Growing Energy Crisis – An Answer

Thorium Reactor

An overlooked technology could change the way nuclear power is generated.
Photo: Lisa Wiltse

In light of recent environmental disasters in the name of energy, staggering military expenditures, and a growing demand for energy across the globe, the energy outlook is not good. The United States is considering building the first nuclear reactors since the 1970’s. Demand is high, considering a nuclear reactors efficiency; Reactors provide an amazing amount of energy yet are terrifying. A massive security liability and far from renewable, as the toxic waste that is created must be stored for thousands of years, waste so deadly nobody wants storage facilities or reactors built anywhere nearby.

What if there was a better answer? What if there was an element other than Uranium that could promise zero chance of meltdown, generated power cheaply, could not be weaponized, and who’s reactive waste only had to be stored for a few hundred years, rather than tens of thousands?

Enter Thorium. Considered a waste product in mining rare earths, its extremely abundant. (an estimated four times more abundant that uranium in the earth’s crust) A Thorium reactor, or a “seed and blanket” conversion of an older reactor, the land footprint is much smaller than today’s modern Uranium reactor. There’s also very little waste, due to the efficiency, and the little byproduct remains radioactive for a fraction of the time of Uranium. Thorium is one of the few substances that acts as a thermal breeder, creating new fuel as it breaks down to sustain a high-temperature reaction indefinitely.

So why haven’t the majority of people heard of it? Back in 1958, director of the Atomic Energy Commission, Alvin Weinberg conduct research into Thorium at Oak Ridge Nation Lab. Weinberg and his coworkers proved the efficiency of Thorium reactors in hundreds of tests throughout the 50’s and on into the 70’s. In addition, Weinberg found that Thorium could be used in a completely new type of reactor. Thorium dissolves in hot liquid fluoride salts, which is then poured into tubes in the core of the reactor, where the nuclear chain reaction occurs. When the mix gets too hot, it expands and flows harmlessly out of the tubes, completely eliminating the possibility of a meltdown.

So why aren’t we using it? Unfortunately, as is often the case, the answer involves military defense. When faced with the choice between Uranium or Thorium, and stuck in a bitter cold war with the Soviet Union, the U.S. Government built Uranium fueled reactors – the by-product of which was plutonium, which could be refined into weapons grade material; nuclear weapons and mutually assured destruction.

Why Thorium reactors aren’t being considered in the U.S. now is anybody’s guess. India already unveiled a ’seed and blanket’ Thorium reactor back in 2005, dubbed ‘The Worlds Safest Reactor”. The United States hasn’t build any Nuclear Reactors since the 1970s, but are now posed to build two new old-school reactors in Georgia thanks to an $8 billion dollar loan from the Obama Administration. As a comparison,

Uranium Fueled Light-Water Reactor: a footprint of about 200,000-300,000 square feet, surrounded by a low-density population zone.
Annual fuel cost for one gigawatt reactor : $50-$60 million. Substantial proliferation potential.
Fuel input per gigawatt output: 250 tons raw uranium

Liquid Flouride Thorium Reactor: a footprint of 2,000-3,000 square feet, no need for a buffer zone. Annual fuel cost for one gigawatt reactor : $10,000. Zero proliferation potential.
Fuel input per gigawatt output: 1 ton raw thorium

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  1. [...] (Re)Introducing Thorium. What if there was a way to get a nuclear reaction, providing just as much safe energy with a smaller [...]