Will Thorium be the Fuel for the Future?




Thorium could transform the nuclear energy industry, overcoming fears and concerns about  nuclear accidents and waste disposal. Why then is it taking so long to catch on?

Thorium – Fuel pump for the future?

As the International Atomic Energy Agency has noted Europeans and North Americans  have gone cool over  thorium, “due to new discoveries of uranium deposits and their improved availability…” but India with plentiful supplies of throrium has active plants in place while China currently seems set to become the first country preparing for proper commercial operations.

In this comprehensive overview John Preedy of the Living in the Lot blog takes an indepth look at the state of what might become a viable alternative to conventional nuclear plants.

Who is Developing Thorium Power?

The internet is buzzing with presentations, videos and articles extolling the advantages of using thorium in Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors (LFTR’s), but who are the major players and who is going to get there first?  This article is a review of the current state of progress in the use of thorium as a nuclear fuel and concerns the main countries and companies involved in the field.

How the reactor works

UNITED STATES

Back to the Future – The Oak Ridge Molten Salt Reactor Experiment

In pioneering work under Alvin Weinberg, the U.S. built and operated a graphite moderated molten salt reactor (MRSE) at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and it ran successfully from 1965 to 1969 reaching temperatures up to 650 deg C.  It was fuelled by a mixture of fluorides LiF/BeF2/ZrF4/UF4 (in the proportions 65/30/5/0.1).  As a result of the Oak Ridge work, a US patent no 3743577 was granted to ES Bettis in 1973, for a single fluid, molten salt, nuclear breeder reactor using graphite as a moderator.

Based on the reported costs for the MSRE up to 1972, Charles Barton, in his blog Nuclear Green, estimates that today it would cost around 6 billion dollars to build a prototype followed by a commercial LFTR design in this interesting piece.

U.S. Government Lack of Interest

Although President Obama, in his January 2011 State of the Union address, refers to clean energy from a variety of sources, including nuclear, as one of the many innovations required to restore employment, and U.S.  Energy Secretary Stephen Chu is aware of thorium, so far there has been little U.S.  government interest shown in it.   Senators, Orrin Hatch, Utah and Harry Reid, Nevada promoted a Bill in Congress called AMENDED S.3060: Thorium Energy Security Act of 2010, which was read on 3rd March 2010, and passed to the US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources where it has been allowed to expire. 

There are two U.S. private companies backing thorium, both having rather distinct objectives, Lightbridge (formerly Thorium Power) and Flibe Energy.

Lightbridge – Seth Grae – President

Light Bridge was formed in 1992 (originally named Thorium Power Inc.) and was established to exploit nuclear fuel designs developed by Dr Alvin Radkowsky.

Lightbridge – Seth Grae – President

Lightbridge generates revenue from providing nuclear power consulting engineering services to foreign governments.  It is developing thorium based solid fuel designs for existing reactor systems.

It has a long-standing and ongoing working relationship with the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow where thorium solid fuel rods to Lightbridge’s design are already running in the IR-8 research reactor.

Whilst Lightbridge is particularly aware of the potential for using LFTR technology in the Russian context for plutonium disposal, they do not appear to be prioritising the development of Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors (LFTR’s).

Lightbridge is not yet consistently profitable, but they are capitalized to approx 20m$ of which 10m$ is in cash or easily convertible securities, and operating losses are steadily being reduced.

Flibe Energy – Kirk Sorensen – President

Flibe Energy – Kirk Sorensen – President

Kirk Sorensen is a great ambassador for LFTR’s and he’s been a leading promoter of them for several years.  It was when he worked for NASA, and was asked to consider power sources suitable for use on the moon, that he came across the possibility of using thorium as a fuel and quickly realised its potential application for terrestrial power production.

In 2010 he set up a company called Flibe Energy which has the objective of building an LFTR to achieve criticality by June 2015.  Much of their inspiration comes from the pioneering work done at Oak Ridge.

It is rumoured that they intend to achieve this ambitious timescale by cultivating the U.S. Military as their clients.  The Military have realised that they are vulnerable to cyber attacks taking down power supplies to their bases and they are looking for small self contained power systems which don’t need oil to run diesel generators.  The operational advantages of such systems are also obvious in remote locations and nuclear power has already been used for this purpose.  The U.S. Navy, which has many years experience of running nuclear powered submarines, is also interested.  With military backing, and by building a demonstration LFTR on a military base, Flibe Energy would not be constrained by the timescales imposed by civilian approvals and regulatory agencies.

CHINA

It’s not a priority for the Chinese to communicate their policies concerning energy to the outside world, and the information available in English on this subject is very limited.  Recent official announcements, relayed via the specialist press, show that they are committed to the use of Thorium in Liquid Fuelled Thorium Reactors.  This July 2011 video from Russia Today summarizes their thinking.

The Chinese Academy of Science announcement translation also demonstrates that, the Chinese government has been listening to the western supporters of this technology.  All of the familiar advantages and potential benefits are repeated and put into the Chinese context.

As a fast growing economy, which currently generates 80% of its electricity from very polluting coal fired power stations, they need to secure a cleaner, safer option to provide for their enormous energy needs through to the end of the 21st century.  Xu Hongie of the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics estimates that China’s energy output from nuclear sources will increase by a factor of 20 over the next forty years during which time he considers that Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors will become mainstream technology.

More details, including a comment on the high level of political support behind this project, are given in an article by IThEO.org the International Thorium Energy Organisation.

RUSSIA

Russia is interested in plutonium disposal by burning it in LFTR’s and the Kurchatov Institute is working on conceptual designs for molten salt reactors but it’s difficult to assess their progress.

In 2007 Red Star (“Krasnaya Zvezda” in Russian), a Russian government-owned entity, and one of the premier nuclear design bureaus in the world, announced the agreement on the terms of a contract whereby Thorium Power’s seed and blanket fuel designs will undergo irradiation testing with the goal of moving toward deployment within full-sized commercial reactors.

Also in 2007 the Kurchatov Institute signed an agreement with Lightbridge to carry out tests on thorium fuel elements and share the data.

Russia has highly capable nuclear technologists and mature research institutions, but it seems to me to be unlikely that Russian politicians will see a pressing need to invest in LFTR’s when they have large reserves of oil and gas.  Unless it becomes a matter of national prestige they have other priorities.

EUROPE

European backing

Europe backed fusion power in a big way in 2001 and is currently, with its international partners, funding the ITER organisation to the extent of billions of dollars.  The project is located at the Cadarache Research Centre at St Paul Lès Durance, Bouches-du-Rhône.

There are those who consider that in following this strategy Europe is losing out. Stephen Tindale, who was until 2005 the UK’s Executive Director of Greenpeace, makes a persuasive case for Europe to pursue the thorium option as a bridge technology between carbon based power and power from 100% renewable sources in this comprehensive policy brief for the Centre for European Policy Reform.  On the way he dismisses fusion power!

“In order to use nuclear as a bridge technology, the EU need not spend more money on unproven technological approaches such as nuclear fusion, which remains at least 30 years away.  Advocates of fusion argue that this technology in theory provides limitless and sustainable energy.  So it does – theoretically.  The downside is best summarised in the quip that “nuclear fusion is 30 years in the future – and always will be”.  The budget for the international nuclear fusion project, (ITER) in France, has almost tripled since 2001.  It is now $16 billion, although major construction has yet to start.  The EU will have to pay $6.6 billion of this. The Commission awarded ITER $1.4 billion, from unspent parts of the EU budget and the research programme, in 2010.2 Even if fusion works eventually (which is far from certain), it will not provide electricity soon enough to help Europe with its transition to a low-carbon economy.  ITER itself accepts that the plant will not feed electricity into the grid before 2040.”

As an environmentalist, Stephen Tindale remains convinced that generating our power needs from 100% renewable sources should be the ultimate goal.  This is in spite of the fact that, even if they were economic without subsidies, renewable sources cannot supply the 24/7 base load requirement.  In my opinion there is a place for renewables but not for providing all of our energy needs.

If only LFTR’s had a fraction of the ITER budget!  But the EU has given a grant of 1m euros to the Grenoble Reactor Research Group for work on LFTR’s (see below).

FRANCE

France generates about 80% of its electricity from nuclear power and the French company AREVA is a world leader for the building of nuclear power plants.

This is, however, not necessarily an advantage when it comes to developing new technology.  This reply, by Gilles Clement, Vice-President of Recycling Technologies, and Dr. Alan Hanson, Executive Vice President of Technology and Used-Fuel Management on the Areva North American blog, gives a good summary of a typical development programme.

“Randal Leavitt asked:

Recycling fission fuel is better than not recycling, but there are other approaches that are better still.  My preferred technology is the liquid fluoride thorium reactor.  How do we shift the nuclear industry over to this technology?

Randal,

We definitely agree that recycling used fuel is much better than “throwing it away” (i.e: direct disposal).  The ability to shift the nuclear industry to a new technology is really something that is determined by the success of three conditions:

1. It must be proven and demonstrated at large industrial scale

2. It must be economically justified as compared to other alternatives

3. It must be licensed by the appropriate nuclear regulatory authorities

Large scale deployment of new technology requires – as soon as the principles are reasonably well stabilized and enough data from R and D is available – the preparation of a thorough and credible business case to justify the large investments needed to develop it.

To demonstrate that a new technology is fully proven and obtain the final license, one has to go through a lengthy piloting process.  This involves designing, building and operating a series of “pilot models” of progressively increasing scale.  A first model is developed to evaluate and understand the basic performance of the new technology, and it takes several years to test it rigorously.  This first step is followed by incremental increases in the scale and the capacity of the models, (generally two further steps) to reach full commercial production size.  The final model is considered as pre-industrial and is used to demonstrate the full range of safety, security and reliability requirements.  Today nuclear reactors fuelled with thorium have not yet been shown to meet the three conditions.”

If this response is representative it seems to me unlikely that a major existing European nuclear contractor will enthusiastically promote new nuclear technologies without political pressure and heavy subsidies.  From the point of view of a large commercial organisation there are too many unknowns to risk their own capital on what they consider to be unproven technology.  Commercial organisations will always tend to promote their own proven products and they are very aware of the difficulties presented by the regulatory context.

Nevertheless, the Grenoble Reactor Research Group recently received a 1 million euro EU grant to carry out LFTR design studies, build small scale simulation plants and select materials.  This presentation by Michel Allibert at the 2010 Thorium Energy Conference in London sets out their current progress and proposes a timescale to build a demonstration reactor in 15 years, a prototype 15 years later and a commercial reactor in 2040-50.  In the presentation they emphasize the need for approval by safety authorities and the training of independent safety experts.  If you read between the lines, it seems to me that M. Allibert considers that changing the regulatory mindset away from the uranium/plutonium fuel cycle is nearly as big a challenge as building a demonstration plant!

Sweden

A Swedish company called 232Thorwards SAS is promoting Thorium LFTR’s but there is little information available concerning their achievements or objectives.

Norway

Aker Solutions bought Professor Rubbia’s patent rights for an accelerator driven sub critical thorium reactor ADTR.  The business unit that owned these rights was subsequently sold to Jacobs.  They have subsequently presented it to the Chinese Academy of Sciences last year.

A concept design was developed to show technical and commercial viability of the ADTR, with the aim of building the first ADTR by 2030.  The current aim is to establish funding to take the project to the next stage of development.  Their webpage provides further information; Victoria Ashley is the project manager.

Germany

After the tsunami on 11th March 2011 caused the Fukushima nuclear plant to release radioactivity Germany announced, on 30th May, that it was going to shut down all its nuclear power plants by 2022.  So far as I know Germany has no plans to develop LFTR’s or any other nuclear technology.

United Kingdom

The UK National Nuclear Laboratory’s (NNL) 2010 position paper on the Thorium Fuel Cycle only considered using thorium as a replacement fuel in existing reactors and concluded that there were insufficient advantages to make it worth pursuing this path.

Earlier this year Baroness Angela Smith asked a question concerning thorium power in the UK parliament’s upper chamber, the House of Lords and the government response was that a new report has been recently commissioned from the NNL.  I am still trying to find out what the terms of reference are.

In spite of many of its existing power stations being at the end of their lifespan, and in need of replacement, there seems little chance of the UK being an innovator in the use of the thorium fuel cycle or LFTR’s.

In their March 2011 Position Paper “Nuclear Horizons”, which is an examination of alternative scenarios for the future of nuclear power in the UK, the NNL don’t mention the possible use of Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors and are unenthusiastic about using thorium as a solid fuel although, in section 12 “Alternative Fuel Cycles”, they do acknowledge the possibility.

INDIA

The Kakrapar Nuclear Power Station Complex

India already has a 220MW reactor running on thorium.  The Kakrapar 1 reactor uses solid fuel rods in a retrofitted reactor chamber.  The neutrons to initiate fission are supplied by a plutonium core.

When India was developing a nuclear weapons capability it was forbidden by the international community from importing uranium for their existing reactors in an attempt to reduce proliferation.  This experience concentrated the minds of Indian policy makers and using the thorium fuel cycle became a very important priority.  (India has large reserves of thorium).  Ever since then, they have been developing civilian applications for power generation from thorium but so far only for their existing solid fuelled reactors.  Since these are fairly new, their concentration on retro-fitting existing plants is understandable.

India has not so far announced any interest in LFTR or MSR technologies.  This comment on the Nuclear Green blog run by Charles Barton could help to explain why.

Charles Barton replied …

David, ‘the Indians are following a plan that was created almost 2 generations ago, before the LFTR became a possibility.  There is a significant question as to why that complex and expensive plan is still being followed by the Indians, in light of the thorium breeding potential of the LFTR.  The Indian failure to embrace the LFTR cannot be attributed to some great difficulty that was unique to the LFTR and exceeded the challenges of the three stage program.  Perhaps the most likely explanation is that since the Indians had until very recently access to a very limited amount of uranium, they needed the significantly greater breeding capacity of fast reactors, in order to obtain enough fissionable uranium to start a large number of thorium based reactors.  “

JAPAN

Fuji Small Molten Salt Reactor

Before the Fukushima accident Japan had 47,348 MW of installed nuclear power capacity and generated 28.9% of its electricity needs from nuclear sources.  Japan has 127 million people on densely populated islands, which are subjected to frequent earthquakes and tsunamis.

Before Fukushima, on 5th Oct 2010 the Keidranen industry group announced that IThEMS (International Thorium Energy Molten-Salt Technology Inc.), which needs a start up funding of 300m$, is targeting 2016 to build a 10MW miniFuji LFTR.  This would then be followed up by a 200MW design called Fuji which has a Japanese Patent (No 3326759) and a Russian Federation Patent (No 2137222).

Conceptual design and research appears to be well under way and several technical papers were published at the 2010 Thorium Energy Conference.

Charles Barton, on his blog Nuclear Green, reports on 8th November 2010 that he has been in contact with Dr Kazuo Furakawa of IThEMS and he comments on their business plan here.

As Fukushima has shown, power plants using solid fuel and cooled by pressurised water are not safe in the event of power failures.  The reaction of the Japanese public to the radioactive contamination of a large zone around the plant has been understandably negative.  Problems in stabilizing the Fukushima nuclear plant have hardened attitudes to nuclear power.  As of June 2011, “more than 80 percent of Japanese now say they are anti-nuclear and distrust government information on radiation”.  Post-Fukushima polls suggest that somewhere “between 41 and 54 percent of Japanese support scrapping, or reducing the numbers of, nuclear power plants.

It seems likely that, in spite of having the technological and human resources to develop LFTR’s, Japan will be unable to do so due to political opposition, which will last for many years.

COMMENT

In Europe, apart from lack of money, those wishing to develop new nuclear technologies have to deal with: conservative regulators, ignorance or lack of political will, opposition by vested interests like the existing nuclear companies, and a powerful anti-nuclear protest movement.

In the U.S.  the same factors exist to slow down, hinder or prevent altogether the development of LFTR’s under civilian auspices, but if the U.S. Military can find the funding they may be able to quickly succeed.

In my opinion the best candidate for being the first nation to successfully deploy LFTR reactors is China.  They have an urgent need for the development of new energy resources and a political system, which we may not like, but which will enable rapid technological change.  I wish them every success, because the world needs someone to take this technology from the theoretical to the mainstream.  I think that within 20 years the West can look forward to buying mass produced Chinese LFTR power stations at relatively low prices.

Story: John Preedy

Living in the Lot

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8 Responses to Will Thorium be the Fuel for the Future?

  1. Robert Hargraves September 2, 2011 at 1:53 pm

    This is a nice summary. More places to learn about the liquid fluoride thorium reactor include:

    http://rethinkingnuclearpower.googlepages.com/aimhigh

    http://energyfromthorium.com

    http://thoriumenergyalliance.org

  2. prosopon September 19, 2011 at 1:00 pm

    Thanks for this. You do not mention the UK ThorEA group. It might be useful to more clearly distinguish between accelerator-driven systems and those using fissile seeds. Apparently the Fuji and Mini-Fuji are accelerator driven.

    • www.French-News-Online.com September 19, 2011 at 5:14 pm

      Thank you for the information which I have passed onto the author who will no doubt take a look at ThorEA and your points re the two systems. Should you care to write a more detailed piece on thorium for publication we are always interested in reader contributions. Thanks for your interest – Editor

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