Ohio Group Holds Out Hope For Thorium Energy

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This schematic from 1969 represents the state of the art Thorium molten salt reactor design. Engineers at Oak Ridge Labs developed the technology then abandoned it in favor of the more familiar Uranium fueled light water reactors.(Photo: WKSU)
This schematic from 1969 represents the state of the art Thorium molten salt reactor design. Engineers at Oak Ridge Labs developed the technology then abandoned it in favor of the more familiar Uranium fueled light water reactors.(Photo: WKSU)

A group in Northeast Ohio is promoting an alternative form of atomic power that they say promises safer and cheaper nuclear reactors: Thorium.

But critics say it may be too late for the technology to be a real player in the quest for clean energy sources.

History of Thorium

It has the makings of a classic conspiracy theory. Government scientists in the 1960’s developed a smaller, potentially safer form of nuclear power using a cheap and abundant fuel, only to have the program mothballed and kept secret for decades.

The Thorium Molten-Salt reactor was one of several nuclear reactor designs developed at Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in a flurry of cold war innovation. But the technology was scrapped in favor of today’s water cooled Uranium reactors.

“And it’s really tragic because this was I think a far superior way to go.”

Bill Thesling is the executive chairman of the Cleveland-based Energy From Thorium Foundation.

“They did a lot of work at Oak Ridge that proved the basic concept of fuel dissolved in a molten salt, that’s the game changer right there.”

Thorium, Then and Now

Thesling and his group are promoting a radically different design than virtually all reactors operating today. Instead of the standard solid enriched Uranium fuel in most reactors, the new design uses another element, Thorium, dissolved in a high temperature solution of fluoride salts.

Thesling says this alone is a major safety advantage over today’s high pressure reactors.

“The thing effectively cannot melt down because it’s already molten, so the concept of a meltdown is really not even at play.”

And Thesling says Thorium is a cheap and abundant mineral that doesn’t need expensive purification like Uranium.

“It would solve the energy situation for the nation and for humanity, and that’s kind of our reason for doing it.”

Engineer Kirk Sorenson is Chief Technologist with the Energy From Thorium Foundation. He blames the politics of the Nixon era for killing the Thorium molten salt reactor project, and laments the missed opportunity.

“It would have been great if back in the 70’s if the United States had made the decision to keep going with this technology. We would have had Thorium reactors by the 90’s and by this point would have been completely energy independent, and would be for thousands of years, but that didn’t happen.”

The government’s thorium research was declassified in the 90s. Sorenson discovered it while working at NASA and he’s picking up where government scientists left off 45 years ago.. He’s one of just a few dozen Thorium evangelists in the US actively working on the abandoned technology.

Critics Say Thorium’s Time Has Passed

Not everyone is so excited about it, though.

Arjun Makhijani is a former nuclear scientist and head of the Washington-based Institute for Energy and Environmental Research.

“Thorium reactors have some safety advantages, but they also have a lot of disadvantages.”

For one thing, he says, it’s easier to siphon off bomb-making materials from thorium reactors. He also says the technology DOES have to use some uranium— to kick-off the reactions.

Kirk Sorenson acknowledges that significant engineering challenges remain before his Thorium molten salt reactor is ready for service. His group also estimates a billion dollar price tag for the project. But the biggest hurdle, he says, is convincing regulators that the design is safe in a time-frame investors can live with.

“We’ve got a licensing authority, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, that has never licensed a reactor of this type before and that’s going to be a challenge and I think everything else pales in comparison to that challenge.”

Arjun Makhijani agrees. He thinks regulators wouldn’t move quickly enough to allow a thorium reactor to play any part in reversing climate change.

“By the time, if all goes as the proponents claim, in this country at least, it will be 20 years before you can get a certified reactor. By that time your global warming game is over.”

Makijhani says rapid advances in alternative energy mean the golden age of nuclear power will remain firmly in the past.

“Before any of these reactors can be demonstrated to be viable they’re going to be economically obsolete.”

The Chinese government is launching a massive effort to build a Thorium molten salt reactor by the end of this decade.

But in this country, despite the intense faith of a small group of activists, financial and regulatory realities mean the promise of limitless nuclear power from Thorium may remain an unfulfilled dream.

  • Mike Carey

    France certainly moved quickly enough to dramatically reduce its dependence on fossil fuels after the OPEC embargo in the 1970′s by building a very effective and cost effective nuclear power program. It takes some time but it works.

  • Dr. A. Cannara

    “Makijhani says rapid advances in alternative energy mean the golden age of nuclear power will remain firmly in the past. ” — really? Heading for China & Russia & India and… to alert them to that Arjun?

    By the way, congrats on taking over $100k more from you IEER donations after Fukushima! You IRS Form 990s are intriguing windows into the profitability of being an anti-nuke.

  • WhatTheFlux

    “Siphoning bomb-making material from thorium reactors” is complete scare-mongering nonsense, and Makijhani knows it. And if he doesn’t, he should get his money back from whatever college gave him his PhD.

    The supposedly scary thing is that you could, in theory, make a bomb with U-233, the isotope that Th-232 becomes inside the molten salt reactor.

    “In theory” but not in real life, because any more than 5 ppm (parts per million) of impurities in U-233 and you have to handle it in a hot cell with robot arms, and any more than 50 ppm and you can’t even make a bomb with it. So it’s a total, complete pain in the butt and no one’s going to bother.

    If he knows how to get that degree of purity of U-233 out of a molten salt reactor, he’s light-years ahead of the best molten salt chemists on the planet.

    Plutonium-239 will still go boom with impurities of 46,000 ppm. Which is why there have been tens of thousands of Plutonium bombs made, and only two U-233 bombs ever made in the history of the world.

    A U-233 bomb is way to difficult to fabricate, so the idea was abandoned by both the US and India — two outfits with enough money and scientists and resources to have pulled it off, if it was pull-offable.

    And yes, in theory, it is. But no one would ever bother to try doing it again, because making a plutonium bomb is MUCH easier. And if bad guys are going to make a bomb, they’re going to pick a tried and true methodology, because they’ll only have one shot to get it right.

    And Makijhani KNOWS this.

  • MAX

    There has been at least one commercial thorium reactor in service during the 1980′s to the 1990′s. The site is named the St. Vrain River Reactor by some or the Vrain River reactor by others. This is in Colorado just north of Denver on I-25 at the Delco/Delcomino exit. There was an existing conventional reactor at the same site prior to construction of the Thorium reactor. It is unclear from the documents I have read, but I believe the entire site and all reactors were decommissioned in the mid-1990′s. There certainly is no facility there now. Additionally I am aware that there have been maybe a dozen or more “experimental” thorium reactors built between the 1950′s and the present. I don’t believe any of them were the fluoride salt type. It is hard to find more than a passing mention of these facts in the literature. So, my questions are this? 1.) Why is it only the “unproven” fluoride systems that are under consideration. 2.) What system did the COMMERCIAL, 12 year active life Vrain thorium reactor use, as well as the dozen or so “experimental” reactors? Why is the conventional reactor design not suitable for thorium? Evidently, this type of thorium reactor is “proven” since at least one such reactor was put into service for over a decade? Cheers!

    • WhatToTheWhoNow

      Vrain River was a solid fueled High Temperature Gas Cooled reactor. The reactor fuel was a combination of fissile uranium and fertile thorium microspheres dispersed within a prismatic graphite matrix. It was decommissioned in 1992. The plant itself was re-purposed to generate electricity from natural gas, basically just reusing the turbines and generators.

      The fluoride molten salt reactors aren’t the only unproven reactor design under consideration as there are a number of so called Generation 4 and 4+ reactor designs out there. Many of the proponents of the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor consider the design superior to the others, and we’re pretty vocal about it.

      Every other reactor design that has used thorium has used it in a solid fuel configuration, supplementing the typical enriched uranium fuel used by all other nuclear reactors in use today. Conventional designs can use thorium in this fashion, but can not run on thorium alone for a very important reason. Thorium is not fissionable in and of itself, but becomes fissionable uranium if it absorbs a neutron under the right circumstances. You have to have the conventional nuclear reaction using uranium in order to provide the extra neutrons to turn thorium into more uranium. Thorium only adds the benefit of extra fuel to a conventional reactor, but it does so by parasitically absorbing neutrons, which in turn makes the reactor and the fuel fabrication designs more complicated.

      The molten salt reactor experiment at Oak Ridge used the type of uranium that is formed from thorium (U-233), dissolved in a fluoride salt, but it was not designed to continually turn more thorium into more uranium fuel. What it used was produced from thorium at a different facility, and the whole point was to prove the concept of a molten salt reactor. The next step would have been to build a bigger prototype that would demonstrate making its own fuel from thorium, but the project’s budget was cut.

      I hope this answers some of your questions

      • MAX

        Thanks so much for your informative reply!

  • Tom Lemon

    Makijhani is completely right, in fact he understates the problem.

    As a nuclear engineer and proliferation specialist, I’ve had such trouble watching thorium advocates getting hostile and defensive when faced by the very simple fact that thorium simply isn’t what they claim it is.

    Molten salt reactors were abandoned by the US government decades ago because they are probably the most dangerous proliferation technology on earth. They are, essentially, self-contained inexpensive factories for making nuclear weapons-grade material.

    U-233 can in fact be used quite effectively for terrorist nuclear weapons…this has been discussed at length by weapons designers. Thorium advocates are expert at ignoring this when it is inconvenient for their claims.

    But irregardless of U-233, any of these molten salt designs, once they are common, would immediately be transferred into the nuclear gray market, where they would be available then to power BOTH thorium-based weapons production AND U-238 to plutonium-based weapons production.

    The technology to cheaply commercialize thorium is the same technology to cheaply produce plutonium. They are one and the same and can never be separated. THAT is why the US government abandoned MSRs in the 1960s. MSRs will never be commercialized because they are too damned dangerous and every proliferation expert in the world knows it.

    Yes the Chinese are experimenting with it, but that has nothing to do with commercialization

    For a more complete and balanced discussion of the dangers (and fallacies) of thorium MSRs, see Quora “What are the cons of thorium power” http://www.quora.com/What-are-the-cons-of-thorium-nuclear-energy

  • Keith Woodward

    Arjun Makhijani sez:
    “easier to siphon off bomb-making materials from thorium reactors” this is false.

    Why would you allow such patently false information to be presented as valid criticism of thorium energy projects?