Open thread: thorium-fueled nuclear reactors

2014-04-13

in Bombs and rockets, Economics, Geek stuff, Science, The environment

Whenever the many problems with nuclear power are raised, there are people who suggest that everything could be fixed with a substantial technical change: moving to generation IV reactors, for instance, or the ever-elusive fusion possibility.

Another common suggestion is that using thorium for reactor fuel could limit concerns about proliferation, as well as (modest) concerns about uranium availability.

I have read a lot of contradictory things on the subject of thorium, so it seems useful to have a thread tracking information on the issue.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

. April 13, 2014 at 12:32 pm

India has abundant thorium reserves, and the country’s nuclear-power programme, which is intended, eventually, to supply a quarter of the country’s electricity (up from 3% at the moment), plans to use these for fuel. This will take time. The Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research already runs a small research reactor in Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu, and the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Mumbai plans to follow this up with a thorium-powered heavy-water reactor that will, it hopes, be ready early next decade.

China’s thorium programme looks bigger. The Chinese Academy of Sciences claims the country now has “the world’s largest national effort on thorium”, employing a team of 430 scientists and engineers, a number planned to rise to 750 by 2015. This team, moreover, is headed by Jiang Mianheng, an engineering graduate of Drexel University in the United States who is the son of China’s former leader, Jiang Zemin (himself an engineer). Some may question whether Mr Jiang got his job strictly on merit. His appointment, though, does suggest the project has political clout. The team plan to fire up a prototype thorium reactor in 2015. Like India’s, this will use solid fuel. But by 2017 the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics expects to have one that uses a trickier but better fuel, molten thorium fluoride.

. April 13, 2014 at 12:44 pm
. May 19, 2014 at 12:26 pm

Thorium: the wonder fuel that wasn’t

Actually, though, the United States has tried to develop thorium as an energy source for some 50 years and is still struggling to deal with the legacy of those attempts. In addition to the billions of dollars it spent, mostly fruitlessly, to develop thorium fuels, the US government will have to spend billions more, at numerous federal nuclear sites, to deal with the wastes produced by those efforts. And America’s energy-from-thorium quest now faces an ignominious conclusion: The US Energy Department appears to have lost track of 96 kilograms of uranium 233, a fissile material made from thorium that can be fashioned into a bomb, and is battling the state of Nevada over the proposed dumping of nearly a ton of left-over fissile materials in a government landfill, in apparent violation of international standards.

The second track—now largely forgotten—was based on thorium-fueled reactors. This option was attractive because thorium is far more abundant than uranium and holds the potential for producing an even larger amount of uranium 233 in reactors designed specifically for that purpose. In pursuing this track, the government produced a large amount of uranium 233, mainly at weapons production reactors. Approximately two tons of uranium 233 was produced, at an estimated total cost of $5.5 to $11 billion (2012 dollars), including associated cleanup costs.

By the late 1980’s, after several failed attempts to use it commercially, the US nuclear power industry also walked away from thorium. The first commercial nuclear plant to use thorium was Indian Point Unit I, a pressurized water reactor near New York City that began operation in 1962. Attempts to recover uranium 233 from its irradiated thorium fuel were described, however, as a “financial disaster.” The last serious attempt to use thorium in a commercial reactor was at the Fort St. Vrain plant in Colorado, which closed in 1989 after 10 years and hundreds of equipment failures, leaks, and fuel failures. There were four failed commercial thorium ventures; prior agreement makes the US government responsible for their wastes.

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