Thorium-based nuclear power
Thorium-based nuclear power is nuclear reactor-based electrical power generation fueled, ultimately, by the element thorium. According to proponents, a thorium fuel cycle offers several potential advantages over a uranium fuel cycle—including much greater abundance on Earth, superior physical and nuclear fuel properties, and reduced nuclear waste production. However, it suffers from higher production and processing costs, and lacks significant weaponization potential. Since about 2008, nuclear energy experts have become more interested in thorium to supply nuclear fuel in place of uranium to generate nuclear power.
- Uranium-235, purified (i.e. "enriched") by reducing the amount of Uranium-238 in natural mined uranium. Most nuclear power has been generated using low-enriched uranium (LEU), whereas high-enriched uranium (HEU) is necessary for weapons. Disposal of radioactive waste from power plants is problematic without reprocessing to recover plutonium, which may also be used for nuclear weapons.
- Plutonium-239, transmuted from Uranium-238 obtained from natural mined uranium. Plutonium is also used for weapons.
- Uranium-233, transmuted from Thorium-232, derived from natural mined thorium. That is the subject of this article.
Some believe thorium is key to developing a new generation of cleaner, safer nuclear power. According to an opinion piece (not peer-reviewed) by a group of scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology, considering its overall potential, thorium-based power "can mean a 1000+ year solution or a quality low-carbon bridge to truly sustainable energy sources solving a huge portion of mankind’s negative environmental impact."
After studying the feasibility of using thorium, nuclear scientists Ralph W. Moir and Edward Teller suggested that thorium nuclear research should be restarted after a three-decade shutdown and that a small prototype plant should be built. Research and development of thorium-based nuclear reactors, primarily the Liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR), MSR design, has been or is now being done in India, China, Norway, U.S., Israel and Russia.
Background and brief history
After World War II, uranium-based nuclear reactors were built to produce electricity. These were similar to the reactor designs that produced material for nuclear weapons. During that period, the U.S. government also built an experimental molten salt reactor using U-233 fuel, the fertile material created by bombarding thorium with neutrons. The reactor, built at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, operated critical for roughly 15000 hours from 1965 to 1969. In 1968, Nobel laureate and discoverer of Plutonium, Glenn Seaborg, publicly announced to the Atomic Energy Commission, of which he was chairman, that the thorium-based reactor had been successfully developed and tested:
So far the molten-salt reactor experiment has operated successfully and has earned a reputation for reliability. I think that some day the world will have commercial power reactors of both the uranium-plutonium and the thorium-uranium fuel cycle type.
In 1973, however, the U.S. government shut down all thorium-related nuclear research—which had by then been ongoing for approximately twenty years at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The reasons were that uranium breeder reactors were more efficient, the research was proven, and byproducts could be used to make nuclear weapons. In Moir and Teller’s opinion, the decision to stop development of thorium reactors, at least as a backup option, “was an excusable mistake.”
Science writer Richard Martin states that nuclear physicist Alvin Weinberg, who was director at Oak Ridge and primarily responsible for the new reactor, lost his job as director because he championed development of the safer thorium reactors. Weinberg himself recalls this period:
[Congressman] Chet Holifield was clearly exasperated with me, and he finally blurted out, "Alvin, if you are concerned about the safety of reactors, then I think it may be time for you to leave nuclear energy." I was speechless. But it was apparent to me that my style, my attitude, and my perception of the future were no longer in tune with the powers within the AEC.
Martin explains that Weinberg's unwillingness to sacrifice potentially safe nuclear power for the benefit of military uses forced him to retire:
Weinberg realized that you could use thorium in an entirely new kind of reactor, one that would have zero risk of meltdown. . . . his team built a working reactor . . . . and he spent the rest of his 18-year tenure trying to make thorium the heart of the nation’s atomic power effort. He failed. Uranium reactors had already been established, and Hyman Rickover, de facto head of the US nuclear program, wanted the plutonium from uranium-powered nuclear plants to make bombs. Increasingly shunted aside, Weinberg was finally forced out in 1973.
Despite the documented history of thorium nuclear power, many of today’s nuclear experts were nonetheless unaware of it. According to Chemical & Engineering News, "most people—including scientists—have hardly heard of the heavy-metal element and know little about it . . . ," noting a comment by a conference attendee that "it's possible to have a Ph.D. in nuclear reactor technology and not know about thorium energy." Nuclear physicist Victor J. Stenger, for one, first learned of it in 2012:
It came as a surprise to me to learn recently that such an alternative has been available to us since World War II, but not pursued because it lacked weapons applications.
Others, including former NASA scientist and thorium expert Kirk Sorensen, agree that “thorium was the alternative path that was not taken . . . ":2 According to Sorensen, during a documentary interview, he states that if the U.S. had not discontinued its research in 1974 it could have "probably achieved energy independence by around 2000."
The thorium fuel cycle offers enormous energy security benefits in the long-term – due to its potential for being a self-sustaining fuel without the need for fast neutron reactors. It is therefore an important and potentially viable technology that seems able to contribute to building credible, long-term nuclear energy scenarios.
Moir and Teller agree, noting that the possible advantages of thorium include “utilization of an abundant fuel, inaccessibility of that fuel to terrorists or for diversion to weapons use, together with good economics and safety features . . . “ Thorium is considered the “most abundant, most readily available, cleanest, and safest” energy source on Earth", adds science writer Richard Martin.“:7
- Thorium is four times as abundant as uranium and as common as lead. The Thorium Energy Alliance (TEA) estimates "there is enough thorium in the United States alone to power the country at its current energy level for over 1,000 years."[unreliable source] "America has buried tons as a by-product of rare earth metals mining," notes Evans-Pritchard. "Norway has so much that Oslo is planning a post-oil era where thorium might drive the country’s next great phase of wealth. Even Britain has seams in Wales and in the granite cliffs of Cornwall. Almost all thorium is fertile Th-232, compared to uranium that is composed of 99.3% fertile U-238 and 0.7% more valuable fissile U-235. There is enough to power civilization for thousands of years."
- Thorium is safer and cleaner than uranium because its radioactivity is significantly lower: "A chunk of thorium is no more harmful than a bar of soap", states Martin.:11
- LFTR reactors offer many attractive passive safety features. Kirk Sorensen notes that because LFTRs operate at atmospheric pressure, hydrogen explosions as happened in Fukushima, Japan in 2011, are not possible. "One of these reactors would have come through the tsunami just fine. There would have been no radiation release." Meltdown is impossible, since nuclear chain reactions cannot be sustained, and fission stops by default in case of accident.:13
- It is difficult to make a practical nuclear bomb from a thorium reactor's byproducts. According to Alvin Radkowsky, designer of the world’s first full-scale atomic electric power plant, "a thorium reactor's plutonium production rate would be less than 2 percent of that of a standard reactor, and the plutonium's isotopic content would make it unsuitable for a nuclear detonation.":11 Several uranium-233 bombs have been tested, but the presence of uranium-232 tended to "poison" the uranium-233 in two ways: intense radiation from the uranium-232 made the material difficult to handle, and the uranium-233 led to possible pre-detonation. Separating the uranium-232 from the uranium-233 proved very difficult, although newer laser techniques could facilitate that process.
- There is much less nuclear waste—up to two orders of magnitude less, states Moir and Teller, eliminating the need for large-scale or long-term storage;:13 "Chinese scientists claim that hazardous waste will be a thousand times less than with uranium." The radioactivity of the resulting waste also drops down to safe levels after just a few hundred years, compared to tens of thousands of years needed for current nuclear waste to cool off.
- According to Moir and Teller, "once started up [it] needs no other fuel except thorium because it makes most or all of its own fuel." Because it is non-fissile, it can also be used with fissile material, such as uranium and plutonium, as a nuclear fuel.
- Since a LFTR core is not pressurized, it does not need the expensive high-pressure reactor vessel for the core of light water reactors. Instead, there is a low-pressure vessel and pipes (for molten salt) constructed of relatively thin materials. Also due to low operating pressure, a much smaller containment structure is needed compared to light water reactors, up to 1,000 times smaller.
- Since all natural thorium can be used as a fuel, and the fuel is in the form of a molten salt instead of solid fuel rods, expensive fuel enrichment and solid fuel rods' validation procedures and fabricating processes are not needed, greatly decreasing LFTR fuel cost.
- Comparing the amount of thorium needed with coal, Nobel laureate Carlo Rubbia of CERN, (European Organization for Nuclear Research), estimates that one ton of thorium can produce as much energy as 200 tons of uranium, or 3,500,000 tons of coal. Coal, as the world's largest source of carbon dioxide emissions, makes up 42% of U.S. electrical power generation and 65% in China.
Summarizing, Martin writes, "Thorium could provide a clean and effectively limitless source of power while allaying all public concern—weapons proliferation, radioactive pollution, toxic waste, and fuel that is both costly and complicated to process.:13
From an economics viewpoint, U.K. business editor Ambrose Evans-Pritchard writes that "Obama could kill fossil fuels overnight with a nuclear dash for thorium," suggesting a "new Manhattan Project", and adding, "If it works, Manhattan II could restore American optimism and strategic leadership at a stroke . . ." Moir and Teller estimated in 2004 that the cost for their recommended prototype would be "well under $1 billion with operation costs likely on the order of $100 million per year," and as a result a "large-scale nuclear power plan" usable by many countries could be set up within a decade. The peer-reviewed scientific journal Environmental Science & Technology, concurs with the cost estimate, which benefits from preexisting research and technology:
A LFTR program could be achieved through a relatively modest investment of roughly 1 billion dollars over 5–10 years to fund research to fill minor technical gaps, then construction of a reactor prototype, and finally a full-scale reactor. Many of the engineering and technological problems of the ORNL program have already been solved through non-nuclear research, including liquid fluorides, resistant metal cladding, and high-temperature turbines. LFTR can mean a 1000+ year solution or a quality low-carbon bridge to truly sustainable energy sources solving a huge portion of mankind’s negative environmental impact.
Some experts note possible specific disadvantages of thorium nuclear power:
- Breeding in a thermal neutron spectrum is slow and requires extensive reprocessing. The feasibility of reprocessing is still open.
- Significant and expensive testing, analysis and licensing work is first required, requiring business and government support. According to a 2012 report by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, about using thorium fuel with existing water-cooled reactors, it would "require too great an investment and provide no clear payoff," noting that "from the utilities’ point of view, the only legitimate driver capable of motivating pursuit of thorium is economics."
- There is a higher cost of fuel fabrication and reprocessing in designs that use traditional solid fuel rods.
Research and development of thorium-based nuclear reactors, primarily the Liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR), MSR design, has been or is now being done in the U.S., U.K., Germany, Brazil, India, China, France, the Czech Republic, Japan, Russia, Canada, Israel and the Netherlands. Conferences with experts from as many as 32 countries are held, including one by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in 2013, which focuses on thorium as an alternative nuclear technology without requiring production of nuclear waste. Recognized experts, such as Hans Blix, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, calls for expanded support of new nuclear power technology, and states, "the thorium option offers the world not only a new sustainable supply of fuel for nuclear power but also one that makes better use of the fuel's energy content."
CANDU reactors of Atomic Energy Canada Limited are capable of using thorium,[dead link] and TPC (Thorium Power Canada) has, in 2013, planned and proposed developing thorium power projects for Chile and Indonesia.
At the 2011 annual conference of the Chinese Academy of Sciences it was announced that "China has initiated a research and development project in thorium molten-salt reactor technology." In addition, Dr. Jiang Mianheng, son of China's former leader Jiang Zemin, led a thorium delegation in non-disclosure talks at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Tennessee. The World Nuclear Association notes that the China Academy of Sciences in January 2011 announced its R&D program, "claiming to have the world's largest national effort on it, hoping to obtain full intellectual property rights on the technology" According to Martin, "China has made clear its intention to go it alone," adding that China already has a monopoly over most of the world's rare earth minerals.:157
In early 2012, it was reported that China, using components produced by the West and Russia, planned to build two prototype thorium molten salt reactors by 2015, and had budgeted the project at $400 million and requiring 400 workers.":157 China also finalized an agreement with a Canadian nuclear technology company to develop improved CANDU reactors using thorium and uranium as a fuel.
The German THTR-300 was the first commercial power station powered almost entirely with thorium. The THTR-300 was a helium-cooled high-temperature reactor with a pebble bed core consisting of approximately 670,000 spherical fuel compacts each 6 centimetres (2.4 in) in diameter with particles of uranium-235 and thorium-232 fuel embedded in a graphite matrix. It fed power to Germany's grid for 432 days, before it was shut down for cost, mechanical and other reasons.
India's government is developing up to 62, mostly thorium reactors, which it expects to be operational by 2025. It is the "only country in the world with a detailed, funded, government-approved plan" to focus on thorium-based nuclear power. The country currently gets under 3% of its electricity from nuclear power, relying for the rest on coal and oil imports. It expects to produce around 25% of its electricity from nuclear power.:144 In 2009 the chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission said that India has a "long-term objective goal of becoming energy-independent based on its vast thorium resources."
In late June 2012, India announced that their "first commercial fast reactor" was near completion making India the most advanced country in thorium research."We have huge reserves of thorium. The challenge is to develop technology for converting this to fissile material", stated their former Chairman of India's Atomic Energy Commission. That vision of using thorium in place of uranium was set out in the 1950s by physicist Homi Bhabha. India’s first commercial fast breeder reactor — the 500 MWe Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) — is approaching completion at the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research, Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu.
As of July 2013 the major equipment of the PFBR had been erected and the loading of "dummy" fuels in peripheral locations was in progress. Fuel pins for the PFBR’s first core were in manufacturing at The Nuclear Fuel Complex in Hyderabad and assembly at Kalpakkam. The reactor was expected to go critical by September 2014.
The Centre had sanctioned Rs. 5,677 crore for building the PFBR and “we will definitely build the reactor within that amount” Mr. Kumar asserted. The original cost of the project was Rs. 3,492 crore, revised to Rs. 5,677 crore. Electricity generated from the PFBR would be sold to the State Electricity Boards at Rs. 4.44 a unit. BHAVINI builds breeder reactors in India. India's 300 MWe AHWR (pressurized heavy water reactor) reactor began construction in 2011. The design envisages a start up with reactor grade plutonium that will breed U-233 from Th-232. Thereafter thorium is to be the only fuel.
In May 2010, researchers from Ben-Gurion University in Israel and Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York began to collaborate on the development of thorium reactors aimed at being self-sustaining, "meaning one that will produce and consume about the same amounts of fuel," which is not possible with uranium in a light water reactor.
In late 2012, Norway's privately owned Thor Energy, in collaboration with the government and Westinghouse, announced a four-year trial using thorium in an existing nuclear reactor." Thorium was first discovered in Norway in 1828, and its discoverer named the radioactive mineral "after the Norse god of thunder, Thor." In 2013, Aker Solutions purchased patents from Nobel Prize winning physicist Carlo Rubbia for the design of a proton accelerator-based thorium nuclear power plant.
In Britain, a few organizations are either promoting or examining research on thorium-based nuclear plants. House of Lords member Bryony Worthington is promoting thorium, calling it “the forgotten fuel” that could alter Britain’s energy plans. However, in 2010, the UK’s National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) concluded that for the short to medium term, "...the thorium fuel cycle does not currently have a role to play," in that it is "technically immature, and would require a significant financial investment and risk without clear benefits," and concluded that the benefits have been "overstated." Friends of the Earth UK considers research into it as "useful" as a fallback option.
In its January 2012 report to the Secretary of Energy, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Future notes that a "molten-salt reactor using thorium [has] also been proposed". That same month it was reported that the U.S. Department of Energy is "quietly collaborating with China" on thorium-based nuclear power designs using a molten salt reactor.
Some experts and politicians want thorium to be "the pillar of the U.S. nuclear future." Senators Harry Reid and Orrin Hatch have supported using $250 million in federal research funds to revive ORNL research. In 2009, Congressman Joe Sestak unsuccessfully attempted to secure funding for research and development of a destroyer-sized reactor using thorium-based liquid fuel.
Alvin Radkowsky, chief designer of the world’s second full-scale atomic electric power plant in Shippingport, Pennsylvania, founded a joint U.S. and Russian project in 1997 to create a thorium-based reactor, considered a "creative breakthrough." In 1992, while a resident professor in Tel Aviv, Israel, he founded the U.S. company, Thorium Power Ltd., near Washington, D.C., to build thorium reactors.
World sources of thorium
Thorium is mostly found with the rare earth phosphate mineral, monazite, which contains up to about 12% thorium phosphate, but 6-7% on average. World monazite resources are estimated to be about 12 million tons, two-thirds of which are in heavy mineral sands deposits on the south and east coasts of India. There are substantial deposits in several other countries (see table "World thorium sources").
Types of thorium-based reactors
According to the World Nuclear Association there are seven types of reactors that can be designed to use thorium as a nuclear fuel. The first five of these have all entered into operational service at some point. The last two are still conceptual, although currently in development by many countries:
- Heavy water reactors (PHWRs)
- High-temperature gas-cooled reactors (HTRs)
- Boiling (light) water reactors (BWRs)
- Pressurized (Light) water reactors (PWRs)
- Fast neutron reactors (FNRs)
- Molten salt reactors (MSRs, LFTRs)
- Accelerator driven reactors (ADS)
Additionally, in the 1958 Atoms for Peace publication entitled Fluid Fueled Reactors, Aqueous Homogeneous Reactors (AHRs) were proposed as a fluid fueled design that could accept naturally occurring uranium and thorium suspended in a heavy water solution. AHRs have been built and according to the IAEA reactor database, 7 are currently in operation as research reactors.
- Breeder reactor
- Generation IV reactor
- Flibe Energy
- India's three stage nuclear power programme
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