Thorium-based nuclear power
Thorium-based nuclear power is nuclear reactor-based electrical power generation fueled primarily by the nuclear fission of the isotope uranium-233 produced from the fertile 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, development of thorium power has significant start-up costs. Proponents also cite the lack of weaponization potential as an advantage of thorium, while critics say that development of breeder reactors in general (including thorium reactors that are breeders by nature) increase proliferation concerns. Since about 2008, nuclear energy experts have become more interested in thorium to supply nuclear fuel in place of uranium to generate nuclear power. This renewed interest has been highlighted in a number of scientific conferences, the latest of which, ThEC13  was held at CERN by iThEC and attracted over 200 scientists from 32 countries.
- 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.
- 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. This 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 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 fissile 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 three times as abundant as uranium and nearly as abundant as lead and gallium in the Earth's crust. 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." "America has buried tons as a by-product of rare earth metals mining," notes Evans-Pritchard. 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.
- 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." This only applies to breeding reactors, that produce at least as much fissile material as they consume. Other reactor require additional fissile material, such as uranium-235 or plutonium.
- Thorium fuel cycle is a potential way to produce long term nuclear energy with low radio-toxicity waste. In addition, the transition to thorium could be done through the incineration of weapons grade plutonium (WPu) or civilian plutonium.
- Since all natural thorium can be used as fuel no expensive fuel enrichment is needed. However the same is true for U-238 as fertile fuel in the uranium-plutonium cycle.
- 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, makes up 42% of U.S. electrical power generation and 65% in China.
- Liquid fluoride thorium reactors are designed to be meltdown proof. A plug at the bottom of the reactor melts in the event of a power failure or if temperatures exceed a set limit, draining the fuel into an underground tank for safe storage.
- Mining thorium is safer and more efficient than mining uranium. Thorium's ore monazite generally contains higher concentrations of thorium than the percentage of uranium found in its respective ore. This makes thorium a more cost efficient and less environmentally damaging fuel source. Thorium mining is also easier and less dangerous than uranium mining, as the mine is an open pit which doesn't require ventilation, unlike underground uranium mines, where radon levels can be potentially harmful.
Summarizing some of the potential benefits, Martin offers his general opinion: "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 has suggested 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.
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 than those that use traditional solid fuel rods.
- Thorium, when being irradiated for use in reactors, will make uranium-232, which is very dangerous due to the gamma rays it emits. This irradiation process may be able to be altered slightly by removing protactinium-233. The irradiation would then make uranium-233 in lieu of uranium-232, which can be used in nuclear weapons to make thorium into a dual purpose fuel.
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."
Thorium Power Canada's proposal for the development of a 25 MW thorium reactor in Indonesia is meant to be a "demonstration power project" which could provide electrical power to the country’s power grid.
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, and by late 2013 China had officially partnered with Oak Ridge to aid China in its own development. 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 March 2014, with their reliance on coal-fired power having become a major cause of their current "smog crisis," they reduced their original goal of creating a working reactor from 25 years down to 10. "In the past, the government was interested in nuclear power because of the energy shortage. Now they are more interested because of smog," said Professor Li Zhong, a scientist working on the project. "This is definitely a race," he added.
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 a prototype commercial power station using thorium as fertile and highly enriched U-235 as fissile fuel. Though named thorium high temperature reactor, mostly U-235 was fissioned. The THTR-300 was a helium-cooled high-temperature reactor with a pebble-bed reactor 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 in the late 1980s, before it was shut down for cost, mechanical and other reasons.
India has one of the largest supplies of thorium in the world, with comparatively poor quantities of uranium. India has projected meeting as much as 30% of its electrical demands through thorium by 2050.
In February 2014, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), in Mumbai, India, presented their latest design for a "next-generation nuclear reactor" that will burn thorium as its fuel ore. Once built, with a target date of 2016, they estimate that the reactor could function without an operator for 120 days.
According to Dr R K Sinha, chairman of their Atomic Energy Commission, "This will reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, mostly imported, and will be a major contribution to global efforts to combat climate change." Because of its inherent safety, they expect that similar designs could be set up "within" populated cities, like Mumbai or Delhi.
India's government is also 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 2% of its electricity from nuclear power, with the rest coming from coal (60%), hydroelectricity (16%), other renewable sources (12%) and natural gas (9%). 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. 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." 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 [reactor of a size to power a destroyer] 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 reserves").
Another estimate of reasonably assured reserves (RAR) and estimated additional reserves (EAR) of thorium comes from OECD/NEA, Nuclear Energy, "Trends in Nuclear Fuel Cycle", Paris, France (2001). (see table "IAEA Estimates in tonnes")
|Country||RAR Th||EAR Th|
The preceding figures are reserves and as such refer to the amount of thorium in high-concentration deposits inventoried so far and estimated to be extractable at current market prices; millions of times more total exist in Earth's 3×1019 tonne crust, around 120 trillion tons of thorium, and lesser but vast quantities of thorium exist at intermediate concentrations. Proved reserves are "a poor indicator of the total future supply of a mineral resource."
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
- Thorium Energy Alliance
- Liquid fluoride thorium reactor
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