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Nuclear Energy Accidents May Become Thing of Past

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When it comes to nuclear power, there’s talk of all sorts of technologies and fuels — things that could make the average guy’s head spin. But if you think nuclear energy is an efficient and pollution-free way to make electricity, consider “thorium” and “molten salt reactors.”

Huh? On the periodic tables, thorium rests just two spots away from uranium, which is the prevailing fuel used by today’s nuclear reactors. Once uranium is used as a fuel, it becomes highly radioactive. That waste is then cooled in spent fuel pools before is stored in above-ground, concrete-encased steel caskets. As the world learned from Japan’s Fukushima nuclear accident, that radioactive material could escape and do a lot of potential harm.

Thorium, on the other hand, can also be used to generate nuclear energy. But its proponents are saying that “molten salt reactors” that burn such fuels won’t “meltdown” because, unlike today’s high-pressured units, they are low-pressured and won’t vaporize.

“Thorium is the most abundant nuclear material on earth,” says Clinton Bastin, who was with the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and the U.S. Department of Energy from 1955 until 1997. “It should eventually be used in nuclear reactors because it is so plentiful. But it should not be used now because it introduces the problem of highly radioactive material that is very difficult to deal with.”

Bastin, who is also a former VP of the World Council of Nuclear Workers, explained to this reporter that there are demonstration projects now occurring involving thorium. Active trials are taking place in China and India, and to some extent in Canada. But no country is using a significant amount of thorium to produce electricity, much less in molten salt reactors.

Thorium is abundant in nature, with about four times the amount in the earth’s crust than uranium. When used as a nuclear fuel, the whole cycle produces less radioactive waste than does uranium. But, the thorium fuel cycle still makes radioactive material that must be warehoused and some say it does produce an isotope of uranium that could be used in nuclear weapons, although plutonium that is the preferred method is not a byproduct.

Why has this country chosen uranium over thorium? The decision was made in the 1950s during the emergence of nuclear power generation. That was during the Cold War and the U.S. government had decided that the national treasury would be invested in uranium fuels, as they can be more easily enriched to make nuclear bombs.

Today, the U.S. might have chosen a different path. But it would be too costly to retrofit the existing nuclear energy infrastructure to comport with the thorium fuel cycle. The supply chain is now fully stocked and includes everything from uranium suppliers to reactor designers.

“It is possible to convert the existing reactors to thorium reactors over time,” says Thomas Drolet, a nuclear energy expert with his own consulting firm in Englewood, Fla., in a phone interview. “But it would be high capital costs. What you really want to do is to start from scratch.”

The 104 nuclear power plants operating in the United States today use so-called second generation light water, solid fuel reactors. They operate, on average, at more than 90 percent capacity and have been working safely for at least 36 years.

“Third generation” light water reactors are going up predominately in India and China and they are the ones that are to be constructed by Southern Company andScana, both of which were recently approved to build by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Those third generation reactors have superior fuel technology, thermal efficiency and safety features.

The next-generation reactors, called “fourth generation,” are those that run at much higher temperatures. They are even more efficient than those in the third generation, giving them the potential to produce more electricity at less cost. The high temperatures also enable hydrogen production as well as a variety of industrial applications.

Thorium is most suited to run in fourth generation “liquid fuel” reactors, which  operate at lower pressures and which are therefore safer. Such molten salt reactors must reach high level temperatures to melt a salt solid. That liquid and fuel mixture is then used as a coolant in the fuel cycle. Critics say that it is still difficult to maintain high thermal efficiencies, which diminishes the economic case for those liquid fuel reactor’s over today’s technologies.

“All fourth generation reactors make much less waste and run at higher temperatures,” says John Kutsch, executive director of the Thorium Energy Alliance in Chicago, who spoke with this writer by phone. “But the similarity ends there. Inherently, thorium is much more abundant and easier to handle.”

China, he adds, is likely to get there first. It is demonstrating a modern thorium reactor and it could have one in full-scale production by 2020. China is about 70 percent of the way to commercialization, he notes, emphasizing that the United States invented the technology and could leapfrog that nation.

What’s stopping this country? Beyond the established interests that have already invested huge sums in the current technologies, there are questions about the creation of huge piles of thorium — something that would come with immense regulatory oversight and the associated expenses.

As such, Kutsch is saying that the industry would be willing to manage a centralized “rare earth” refinery that would safeguard or find uses for the thorium that has been stockpiled. His group would also like the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to write the rules and regulations for liquid reactors that use the thorium fuel cycles.

The reality is that solid fuel reactors using uranium are now supplying 20 percent of this country’s electric generation. Liquid fuel reactors, or molten salt reactors, that use thorium will not replace them. But the thorium technology still has place in the mix, as evidenced by the international research now occurring. China is furthest along and if it succeeds, the science will be applied elsewhere.


11 Comments on "Nuclear Energy Accidents May Become Thing of Past"

  1. DC on Sat, 21st Apr 2012 2:42 pm 

    China wont be building any thorium reactors, nor will the Us of Oil. Too much time and money and energy wasted on the toxic Ur method that gave us Fukishima and has produced 300k tons of toxic waste. But Forbes can dream on, it doesnt cost them anything…

  2. Kenz300 on Sat, 21st Apr 2012 5:24 pm 

    Nuclear energy is too costly and too dangerous. Japan has shut down 53 of 54 of its nuclear reactors and are getting along without them.

  3. doug nicodemus on Sat, 21st Apr 2012 7:29 pm 

    sounds like someone is whistling past a grave yard to me…

  4. fbj on Sat, 21st Apr 2012 8:02 pm 

    Thorium is the future! Countries using it will dominate countries using only solar and wind!

  5. expert on Sat, 21st Apr 2012 10:52 pm 

    Wind is competetive worldwide.
    Solar is competetive if produced and used for own demand.
    Nuclear power is death long ago and has never been competetive.

    The missing future link is intelligent power management and storage. The hydrogen storage technology will be implemented and is alreday tested on pilot plants in mulit-MW-scale in Germany (hydrogen supplied into existing natural gas nets). It is decentral and can be set up basically everywhere within a few years. Nuclear needs decades. Nevertheless some more CCGT power stations have to be built in the next decade.

    We have to end nuclear power before it ends us.

  6. Beery on Sat, 21st Apr 2012 11:53 pm 

    History is full of stories about supposedly foolproof technologies that had catastrophic failures. Just look at the supposedly ‘unsinkable’ Titanic.

    Trust me, anything that can make lots of energy can go horribly wrong. The fact that we install safety systems and cannot envisage a way they could fail only means we lack imagination.

  7. Baptised on Sun, 22nd Apr 2012 1:23 am 

    I am with fbj. Thorium is the future. The basic safety of if anything goes wrong,it will cool to ambient temp and is then managable, no chance of run aways. Plus the karma side of being separated from weapons.

  8. BillT on Sun, 22nd Apr 2012 1:46 am 

    Thorium is not the future. There is not going to be time or money to change direction now. We made the choice decades ago and have to live with them.

    As for there not being any more “accidents”… don’t make me laugh. We have at least two nuclear plants with hundreds of tons of spent fuel sitting on the Ring of Fire and Japan still has thousands of tons of spent fuel in theirs, also on that same Ring of Fire. Then there is the fact that most reactors in the US are past their design life and are accidents waiting to happen. Forbes is just a propaganda mill for the corporate elite.

  9. Blah on Sun, 22nd Apr 2012 10:06 am 

    BillT – you are arguing against new thorium molten salt reactors using bad examples of old uranium solid fuel light water reactors? How is that relevant? Strawman argument.

    I concur, there is still time and money to change direction. While fossil fuels will run out, its not going to be in the next 50 years, we still have time to develop LFTR reactors (and other Gen IV reactors) and avert the coming energy crisis. We have no other choice, solar and wind wont be able to replace fossil fuels, it just does not have the energy density to do so, even if solar panels were 100% efficient. In the long term, its nuclear energy or return to the agrarian society.

  10. Ed on Mon, 23rd Apr 2012 1:10 pm 


    You realize that Gen IV reactors like the one explained in this article (molten salt reactors) can eat up this nuclear waste and reduce its time of hazardous radioactivity to around 300 years vs hundreds of thousands. The reactor runs at atmospheric and produces no combustibles. It doesn’t use high pressure water to cool the core. These facts almost 100% remove the ability for a nuclear accident like Fukushima since there is no force to eject the radioactive particles in the reactor into the atmosphere. These molten salt reactors could provide a GWe year of energy from 1 ton of thorium. That is incredible.

    Nuclear is the only way that a population of 9 billion people will continue (or have the opportunity) to have abundant energy after the fossil fuel era ends. We could do this with renewables, but 4 or 5 billion people will have to either die off or accept a life without electricity.

  11. Ed on Mon, 23rd Apr 2012 1:13 pm 

    *Edit from last comment: the reactor runs at atmospheric pressure.

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