21 Feb 2012

UP WITH THORIUM, DOWN WITH URANIUM AS NUCLEAR FUEL say those who see  the post-Fukushima era as the perfect opportunity to get the USA to re-consider a proposal they have made without success for many years: “What about trying a new fuel? and maybe a new kind of reactor?”  The proposed fuel is Thorium, an abundant silver-gray element named for the Norse God of Thunder. It is less radioactive than the uranium that has powered USA Utilities, and advocates say that Thorium not only produces far less nuclear waste, it is also is more difficult to turn into nuclear weapons. Accordingly they’re pushing the idea of adapting plants to use Thorium as a fuel, or replacing them with a completely new kind of reactor called a Liquid-Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) – pronounced “lifter”. The LFTR would use a mixture of molten chemical salts to cool the reactor and to transfer energy from the fission reaction to a turbine.  Proponents say such a system would be more efficient and safer than existing pressurized Boiling Water Reactors (BWRs) commonly in use today, which use pressurized water to cool uranium fuel rods, to produce  superheated steam to drive generating turbines.  The idea of Thorium-fueled nuclear power has been around for nearly 50 years, and some countries are even now planning to build Thorium-powered plants;  However, the concept has not resonated with the USA companies that design and build nuclear plants, or with the national research labs charged with investigating future energy sources. (IT APPEARS IMPOSSIBLE TO CHANGE THE DIRECTION OF A 104 NUKE FLEET, BUT CHANGE IS INEVITABLE, HERE, THERE, AND EVERYWHERE).

DESCRIPTION OF THE ELEMENT THORIUM: An abundant silver-gray element named for the Norse god of thunder.  It exists naturally in the ground as Thorium oxide, and is three(3) to four(4) times as abundant worldwide as Uranium. Although Thorium is less radioactive than Uranium, it emits “alpha particles”, which are biologically less harmful than uranium’s “gamma particles”; That, makes Thorium far easier to store safely. It has an extremely high melting point (over 6,000 F.), and has been used in portable gas lanterns, high-temperature ceramic products and aerospace applications but, the development of alternative materials, most of its uses have diminished.  It’s use as a “nuclear-fuel” is not new…

USA EXPERIMENTED WITH THORIUM AS A NUCLEAR FUEL FROM 1965 to 1969 at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) located in Tenn. -USA in a “molten-salt reactor” that GOVERNMENT SCIENTISTS BUILT and operated successfully;  However, during the cold-war years, the growing need for weapon-grade Plutonium – a transuranic by-product of Uranium-fueled reactors, drove the USA Utilities to use Uranium as a fuel; hence, the Thorium-fuel project was mostly forgotten, and all subsequent nuclear plants were designed to use Uranium.

THORIUM-FUELED REACTORS HAVE FEW ADVOCATES AT PRESENT; One such, is Kirk Sorensen, a former NASA engineer, now CEO of Huntsville, Ala.-based “Flibe Energy”.  Flibe, is derived from the mixture of Fluoride, Lithium and Beryllium salts and Thorium used as fuel (instead of Uranium) in a LFTR.  Sorensen said: “We recognize this is a new and different technology, and that developing it, is significantly different from the existing Uranium-fueled Boiling Water Reactors(BWRs) common in industry…Part of the problem is that “nuclear” means only one thing in the public and  even the USA  government’s mind…We can look back to Oak Ridge Tennessee to rebuild the capability that existed in 1974…a LFTR, using a mixture of Thorium as a fuel plus either Uranium or Plutonium to kick-start the reaction, could produce higher core temperatures; at lower pressures than Boiling Water Reactors, meaning it would not need as many safety and cooling systems”;  Even better, Sorensen says, LFTRs could be configured to consume the spent fuel that is sitting around the country (At Spent-Fuel Pools) at nuclear sites.  Sorensen has been trying to convince Uranium fuel advocates to build LFTRs instead. He posted technical documents from the Oak Ridge Thorium reactor on his blog last year.

ANOTHER STRONG THORIUM NUCLEAR FUEL ADVOCATE,  John Kutsch, director of the “Thorium Energy Alliance”, a trade group based in Harvard, Ill. Said: (A Thorium -fueled reactor)“doesn’t use water for cooling, so you don’t have the possibility of a hydrogen explosion, as you did in Fukushima.”  Kutsch argues that the United States could be losing out on developing an important technology. He has been lobbying members of Congress to introduce legislation that would reclassify Thorium as a special industrial material, rather than a nuclear material. “Our legislation would say Thorium is not like uranium and plutonium… It can be safely stored and handled like ammonia or fertilizer.” He is also pushing for another bill that would direct the USA-NRC to develop rules for the use of Thorium. That would give USA companies an opening to start using Thorium in existing reactors.  (ME THINKS HE EXPECTS TOO MUCH FROM PRESENT USA LEGISLATORS AND THE NRC – NOW SHOWN AS IMPOTENT). 

PRO – THORIUM POLITICAL ACTION STARTING (AGAIN): Rep. John Shimkus (R- Illinois) who chairs a subcommittee that oversees nuclear waste disposal, says he will be introducing Thorium legislation this year(2012). Shimkus said in a phone interview, “Thorium is a great response.” HE WOULD DO WELL TO REVIEW USA-  SENATE SPEAKER REED’S FAILED EFFORT TO DO JUST THAT IN 2008.  THE URANIUM NUCLEAR CARTEL IS STOUT! WITH A CAPITAL “S” – THEY DEFEND THEIR HUGE CAPITAL INVESTMENTS NOW GOING AWRY POST FUKUSHIMA; THAT IS WHY, THEY ARE TRYING TO RESURRECT A “URANIUM-FUELED NUCLEAR RENAISSANCE”

URANIUM-FUELED REACTORS HAVE MANY ADVOCATES STILL, and in unlikely places.  For instance: Dan Ingersoll, senior project manager for nuclear technology at the “Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL)” in Tennessee: said:  “There are small boatloads of fanatics on Thorium that don’t see the downsides…For one thing, it would be too expensive to replace or convert the nuclear power plants already running in this country…A Thorium-based fuel cycle has some advantages, but it’s not compelling for infrastructure and investments…I’m looking for something compelling enough to trash billions of dollars of infrastructure that we have already, and I don’t see that.” Ingersoll also pointed out that” Thorium would still have some radioactive by-products…just not as much as uranium and not as long-lived, and also that there is no ready stockpile of Thorium in the United States. It would have to be mined.  Overall, the benefits don’t outweigh the huge costs of switching technologies…Thorium is still a radioactive material…It doesn’t eliminate the nuclear waste product. It’s just not as bad…Thorium-powered reactors make more sense for countries that don’t have access to the plentiful reserves of uranium that exist in the United States”  HOW QUICKLY HE FORGETS THE HISTORY AND LESSONS OF HIS ORGANIZATION(ORNL) AS A THORIUM-FUELED REACTOR PIONEER!  HE IS MAINLY CONCERNED ABOUT MONEY! – MONEY TALKS!, AND MAKES LIARS AND MUTES OF MANY OTHERS;  EVEN SO…

NOW WITH AN ACCUMULATION OF NUCLEAR WASTE, the USA Federal government is unable to come up with a permanent waste disposal site, spent fuel rods (which remain radioactive for thousands of years) are piling up at each reactor’s “Spent-Fuel Pools”;  Even so, many worldwide Utilities are aiming to replace old Uranium-fueled NPPs with more modern versions of the old ones, and to hell with the Nuclear-waste accumulation. To the chagrin of  anti-nuke people all over the world, the USA- NRC very recently approved Atlanta-based Southern Co.’s proposal to build two(2) AP1000 reactors in Georgia (The two articles preceding this one, deal with that event).

MIDDLE OF THE ROAD-ER McLean-based “Lightbridge” wants to mix Thorium and Uranium to slightly boost the output of existing nuclear plants. Seth Grae, Pres. & CEO of  Lightbridge is helping the Russian government to build such a program;  However,  most U.S. nuclear energy industry executives are wary of both approaches to Thorium, saying that neither utilities nor investors are eager to gamble on an unfamiliar technology.  Chris Mowry, Pres & CEO of “Babcock & Wilcox“, a Lynchburg-based firm, that is building smaller reactors fueled by uranium said: “We view Thorium as something that’s down the road. It’s more of the science-project phase.”  (ANOTHER ENTREPRENEUR “DRIVING BY THE REAR-VIEW MIRROR”… REMEMBER T. A. EDISON? – HE WANTED ONLY DIRECT(DC) CURRENT – BOY WAS HE WRONG!  AND HE NEVER ADMITTED IT EITHER).

USA- MILITARY USE OF THORIUM CONSIDERATIONS: While seeking alternative energy sources the, Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced in 2010 that it was proposing a plan to make both jet fuel and electricity from small mobile nuclear plants.  Thorium proponent Sorensen says he has talked with DARPA officials about using Thorium for such reactors in hostile areas; He argued that since Thorium is less adaptable for weapons purposes, the reactor would be safe enough to leave behind for civilian use when USA troops pull out.  Sorensen said: “Thorium potentially would offer some way to mitigate that challenge of security and safety if we do convince ourselves to put nuclear plants in these locations”;  However, Col. Paul E. Roege, chief of the Army’s operational energy cell at the Pentagon, said the Pentagon is leery of Thorium for military purposes: “engineers aren’t familiar with it…We have lots of uranium reactors, people are comfortable with them, and we have a mature technology…That’s not the case with Thorium reactors.” ( IN OUR OPINION COL ROEGE IS MUCH LIKE CHRIS MOWRY OF “BABCOCK AND WILCOX” – SEE ABOVE).

CHINA AND INDIA ARE DEVELOPING THORIUM FUEL REACTORS. Chinese government officials announced in Feb 2011, that they are developing a Thorium-based reactor, and will have it operating within the next 15 or 20 years. India also has plans to use Thorium in some of its existing reactors.  John Kutsch argues correctly that the USA could be (IS) missing out on developing an important technology while developing countries are not.

Thanks to The Washington Post 20 Feb 201 article: Please note we provided heavy editing and comment mostly in parenthesis, or all-caps.



Edward Oliver Gonzalez (gonzedo)


February 21, 2012 at 8:26 PM
  • February 25, 2012 at 6:56 AMSyd Gage

    A well considered review. Also Thorium’s efficiency in the LFTR reactor is around the 90 – 95% marks compared to conventional reactors at around 6%. There is also no fuel enrichment or any fuel rods to produce. The reactor can’t melt down as it’s already molten. Storage of waste is drastically reduced and what there is becomes safe after about 300years rather than the tens of thousands of years for Uranium. As LFTR can be made transportable it can also be used in third world countries and can be placed near to where the electricity is required, so cutting down on transmission line costs. It is also load following (self regulating).

    REPLY: Good comment Syd!


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  • March 11, 2012 at 6:35 PMProxy

    Greetings! Very helpful advice on this article! It is the little changes that make the biggest changes. Thanks a lot for sharing!

    Reply: in my opinion, renouncing uranium nukes, and going to Thorium as “the” nuclear fuel of the future, would be a HUGE change; One that would create new industries, and also stop the creation of Uranium toxic transuranics. We are up to our eyeballs in them already! Just witness Japan’s tragic condition. Unfortunately in the U.K., the ruling party is dead set on building 7 more Nukes ASAP. BIG MONEY has a voice of its own!

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