Thorium, a Safer Nuclear Alternative?





As France, dependent on 58 reactors for 75-80% of its energy, firmly reasserts its faith in nuclear in the wake of Fukushima, China is headed towards a clean nuclear energy alternative.

Is Thorium the safe nuclear alternative?

The thorium-fuelled molten-salt nuclear reactor development programme, China is presently pursuing, builds on US research that was initially published in 1954, but which because of defence priorities at that time, was ignored by the US Atomic Energy Commission (US AEC) in favour of the Liquid Metal Fast Breeder Reactor (LMFBR).

More recently the mountain backdrop of the Vercors range in France’s Rhône-Alpes region and its Grenoble-based nuclear research laboratories have set the scene for ongoing development work on Molten Salt (Nuclear) Reactor (MSR) technology. This lab has been building models of variations of the original 1950s design for molten salt reactors to see if they can be made to work efficiently. In August 2009, Lightbridge , a company producing thorium fuel for conventional nuclear plants, signed a deal with the France’s Areva, the world’s largest nuclear power plant manufacturer, to investigate alternative nuclear fuel assemblies.

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                     ***See John Preedy’s analysis on Thorium potential here***
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According to Wired magazine : “The real action, though, is in India and China, both of which need to satisfy an immense and growing demand for electricity. The world’s largest source of thorium, India, doesn’t have any commercial thorium reactors yet. But it has announced plans to increase its nuclear power capacity: Nuclear energy now accounts for 9 percent of India’s total energy; the government expects that by 2050 it will be 25 percent, with thorium generating a large part of that”

The What and Why of Thorium

In 1958 as part of its Atoms for Peace programme, the US Atomic Energy Commission published a book called Fluid Fuel Reactors, a 978-page account of research conducted at Oak Ridge National Lab to produce nuclear power using the commonly found element known as thorium. Thorium is a highly radioactive element and offers an alternative for uranium in nuclear power generation. It is estimated to be three times as common as uranium and all the thorium in the Earth’s crust could offer more energy potential than uranium and fossil fuel reserves combined

This Google Tech Talk video clip featuring Dr. Joe Bonometti, a nuclear engineer, aims to explain what a missed opportunity thorium is: “Presently there is an existing source of energy ideally suited to electrical energy production that is not being exploited anywhere in the world today, although its existence and practicality has been know since the earliest days of nuclear science. Thorium is the third source of fission energy and the LFTR- Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (pronounced “lifter”) is the idealized mechanism to turn this resource into electrical energy. Enough safe, clean energy, globally sustainable for 1000’s of years at US standards. This talk is aimed at explaining this thorium energy resource from fundamental physics to today’s practical applications….”

If you have trouble opening this 55 minute-long clip you can view it on YouTube’s faster servers here.

As Wired magazine notes in this December 2009 article on Thorium as an alternative reactor fuel… ” the US government in the ’60s chose to build uranium-fuelled reactors — in part because they produce plutonium that can be refined into weapons-grade material (It was the Cold war era and defence priorities were paramount). The course of the nuclear industry was set for the next four decades, and thorium power became one of the great what-if technologies of the 20th century.”

Today however thorium may be making a comeback. A team of 15 French researchers at the Laboratoire de Physique Subatomique et de Cosmologie de Grenoble led by Roger Brissot, is enthusiastically focused on developing this left-behind technology in a Thorium Molten Salt Reactor (TMSR). “The current 20 million tons of uranium reserves in the world will be completely exhausted in 40-70 years”, says Jean-Marie Loiseaux, a nuclear physicist on the team. He and his colleagues also believe that by 2050, fossil fuels will represent only 40% of all energy production and the two factors combined mean that clean environmentally acceptable alternatives such as thorium-fuelled reactors are important. The big advantage of the thorium fuelled plant is that the fission products produced in the process can be continuously reprocessed within the plant, in turn generating further energy.

Jean-Marie Loiseaux said the Grenoble team had started from the principle that the best way to manage nuclear waste is to produce as little as possible. The thorium chain is in this sense, promising: “The molten salt reactors are fuelled by a mixture of fluorides of uranium 233, an isotope of uranium, thorium and 232, one of the two nuclei that are both widely available in nature,” he said. The TMSR has several advantages including a need for ten times less fissile material to start the reaction than a conventional reactor. The nuclear scientists said the ideal future scenario would be a mix of complementary nuclear reactors to meet 25% of the world’s nuclear needs. “This is the scenario that we best like, says Jean-Marie Loiseaux. The complementary mix means only 10 to 20% of natural uranium reserves are used and we are able to recycle conventional nuclear energy waste by incineration in the appropriate thorium driven reactors. ” (Jean-Marie Loiseaux’s email: loiseaux@lpsc.in2p3.fr)

The Thorium Energy Alliance based at Harvard Illinois in the US brings together a group of engineers and scientists focused on laying the foundation for a Thorium Energy Future. The alliance has a page of useful facts and information about thorium here. It is organising the 3rd Annual Future of Energy Conference on Thursday May 12, 2011 in Washington DC.

The video below shows Bryan Hallez, a student at the University of Cincinnati outlining why some in his generation of future scientists is convinced the energy industry needs to take a closer look at the potential of thorium. They set out their cause here on their university website:

Here is a brief slide discussion about thorium:

Thorium

Meanwhile the position at the disaster-struck Fukushima Daiichi plant remains serious with all but two of the reactors now set to be decommissioned and cased in concrete. The latest assessment (April 01 2011) of developments can be found here on Professor Barry Brook’s Brave New Climate Blog. Rather more gung-ho reporting, ‘Fukushima fearmongers are stealing our Jetsons future’, by Lewis Page can be found on The Register website here.

The aftermath of the impact of the Japanese tsunami and earthquake on the nuclear power industry continues to raise huge international concerns not the least in France. Reflecting this President Nicolas Sarkozy paid a quick visit to disaster-stricken Japan on March 31 where he both reiterated France’s commitment to nuclear energy and said he would convene a G20 meeting in Paris to discuss establishing an international standard for nuclear. He compared the Japanese earthquake disaster to that which destroyed Lisbon in 1755 (that one was so devastating that it setback the European Enlightenment and still today haunts Lisbonites) and said the world should build on the disaster to make further progress in the field.

The video clips below show that the emotions around nuclear remain highly emotive and controversial. The clips show a debate between Dr. Helen Caldicott, a long standing opponent on medical grounds, of nuclear energy and George Monbiot, an equally persistent climate change alarmist who now supports nuclear energy because he says it is cleaner than coal:

Part One

Part Two

Some notes about the sponsors of the debate: Democracy Now! is a (US) national, daily, independent, award-winning news program hosted by journalists Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez.

Reacting to the good doctor above, Brave New Climate Blog’s Professor Barry Brook writes: “The weird theories of Caldicott and her ilk in which she fantasises about some ‘magical’ mechanism that is able to spread fine particulates of Pu across the landscape and into the lungs of millions of humans, and so (she outrageously claims) render the Japanese islands uninhabitable as a result, is simply beyond a joke (from many angles). Actually, it’s nothing short of appalling, grossly unscientific, hyper-alarmism.”

Meanwhile back in France pro and anti nuclear lobbies are squaring up and Le Nouvel Observateur has just published a dossier on the issue. The paper’s investigator explains the power of the Areva lobby, comprised of French military and civil engineering elites, here:

Dans l’Obs : Au cœur du lobby nucléaire par Nouvelobs

Le Nouvel Observateur this week published an inquiry into one of the most influential networks in the republic: the nuclear lobby. Who are the key figures? How does it operate ?
The elites criticised by l’Obs above are in turn strongly defended here “Nuclear’s Corps des Mines a scapegoat?” by HERVÉ JOLY a Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (National Centre for Scientific Research) scientist, at Université Lumière Lyon 2

Further reading:
Fukushima rouvre le débat nucléaire en Europe

Could Fukushima happen in France

The future of Nuclear after Fukushima

Thorium Energy gets a boost

The mighty thorium, the near perfect energy source nobody has heard of

Energy from Thorium

Story: Ken Pottinger
editorial@french-news-online.com

UPDATE: The word on Thorium is getting around.
Read this broad review of thorium from a scientific viewpoint  on John Preedy’s blog

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