Exploring Hydrocarbon Depletion
The pro-thorium lobby claim a single tonne of thorium burned in a molten salt reactor (MSR) – typically a liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR) – which has liquid rather than solid fuel, can produce one gigawatt of energy. A traditional pressurised water reactor (PWR) would need to burn 250 tonnes of uranium to produce the same amount of energy.
They also produce less waste, have no weapons-grade by-products, can consume legacy plutonium stockpiles and are meltdown-proof – if the hype is to be believed.
India certainly has faith, with a burgeoning population, chronic electricity shortage, few friends on the global nuclear stage (it hasn't signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty) and the world's largest reserves of thorium. 'Green' nuclear could help defuse opposition at home (the approval of two new traditional nuclear power reactors on its west coast led to fierce protests recently) and allow it to push ahead unhindered with its stated aim of generating 270GW of energy from nuclear by 2050.
China, Russia, France and the US are also pursuing the technology, while India's department of atomic energy and the UK's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council are jointly funding five UK research programmes into it.
There is a significant sticking point to the promotion of thorium as the 'great green hope' of clean energy production: it remains unproven on a commercial scale. While it has been around since the 1950s (and an experimental 10MW LFTR did run for five years during the 1960s at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the US, though using uranium and plutonium as fuel) it is still a next generation nuclear technology – theoretical.
China did announce this year that it intended to develop a thorium MSR, but nuclear radiologist Peter Karamoskos, of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), says the world shouldn't hold its breath.
'Without exception, [thorium reactors] have never been commercially viable, nor do any of the intended new designs even remotely seem to be viable. Like all nuclear power production they rely on extensive taxpayer subsidies; the only difference is that with thorium and other breeder reactors these are of an order of magnitude greater, which is why no government has ever continued their funding.'
India has announced plans for a prototype nuclear power plant that uses an innovative "safer" fuel.
Officials are currently selecting a site for the reactor, which would be the first of its kind, using thorium for the bulk of its fuel instead of uranium – the fuel for conventional reactors. They plan to have the plant up and running by the end of the decade.
The development of workable and large-scale thorium reactors has for decades been a dream for nuclear engineers, while for environmentalists it has become a major hope as an alternative to fossil fuels. Proponents say the fuel has considerable advantages over uranium. Thorium is more abundant and exploiting it does not involve release of large quantities of carbon dioxide, making it less dangerous for the climate than fossil fuels like coal and oil.
In a rare interview, Ratan Kumar Sinha, the director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) in Mumbai, told the Guardian that his team is finalising the site for construction of the new large-scale experimental reactor, while at the same time conducting "confirmatory tests" on the design.
"The basic physics and engineering of the thorium-fuelled Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR) are in place, and the design is ready," said Sinha.
steam_cannon wrote:On the other hand...
Thorium nuclei would absorb the excess neutrons, resulting in uranium-233, a fissile isotope that is not found in nature. Moderated neutrons would produce fissioned U-233, which releases enough energy to power the particle accelerator, plus an excess that can drive a power plant. Rubbia says a fistful of thorium could light up London for a week.
The idea needs refining, but is so promising that at least one private firm is getting involved. The Norwegian firm Aker Solutions bought Rubbia's patent for this thorium fuel cycle, and is working on his design for a proton accelerator.
The Telegraph says this $1.8 billion (£1.2 billion) project could lead to a network of tiny underground nuclear reactors, producing about 600 MW each. Their wee size would negate the enormous security apparatus required of full-size nuclear power plants.
Thorium also solves the non-proliferation problem. Nuclear non-proliferation treaties (NPT) prohibit processes that can yield atomic bomb ingredients, making it difficult to refine highly radioactive isotopes. But thorium-based accelerator-driven plants only produce a small amount of plutonium, which could allow the U.S. and other nations to skirt NPT.
a decade or two in the future, city lights still burning as they slowly starve because the farms and food transport are collapsing as petroleum collapses.
Ideally, we would use the power generated by Thorium to electrify the rail system and use that to cover the majority of the distance between field and city with battery powered trucks to cover the first and last few miles. Unfortunately, we are squandering the capital and fuel needed to implement this by struggling to continue business as usual.
we might even have to give up war to afford the changes.
The Coalition on Thursday unveiled its new energy and resources document, which focuses almost entirely on fossil fuel developments, promising to restore coal-fired power stations to profitability, boost exploration for oil and gas, and to produce another “white paper” on energy.
Other proposals in the document prepared by opposition energy spokesman Ian Macfarlane include an investigation into the use of thorium as a potential energy source of the future, and support mechanisms for the use of LNG as a transport fuel.
Thorium, Australia possesses an estimated 18.7% (489,000t) of the world’s identified resources.
"Once you start looking more closely, it blows your mind away. You can run civilisation on thorium for hundreds of thousands of years, and it’s essentially free. You don’t have to deal with uranium cartels," he said.
Thorium is so common that miners treat it as a nuisance, a radioactive by-product if they try to dig up rare earth metals. The US and Australia are full of the stuff. So are the granite rocks of Cornwall. You do not need much: all is potentially usable as fuel, compared to just 0.7pc for uranium.
After the Manhattan Project, US physicists in the late 1940s were tempted by thorium for use in civil reactors. It has a higher neutron yield per neutron absorbed. It does not require isotope separation, a big cost saving. But by then America needed the plutonium residue from uranium to build bombs.
"They were really going after the weapons," said Professor Egil Lillestol, a world authority on the thorium fuel-cycle at CERN. "It is almost impossible make nuclear weapons out of thorium because it is too difficult to handle. It wouldn’t be worth trying." It emits too many high gamma rays.
You might have thought that thorium reactors were the answer to every dream but when CERN went to the European Commission for development funds in 1999-2000, they were rebuffed.
Brussels turned to its technical experts, who happened to be French because the French dominate the EU’s nuclear industry.
"They didn’t want competition because they had made a huge investment in the old technology," he said.
Another decade was lost. It was a sad triumph of vested interests over scientific progress. "We have very little time to waste because the world is running out of fossil fuels. Renewables can’t replace them. Nuclear fusion is not going work for a century, if ever," he said.
The Norwegian group Aker Solutions has bought Dr Rubbia’s patent for an accelerator-driven sub-critical reactor, and is working on his design for a thorium version at its UK operation.
Victoria Ashley, the project manager, said it could lead to a network of pint-sized 600MW reactors that are lodged underground, can supply small grids, and do not require a safety citadel. It will take £2bn to build the first one, and Aker needs £100mn for the next test phase.
The UK has shown little appetite for what it regards as a "huge paradigm shift to a new technology". Too much work and sunk cost has already gone into the next generation of reactors, which have another 60 years of life.
So Aker is looking for tie-ups with countries such as the US, Russia, or China. The Indians have their own projects - none yet built - dating from days when they switched to thorium because their weapons programme prompted a uranium ban.
America should have fewer inhibitions than Europe in creating a leapfrog technology. The US allowed its nuclear industry to stagnate after Three Mile Island in 1979.
Anti-nuclear neorosis is at last ebbing. The White House has approved $8bn in loan guarantees for new reactors, yet America has been strangely passive. Where is the superb confidence that put a man on the moon?
A few US pioneers are exploring a truly radical shift to a liquid fuel based on molten-fluoride salts, an idea once pursued by US physicist Alvin Weinberg at Oak Ridge National Lab in Tennessee in the 1960s. The original documents were retrieved by Mr Sorensen.
Moving away from solid fuel may overcome some of thorium’s "idiosyncracies". "You have to use the right machine. You don’t use diesel in a petrol car: you build a diesel engine," said Mr Sorensen.
Thorium-fluoride reactors can operate at atmospheric temperature. "The plants would be much smaller and less expensive. You wouldn’t need those huge containment domes because there’s no pressurized water in the reactor. It’s close-fitting," he said.
Nuclear power could become routine and unthreatening. But first there is the barrier of establishment prejudice.
When Hungarian scientists led by Leo Szilard tried to alert Washington in late 1939 that the Nazis were working on an atomic bomb, they were brushed off with disbelief. Albert Einstein interceded through the Belgian queen mother, eventually getting a personal envoy into the Oval Office.
Roosevelt initially fobbed him off. He listened more closely at a second meeting over breakfast the next day, then made up his mind within minutes. "This needs action," he told his military aide. It was the birth of the Manhattan Project. As a result, the US had an atomic weapon early enough to deter Stalin from going too far in Europe.
The global energy crunch needs equal "action". If it works, Manhattan II could restore American optimism and strategic leadership at a stroke: if not, it is a boost for US science and surely a more fruitful way to pull the US out of perma-slump than scattershot stimulus.
Even better, team up with China and do it together, for all our sakes.
CERN is to host the Thorium Energy Conference ThEC13 on 27-31 October, 2013. The Conference will address the scientific and technical advances offered by thorium in alternative nuclear technologies for energy production and for the destruction of nuclear waste. ThEC13 is organized by iThEC2 (international Thorium Energy Committee, Geneva) and IThEO3 (International Thorium Energy Organization, Stockholm).
Thorium is a silvery white metal four times more abundant than uranium in the Earth's crust. Its potential as nuclear fuel also offers an alternative for safer and cleaner nuclear energy production, reducing the volume and lifetime of existing nuclear waste.
Several nations have therefore embarked on ambitious plans aimed at the development of a new generation of nuclear power plants based on thorium instead of uranium, which could offer unmatched level of safety up to now. This technology would also allow for reducing present and future nuclear waste and is attractive in terms of non-proliferation and CO2 emissions.
“Energy is a major concern for society and I’m sure that this conference will show once again how fundamental research can help to address such an important challenge” said Rolf Heuer, CERN Director-General.
China and India are actively supporting several initiatives in this direction with important resources, and the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan, South Korea, and Norway are also evaluating this technology. The ThEC13 conference will be attended by scientists of 32 countries including all the major actors, to discuss the status of the field and define common project in a spirit of international cooperation.
"Thorium offers a route to safe, clean nuclear energy," said Jean-Pierre Revol, President of iThEC, "The number of renowned scientists coming to ThEC13 gives a clear signal that a truly international cooperation is forming to herald a new era in nuclear energy, with clear benefits for the world."
During the 1990s, CERN has been pioneering thorium technologies research with experiments instigated by Nobel laureate Carlo Rubbia, testing the basic concepts of a thorium-fuelled reactor driven by a proton accelerator.
The thorium dream is an alluring one, as any member of its devoted band of disciples will tell you. The jury is still out as to whether this beloved alternative brand of nuclear power is feasible, though thorium is more abundant and less radioactive than uranium, and its advocates argue that thorium plants are much safer than conventional nuke plants.
Hope so; it looks like the world’s about to get a real-live thorium test run in India.
The Deccan Times reports: “Over the next five years, India plans to start building a safe nuclear reactor that can be installed in the heart of Delhi or Mumbai without posing danger to people and environment. The 300-MWe advanced heavy water reactor (AHWR), whose construction will start in the 12th plan period, would be so safe that it can be erected in the heart of any city, said S A Bhardwaj, director, Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd.”
Construction on the actual thorium reactors will commence in 2016.
But is thorium really cheaper, cleaner and more efficient than uranium? And if so, do the added benefits really warrant the cost and effort to make the switch? Data is still pretty scarce, but at least one report is urging us to not believe the hype.
Through their National Nuclear Laboratory the UK’s Department of Energy & Climate Change released a report in September that stated: “thorium has theoretical advantages regarding sustainability, reducing radiotoxicity and reducing proliferation risk. While there is some justification for these benefits, they are often overstated.” The report goes on to acknowledge that worldwide interest in thorium is likely to remain high and they recommend that the UK maintain a “low level” of research and development into thorium fuel.
The place where thorium is proven either way could be China. The country is serious about weaning itself off of fossil fuels and making nuclear power their primary energy source. Fourteen nuclear power reactors are in operation in China today, another 25 under construction, and there are plans to build more. And in 2011 they announced plans to build a thorium, molten salt reactor. So whether it be Norway, the UK, China, or some other forward-thinking countries, we’ll soon find out if thorium reactors are better than uranium ones, at which point more countries may want to join the thorium chain reaction.
diemos wrote:But why do we need thorium with all of it's icky nuclear waste is we already have LENR?
You haven't lost faith with LENR already have you?
According to some toxicity studies, the thorium cycle can fully recycle actinide wastes and only emit fission product wastes, and after a few hundred years, the waste from a thorium reactor can be less toxic than the uranium ore that would have been used to produce low enriched uranium fuel for a light water reactor of the same power. Other studies assume some actinide losses and find that actinide wastes dominate thorium cycle waste radioactivity at some future periods.
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