Thorium Nuclear Reactors

Now that the first trial of the ‘When Worlds Collide’ MOOC is complete, I’ll try and keep this blog up dated with thoughts and information. I’ll also be going back through the many thousands of discussion comments in the MOOC, and I plan to compile an ebook we can use for the ‘alpha’ launch of the course in March.

I’ll use the blog to post parts of the ebook for comment and reflection. I’ll also be using the blog as an aide memoir and will be posting links to research articles, unless you are in a University it’s likely that you won’t be able to access the full texts of the articles, but you should be able to see the abstracts.

Civil nuclear power is clearly an area where science could potentially be of great benefit to society, particularly with an energy crisis and global climate chaos looming.  In the past, development of nuclear power plant designs was heavily influenced by the need to provide weapons grade material, as shown by this article on technological lock in of light water reactors:

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0022050700037153

[Edit, DOI link doesn’t seem to work, not sure why, try this one:

http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract;jsessionid=4D05C1AC7E9E5AC2D067891B8BC8B3E2.journals?fromPage=online&aid=4163536

or use Scholar Google to search for ‘Nuclear Reactor Technological Lock In’

However, there are alternatives, such as the thorium reactors being developed in India:

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0029549306000690#

I’d be interested to know if anyone has any thoughts on firstly, the technical aspects of thorium reactors vs the current technology used in commercial civil nuclear reactors, and secondly, if thorium reactors are safer, why we aren’t adopting them. Is reactor design still geared to producing material for weapons? Or is this now past?

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46 thoughts on “Thorium Nuclear Reactors

  1. I remember a Scientific American article on the nuclear fuel cycle which basically suggested that systems that used the nuclear waste as a source of the next cycle of generating power and that did not require enrichment should be sought. Liquid metal fast breeder reactors were stated as a suitable technology, only proven on a demonstrator basis rather than commercially. The current stock of waste would provide the core fuel for the system, and the final end product is cesium, which has a half life of c.500 years. Given we are guaranteeing an electricity price, we could surely provide a payment for accepting existing nuclear waste – we are going to have to deal with it anyway – and encourage a jump to such a technology.
    Avoiding the potential for tuning power stations to produce bomb making material, addressing nuclear waste, using more of the energy in mined Uranium or Thorium, and having a final waste material that is more manageable, all seem prizes worth paying for. I understand the key problem is the coolant is molten sodium, quite nasty.

    • Quick side point here: why must we focus on nuclear energy when we could modify consumer usage through awareness and use alternative fuels instead that would not leave poisonous waste? Many have claimed nuclear as cost effective in the long run, but hasn’t past nuclear accidents prove to be an extremely high social cost? The Fukushima incident is a fine example of radioactive waste that has gone into the food chain which there may be no way at all to remedy the after effects of such contamination. I thought that itself should divert research into alternative fuels altogether ?

      • I completely agree that there are better ways to manage energy. But I’d like to know more about the technical options – knowledge is power!

    • I’ve not fully conversant with the technical issues, so many thanks for the comment on molten sodium, quite a fizz if it gets wet I bet. I put this post up because I’d like to learn more, it also relates to nuclear power being available for developing countries, for example there is only one (maybe two?) nuclear power stations in Africa, despite chronic power shortages and exporting nuclear fuel.

      • Just to play devil’s advocate, suppliers could argue that the attraction of nuclear has pretty low emissions and it can fuel a lot of people with not much. I think there is about 15-35 kJ of chemical energy available from 1 gram of coal but a gram of uranium is 10,000 to 1,000,000 higher. So nuclear energy would go a long way to helping the world’s energy crisis.
        However I really hate the idea of nuclear energy. Its the indeterminacy that I really have a problem with. Its not just the idea of bombs, power station meltdowns and fallout that worries me its the everyday problem of waste disposal from the power stations we already have and the future hazards that they could cause.
        Not just low level waste being buried nearer the surface but the deep burial of the intermediate and high level wastes. I mean all they’re doing is covering this waste in concrete and burying it. That’s all they can do with it right?
        but I have here a list of various types of radioisotopes and their half-lives.

        Radioactive Iodine-131 has a half-life of 8 days
        Radioactive Caesium-137 has a half-life of 30 years
        Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,000 yrs
        Iodine-129 = 15.7 Million Years
        Uranium-238 = 4,500 Million years.

        How on Earth can anybody be certain that in the next 30 years there isn’t going to be some freak tectonic movement which leeches this waste into the soil and water cycle let alone in 4,500 Million years?

        I just don’t think anyone should have the right to do that.

        There are a few alternatives which I like the look of. My favourite has to be solar power. Cheap as chips, renewable, could literally fuel the world forever. And photovoltaic cells are genius. The only problem is it would require a major change in energy policy.
        I also like the idea of hydraulic Energy, and I find the 3 Gorge Dam to be just a bizarre and massive undertaking but a little controversial.
        And I like wind farms. I don’t really understand NIMBYs who don’t like them because they’re ugly because well, they’re not as ugly as dirty power stations and how pretty is the countryside going to look if things go on the way they are? It seems like a strange and not very well thought out argument against them.

  2. The doi link does not lead any where. It was valuable to know about the doi system which I did not know about.
    Mark, I read that the Fukishama disaster would not have happened with a Thorium reactor because it did not depend on pumps, do you know how the stability of the system you have identified compares for safety through extreme natural events? Also in the event of leaked radiation, the relative half life?

    • Sorry Mark, I realised you are talking about Thorium. Norway has been conducting a small scale test of this system.
      http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/160131-thorium-nuclear-reactor-trial-begins-could-provide-cleaner-safer-almost-waste-free-energy
      and more recently claim to have verified cold fusion which has no radiation risks, but check it out, I am not a scientist: http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/156393-cold-fusion-reactor-independently-verified-has-10000-times-the-energy-density-of-gas

    • Not sure went wrong there, I’m now working remotely and it did the same thing to me, and the connection I’m on is too slow to get back to the original journal page. Use Scholar Google to search for ‘nuclear reactors technological lock in’ and you’ll find the article.

      • http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=next-generation-nuclear is a link to a review article, not the one I originally read. I will try and find the initial one. My thoughts are that operating at atmospheric pressure is safer than having something pressurised, and that the key for me is using current nuclear waste and reducing the problem that poses. It should not be instead of renewable sources or efficiency improvements or lifestyle changes that reduced energy needs that Karen highlights as a preferred way forward.

      • Just fallen ill from too much obligations and am off for now to play Devils’ advocate after Bethan… Hopefully in a fun way with twice the plastic toy horns post Halloween… But this really reminds me of a heated debate on the phd forum a few years back. So, what makes a change in lifestyle to conserve energy so wrong without a slightest explanation? And what makes using nuclear so right when its half life decomposition is so long? Compare its impact with other renewable sources like sun and even water, and consider the pending danger of nuclear war ; these are serious implications to be precautioned. Why promote exuberant waste by adopting say a disposable lifestyle when we could promote improvisation? I am not a materials engineer but in simple logic, any matter that takes a long time to fully decomposed is a danger to human health. Any idea that promotes unlimited wants with no end perishes our dying natural resources. Even if we chose Prof Nocera’s idea of generating unlimited energy using just a swimming pool size of water (personalized energy) , with greed in hand you’ll never know how a negatively creative and selfish mind could come up with. Some traditional ideas of thrift, industriousness, honesty and modesty are dying in an era of pure lust for extravagant and almost heartless lifestyle. Everyone likes to live well. That includes me, who wants a cute gigantic house with plenty creative inventions and ecuational play. But we need to control and watch our wants before our wants kill us. Hope this is taken in good candour….perhaps only the far poorer countries should use nuclear energy because they really need it. then again, who says a non radioactive source may not offer a far livable and healthier solution? In any case, nuclear seems to pose a lot of threat at the moment. Life can be engaging, fun, knowledgeable and with plenty of peace. That includes the way of life for the same set of things. If one could obtain the same or even better quality of living by adopting a seemly less high tech source after weighing out the pros and cons, then one should take the option. Our lives aren’t that long to make wrong decisions. Happy Tuesday!

  3. I’ve just spent a few hours reading through material under ‘nuclear reactors technological lock in’, of which there are many abstracts or intros, and am now reading the book on “Normal Accidents: Living with High Risk Technologies”. The lock in syndrome, transitional solutions, technological/institutional lock in dichotomies, connecting with Douglass North’s youtube lecture to telecomunications people in my mind, and then Normal Accidents, its amazing. Especially the systems thinking stuff – transformative interactions .. So much connects up in strange ways … Wow! (I was right about Scandinavian countries doing more) – Which article was I looking for? 🙂

  4. The problem is how to get the government and institutions to change infrastructure, organisational systems, interconnected systems, to adapt to R&D and develop new tech quickly, also to choose the best solutions rather than the first solution, or any identified solution …… yes? Of course funding also.

  5. “In Britain, a few organizations are either promoting or examining research on thorium-based nuclear plants. House of Lords member Bryony Worthington is promoting thorium, calling it “the forgotten fuel” that could alter Britain’s energy plans.However, in 2010, the UK’s National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) concluded that for the short to medium term, “…the thorium fuel cycle does not currently have a role to play,” in that it is “technically immature, and would require a significant financial investment and risk without clear benefits,” and concluded that the benefits have been “overstated.” Friends of the Earth UK considers research into it as “useful” as a fallback option”
    above text from wikipedia link posted above.
    the NNL position paper link;
    http://www.nnl.co.uk/science-technology/position-papers.aspx

      • Jon at the risk of sounding like a toady, and with nowhere else to post this really. I have to say I commend your career and its what every budding environmentalist dreams of. Could you give some tips about how you had means to travel, learn about different cultures, be experienced enough to teach. ( Frankly your career sounds like the environmentalists silver unicorn). We all start out thinking we want to change the world but most of us are worried we’ll end up working for welsh water or something of the same affect. Do you have any advice? Or want to tell how you did it?

  6. Reblogged this on Daring to Change and commented:
    Sharing a comment post on the topic here. long time no post on my blog so here’s one to start off : ‘Just fallen ill from too much obligations and am off for now to play Devils’ advocate after Bethan… Hopefully in a fun way with twice the plastic toy horns post Halloween… But this really reminds me of a heated debate on the phd forum a few years back. So, what makes a change in lifestyle to conserve energy so wrong without a slightest explanation? And what makes using nuclear so right when its half life decomposition is so long? Compare its impact with other renewable sources like sun and even water, and consider the pending danger of nuclear war ; these are serious implications to be precautioned. Why promote exuberant waste by adopting say a disposable lifestyle when we could promote improvisation? I am not a materials engineer but in simple logic, any matter that takes a long time to fully decomposed is a danger to human health. Any idea that promotes unlimited wants with no end perishes our dying natural resources. Even if we chose Prof Nocera’s idea of generating unlimited energy using just a swimming pool size of water (personalized energy) , with greed in hand you’ll never know how a negatively creative and selfish mind could come up with. Some traditional ideas of thrift, industriousness, honesty and modesty are dying in an era of pure lust for extravagant and almost heartless lifestyle. Everyone likes to live well. That includes me, who wants a cute gigantic house with plenty creative inventions and ecuational play. But we need to control and watch our wants before our wants kill us. Hope this is taken in good candour….perhaps only the far poorer countries should use nuclear energy because they really need it. then again, who says a non radioactive source may not offer a far livable and healthier solution? In any case, nuclear seems to pose a lot of threat at the moment. Life can be engaging, fun, knowledgeable and with plenty of peace. That includes the way of life for the same set of things. If one could obtain the same or even better quality of living by adopting a seemly less high tech source after weighing out the pros and cons, then one should take the option. Our lives aren’t that long to make wrong decisions. Happy Tuesday! ‘

  7. The thorium seems to be a much safer method, but I’m not sure it will get off the ground. The costs of converting the older plants and building new ones seems to be a major hurdle for companies as they don’t see the plants producing as well ….not enough bang for their buck. Next, you add in the public’s current perception of all things nuclear powered with the bad press from Chernobyl and Fukushima…well you end up with a really difficult product to promote. I’m no engineer but it astounds me that the Fukushima farce has been allowed to continue for so long. How does one hide a catastrophe like that without a lot of help? And why would anyone wish to hide such a thing for so long without seeking help. It’s very disturbing to think this sort of thing can happen in today’s world and it makes me frankly nervous as to how many other things people don’t know and how much worse they might be.

    It just seems a healthier idea to continue research and expansion into the even greener energy resources of wind, solar, water or geo-thermal energy. Costa Rica has barely scratched the surface of wind farming and hydro-electric power but I know that many other countries are having some success at it.

    As for weaponizing it there seems to be little in the way of byproducts that could be used in that way but it seems there is always someone willing to try. Would it be possible? Maybe. Probable? Not sure how they could, other than to make them targets to cripple any dependent populations of the plants. Depressing to know that it is a factor that has to be explored before any thoughts of implementation.

    • The reason I find it interesting is that here in the UK we are set to build a lot of new nuclear plants, so using a safe new innovative technology would be possible (if indeed it exists).

      • Thanks to Bethan for the half life data. Does anyone know how much nuclear fuel waste we have? I do think the next generation should use this and if it converts it to Cesium with a half life of 30 years from stuff with half lives of 100,000 or over a million years that is a huge benefit, because we can be much more certain that there will be no huge tectonic event in the next 30 years than in the next 100,000 years.

        My thoughts are that there could be a fixed payment for every tonne of current high level waste taken into the fuel cycle and a straightforward carbon tax on fossil fuel sources to provide the incentives to invest in the required technology. Equally there could be a charge on any new nuclear fuel waste produced (someone will have to look after it) to provide a disincentive to new mining. We only use 5% of the potential power in the Uranium at present, which is a ridiculously low efficiency, so there is a lot of potential energy sitting around in waste heaps.

      • Hopefully they will build on the new technology and avoid issues like the Fukushima plant. Prime Minister Naoto Kan has become very anti-nuclear now and it seems that his opinion is becoming very popular there. He’s said to be blocking all attempts at building new plants and wanting older plants shut down. I know that Japan is far more geologically active and the UK would be certain not to suffer from the laxity in standards and oversights that led to the multiple backup failures after the Tsunami at Fukushima. Perhaps, since Japan’s dependence on the nuclear power plants is not likely to lessen anytime soon or be replaced with other ‘greener’ methods, the UK and Japan could team up on the R&D for the thorium plants. It would be nice to see countries engaging in mutually assured development instead of destruction. I’m sure other countries have an interest as well and with people such as yourself and others of like mind pushing for better options it opens up a global involvement possibility.

      • Hopefully they will build on the new technology and avoid issues like the Fukushima plant. Prime Minister Naoto Kan has become very anti-nuclear now and it seems that his opinion is becoming very popular there. He’s said to be blocking all attempts at building new plants and wanting older plants shut down. I know that Japan is far more geologically active and the UK would be certain not to suffer from the laxity in standards and oversights that led to the multiple backup failures after the Tsunami at Fukushima. Perhaps, since Japan’s dependence on the nuclear power plants is not likely to lessen anytime soon or be replaced with other ‘greener’ methods, the UK and Japan could team up on the R&D for the thorium plants. It would be nice to see countries engaging in mutually assured development instead of destruction. I’m sure other countries have an interest as well and with people such as yourself and others of like mind pushing for better options it opens up a global involvement possibility. (reposted as somehow my reply went to another comment)

    • As much as learning more about thorium as an added knowledge under nuclear energy is appreciated, I believe that Fukushima and Chernobyl mishaps are real. Personally I am strongly against it. Our local government had wanted the nuclear energy to power our lines. Thankfully it is thrown off after the Fukushima incident. I wouldn’t think a bigger country should play the risk though it is in much better position to do so. Then again, thats me being careful. As responsible policy makers, the people’s physical well being is most important.

      • Yes, I agree, there are other ways to produce energy, and energy efficiency is the most sensible way of plucking the ‘low hanging fruit’. There are plenty of renewable energy sources, each with their own interesting technical challenges.

  8. The natural accidents that occur in systems could help us in how we can acheive change. There are key points, points where if pressure was applied can set a system dynamic off on a tangent to its intended purpose or even unintended direction (lock in). In a disaster (Thorium 500 yrs half life) it is a combination of events (some very small) that trigger catastrophic change. Can we not identify some key points in our system of government to trigger catastrophic change (to the locked in thinking) and so change direction to massive R&D and application of renewable energy? Turn the disaster movie upsidedown lol!

    • Also as Mark said, we do have the existing nuclear waste to clean up, which we MUST do. A combination of Thorium reactors and renewable?

      • One thought on our governments current policy is that the economic problem is surely connected to the amount of currency in actual circulation. There is a lot of potential funding locked in because of uncertainty for investors, which I guess is why gov wants a clear high investment project like the high speed train link. However, since gov revenue is dependent on taxes, the human resources aspect is being underlooked, with little disposable income for Joe Blogg, money circulation in the system is low. Could the gov release this block by investing in, for example, solar power for every house (I mean serious investment), thus giving more disposable income overall, rather than the HS rail link?

  9. When we can get away from ugly roof patched solar panels to a proper engineered design that would be good. We have made the leap with low energy bulbs that are really fabulously designed and desirable, we surely can do the same with excellent roof or window coverings, that are not only solar panels but have other embedded functions such as satellite reception, intruder detection, UV shading etc…..

  10. I agree Penny, but I also think a reason why policy makers are uncertain about encouraging solar power is that its difficult to say how it could be made into a viable business. Stakeholders like British gas buying partial ownership of the Sun? I suppose they could charge installation and maintenance costs for the panels.

    • I agree, the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is a hugh issue. The move of investment from fossil to renewable needs to be supported by Government policy in many ways, it is a complex issue. But it is happening, Jon has posted some links under ‘Investing in renewable energy’ subject heading (Recent Posts).

    • On a sunny day last May Germany produced 22 gigawatts of solar power – mostly from residential rooftops – the equivalent of 20 nuclear plants and half the world’s energy. The big problem is that you cannot store it! There are people working now on miniaturising capacitors. That is where the business of the future will be and will be greater than the battery business of today. I could really get into a kitchen without plugs and wires. And if the government perhaps said you can have all the non-essential gadgets you want, but you can’t power them from the grid, you have to generate it yourself and download it to a capacitor which then fits in the base of your food mixer or deep fat fryer then you are talking a heap of business as it would radicalise white goods of the future….. I think if we can solve the capacitor problem quickly then we might just sneak through the energy gap by the skin of our teeth – but best not rely on it!

  11. I like Jacqueline’s ideas but I know that solar power can be stored. Official bodies who say it can’t be are frankly using certain outcomes to suit their own conclusions. Fundamental example, my parents have solar garden lights that store energy during the day and then they turn on at night. That’s storage. If we’re talking about storing up energy for the next month, year, decade then well yes it could If enough investment was put into solar energy and even if not, they’re not far off. Also there isn’t a need to store solar energy for a month or a year or whatever because solar energy is readily available and will be infinito. So the idea of storage would be made redundant which is exactly why govs don’t like it because there is no money to be made from that as it stands.

    • ps. Sorry everyone. I’m a bit out of practice with policies and legislation. I’ve been studying the science all year which is why I might come across a bit clinical 🙂

    • Long term storage – from summer to winter – is a real challenge. I came across this some time ago:
      http://www.liquidair.org.uk/
      The thought that you simply use energy to cool air to the point of basically storing liquid N and O and that warming this provides the energy to drive a turbine to generate electricity seems a good idea. However I doubt it would do more than store daytime generation from PV and allowing it to be released at night, balancing the demand at night with generation in the day. Clearly not addressing the summer/winter balancing we need.
      There may be a “big industry” solution with a EU wide DC electric grid linked to solar farms in N Africa which would be designed around European winter demand and provide an export opportunity for Algeria etc. The Germans did a study on this, but it is big industry big investment.
      The UK energy policy has a section on distributed energy, local grids, local CHP grids and so on. I suspect this requires community action, social enterprise and local cooperation between households and businesses. We hardly hear of policy measures to reinforce this – how about community power partnership obligations on energy companies equivalent to the Energy Conservation Obligation to help.

      • Mark: “how about community power partnership obligations on energy companies equivalent to the Energy Conservation Obligation to help”. Policy measures seem woefully inadequate to enable transition to renewable energy, and I agree with your suggestion above, but I am not sure about how to go about influencing policy or enabling community power partnership, or influencing energy companies on such large endeavors in the UK. Are you based in the UK?

      • Yes, based in the UK – England for policy purposes. How to get new ideas even considered at the policy level is a real challenge. This website has a range of ideas about successful campaigns : http://www.campaignstrategy.org/
        The trouble with current approaches is the Government consults the current industry and really does not give enough weight to innovators who would put the current model out of business.

  12. Yep, you can store small amounts of energy and the devices are effectively chunky batteries – but the technology isn’t there yet for efficient storage of say the amount of solar energy captured on that German day – and that’s what we need to do – to hold it over for use in the autumn, say. You would need acres of stuff that looked like: http://www.cooperindustries.com/content/public/en/power_systems/products/power-capacitors.html

  13. Happened to be following up on Thorium and came across your site. Thought I’d say, up to last year, I was totally against nuclear power … I then came across the following link at the turn of the year … and completely opened my eyes to the possibilities of a truly civil minded Nuclear Energy source. If you paste the following link into your browser it should open the you-tube page:

    Hopefully the informal talk from Kirk Sorensen – who studied Nuclear power as a means to provide energy for Space travel/planets with NASA – can inform you of the many benefits possible with MSR technology using Thorium as a fuel. These clearly far out-weight the more harmful Uranium/Plutonium based Nuclear Energy processes (from an efficiency stand point as well as a waste point of view) which we’ve been locked-in to for the past five decades. The worst frustration is the public stigma of Nuclear boils down to the decisions made at a time where the world was at war – and continuing into a cold war – where a different perspective of risk prevailed and allowed people to convince themselves they could live with the higher levels of risk. There is now an alternative low risk nuclear solution. We cannot wait any longer to fund/support it if we’re serious about tackling climate change!

    • Glad you found the bog, this was an interesting discussion. I haven’t managed to keep the blog up to date unfortunately.

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