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Home > Blogs > Anthony Harrington > Thorium reactors could hold the key to safer cheaper nuclear power

Thorium reactors could hold the key to safer cheaper nuclear power

Thorium reactors could hold the key to safer cheaper nuclear power Anthony Harrington

It goes without saying that business needs energy to run. The wheels of industry have to turn and the power that drives them has to be generated. Moreover, business needs energy to be affordable and safe and by safe we mean both safe from a Fukushima type incident, and safe from a Chernobyl type incident. So business has a vested interest in energy generation and particularly in new types of energy generation that hold out the prospect of plentiful cheap energy.

In an earlier blog, I looked at the ITER molten plasma fusion reactor which uses deuterium and tritium as fuel. The first real, near commercial scale fusion reactor is currently being built by a consortium of nations in the south of France. Of course, offshore wind or massive desert based solar power plants are the option of choice as far as renewable energy sources are concerned. But while alternative renewable energy sources are clean, they are certainly not cheap. In fact they would be a non starter without subsidies. The subsidies can be justified relatively easily by setting their cost against the likely costs of runaway global warming, or against the potential for a rise in catastrophic weather events like hurricanes and typhoons. However, offsetting, or rather, justifying, costs in this manner is not the same thing as finding a new source of plentiful, relatively cheap energy.

Somewhat surprisingly, while not new, an alternative, and much less dangerous, approach to generating nuclear energy has been around since the 1950s. Thorium, a naturally occurring radioactive chemical element, is around four times more abundant than uranium in the earth's crust and has the inestimable advantage over uranium of not being suitable for the production of weapons grade material for nuclear bombs. Moreover the use of thorium in what is called a "molten salts reactor" (MSR) poses absolutely no risk of a "melt down" of the core, such as we saw at Fukushima and Chernobyl. MSR research was championed by Alvin Weinberg, the director of the main US nuclear research laboratory at Oak Ridge Tennessee in the 1950s. The project, by all accounts, was successful and the MSR reactor ran for thousands of hours before Richard Nixon cut off funding and shut the project down in the 1960s in order to redirect research into reactors that were capable of breeding plutonium for nuclear bombs. Great thinking from Tricky Dickie, which basically set the world back 50 years as far as thorium reactors are concerned. Nixon also brilliantly fired Weinberg and installed his own man who had no interest in MSR, as director of Oak Ridge. (It's true - the idiocy of a US president really can have a profound long term impact on the world business operates in.)

Why does this matter? One simple example. If we had an established base of operating MSR reactors based on thorium, there would be a very viable alternative nuclear road for Iran to go down, and one that would not have Israel threatening to start a major war in the Middle East in order to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Thorium reactors are extremely bad at breeding weapons grade uranium. Even now the US could offer to swap out Iran's current nuclear programme for one based on thorium MSR reactor technology, thus defusing the situation should Iran accept, but unfortunately, no one has thought of this - yet...

There are plenty of signs that after being sidelined for half a century, interest in thorium reactors is now on the increase. In the UK the Weinberg Foundation, which has the Labour life peer Baroness Worthington as its patron, was founded in September 2001. India has a major thorium research programme in hand and other nations too, including Japan post Fukushima are investigating thorium MSR reactors.

What do they offer? Again, there is a web site dedicated to thorium reactors which interested readers may want to browse. The positives include: no greenhouse gas emissions, a fantastically high fuel to energy conversion (only some 2% of the fuel remains as waste, as against 95% from current reactors); a much shorter half life (a few hundred years versus a few thousand years); no production of plutonium; runs at atmospheric pressure; and they are cheaper to build than coal fired power stations. Sounds good? It is good, and anti nuclear campaigners need to go back to school on this one, since the usual knee jerk reactions against nuclear power are not particularly relevant to thorium MSR reactors. Unfortunately, despite the labours (no pun intended) of the good baroness, the Coalition government in the UK appears to be deeply asleep as far as thorium is concerned. The UK's future nuclear programme continues to be 100% uranium based. Whether that will change as other countries bring forward their thorium reactor research remains to be seen.

Further reading on energy costs to business:

Tags: deuterium , Fukushima , fusion , ITER , melt down , nuclear power , nuclear reactor , plutonium , renewable energy , thorium , tritium , uranium
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  1. roland47 says:
    Mon Sep 03 06:18:29 BST 2012

    Wind never blows if you need power and solar is not working at night or on cloudy days. The industrial revolution was only possible by utilising a higher density form of energy, coal and oil so why go back 200 years in time? The future is a very high density form of energy. Without some form of nuclear power the Terminator (movie Terminator) would have been only function for a few minutes. Modern nuclear submarines operate up to 30 years without nuclear refill of the reactor, consider using solar collectors instead. We need small assembly line produced Thorium reactors now to stop global warming and lift most of third world countries out of poverty.

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