as effective as plutonium-239 for making nuclear bombs. In most proposed thorium fuel cycles, reprocessing is required to separate out the U-233 for use in fresh fuel. This means that, like uranium fuel with reprocessing, bomb-making material is separated out, making it vulnerable to theft or diversion. Some proposed thorium fuel cycles even require 20% enriched uranium in order to get the chain reaction started in existing reactors using thorium fuel. It takes 90% enrichment to make weapons-usable uranium, but very little additional work is needed to move from 20% enrichment to 90% enrichment. Most of the separative work is needed to go from natural uranium, which has 0.7% uranium-235 to 20% U-235.

In a fluoride reactor, all of the fuel processing equipment will be located in a containment region containing the reactor and its primary heat exchangers, under very high radiation fields, and under the high heat needed to keep the fuel liquid. Once the system is properly designed to direct uranium-233 created in the outer regions of the reactor (the “blanket”) to the central regions of the reactor (the “core”) there will be no possibility of redirection of the material flow. Such a redirection would necessitate a rebuild of the entire reactor and would be vastly beyond the capabilities of the operators. Furthermore, the nature of U-233 removal and transfer from blanket to core involves the operation of an electrolytic cell that will allow very precise control and accountability of the material in question. Unlike solid-fueled reactors the uranium-233 never needs to leave the secure area of the containment building or come in contact with humans in order to continue the operation of the reactor. This is another important point that the authors have failed to distinguish as they have ignored the existence or implications of fluid-fueled thorium reactors.

To claim that uranium-233 is just as effective as plutonium-239 for nuclear weapons is gross simplification bordering on outright deception. They have similar values for critical mass, but this leaves out a very important point. The nuclear reactions that consume uranium-233 also produce small amounts of uranium-232, a contaminant that will later be mentioned by the authors but ignored at this stage of the criticism. U-232 has a decay sequence that includes the hard gamma-ray-emitting radioisotopes bismuth-212 and thallium-208. Indeed, the half-life of U-232 is short enough that this decay chain begins to set up within days of the purification of the uranium, and within a few months that gamma-ray flux from the material is intense. These gamma rays destroy the electronics of a nuclear weapon, compromise the chemical explosives, and clearly signal to detection systems where the fissile material is located. This is one of the key reasons why no operational nuclear weapons have ever been built using uranium-233 as the fissile material.

It has been claimed that thorium fuel cycles with reprocessing would be much less of a proliferation risk because the thorium can be mixed with uranium-238. In this case, fissile uranium-233 is also mixed with non-fissile uranium-238. The claim is that if the uranium-238 content is high enough, the mixture cannot be used to make bombs without a complex uranium enrichment plant. This is misleading. More uranium-238 does dilute the uranium-233, but it also results in the production of more plutonium-239 as the reactor operates. So the proliferation problem remains either bomb-usable uranium-233 or bomb-usable plutonium is created and can be separated out by reprocessing.

In my opinion, mixing uranium-238 with uranium-233 during the normal operation of a LFTR is a bad idea because it compromises the capability of the reactor to “burn” thorium to a degree that it then becomes necessary to add fissile material to keep the reactor running. This is because uranium-238 will absorb many of the neutrons that would otherwise convert thorium into uranium-233, instead converting uranium-238 into plutonium-239. Plutonium-239 is a poor fuel in a LFTR due to the limited solubility of plutonium trifluoride (PuF3) and the poor performance of plutonium in a thermal-neutron spectrum (only 2/3 of the plutonium-239 will fission when struck by a neutron).

But something is possible in the fluid fuel of a LFTR that is impossible in the solid fuel of a conventional reactor with regards to the “downblending” of uranium. Under extreme scenarios, it may be desireable to have a separate supply of uranium-238 inside the reactor containment that could be irreversibly mixed with the uranium-233 in the core. This would have the effect of making the reactor unable to restart, and despite the contention of Makhajani and Boyd, there is no feasible way to isotopically separate uranium-233 (contaminated with uranium-232) from uranium-238 because of the severe gamma radiation that would be emitted during any attempt to separate the isotopes. This approach to “just-in-time” downblending is only possible with fluid fuel, and its absence of consideration in the document again shows that the authors are unaware of the fluid fuel option and its implications.

Further, while an enrichment plant is needed to separate U-233 from U-238, it would take less separative work to do so than enriching natural uranium. This is because U-233 is five atomic weight units lighter than U-238, compared to only three for U-235. It is true that such enrichment would not be a straightforward matter because the U-233 is contaminated with U-232, which is highly radioactive and has very radioactive radionuclides in its decay chain. The radiation-dose-related problems associated with separating U-233 from U-238 and then handling the U-233 would be considerable and more complex than enriching natural uranium for the purpose of bomb making. But in principle, the separation can be done, especially if worker safety is not a primary concern; the resulting U-233 can be used to make bombs. There is just no way to avoid proliferation problems associated with thorium fuel cycles that involve reprocessing. Thorium fuel cycles without reprocessing would offer the same temptation to reprocess as today’s once-through uranium fuel cycles.

Makhijani and Boyd really betray a fundamental lack of understanding of the nature of uranium isotope separation facilities with their simplistic and cursory description of U-233 separation from U-238. Such a process would be so difficult due to the presence of U-232 that it simply would not be considered, even by the hypothetical “suicide” operators that they postulate. Anyone who had invested the large sums of money into a uranium isotope separation system would never risk permanently crippling its ability to operate by introducing U-232-contaminated feed into the system.

Proponents claim that thorium fuel significantly reduces the volume, weight and long-term radiotoxicity of spent fuel. Using thorium in a nuclear reactor creates radioactive waste that proponents claim would only have to be isolated from the environment for 500 years, as opposed to the irradiated uranium-only fuel that remains dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years. This claim is wrong. The fission of thorium creates long-lived fission products like technetium-99 (half-life over 200,000 years). While the mix of fission products is somewhat different than with uranium fuel, the same range of fission products is created. With or without reprocessing, these fission products have to be disposed of in a geologic repository.

Again, the authors make blanket statements about “thorium” but then confine their examination to some variant of solid thorium fuel in a conventional reactor. In a LFTR, thorium can be consumed with exceptionally high efficiency, approaching completeness. Unburned thorium and valuable uranium-233 is simply recycled to the next generation of fluoride reactor when a reactor is decommissioned. The fuel is not damaged by radiation. Thus thorium and uranium-233 would not enter a waste stream during the use of a LFTR.

All fission produces a similar set of fission products, each with roughly half the mass of the original fissile material. Most have very short half-lives, and are highly radioactive and highly dangerous. A very few have very long half-lives, very little radioactivity, and little concern. A simple but underappreciated truth is that the longer the half-life of a material, the less radioactive and the less dangerous it is. Technetium-99 (Tc-99) has a half-life of 100,000 years and indeed is a product of the fission of uranium-233, just as it is a product of the fission of uranium-235 or plutonium-239. Its immediate precursor, technetium-99m (Tc-99m), has a half-life of six hours and so is approximately 150 million times more radioactive than Tc-99.

Nevertheless, it might come as a surprise to the casual reader that hundreds of thousands of people intentionally ingest Tc-99m every year as part of medical imaging procedures because it produces gamma rays that allow radiography technicians to image internal regions of the body and diagnose concerns. The use of Tc-99m thus allows physicians to forego thousands of exploratory and invasive surgeries that would otherwise risk patient health. The Tc-99m decays over the period of a few days to Tc-99, with its 100,000 half-life, extremely low levels of radiation, and low risk.

What is the ultimate fate of the Tc-99? It is excreted from the body through urination and ends up in the municipal water supply. If the medical community and radiological professionals intentionally cause patients to ingest a form of technetium that is 150 million times more radioactive than Tc-99, with the intent that its gamma rays be emitted within the body, and then sees no risk from the excretion of Tc-99 into our water supply, where is the concern? It is yet another example of fear, uncertainty, and doubt that Makhijani and Boyd would raise this issue as if it represented some sort of condemnation of the use of thorium for nuclear power.

If the spent fuel is not reprocessed, thorium-232 is very-long lived (half-life:14 billion years) and its decay products will build up over time in the spent fuel. This will make the spent fuel quite radiotoxic, in addition to all the fission products in it. It should also be noted that inhalation of a unit of radioactivity of thorium-232 or thorium-228 (which is also present as a decay product of thorium-232) produces a far higher dose, especially to certain organs, than the inhalation of uranium containing the same amount of radioactivity. For instance, the bone surface dose from breathing an amount (mass) of insoluble thorium is about 200 times that of breathing the same mass of uranium.

Statements like this really cause me to wonder if Makhijani and Boyd understand the nature of radioactivity. Yes, thorium-232 has a 14-billion-year half-life, which means that the radioactivity of thorium is exceptionally low. It will rise as the decay chain of Th-232 begins to form, but it is still at a very low level. To be concerned with the radioactivity of thorium in spent fuel, while neglecting to mention the five billion kilograms of thorium contained in each meter of the Earth’s continental crust again appears to be another example of fear, uncertainty, and doubt levied unfairly against the use of thorium. The buildup of thorium-228 as part of the decay of thorium will happen on a scale within the Earth’s crust so titanically in excess of any activity on the part of man so as to render that point utterly immaterial to any discussion of thorium as a nuclear fuel.

Since both thorium and uranium are natural and common constituents of the Earth’s crust, discussing a bone surface dose obtained by breathing insoluble thorium—a very strange exposure pathway—and contrasting it with uranium is again utterly immaterial to the use of thorium as a nuclear fuel. Do Makhijani and Boyd mean to say that it would be preferable to be breathing uranium instead? The criticism seems to have no structure.

Furthermore, LFTR will not reject thorium to a waste stream nor generate “spent fuel” in the conventional sense. Thorium remains in the reactor until consumed for energy. At shutdown, unconsumed thorium is transferred to the next generation of reactor.

Finally, the use of thorium also creates waste at the front end of the fuel cycle. The radioactivity associated with these is expected to be considerably less than that associated with a comparable amount of uranium milling. However, mine wastes will pose long-term hazards, as in the case of uranium mining. There are also often hazardous non-radioactive metals in both thorium and uranium mill tailings.

Thorium is found with rare-earth mineral deposits, and global demand for rare-earth mining will inevitably bring up thorium deposits. At the present time, we in the US have the strange policy of considering this natural material as a “radioactive waste” that must be disposed at considerable cost. Other countries like China have taken a longer view on the issue and simply stockpile the thorium that they recover during rare-earth mining for future use in thorium reactors. In addition, the United States has an already-mined supply of 3200 metric tonnes of thorium in Nevada that will meet energy needs for many decades. The issues surrounding thorium mining are immaterial to its discussion as a nuclear energy source because thorium will be mined under any circumstance, but if we use it as a nuclear fuel we can save time and effort by avoiding the expense of trying to throw it away.

Research and development of thorium fuel has been undertaken in Germany, India, Japan, Russia, the UK and the U.S. for more than half a century. Besides remote fuel fabrication and issues at the front end of the fuel cycle, thorium-U-233 breeder reactors produce fuel (“breed”) much more slowly than uranium-plutonium-239 breeders. This leads to technical complications. India is sometimes cited as the country that has successfully developed thorium fuel. In fact, India has been trying to develop a thorium breeder fuel cycle for decades but has not yet done so commercially.

Thorium/U233 reactors like LFTR produce sufficient U-233 to make up for U-233 consumed in the fission process. This may be what the authors meant by “breeding more slowly”, but since they consider plutonium a dangerous substance and eschew the use of nuclear power, it is a wonder why they would consider a reactor that does not produce plutonium as having some sort of deficiency. They neglect to elaborate on what sort of “technical complications” this very attractive feature would entail.

The thorium effort in India has been centered around the use of thorium in solid-oxide form, and has suffered from the deficiencies of using this approach, which are transcended through the use of thorium in liquid fluoride form. This is further evidence that the authors are unaware of the implications of the liquid-fluoride thorium reactor.

One reason reprocessing thorium fuel cycles haven’t been successful is that uranium-232 (U 232) is created along with uranium-233. U-232, which has a half-life of about 70 years, is extremely radioactive and is therefore very dangerous in small quantities: a single small particle in a lung would exceed legal radiation standards for the general public. U-232 also has highly radioactive decay products. Therefore, fabricating fuel with U-233 is very expensive and difficult.

Previously I mentioned the implications of the presence of uranium-232 contamination within uranium-233 and its anti-proliferative nature with regards to nuclear weapons. U-232 contamination also makes fabrication of solid thorium-oxide fuel containing uranium-233-oxide very difficult. In the liquid-fluoride reactor, fuel fabrication is unnecessary and this difficulty is completely averted.

Thorium may be abundant and possess certain technical advantages, but it does not mean that it is economical. Compared to uranium, thorium fuel cycle is likely to be even more costly. In a once-through mode, it will need both uranium enrichment (or plutonium separation) and thorium target rod production. In a breeder configuration, it will need reprocessing, which is costly. In addition, as noted, inhalation of thorium-232 produces a higher dose than the same amount of uranium-238 (either by radioactivity or by weight). Reprocessed thorium creates even more risks due to the highly radioactive U-232 created in the reactor. This makes worker protection more difficult and expensive for a given level of annual dose.

The liquid-fluoride thorium reactor has an exceptionally simple and self-contained fuel cycle that has every promise of being less-expensive than today’s wasteful and complicated “once-through” approach to uranium fuel utilization. Makhijani and Boyd try to assign thorium to the wasteful “once-through” fuel cycle, point out deficiencies, and then condemn thorium as having no promise. This might analogous to putting diesel fuel in a gasoline-powered car and then pointing out how deficient diesel fuel is when the car will no longer operate. It is disingenuous and deceptive, and the kindest thing that can be said is that Makhijani and Boyd are ignorant of the implications of the liquid-fluoride thorium reactor and its fuel cycle, which they should not be if they presume to issue a “position paper” such as this.

Finally, the use of thorium also creates waste at the front end of the fuel cycle. The radioactivity associated with these is expected to be considerably less than that associated with a comparable amount of uranium milling. However, mine wastes will pose long-term hazards, as in the case of uranium mining. There are also often hazardous non-radioactive metals in both thorium and uranium mill tailings.

This is a repeat of the issue previously considered, as is immaterial as a factor for or against the use of thorium in nuclear powered reactors since thorium will be mined anyway during the mining of rare-earth minerals. The only question will be whether the mined thorium will be wasted or not.

In conclusion, Makhijani and Boyd fail to consider the implications of the liquid-fluoride thorium reactor on all aspects relating to the benefits of thorium as a nuclear fuel. They fail to consider its strong benefits with regards to nuclear proliferation, since no operational nuclear weapon has ever been fabricated from thorium or uranium-233. They fail to consider how LFTR can be used to productively consume nuclear weapons material made excess by the end of the Cold War. They fail to consider the reduction in nuclear waste that would accompany the use of LFTR. They fail entirely to account for the safety features inherent in a LFTR—how low-pressure operation and a chemically-stable fuel form allow the reactor to have a passive safety response to severe accidents. They fail to account for the improvement in cost that would be realized if LFTRs were to efficiently use thorium, reduce the need for mining fossil fuels, and increase the availability of energy.

Mr. Makhijani and Ms. Boyd should retract this statement in its entirety as flawed and deceptive to a public that needs clear and accurate information about our energy future.

 

 

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About the Author

spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as the director/chief editor. Otherwise, he's probably enthusiastically fulfilling his duties as the director/editor of Solar Love, EV Obsession, Planetsave, or Bikocity. Zach is recognized globally as a solar energy, electric car, and wind energy expert. If you would like him to speak at a related conference or event, connect with him via social media. You can connect with Zach on any popular social networking site you like. Links to all of his main social media profiles are on ZacharyShahan.com.



  • Robert Steinhaus

    @ZShahan3:disqus

    Often neglected in discussion of the benefits of the Thorium nuclear fuel cycle is the fact that it can be used to reliably initiate thermonuclear fusion. U-233, the fissile component of the Thorium fuel cycle, can be used as a fission primary to ignite Deuterium-Tritium plasma. This makes the practical production of energy from fusion possible decades sooner than ITER, NIF, and other fusion approaches. Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Labs devised a practical form of nuclear fusion called PACER fusion back in the 1970s and 1980s. This PACER fusion technology borrowed design knowledge from weapons programs to make ultra-clean peaceful thermonuclear explosives (PNE) that generate very high proportions of their energies from fusion (over 97% energy from fusion demonstrated in actual field tests – over 99% energy from fusion believed possible in a PACER optimized PNE). This is an advantage in sustainable energy production because the only waste product produced by D-T fusion is non-radioactive helium gas.

    Practical fusion to fully power the planet longer than the earth has existed or the sun will burn

    The complete conversion of deuterium nuclear fuel releases an energy content of 250 x 10^15 joules per metric ton of deuterium. The quantity of deuterium in the world’s oceans is estimated at 4.6 x 10^13 metric tons. Deuterium present in seawater will yield around 5 x 10^11 TW-year of energy. In the year 2011 the entire planet consumed around 16 TW-years of energy, which means that the energy content of the deuterium in seawater would be enough for 31 billion years of energy supply.

    To give all 10 billion people expected to live on the planet in 2050 the level of energy prosperity we in the developed world are used to, a continuous average use of power of 6 kilowatts per person as is typical in Europe, we would need to generate 60 terawatts as a planet—the equivalent of 900 million barrels of oil per day.
    In view of the enormous amount of deuterium available, it is important that we learn to use the D-D fusion reaction in the long term, and Thorium Ignited PACER Fusion is the most practical form of fusion today that is capable of economically supplying large Gigawatt levels of power safely without requiring decades of additional development.

    The time since the earth first formed = 4.54 billion years.
    The time until the sun burns out = 5 billion years.

    The deuterium in the sea is capable of completely powering planet earth at a level of 60 Terawatts for 8.33 billion years (longer than the earth has existed or the sun will burn making this fusion technology more long term sustainable than wind or solar which ultimately depend on the sun)
    http://www.yottawatts.net

    U-233/Thorium Ignited PACER Fusion –
    LANL and LLNL national labs have been able to reliably produce fusion using fission ignition of Deuterium fusion plasmas since the Ivy Mike test in 1952, four+ years before the first commercial Light Water Reactors were built. PACER produces energy by successively igniting every few hours a peaceful thermonuclear explosive inside a carefully engineered steel lined cavity while heating molten salts using this energy to drive conventional steam turbines to produce electricity. Senior nuclear designer, Dr. Ralph Moir, at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab worked out a detailed design and presented his proposal in a paper called “PACER Revisited”
    http://goo.gl/DjCzr
    Both LANL and LLNL national labs produced preliminary PACER peaceful nuclear explosive designs, but these devices were not prototyped and field tested as the project was cancelled before that work could be completed. Similar small thermonuclear devices were produced at LLNL and LANL, like the W70-3 small tactical warhead that was designed for the LANCE missile system, which was built, tested. and was put into the US arsenal.

    Why not consider using Thorium Fuel Cycle to produce a practical form of fusion that produces only non-radioactive helium as its waste and burns abundant Deuterium from the sea?
    A document archive regarding this practical form of thermonuclear fusion has been setup at the following URL:
    http://home.comcast.net/~aeropharoh/site/?/page/Documents_Related_to_PACER_FUSION_/

  • Guest

    PACER Thorium Fusion
    Practical fusion to fully power the planet longer than the earth has existed or the sun will burn
    The complete conversion of deuterium nuclear fuel releases an energy content of 250 x 1015 joules per metric ton of deuterium. The quantity of deuterium in the world’s oceans is estimated at 4.6 x 10^13 metric tons. Deuterium present in seawater will yield around 5 x 1011 TW-year of energy. In the year 2011 the entire planet consumed around 16 TW-years of energy, which means that the energy content of the deuterium in seawater would be enough for 31 billion years of energy supply.
    To give all 10 billion people expected to live on the planet in 2050 the level of energy prosperity we in the developed world are used to, a continuous average use of power of 6 kilowatts per person as is typical in Europe, we would need to generate 60 terawatts as a planet—the equivalent of 900 million barrels of oil per day.
    In view of the enormous amount of deuterium available, it is important that we learn to use the D-D fusion reaction in the long term, and Thorium Ignited PACER Fusion is the most practical form of fusion today that is capable of economically supplying large Gigawatt levels of power safely without requiring decades of additional development.

    The time since the earth first formed = 4.54 billion years.
    The time until the sun burns out = 5 billion years.

    The deuterium in the sea is capable of completely powering planet earth at a level of 60 Terawatts for 8.33 billion years (longer than the earth has existed or the sun will burn making this fusion technology more long term sustainable than wind or solar which ultimately depends on the sun)
    http://www.yottawatts.net

    • Bob_Wallace

      A good research topic.

      Not important when it comes to solving today’s energy problems and minimizing climate change.

      One cannot power the grid with an unproven idea.

  • Guest

    PACER Fusion

    Practical fusion to fully power the planet longer than the
    earth has existed or the sun will burn

    The complete conversion of deuterium nuclear fuel releases
    an energy content of 250 x 1015 joules per metric ton of deuterium.
    The quantity of deuterium in the world’s oceans is estimated at 4.6 x 10^13
    metric tons. Deuterium present in seawater will yield around 5 x 1011
    TW-year of energy. In the year 2011 the entire planet consumed around 16
    TW-years of energy, which means that the energy content of the deuterium in
    seawater would be enough for 31 billion years of energy supply.

    To give all 10 billion people expected to live on the planet
    in 2050 the level of energy prosperity we in the developed world are used to, a
    continuous average use of power of 6 kilowatts per person as is typical in
    Europe, we would need to generate 60 terawatts as a planet—the equivalent of
    900 million barrels of oil per day.

    In view of the enormous amount of deuterium available, it is
    important that we learn to use the D-D fusion reaction in the long term, and
    Thorium Ignited PACER Fusion is the most practical form of fusion today that is
    capable of economically supplying large Gigawatt levels of power safely without
    requiring decades of additional development.

    The time since the earth first formed = 4.54 billion years.

    The time until the sun burns out = 5 billion years.

    The deuterium in the sea is capable of completely powering
    planet earth at a level of 60 Terawatts for 8.33 billion years (longer than the
    earth has existed or the sun will burn)

    U-233/Thorium Ignited PACER Fusion –
    PACER Fusion

    Practical fusion to fully power the planet longer than the
    earth has existed or the sun will burn

    The complete conversion of deuterium nuclear fuel releases
    an energy content of 250 x 1015 joules per metric ton of deuterium.
    The quantity of deuterium in the world’s oceans is estimated at 4.6 x 10^13
    metric tons. Deuterium present in seawater will yield around 5 x 1011
    TW-year of energy. In the year 2011 the entire planet consumed around 16
    TW-years of energy, which means that the energy content of the deuterium in
    seawater would be enough for 31 billion years of energy supply.

    To give all 10 billion people expected to live on the planet
    in 2050 the level of energy prosperity we in the developed world are used to, a
    continuous average use of power of 6 kilowatts per person as is typical in
    Europe, we would need to generate 60 terawatts as a planet—the equivalent of
    900 million barrels of oil per day.

    In view of the enormous amount of deuterium available, it is
    important that we learn to use the D-D fusion reaction in the long term, and
    Thorium Ignited PACER Fusion is the most practical form of fusion today that is
    capable of economically supplying large Gigawatt levels of power safely without
    requiring decades of additional development.

    The time since the earth first formed = 4.54 billion years.

    The time until the sun burns out = 5 billion years.

    The deuterium in the sea is capable of completely powering
    planet earth at a level of 60 Terawatts for 8.33 billion years (longer than the
    earth has existed or the sun will burn)

    U-233/Thorium Ignited PACER Fusion –

    Often neglected in discussion of the benefits of the Thorium
    nuclear fuel cycle is the fact that it can be used to reliably initiate
    thermonuclear fusion. U-233, the fissile component of the Thorium fuel cycle,
    can be used as a fission primary to ignite Deuterium-Tritium plasma. This makes
    the practical production of energy from fusion possible decades sooner than
    ITER, NIF, and other fusion approaches. Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore
    National Labs devised a practical form of nuclear fusion called PACER fusion
    back in the 1970s and 1980s. This PACER fusion technology borrowed design
    knowledge from weapons programs to make ultra-clean peaceful thermonuclear
    explosives (PNE) that generate very high proportions of their energies from
    fusion (over 97% energy from fusion demonstrated in actual field tests – over
    99% energy from fusion believed possible in a PACER optimized PNE). This is an
    advantage in sustainable energy production because the only waste product
    produced by D-T fusion is non-radioactive helium gas.

    LANL and LLNL national labs have been able to reliably
    produce fusion using fission ignition of Deuterium fusion plasmas since the Ivy
    Mike test in 1952, four+ years before the first commercial Light Water Reactors
    were built. PACER produces energy by successively igniting every few hours a
    peaceful thermonuclear explosive inside a carefully engineered steel lined
    cavity while heating molten salts using this energy to drive conventional steam
    turbines to produce electricity. Senior nuclear designer, Dr. Ralph Moir, at
    the Lawrence Livermore National Lab worked out a detailed design and presented
    his proposal in a paper called “PACER Revisited”

    http://goo.gl/DjCzr

    Both LANL and LLNL national labs produced preliminary PACER
    peaceful nuclear explosive designs, but these devices were not prototyped and
    field tested as the project was cancelled before that work could be
    completed. Similar small thermonuclear
    devices were produced at LLNL and LANL, like the W70-3 small tactical warhead
    that was designed for the LANCE missile system, which was built, tested. and was
    put into the US arsenal.

    Why not consider using Thorium Fuel Cycle to produce a
    practical form of fusion that produces only non-radioactive helium as its waste
    and burns abundant Deuterium from the sea?

    I set up a document archive on this practical form of
    thermonuclear fusion at the following URL:

    http://home.comcast.net/~aeropharoh/site/?/page/Documents_Related_to_PACER_FUSION_/

    • Bob_Wallace

      Posting the same copied text over and over is spamming.

  • Guest

    @ZShahan3:disqus –

    U-233/Thorium Ignited PACER Fusion –

    Often neglected in discussion of the benefits of the Thorium
    nuclear fuel cycle is the fact that it can be used to reliably initiate
    thermonuclear fusion. U-233, the fissile component of the Thorium fuel cycle,
    can be used as a fission primary to ignite Deuterium-Tritium plasma. This makes
    the practical production of energy from fusion possible decades sooner than
    ITER, NIF, and other fusion approaches. Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore
    National Labs devised a practical form of nuclear fusion called PACER fusion
    back in the 1970s and 1980s. This PACER fusion technology borrowed design
    knowledge from weapons programs to make ultra-clean peaceful thermonuclear
    explosives (PNE) that generate very high proportions of their energies from
    fusion (over 97% energy from fusion demonstrated in actual field tests – over
    99% energy from fusion believed possible in a PACER optimized PNE). This is an
    advantage in sustainable energy production because the only waste product
    produced by D-T fusion is non-radioactive helium gas.

    LANL and LLNL national labs have been able to reliably
    produce fusion using fission ignition of Deuterium fusion plasmas since the Ivy
    Mike test in 1952, four+ years before the first commercial Light Water Reactors
    were built. PACER produces energy by successively igniting every few hours a
    peaceful thermonuclear explosive inside a carefully engineered steel lined
    cavity while heating molten salts using this energy to drive conventional steam
    turbines to produce electricity. Senior nuclear designer, Dr. Ralph Moir, at
    the Lawrence Livermore National Lab worked out a detailed design and presented
    his proposal in a paper called “PACER Revisited”

    http://goo.gl/DjCzr

    Both LANL and LLNL national labs produced preliminary PACER
    peaceful nuclear explosive designs, but these devices were not prototyped and
    field tested as the project was cancelled before that work could be
    completed. Similar small thermonuclear
    devices were produced at LLNL and LANL, like the W70-3 small tactical warhead
    that was designed for the LANCE missile system, which was built, tested. and was
    put into the US arsenal.

    Why not consider using Thorium Fuel Cycle to produce a
    practical form of fusion that produces only non-radioactive helium as its waste
    and burns abundant Deuterium from the sea?

    I set up a document archive on this practical form of
    thermonuclear fusion at the following URL:

    http://home.comcast.net/~aeropharoh/site/?/page/Documents_Related_to_PACER_FUSION_/

    • Bob_Wallace

      If anything practical ever comes from all this, get back to us.

      Right now there are no affordable nuclear designs. All approaches produce electricity too expensive to consider.

      If someone can demonstrate competitively price product then we should consider adding some to our grid. Until then we should proceed adding the generation which is proven to be cheap, safe and quick to install….

  • Daniel Ely Rankin

    As to Bullet Point 1, its not logically sound. Because it hasn’t been done it isn’t a good idea? The level of government red tape and the level of investment required puts it out of scope of small entrepreneurship. The government didn’t need to develop multiple types of nuclear power. It developed bomb factories that happened to make power.

    • Bob_Wallace

      It isn’t?

      Do you think no large corporations or countries have given no thought to whether these puppies might make electricity at a good price?

      I think we can at least say that it hasn’t been done because no one with the resources has seen it as a good idea.

      Pebble bed reactors sounded like a good idea. A couple of attempts were made to bring one of them to life.

      • Tony Montagna

        Your opinion here demonstrates a misunderstanding of nuclear innovation….

        Many people have thought that Thorium might be a grand idea, many very educated and influential people in fact. The problem is that performing full-scale research on any reactor prototype requires very large amounts of money AND government approval. Fossil fuels have also been quite cheap for some time and those groups involved in FF lobby heavily against the exorbitant research costs of many nuclear programs. As is such the pace of innovation in nuclear fission energy has been very slow and limited.

        Now that global warming is such a well recognized and undeniable issue the case for further nuclear research is recognized, even in the private sector where corporations cannot hope to gain a return in less than a few decades time.

        Of course we should deploy wind and solar now, but let’s not be ignorant of the potential of nuclear fission which factually surpasses the abundance and economic potential of any other option aside from nuclear fusion.

        • Bob_Wallace

          We’re doing the research, Tony.

          If one day we figure out how to use fusion then, probably twenty years after it is proven in the lab, start installing some in the real world to see if it competes pricewise.

          Until then why don’t we use the cheapest, fastest to install and safest generation technology? That would be renewables in case you haven’t yet figured that out.

  • Pingback: Benefits of Thorium Are 'Overstated', UK Report Finds - CleanTechnica

  • MrGadget

    I can’t speak to how it is in other countries, but in the US, Oil, Coal, Natural Gas, and traditional Nuclear have vast financial resources, and contribute massively to all political campaigns, to all contenders. They don’t care who wins, as long as whoever does win owes them for those contributions. The “return” on those campaign “investments” is ensuring their continued survival through legislation and regulatory restriction against their competition.
    Th232 and U233 are both safe to have in your pocket, yet US laws make possession of either illegal, thanks to the lobby efforts of the above players. I’m sure they all realize that MSR/LFTR success would spell game-over for all of them, Natural Gas perhaps being the exception, as Shell and others are successfully developing synthetic motor fuels from NG to supplement Oil in Diesel.
    As long as these laws and regulations persist, private hands-on research is impossible. Thus, the only research that can occur is by US national labs, and that requires federal funding, and now we’re back to campaign contributions making sure that funding never becomes available.
    The US has stockpiles of both U233 and Th232. The best mine of Th232 on the planet is in Nevada, well marked, and 12-feet below ground. It’s even containerized ready for transport. There is sufficient quantities in these stockpiles alone to fuel a few hundred MSR/LFTR reactors for decades, and rare earth mining right here in the US can produce many tons more, thousands of years worth to power the world, let alone the US, but alas, again, these are all locked up, and in fact the U233 stockpile may get foolishly destroyed, at huge expense.
    That answers your first question of “Why we don’t have them”, and others have answered your second question, but I’ll briefly recap.
    ORNL research worked extensively on a recipe with Haynes in Kokomo, Indiana called Hastelly N. Haynes still produces this stuff. ORNL was really close to finalizing the recipe for this material in an MSR/LFTR, and some lab tests are needed to proof out the right mix to deal with Tritium permeability and containment. Tritium is highly valuable at $30K / gram, and is used in high-end watches and gun sights, among other things, but in a MSR/LFTR, it’s a toxic by-product of neutron absorption by the small amount of Lithium-6 that is in the carrier solvents of the MSR/LFTR reactor, and is difficult to contain long enough to be extracted. Extraction is doable, if containment can be solved. There are a number of proposed solutions, including the use of Titanium in the Hastelloy recipe, but again, these need expensive and federally supported lab testing.
    No private investment is going to be interested without government engagement, due to the laws, regulations, and politics involved. If those barriers ever come down, the financial side of a MSR/LFTR is a no brainer. At the current price paid to Natural Gas for energy production (around $0.08 / kwh), a 1GW MSR rings up about $700.8M per year in gross revenue at full capacity, and at the same time produces another $35-40M in marketable, valuable products annually. I’ve theorized that if a new MSR/LFTR were allowed to collect at that rate and run at full capacity for 18 months, it could pay off the entire cost of construction, and subsequently drop it’s price for power to zero, sustaining itself entirely on the open market sales of the various products it can produce, covering all salaries, operation, and maintenance, for the rest of the plant’s life of 30 years or more, as long as it continues to run at full capacity.
    My point is that MSR/LFTR needs less from the US Government in terms of dollars, and more in terms of regulatory support, along with access to the massive stockpiles of fuel material already on hand. Make the fuel available, and open the labs to complete the last bits of research that ORNL couldn’t finish before it was shut down, and give the scientists and engineers the chance to either succeed or fail. So far they’re not even allowed to suit up, much less get in the game.
    A 1GW reactor is about the size of a small bedroom, with a drain tank below of similar volume. Additionally, there are various designs for primary and secondary heat exchangers, size and number depends on design, but none are huge..the tallest one I’ve seen so far was a slender column only 28m high. Lastly would be a very large Steam Turbine and Generator, and we’re quite familiar with those as they’re used in Coal and Gas Plants all over the place, and they’re not cheap. So you can see we’re not talking about a massive building, no huge “cooling / containment” towers are needed. The whole plant would fit well inside a typical city block, with room to spare for parking and retail around it. We’re talking about a 3-story concrete and steel building with a thick-walled basement…not complex as far as the building goes.
    How much for the building? Ask a construction firm.
    How much for the Steam Turbine & Generator? Ask GE or Westinghouse or Siemens.
    How much for the fabrication and assembly of the reactor and heat exchangers and plumbing? Ask Haynes in Kokomo Indiana.
    Given these, transporation and installation of these components shouldn’t be hard to figure out.
    Probably the most expensive (and the most elusive to calculate) elements in the project are the politicians. What will it take in bribes to overcome that of the Oil, Coal, and Nuclear lobbies. Your guess is as good as mine.
    Recently the US DOE has made $500M available for research in Thorium reactors, but I don’t know where / how that money will get squandered…probably some inane studdy of solid-fueled designs that will show them as non-viable, and politics will screw the pooch again.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Sorry, I can’t buy into your theory.

      The major US corporations that might build nuclear plants are large utility companies and they are going to build whatever makes the most sense to them.
      Spend a little time and research what the heads of the major utility companies have said about nuclear – it is too expensive to consider.

      It’s not that the government is preventing the construction of thorium reactors in order to dispense with uranium that it needs to unload. That supply is running thin. And the US does not control the build decisions of other countries.

      There’s a very simple reason why thorium/modular/whatever reactors are not being built outside of a few central-control countries like China. No one who is tasked with making a decision based on economic factors sees a winner in the litter. Just a bunch of not so promising mutts.

  • kevpatt

    Also, the primary reasons why LFTR technology has not been developed over the last 50 years are simple: 1) We already (had/have) a working nuclear reactor technology, with lots of money and research invested for both power generation and production of material for nuclear weapons. 2) LFTR reactors require advanced materials and additional (expensive) research. 3) LFTRs are not a good source of material for nuclear weapons. So why would the US government, especially in the height of the cold war, invest in LFTR research? Today, of course, things are different. Energy is more expensive. The environment is a bigger issue. Nuclear safety is a bigger factor in policy. Given the potential advantages, LFTR is well worth exploring–but we still need to invest the money and do the research.

  • kevpatt
    • Bob_Wallace

      Fine. If China figures out how to build one that produces cheap electricity then we can consider using them.

      In the meantime we should be increasing the rate we install wind, solar, geothermal and tidal. We’ve got a short term problem to solve, we can’t wait 20+ years.

  • http://cleantechnica.com/ Zachary Shahan

    thanks for the notes.

    for the top part, i guess the thing that is suspect to me is that enthusiasts are always talking about how the technology was ready 50 years ago. in the case of solar & wind, it wasn’t. but if it was in the case of LFTR, why has nothing happened? no government help is needed if the claims i’ve heard from many enthusiasts is true — just some simple private investment.

    however, your comments here go against that, giving me the impression that it really does need more research and development to be viable.

    the source on the last bit would be interesting to look at. of course, you seem to do a great job of summarizing it. but would be curious to see. 7% is not a lot, given the cost of nuclear today (and cost trends across the energy industry — for solar, wind, nuclear, natural gas). but as you say, perhaps there are several important costs left out.

    • Errick

      The US Dept of Energy basically has the technology to do it but the NRC which is not part of the DOE does not license anything other than light water reactors and the licensing process is designed to discourage reactor construction. NRC regulations have drastically increased the construction cost of light water reactors. NRC rules kill the technology which is what the political lobbies wanted when they created the NRC. See here: http://www.phyast.pitt.edu/~blc/book/chapter9.html . So since you really can’t build new nuclear power plants in the US, US nuclear technology companies make their money on supplying expensive nuclear fuel. Why would they want to go from $2800/kg fuel to $30/kg-$100/kg fuel? That is taking profitability in the wrong direction. Besides, it is not like you can build a power plant in the US anyway. A light water reactor is actively safe. Which means that you have a bunch of active safety mechanisms to shut the reactor down. A molten salt reactor is passively safe. If the actively cooled freeze plug melts, the reactor shuts down. Hence you don’t need most of the safety mechanisms of the light water reactor. Can you imagine anti-nuclear groups going for that? The problem is political, not technological. No one wants a world powered by nuclear energy. The fuel costs to meet all of the world’s energy needs from thorium would be on the order of $200 million/year. Double it to add in inefficiencies from using electricity to create a new transportation fuel like hydrogen from seawater. Now tell me how many billionaires, governments, and fossil fuel workers want that to happen? Forget thorium, too many political interests will not let it happen. There is a difference between technologically feasible and politically feasible.

      • Bob_Wallace

        Paragraphs.

        They can be your friend.

        And they’re free.

        I think there’s a sale on tinfoil as well. Google it….

  • Will

    In my view the upshot of all this should be:

    Cleantechnica has no reason to discuss Thorium unless there is some news about Thorium. And as many critics have pointed out, there is not really much in the way of significant news about Thorium at the moment. In this sense, I think I’ll disagree with the reader who sparked off these two posts.
    But I think I have the following in common with many readers of this site: I would be comforted to know that, if there were any interesting news about Thorium development, research, funding or policy, the the editors would fairly consider posting about it here, rather than dismissing it as a result of any misinformed beliefs or principles.

    It is ‘clean’ and it is ‘tech’, and those seem like good reasons for this site not to dismiss it out of hand.

    • http://cleantechnica.com/ Zachary Shahan

      Certainly. Believe me, I’ve seen many posts about thorium, and i keep an open mind (my goal is just to help move the world forward / try to help us refrain from driving the human species and countless others to extinction), but i never see any interesting news or developments on the matter. If a respectable research institute or government body put something really interesting and useful out there, I’d certainly get a post up on it.

      • Kyle J Marsh

        I may be a bit behind the curve, but did you see that a big Thorium conference was held at CERN? Hans Blix came out in support, and there were many reputable scientists with much to say about the technology. I believe that both China and India had representatives, and others. The videos of the speakers are available online, and this site provides some basic info. I watched a few videos and found them to be quite accessible, especially considering who the speakers were. Enjoy! http://home.web.cern.ch/about/updates/2013/10/cern-hosts-international-conference-thorium-technologies

  • LURKER_IV

    Mr SHAHAN,
    I would like to answer you second question you repeated in your article here.
    2. “Could you explain the materials necessary for building the reactor core? The temperature and radiation flux require some exceptional materials to survive for many years of operation. This is the one question I have not yet seen specific information about.”
    The materials most likely to be used in a MSR are Steel Hastelloy Alloys. These alloys were created specifically to be corrosion-resistant for industrial uses. Hastelloy-n was used in the original MSR experiment and they concluded, and I quote, “Hastelloy N is suitable for long-term use as a container material for a molten salt of the type used in this test and has acceptable air oxidation resistance at the temperatures used. ”
    The PDF of the report is here http://moltensalt.org/references/static/downloads/pdf/ORNL-TM-4189.pdf and the quote is on the 4th to last page.
    Hastelloy Alloys are still widely used in industry today and we have 40 years of materials science since the original MSR experiment , there is no reason to think we couldn’t find a suitable material for these reactors.
    Here are two links on Hastelloy Alloys: http://www.haynesintl.com/cralloys.htm and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hastelloy

    • http://cleantechnica.com/ Zachary Shahan

      Thanks. I haven’t dug in there yet, but if you know off the top of your head, how costly (or cheap) is this material.

      • Daniel Ely Rankin

        Hasteloy-N? its very expensive, but, we are talking large revenues. Its not outside the scope of a nuclear reactor’s budget.

        • http://www.facebook.com/sa.kiteman SA Kiteman

          Hastelloy N is expensive because it is not often used or made. But it is similar in composition to alloys like Monel and inconel which are cheap enough to be used widely on ships.

          But the core is not made of Hastelloy, the vessel is. The core, when there is one, is made of graphite which is fairly cheap.

  • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

    Thorium is finite; just like uranium is finite along with oil, gas and coal.

    Renewable energy is virtually infinite — it will last as long as the earth and the sun last; about another 5 billion years.

    Renewable energy is all over the planet. No one can monopolize it.

    Neil

    • Charles Applin

      A resource that can be used to meet our energy needs for hundreds if not thousands of years can be considered renewable for all intents and purposes. Just the current known reserves places Th-232 at 1.66 million tons. That’s over 1500 TW with current estimated efficiencies compared to world use of 15 TW per year. Reserves will increase if Thorium demand makes surveys profitable. Like other renewables, thorium is all over the planet with enough in your own backyard to power your lifetime energy needs (this is a literal statement).
      Plus, these molten salt reactors are IN ADDITION TO all other renewables of solar (and it’s offshoots of wind and hydro), geothermal, tidal, etc. There’s no need for a zero sum mentality. The big enemy is coal followed by oil and we should not forget that. Those two we need to reduce.

      • Bob_Wallace

        “The big enemy is coal followed by oil and we should not forget that. Those two we need to reduce. ”

        Yes we do. And does that not mean that we should put our efforts behind proven technology? And behind the technology which can be brought on line quickest in order to get fossil fuels off line quickly? And behind the clean technology that gives us the cheapest electricity?

        Seems to me that we should keep on researching promising ideas, but start running toward the goal line as fast as possible with the cheap, safe, clean technology we have right now.

        Something better comes along, we can lateral….

    • Uzza2

      There exists enough thorium, economically extractable, to provide all energy humanity uses for billions of years.

      http://nucleargreen.blogspot.se/2011/08/energy-as-ultimate-raw-material.html

      http://energyfromthorium.com/cubic-meter/

      There’s also a 50′s(I think that was the right decade) study showing the cost of extracting thorium from granite, which ends up being very economical. I’m on my work computer though, so I don’t have a link to it.

  • Ronald Brak

    I will mention that fuel cost is only a small fraction of the cost of nuclear power. One old figure I have says it is 7% of the cost of nuclear power, but that may not be accurate. So even if thorium fuel was free, a 7% decline in cost isn’t about to make nuclear power profitable here in Australia.

    And for if there are any who say that nuclear power will become profitable in Australia in the future, or even that it’s profitable now, feel free to offer to build a merchant nuclear plant. Electricity prices are currently a bit over 5 cents a kilowatt-hour and falling. (Note: You will need insurance.)

    • Bob_Wallace

      What would help these discussions about thorium and nuclear in general would be for the proponents to put some numbers on the table.

      Tell us what electricity from a [insert your favorite type here] reactor would cost.

      Not just a waving-hands-in-the-air number, but something based on recent cost estimates for new conventional reactors.

      • http://cleantechnica.com/ Zachary Shahan

        that’s basically what i tried to ask for in a few places in the article.

    • Uzza2

      Fuel, while not a major part of O&M costs, still account for 20-30% of it. Further, the major cost of the uranium fuel is the enrichment, with one kg of enriched uranium fuel costing, in March 2011, $2770.
      Since you need 35 metric ton of enriched uranium per GW and year in current light water reactors, that adds up to quite a bit.
      Of all that fuel, only about 5% of it is used before the strain on the fuel pellets from neutron bombardment and gaseous fission product buildup becomes too much.

      In contrast, a molten salt reactor running on thorium need no enrichment or fuel fabrication. And since the fuel is an ironically bonded liquid, it is impervious to radiation damage, and you can consequently completely burn up the thorium. This mean you only need about one metric ton of thorium per GW and year.
      At a cost of currently $30/kg, the cost of fuel is basically a rounding error, and would account for less than 0.1% of O&M costs.

      I’d say that makes quite a bit more difference in profitability than you made it out to be.

      • Bob_Wallace

        ” In contrast, a molten salt reactor running on thorium need no enrichment or fuel fabrication. ”

        Perhaps a bit of editing would help?

        Hypothetically, a molten salt reactor running on thorium might need no enrichment or fuel fabrication.

        Best to not claim that there’s a chicken in the pot until you’ve actually managed to get one there. That way your hungry guests are less likely to turn on you….

      • Ronald Brak

        So you are saying that 4 miligrams of enriched uranium are required to produce 1 kilowatt-hour of electricity? At a cost of $2,770 a kilo that would come to 1.1 cents per kilowatt-hour. If that is 20-30% of the cost of nuclear power then nuclear power only costs about 4.4 cents a kilowatt-hour. Wow! That’s incredibly cheap! Any country that imports coal or LPG to generate electricity must be really stupid.

        • Uzza2

          Yeah, the actual generating cost of current reactors are very small, thanks to the incredible energy density of nuclear fuel.

          The biggest problem is all the regulatory hurdles, lawsuits and general opposition that causes construction delays, which raises capital cost and in the end electricity cost.

          That is why natural gas and coal is still used. It’s still very cheap and you know what you get, with very few, if any, hidden surprises like a lawsuit that blocks construction for two years. Thus the investment risk is vastly lower.

          • Ronald Brak

            So in other words, fuel is only a small fraction of the cost of nuclear power.

          • http://cleantechnica.com/ Zachary Shahan

            @uzza2: useful info above — thanks for sharing. but as Ronald just aptly pointed out, the thread leads back to his original point — fuel isn’t a very significant factor in the overall cost of current nuclear.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Sorry, that’s a load. The regulatory process has been streamlined for nuclear.

            Besides, your logic doesn’t include all the countries were inconvenient things like public input gets in the way of people doing things.

            BTW, coal is going away. Just thought you’d like to know.

          • http://www.facebook.com/sa.kiteman SA Kiteman

            Yup, it has been “streamlined” from “impossible” to “nearly impossible and still hideously expensive”.

            Here in the States, new NPPs cost ~$10/watt. Even so it is still cheaper per kWhr that anything but NG. In several places around the world that are not burdened by the same degree of safety regulation, the cost is nearer $1.8/watt so the cost per kWhr is even lower.

            As to coal going away, tell that to Germany. They haven’t gotten the message.

          • http://zacharyshahan.com/ Zachary Shahan

            Think you’re missing a few things.

            1- wind is cheaper than natural gas in many places in the US. it is comparable to natural gas. it is FAR cheaper than nuclear.

            2- Germany has coal power plants going forward that have been planned for a long time. the number of them has actually been reduced from earlier plans. that they choose to phase out nuclear before coal is their decision based on their estimates of the risk.

  • Bob_Wallace

    Here’s the bottom line.

    1) We have an immediate need to reduce our fossil fuel use.

    2) To do so we have to install technology which has been proven to work. We can’t build a grid powered by unicorn farts.

    3) We have several proven technologies so that allows us to choose the most affordable, quickest to install, and safest.

    While some day someone might be able to build a new type of nuclear reactor which can be build quickly, is safe and produces cheap electricity, no such reactor exists today.

    Therefore: Thorium/molten salt/modular/whatever reactors are not a/the solution to our energy problems. They are research projects and like all research projects they may or may not pan out.

    Should we research new reactor ideas? Sure, within reason. Spending hundreds of billions of dollars makes no sense, spending a dollar makes sense. People can argue where the reasonable threshold lies.

    If people want to get excited about thorium/cold fusion/whatever, that’s fine. Just do not go past a reasonable level of excitement and start making claims about how “if we only built them cheap energy would come”. There is no data to support that claim.

    Do that and you enter the realm of the guy who wants to put a wind turbine on top of his EV and keep his batteries charged as he drives.

    • Lurker_IV

      I suggest you do a little research into MSRs before you go around saying things. They BUILT one at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and successfully ran it for nearly a decade. A decade of successful operation is a “proven technology”. All that remains is to commercialize it for public use.
      http://energyfromthorium.com/pdf/

      • Bob_Wallace

        Yes they did.

        And yes, I knew they did.

        Now. Please tell me where in the world there is a MSR which is producing competitively priced electricity.

        • Charles Applin

          Many LFTR advocates that are fans of the Thorium 2012 video have a bad habit of proclaiming thorium as a solution as if it could be rolled out now. You know that’s not the case. It is 15 to 20 years down the road if started up now, but that should not be the reason to not pursue it.
          All evidence points to this being a profitable and environmentally positive energy source. Does it exist? No. Can it feasibly exist? Without a doubt as it was developed with 50 year old technology.
          Would you call it fair to only depend on current wind and solar capabilities and disregard future possibilities thanks to known research? It’s not unreasonable to project forward benefits that don’t exist now.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Charles, find me a place where I stated that we should not research thorium and all other sorts of stuff (within reasonable cost limits). While you’re looking you’ll find that I have stated multiple times that I have stated that we should do the research.

            I’m one of the most supportive people you will find anywhere when it comes to research. The best years of my life (well, some of them) were when I was working as a research scientist and publishing papers. I absolutely love taking an idea and seeing if I can bring it to life.

            My point is similar to yours. There is not there, there at this moment in time.

            A video is not a working plant producing affordable power any more than a Harry Potter movie of people flying around on brooms means that we can fly around on brooms.

            “Would you call it fair to only depend on current wind and solar capabilities and disregard future possibilities thanks to known research? It’s not unreasonable to project forward benefits that don’t exist now.”
            It is unreasonable to project forward benefits that don’t exist now as if they did exist now.

      • http://cleantechnica.com/ Zachary Shahan

        But this is the point. That was ~ 50 years ago. No one has picked up the baton and built one since then. Why not? Why does no one with the resources consider this worth investing in?

        The fact that a reactor ran about 50 years ago and nothing has happened since then doesn’t boost my confidence.

        • UPW

          It was 50 years ago, at one national lab, before the Internet, and during the cold war. Since about 20 years ago the Molten Salt Reactor is one of the official concepts of Generation4 International Forum (GIF), that is one of the seriously researched reactors.

          Here is a detailed Google tech talk explaining that very issue: http://energyfromthorium.com/2011/12/23/techtalk-why-tmsr/

          And an article with little background: http://thoriumsingapore.com/content/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=64&Itemid=64

          > No one has picked up the baton and built one since then.

          The baton was picked up by GIF. Nobody built any type of advanced reactor in the last 20 years, for well known reasons.

          > Why does no one with the resources consider this worth investing in?

          As was already pointed out to you numerous times, there are several countries and companies which are indeed investing into various MSR concepts – from memory: GIF members, specifically France, Russia, Japan, China, Czech Republic; U.S. based private companies Flibe Energy and Transatomic Power.

          • Bob_Wallace

            “Nobody built any type of advanced reactor in the last 20 years, for well known reasons ”

            Because the numbers make no economic sense. Nuclear builds in the US died because investors learned that they cost too much.

            The only places where reactors have been built in recent years are where there is very strong government influence. Places like China where citizens have little input as to how their money is spent. Or somewhere like the state of Georgia where the government is allowing the utility company to seize money from their customers to pay for the reactor.

  • http://twitter.com/ShotmanMaslo DreamChaser

    “Beyond the above, it seems that thorium reactors don’t at all address the issue of energy centralization and monopolization (it doesn’t seem like they are going to help democratize our electricity system any time soon). This is another big issue, but I think it is a discussion for another day….”

    I think small modular breeder reactors such as LFTR are in fact a very promising way to achieve energy decentralisation. Maybe not on the level of individual people / families, but on the level of towns and cities.

    If LFTRs deliver on the promises of scalability, cost and safety, every town could have one or several small LFTRs (250 MW and less per unit) and enough thorium supply stockpiled for decades of operation due to its high energy density. This would result in true decentralised energy independence, independent both of central monopolies, fuel supply, and of weather, with no need to rely on power from outside when its cloudy or not windy locally.

    • http://cleantechnica.com/ Zachary Shahan

      would that likely happen? or would economies of scale end up making that just a dream?

      • http://twitter.com/ShotmanMaslo DreamChaser

        It could happen with factory mass produced small modular LFTRs. Here is the plan:
        http://nextbigfuture.com/2009/02/aim-high-plan-for-factory-mass-produced.html

        • Bob_Wallace

          I don’t think you understand economy of scale when it comes to manufacture.

          One does not create significant price reduction by building a dozen units. A new car model can take years to recoup its R&D and tooling costs. In order for modular LFTRs to be produced cheaply you’d need to build thousands of them which means that you would have to have some very deep pocket funding to support years of losses.

          Then, there’s the problem that none of you seem to be addressing – siting.

          Find even a dozen places in the US that would allow someone to plop down a nuclear reactor in their neighborhood.

          I really don’t cane if you can prove on paper and with well-developed logic that the reactor is 1,000% safe. You would be going against incredible resistance.

          • kevpatt

            The public perception issue is real. That’s why we need to educate people.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Educate them about what?

            That there’s an unproven idea that (if one makes unrealistic assumptions) might produce affordable electricity?

            Fusion continues to be only 20 years away. We could do a double educational package and teach the public about ideas that some day might, or might not, pan out.

  • Vundla

    The author asks two questions. They can be answered with one fact. An Australian/Czech partnership has had a large number of scientists working for a number of years on the resurrection of the thorium Molten Salt Reactor (MSR). So private funders see the value of the MSR and scientists are working on the technology. Googling produces links to support the fact.

    The Australian Government was involved in a Symposium in November 2011.
    http://www.thoriumaustralia.com.au/symposium.html
    “Australian Mining” reported on the partnership
    http://www.miningaustralia.com.au/news/australian-and-czech-consortium-announce-thorium-j
    as did “The Prague Post”
    http://www.praguepost.com/business/10382-czechs-aussies-partner-on-energy.html

    The USA (Google “Flibe Energy”), and China (“The Chinese Academy of Sciences”) are others to watch. The first is restricted by regulations about regulations but the second is a government initiative.

    Curiously, the author has the link to http://energyfromthorium.com/
    but quite missed the fact that TEAC4 was held earlier this year and that ThEC 2012 is being held in Shanghai later this year. Nor did he discover that two books have been published on thorium this year.

    The scientists and financiers – and even some governments (with the USA the notable exception) – are enthusiastic. It is worth exploring the work being published on the internet. We live in exciting times!

    Oh, the Indians? I personally don’t expect much from that quarter. The point is that they are not going the MSR route. They want to do things another way. They have massive reserves of thorium and massive demand for electricity so one can only wish them well.

    • http://cleantechnica.com/ Zachary Shahan

      When there is news of something real happening. Not just meetings and discussions, please let me know. I’ll post on anything practical and noteworthy that is happening and is clearly cleantech.

      • Ronald Brak

        With Australians on the case I’m sure progress will occur in leaps and bounds. We’re well known for our nuclear expertise. After all, Ernest Rutherford was a New Zealander and that’s pretty darn close to being Australian. Why just five years ago we successfully completed a reactor at a cost of only $200,000 per kilowatt, or $600,000 if you wanted to produce electricity with it. Yep, Australians are certainly who you want to turn to in order to develop a cheap new reactor. And I’m sure the Australian connection has nothing to do with a mining company throwing a paltry amount of money their way on the off chance that huge deposit of thorium Australia has will actually be worth something one day.

        • Ronald Brak

          Now admittedly the reactor was actually built by Argentinians, not Australians, but Australians did supervise. And it did break down three months after it began operation and was out of commission for ten months, but the break down only cost about fourteen and a half million dollars, which is just peanuts when you consider the total cost of the reactor.

        • http://cleantechnica.com/ Zachary Shahan

          haha, nice. :D

  • http://www.facebook.com/matthew.t.peffly Matthew Todd Peffly

    So we are where we have been for a while. The pro-T groups says if only someone would give them a $1billion to build the reactor; then in 10-15 year we could convince the power production people that it works for them.

    • http://cleantechnica.com/ Zachary Shahan

      well said. and that’s the best summary of why it’s not featured on CT (more). in 10-15 years, it likely wouldn’t have a fighting chance.

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