The work involved to enrich the uranium-235 used in a thorium reactor to the percentage needed for a bomb is not a difficult process. Thorium cannot in itself power a reactor; unlike natural uranium, it does not contain enough fissile material to initiate a nuclear chain reaction. The fact sheet was as follows. In this reactor, because thorium is not a fissile material, you actually need either plutonium or enriched uranium to start it. The use of enriched uranium or plutonium in thorium fuel has proliferation implications. Have a tip for CleanTechnica, want to advertise, or want to suggest a guest for our CleanTech Talk podcast? Seven years ago, CleanTechnica published its policy position to not cover thorium nuclear reactors. An advantage of thorium is that it absorbs slow neutrons relatively efficiently (compared to uranium-238) to produce fissile uranium-233. Molten salt reactors (MSRs) are well suited to thorium fuel, and while they were first conceived of in the 1940s, as … expensive and difficult. In this way, thorium reactors not only generate less waste than conventional reactors, but also help to rectify the nuclear waste disposal problem. They may be boring and low-tech, but they are cheap, fast to build, reliable, predictable, and have incredibly low negative externalities. Basically, it seems the “best bet” in terms of reactor design, is something called the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor or LFTR. Large known deposits are in Australia, India, and Norway. Importantly, because plutonium is not created as a waste product in a thorium reactor, it cannot be separated from the waste and used to make nuclear weapons. In a once-through mode, it will need both uranium enrichment (or plutonium separation) and thorium target rod production. Not an Economic Solution Thorium “fuel” has been proposed as an alternative to uranium fuel in nuclear reactors. Demonstrated sometime within ten years. Nine Years Later, Many Scientists Still Ignore Their Data, How the U.S. Could Have an All-Renewable Energy Grid, Energy Scavengers: Static Electricity Could Power the World. Further, while an enrichment plant is needed to separate U-233 from U-238, it would take less separative work to do so than enriching natural uranium. The nuclear industry in the US is lobbying for subsidies and tax breaks to allow existing reactors to stay open, mostly without success. Maybe in 2002 the thought of competitive nuclear generation was reasonable. In this scenario thorium would be the base fuel in a so-called "breeder reactor." The UK estimates that the first thorium production plant would cost £1 billion. Getting there won’t be easy — not least because hot molten salts can be just as corrosive as they sound. According to their enthusiastic proponents, these reactors will be “smaller, safer, cheaper, cleaner”, will take over the energy market in great numbers, and...will reinvent the global energy landscape and sketch an end to our dependence … Opinions and comments published on this site may not be sanctioned by and do not necessarily represent the views of CleanTechnica, its owners, sponsors, affiliates, or subsidiaries. The fission of thorium creates long-lived fission products like technetium-99 (half-life over 200,000 years). But the chart above highlights the precipitous drop in the price of both wind and solar technologies. What about the Gen IV International Forum? There’s no reason to think that Gen IV reactors, whenever they actually get to a stage where they might be deployed commercially, will end up being cheaper than alternatives. Published on October 30th, 2019 | Could thorium be the faltering nuclear industry’s salvation -- or is it a mirage? Nonetheless, the first thorium-based nuclear reactor was built at the Indian Point Energy Center, New York, in 1962. Thorium is not actually a “fuel” because it is not fissile and therefore cannot be used to start or sustain a nuclear chain reaction. Of course, they’re still not perfect. This will make the spent fuel quite radiotoxic, in addition to all the fission products in it. Audi Talks Range On Twitter, & Gets Into Some Trouble, Honda Fumbles The Ball With The 2022 Acura MDX. Thorium may be abundant and possess certain technical advantages, but it does not mean that it is economical. The International Nuclear Agency predicts that the thorium cycle won’t be commercially viable while uranium is still readily available. Fact sheet completed in January 2009 Similarly, other Gen III reactors in France and Finland are years and billions over budget. It takes 90% enrichment to make weapons-usable uranium, but very little additional work is needed to move from 20% enrichment to 90% enrichment. That’s the same reason SNC Lavalin bought CANDU. A 2015 independent review of the LFTR concept by the Electric Power Research Institute deemed it a “potentially transformational technology for meeting future energy … Thorium salt reactors are small, for reactors. Reprocessed thorium creates even more risks due to the highly radioactive U-232 created in the reactor. U-232 also has highly radioactive decay products. What Does That Mean? … Proponents claim that thorium fuel significantly reduces the volume, weight, and long-term radiotoxicity of spent fuel. Thorium isn't fissile on its own, but it can absorb a neutron and decay to U-233 (which is fissile). This is misleading. The opposite is likely to be true, that they will be much more expensive than the alternatives and with other unappealing characteristics. He then goes on to offer an alternative to the prevailing view. The subsection "List of thorium-fueled reactors" is proposed to be split to a new article List of thorium-fueled reactors for the following reasons: . The International Nuclear Agency predicts that the thorium cycle won’t be commercially … Most of the reactors in Japan that were shut down won’t be coming back on line. Thorium-based nuclear power generation is fueled primarily by the nuclear fission of the isotope uranium-233 produced from the fertile element thorium.According to proponents, a thorium fuel cycle offers several potential advantages over a uranium fuel cycle—including much greater abundance of thorium found on Earth, superior physical and nuclear fuel properties, and reduced nuclear waste production. That’s 38+ years to commercialization of a technology. None are likely to be in commercial operation before 2040 at the earliest. The advocates of Thorium reactors have some notable proponents including Carlo Rubbia at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) and Kirk Sorensen, a former NASA rocket engineer and now chief nuclear technologist at Teledyne Brown Engineering. Japan thinks it can make a thorium prototype reactor for $300 million. You’ll note what isn’t cheapest: nuclear. Therefore, fabricating fuel with U-233 is very CleanTechnica is the #1 cleantech-focused news & analysis website in the US & the world, focusing primarily on electric cars, solar energy, wind energy, & energy storage. News is published on CleanTechnica.com, while reports are published on Future-Trends.CleanTechnica.com/Reports/ and buying guides are here. Consider becoming a CleanTechnica member, supporter, or ambassador — or a patron on Patreon. Contrary to the claims made or implied by thorium proponents, however, thorium doesn’t solve the proliferation, waste, safety, or cost problems of nuclear power, and it still faces major technical hurdles for commercialization. In fact, India has been trying to develop a thorium breeder fuel cycle for decades but has not yet done so commercially. The plant requires relatively low input energy, from 60 MWt, which can make them up to 50 percent more efficient than other reactors. Besides remote fuel fabrication and issues at the front end of the fuel cycle, thorium-U-233 breeder reactors produce fuel (“breed”) much more slowly than uranium-plutonium-239 breeders. […], The thorium crowd likes to point at India and China, but China has committed to only build a couple of molten salt reactors with a 12 MW capacity that might use thorium at some future date, and India has even less ambitious plans. In a thorium reactor, no plutonium is produced. The radioactivity associated with these is expected to be considerably less than that associated with a comparable amount of uranium milling. That last safety advantage is also the main drawback of thorium. Today, the United States has a Democratic presidential candidate in the top 10 who loves thorium, yet CleanTechnica still ignores it. France has invested € 1 million investigating corrosion problems found when a test reactor in the U.S. was shut down in 1969 after four years of operation. That, buy the way, is why we discarded clean coal technology in 1953. The uranium 233 produced in thorium reactors is contaminated with uranium 232, which is produced through several different neutron absorption pathways. Reactors are big. The Curve Appears to Be Flattening on CO2 Emissions. With or without reprocessing, these fission products have to be disposed of in a geologic repository. The New, All New, Really New Toyota Mirai -- It's NEW! ... it's an important design criterium. Want it all? But seven years later, there’s still no commercial product, no commercial siting approved, no regulatory approval, and in fact not much of any movement. This has proven true for airborne wind energy and many other technologies I’ve assessed, including next-generation nuclear. Most of the separative work is needed to go from natural uranium, which has 0.7% uranium-235, to 20% U-235. The successful breeder ... His work on the Thorium reactor led him to believe that a significantly higher level of safety was possible. Don’t Worry — Here Are Ways to Help the Environment All Year, Residents Rallied to Measure Radiation After Fukushima. As Mark Z. Jacobson said in our email conversation, […]: “I think the more wasteful parts of his proposal are spending on thorium, nuclear fusion, and geoengineering. If you are a Zinio, Nook, Kindle, Apple, or Google Play subscriber, you can enter your website access code to gain subscriber access. More neutrons are released per neutronabsorbed in the fuel in a traditional (thermal) type of reactor The claim is that if the uranium-238 content is high enough, the mixture cannot be used to make bombs without a complex uranium enrichment plant. But the real reason we use uranium over thorium is a result of wartime politics. If the spent fuel is not reprocessed, thorium-232 is very-long lived (half-life:14 billion years) and its decay products will build up over time in the spent fuel. There are not “thorium reactors,” but rather proposals to use thorium as a “fuel” in different types of reactors, including existing light-water reactors and various fast breeder reactor designs. Cold War-era governments (including ours) backed uranium-based reactors because they produced plutonium — handy for making nuclear weapons. Even though a conventional meltdown would be unlikely, thorium still produces harmful radiation that needs to be contained, and something could always go wrong. A fissile material, such as uranium-235 (U-235) or plutonium-239 (which is made in reactors from uranium-238), is required to kick-start the reaction. He is an active advocate for developing liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR) technology, the details of which were covered in our earlier podcast: A Detailed Exploration of Thorium's Potential As An Energy Source.That interview concluded with Kirk's … Of course, I’ve looked at the likelihood of next-generation nuclear, including the molten-salt reactors necessary for thorium nuclear generation, in depth as well. This is because the liquid fluoride thorium reactors did not produce as much plutonium, needed for developing nuclear weapons, as uranium-powered reactors. Proposal to split of sub-section: List of thorium-fueled reactors. Uranium fuel does not make the plumbing any different - remember the Oak Ridge MSRE ran on various fuels. It should also be noted that inhalation of a unit of radioactivity of thorium-232 or thorium-228 (which is also present as a decay product of thorium-232) produces a far higher dose, especially to certain organs, than the inhalation of uranium containing the same amount of radioactivity. Advertise with CleanTechnica to get your company in front of millions of monthly readers. This list is an important piece of information on thorium use, hence merits an independent article. Why aren’t we using thorium in nuclear reactors, given the possibility of a meltdown is nearly zero and the waste cannot be used to make bombs? And that isn’t commercially unproven technologies, that’s technology which has been being commissioned for 50 years. It’s worth looking at the unsubsidized LCOE for different forms of generation, per Lazard. Why is that? Ongoing Technical Problems You’ll note what the cheapest forms of generation are in 2018: utility-scale wind and solar. This leads to technical complications. With some modifications, today’s commercial nuclear reactors could switch to thorium-based fuels, but at great cost. Thorium nuclear power might well be the answer for some countries, though; India and China are investing heavily in its development. As I said to a commenter elsewhere recently, I have a simple rule of thumb for assessing technologies (in addition to my often exceeding deep ways of assessing them): If a technology has been in existence for decades and yet there are no commercial installations of it anywhere in the world, there is very little likelihood of it becoming viable. Nuclear doesn’t get cheaper. Two years ago, we interviewed Kirk Sorensen about the potential for thorium to offer humanity a safe, cheap and abundant source of energy. We, the government, won’t support it. Additionally, there is the persistent perception that thorium reactors are intrinsically proliferation-resistant. Thorium also is somewhat unique in that in can be dissolved in molten salt to form a liquid core, a design that has many unique reprocessing and safety features. One reason reprocessing thorium fuel cycles haven’t been successful is that uranium-232 (U-232) is created along with uranium-233. Not a Waste Solution Molten salt reactors offer potential improvements in reactor safety. But in principle, the separation can be done, especially if worker safety is not a primary concern; the resulting U-233 can be used to make bombs. CleanTechnica published a piece duplicating a fact sheet on the subject from 2009, a decade ago. He is editor of The Future is Electric and designing for health. Yes, the Andrew Yang campaign is promising next generation reactors on the grid in eight years. In this case, fissile uranium-233 is also mixed with non-fissile uranium-238. Let’s start with what the World Nuclear Association has to say about Gen IV reactors. As a result, CleanTechnica‘s policy will be to continue to ignore them in favor of the actually transformative technologies reshaping our world for the better. The low modern cost of wind and solar along with the low cost of natural gas generation and the inherent challenges of nuclear has seen a bunch of reactors shut down and fleet reduction announcements globally. That doesn't mean they're small, it's just a relative term. Thorium reactors, some say, can pro... Today we're going to take a second look at a technology that, in the past few years, has become something of a cult icon. He's available for consulting engagements, speaking engagements and Board positions. It is true that such enrichment would not be a straightforward matter because the U-233 is contaminated with U-232, which is highly radioactive and has very radioactive radionuclides in its decay chain. So why didn't we use thorium reactors more? Molten salt nuclear reactors. A Forgotten Legacy: How Nuclear Reactors Built for War Transformed Peacetime Science, The Fear of Setting the Planet on Fire with a Nuclear Weapon, Miss Out on Earth Day? ... Construction work resumes on … Most of the problems currently associated with today's solid-uranium-fuelled reactors simply do not apply to LFTRs powered by thorium. Tags: Andrew Yang, Election 2020, Molten Salt Reactors, Stephen Hawkings, thorium, united states. For instance, the bone surface dose from breathing an amount (mass) of insoluble thorium is about 200 times that of breathing the same mass of uranium. Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news. The Russkies built three on the Volga and ran them for 40 years but we didn't. There was a blip of increase due to China finally getting some of its reactors going, but that’s ended as China has delayed most new starts while simultaneously increasing wind and solar. The content produced by this site is for entertainment purposes only. Thorium reactors generate significantly less radioactive waste, and can re-use separated uranium, making the reactor self-sufficient once started. They’ll have to fight for commercial share in a space where they are very much the unknown, unproven, risky alternative against very well known, widely deployed, effective and cheap competitors. He works with startups, existing businesses and investors to identify opportunities for significant bottom line growth and cost takeout in our rapidly transforming world. “the most realistic timeframe for fusion in actual utility-scale generation is 2050 at the earliest (and more likely much later), and there are exactly zero thorium nuclear plants operating in the world. The proposed thorium reactor has other advantages as well. Not a Proliferation Solution We have solutions today. This claim is wrong. Solid State Batteries -- They're Everywhere! Physicists Detect the "Spooky Popcorn of the Universe", Page-Turning Science Books: The First Female Physicians, Breaking Drug Taboos, and a Look Inside Crime Labs. That means it won't give off transuranic atoms like plutonium, americum, and other nasty byproducts of nuclear energy that find themselves in waste. reprocess nuclear fuel, you won't be able to realize the benefits of the breeder reactor. Michael Barnard is Chief Strategist with TFIE Strategy Inc and co-founder of two current startups. Although U-235 is found in nature, it is only 0.7 percent of natural uranium, so the proportion of U-235 must be industrially increased to make “enriched uranium” for use in reactors. Research and development of thorium fuel has been undertaken in Germany, India, Japan, Russia, the UK, and the U.S. for more than half a century. Finally, the use of thorium also creates waste at the front end of the fuel cycle. Most of the separative work is needed to go from natural uranium, which has 0.7% uranium-235, to 20% U-235. FALSE Like all reactors, Thorium reactors need some fissile material to start up. U-232, which has a half-life of about 70 years, is extremely radioactive and is therefore very dangerous in small quantities: a single small particle in a lung would exceed legal radiation standards for the general public. Uranium sector won’t catch a break. This was covered as part of the And then there’s the bad section of CleanTechnica‘s review of his climate action plan (tl;dr: good on carbon tax, meh on other things, really bad on energy). More uranium-238 does dilute the uranium-233, but it also results in the production of more plutonium-239 as the reactor operates. I’m trying to think of something equivalently slow-paced in the world of modern generation technology that isn’t fusion generation and mostly failing. And this--in large part was because the Thorium reactor operated low pressures whereas, water-cooled reactors operated the high … Drops Green Hydrogen Bomb On Fossil Energy — Just For Starters, More Green Hydrogen In US / Netherlands Offshore Wind Hookup, 200 Years Later, Silver-Zinc Energy Storage Is Having Its Moment. In most proposed thorium fuel cycles, reprocessing is required to separate out the U-233 for use in fresh fuel. Those renewable technologies have all of the advantages of nuclear — very low carbon emissions per MWh, very low pollution per MWh, low direct or secondary mortality impacts per MWh — a bunch of additional advantages — cheaper, faster, viable in all countries — with none of the disadvantages of nuclear — nuclear waste, terrorism concerns, inflexibility, low social license. By Arjun Makhijani and Michele Boyd What did CleanTechnica say about thorium and other next-generation nuclear in our review of his plan? We could have been using MHD coal generators but you can't make bombs with those. This means that, like uranium fuel with reprocessing, bomb-making material is separated out, making it vulnerable to theft or diversion. He regularly publishes analyses of low-carbon technology and policy in sites including Newsweek, Slate, Forbes, Huffington Post, Quartz, CleanTechnica and RenewEconomy, and his work is regularly included in textbooks. Hinkley in the UK is a Gen III reactor design and continues to be pushed forward by the conservative government there despite a price tag of 15 cents USD per kWh guaranteed for 35 years. Contact us here. Your website access code is located in the upper right corner of the Table of Contents page of your digital edition. The history of building nuclear that we know how to build today indicates a 10–15 year timeframe for the known technology. However, thorium comes with its own challenges. Let’s start with the candidate, Andrew Yang. By the time any get to commercial market availability, the cost of renewables will have only fallen further, making any nuclear even less competitive. The reprocessing cycle does not resolve the proliferation risk. So why did CleanTechnica stop bothering with this in 2012? So in 2002, six technologies were chosen and it’s possible that a couple of them might be generating electricity commercially sometime after 2040. We got hooked on uranium and plutonium. In a breeder configuration, it will need reprocessing, which is costly. Some of the largest reserves are found in Idaho in the U.S. Highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium are nuclear weapons materials. With water cooled reactors, obviously having moisture ingress won't lead to any … A Fact Sheet Produced by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research and Physicians for Social Responsibility. Read our privacy policy. The primary U.S. company advocating for thorium fuel is Thorium Power (www.thoriumpower.com). Image courtesy Yang2020 campaign with annotation by author. ... And there were reactors fueled with thorium, a fertile element that sits two slots to the left of uranium in the periodic table, and is about three times more abundant in the Earth’s … There are also often hazardous non-radioactive metals in both thorium and uranium mill tailings. […] At least four of the systems have significant operating experience already in most respects of their design, which provides a good basis for further R&D and is likely to mean that they can be in commercial operation before 2030.”. This makes worker protection more difficult and expensive for a given level of annual dose. That’s the reality of nuclear technology advances. Thus private industry won’t invest in it.” ... or LFTR.Courtesy Flibe Energy resembles the LFTR in Sorensen’s own spin on Weinberg’s thorium breeder reactor work from the 1960s. 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