The Dawn of the Thorium Era

What will a Thorium Era look like. In the beginning the road will be a little rocky. Resistance will be inevitable. But as more and more natural disasters start to happen and as the nations who fear nuclear start to regret abandoning nuclear because their quality of living declines there will be a gradual acceptance.

Chances are the first Thorium reactors will be used for heat process applications. The need for high temperature industrial reactors will be of the molten salt variety. There’s no guaranty that Thorium will be the fuel of choice. Uranium also works quite well in a Molten Salt Reactor. (MSR)
Eventually however the abundance of Thorium will win over once the reactors become more popular.


Pioneers of Thorium Era


Alvin Weinberg
weinberg_alvin_b2
Eugene_Wigner_bio

Glenn Seaborg
Glenn_Seaborg

Heat applications that can make a big difference to the well being are things like solving water shortages by purifying and desalinating water. Also replacing steam can have large benefits when water is inconvenient. MSRs don’t need water to run.

After the reactors prove their capability the commercial reactors will follow.

It will be the hybrid reactors of the future. They will be multi-purpose reactors and very likely will be designed so that process heat is easy to access for industrial purposes. Design consistency will be the way to keep their costs down. The assembly production lines will start creating a whole new era of productivity and improved quality of life.

We have no idea how many projects cannot evolve because of the cost of an infrastructure. In fact, the so-called smart grid will not be needed if we learn to mass produce MSRs. Why build huge transmission lines if you can just add MSRs where they are needed.

Apart from practical reasons of helping any country’s industry grow and prosper there are the health and survival issues that MSRs can solve.
Energy created from MSRs is dense and uncontroversial. It is much more efficient at creating energy without nearly as much waste as conventional nuclear reactors. The opportunity is there for medical isotopes that will assist in saving lives.

And for those who want to stop coal plants from burning coal, the dirty energy source, MSRs are the answer. The pollution is getting so out of control now that even China is looking to nuclear plants as a solution fixing the mess. This is an understatement.

Places like England and Japan which have dense populations and are surrounded by water will need to replace the current energy sources with more reliable and easy to expand small footprint reactors. MSRs are also SMRs? What kind of anagram is that? Small Modular Reactors are becoming the reactor of highest praise in the US. MSRs will be modular and that will give them their flexibility and at the same time allow them to be cost effective.

We are seeing the signs of the new era with at least 5 countries starting their own research into making a Thorium Era happen.

So cutting down on pollution and CO2 is not the only reason for supporting the idea of a Thorium era.

11 Comments

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  • April 8, 2013 - 4:32 pm | Permalink

    Well said.

    Your said: Eventually however the abundance of Thorium will win over once the reactors become more popular”. I wonder if the complexities of international policies concerning nuclear weapons proliferation would also favor the use of thorium over uranium.

    • admin
      April 8, 2013 - 4:40 pm | Permalink

      Yes Sergius. I agree. When those countries who recognize they will not be under as much political pressure building Thorium MSRs that will definitely help the movement grow.

  • April 8, 2013 - 5:33 pm | Permalink

    Rick, I greatly enjoyed your post, but I would like to offer an alternative view which I think is at least equally probable.

    Existing obstructive levels of nuclear regulation should insure that no improved US nuclear technology is successfully deployed in the next four decades and that the United States is securely on a course to all but exit the commercial nuclear power industry, even if the country awakens to the dangers of worldwide energy scarcity and climate change and adopts measures to favor low-carbon energy sources.

    Nuclear power had been in economic decline for more than three decades when the Bush administration attempted to launch a program that aimed at sparking a nuclear power renaissance through loan guarantees (that actually make money for the government) and a reformed reactor licensing process. With built in regulatory mandated delays and high reactor COL license fees, and the impact of the massive body of US nuclear regulation on the cost of new nuclear plants, Wall Street has been leery of the historically high costs of nuclear power. An abundance of
    natural gas, lower energy demand induced by the 2008 recession, increased energy-efficiency measures, nuclei’s rising cost estimates, and the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station have further
    diminished prospects for private investment in new smaller Small Modular Reactor (SMR) nuclear plants. SMRs have poorer commercial attractiveness as a result of less favorable economy of scale resulting from their smaller size and tend to produce electricity at higher cost than the traditional larger fully paid for legacy commercial nuclear plants.

    Without significant US regulatory reform to correct the current “regulatory chokepoint” in building new nuclear, market forces will likely all but phase out the US commercial nuclear fleet by midcentury.

    • admin
      April 8, 2013 - 5:38 pm | Permalink

      I agree with you Robert. I am hoping that wide acceptance outside of the US will help shape the future of how the NRC sees things. Call me an optimist.

    • scott medwid
      April 9, 2013 - 6:57 pm | Permalink

      Robert, the current situation with the NRC can be changed if an open discussion can take place on this subject: What route is the U.S. Government taking into the future of 5, 10, 20 or more years out from today?
      NRC have held nuclear science and engineering in place due to legislative guidance from the U.S. House of Reps and U.S. Senate for 40 years in my view. The NRC are governed to operate as they do because they were told to do this by elected representatives. Sure, special interests have helped persuade our reps to follow the current path but that can change with and election. Congress needs to address this: Where are we going with taxpayer supported nuclear policy and research? Big electric generators? Small modular systems? Heat generators for steel melting or chemical cracking? All of the above or none of the above?

      Personal, I would like to see the United States Navy be delegated the authority to oversee development, installation and operation of advanced reactors. Furthermore, let our young service men and women move from their overseas deployments and conclusion of military term of service into the Navy Reactor School (if they wish to and qualify). The Navy have been doing an amazing job of running thousands of reactors safely for 60 years. Lets build on that taxpayer supported investment in success and achievement.

      But I digress,
      To sum up, the current situation can change.
      Write letters to your federal Rep and Senators also your local paper. Get on a blog, make a Youtube film of you explaining Why Thorium. Paint a poster, make models, go to a chalks walk with colored chalk and your favorite artist (great date idea!) Say it Loud, your way, Speak the dream as Dr. Martin Luther said. This is a no brainer when you think about it (and we all have), the trick is getting the word out to more people and getting them to write.
      This is a ground game as they say in football.

      Homework to all readers:
      Could you use a TMS reactor as a engine to power a space craft to Mars?
      Extra credit:
      Could a LFTR work in zero gravity?

  • Phil
    April 9, 2013 - 2:44 pm | Permalink

    Agree with most of the thoughts here, and I enjoyed reading the post.

    However, that grid at the end would be more useful if we could actually see some numbers (or at least general ranges) for each of the options, instead of the subjective “star” for nuclear at all levels. Even as a nuclear proponent, I find it hard to believe that nuclear is superior to solar and wind in terms of deaths-per-GW or CO2-tons-per-GW (technically all three produce no carbon dioxide, but I’d be curious to examine full life-cycle costs and carbon emissions).

    Do you have this same grid but filled in with values for each cell?

    • admin
      April 9, 2013 - 8:13 pm | Permalink

      Sorry Phil. My chart, admittedly, is propaganda. I never had the time to dig up the real figures. However Nuclear does beat Wind and Solar in Deaths-per-GW that I know from various lectures and presentations by people like Kirk Sorensen and Robert Hargraves.

  • scott medwid
    April 9, 2013 - 3:02 pm | Permalink

    Is the Thorium MSR community on the right path?
    Rick, your article has clarified an idea that has been bugging me for a couple of years since I started reading up on Thorium. Most of us have been looking at building a utility grade Thorium Reactor (100 to 500 megawatts) that would plug into the grid to replace coal burner power plants or older Uranium LW Reactors. The thinking I’ve heard puts the development costs at the 2 to 6 Billion Dollar range but this gives the implementors a kind of “pull out / plug in and play” reordering of the electric grid at a “major player” level. This is a great idea and is Engineering thinking (solve a problem, implement the change needed). The problem however is the act of switching out large generating plants with a brand new technology. It will disrupt business as usual.

    Switching out at the large utility generator level puts those in the “business as usual crowd” on the defensive and they start ringing the bell towers to get the troops out to defend against the new invader. Regulators, industry officials, threatened workers, media and the non science/engineering public get on the phone and lobby to keep things as they are. How do you find financing for developing utility grade Thorium Breeder MSR’s in such an environment?

    What about looking into uses for smaller Thorium to U233 MSR power generators? Think of a power plant the size of several shipping containers in the 2 to 10 megawatt range of power output (4 standard shipping containers stacked 2 on 2 ?). It may take a 1/2 billion dollars to develop a workable unit for a city like mine, 8000 population and 11 megawatts of base load power but the folks at my public power authority think that small safe Thorium based nuclear is an idea that gets them excited.

    Would an infrastructure of small reactors designed to plug into the edges of the power grid or isolated communities (like islands) be a less expensive way to kick start the switch to Thorium Breeder MSR power? Could setting up on the edges of the grid be a way to move in from the outside of the Existing Electric Power Paradigm (or EEPP) ((new term, created just now))?

    Look maybe I am a Hun at heart, sitting the edge of the Roman Empire trying to figure out a way to get those tunic wearing (fill in the blank)s out of power and my tribe into power but I don’t see any Elephants on the horizon other than China and the Shanghai Institute (and for humanities sake, I’m glad they are).
    Here’s my big question; Is the large utility grade replacement reactor complex the way to go at this point?
    Are we capable of pushing this idea up a hill the size of todays power game?

    There are multiple players that have been in the energy game for decades that are competing to plug into those power grid centers. The big utilities have bought into Coal, Gas and NRC supported LWR’s The mining and drilling industries like the way things are too and the Solar and Wind crowd have never liked anything that gets a geiger counter ticking. The North American energy paradigm feeds fuel to the big generating centers, and pushes the power out the edges. This is hard to compete against on many levels.

    Maybe another route to developing Thorium MSR is to prove the new technology at the edges of the grid by supply power and heat where it is currently most expensive for the grid to service. Size matters, big costs more. Do you find that proven Babe Ruth type player to hit lots of home runs or do we get a lot of batters hitting singles and getting on base? ( the “home run” being a baseball illusion to a large utility grade MSR and hitting singles being hitting the ball or getting a walk and making it to first base with small modular reactors). Thorium is not even in the minor leagues of the power games. However, we think it CAN swing, we just have to prove it!

    So to sum up, develop small modular reactors that can fit into shipping container sized areas. Put them at the edges of the existing grid where it is expensive to push power to. Spend less money developing a usable system because it is smaller and simpler than a big utility grade generator. Build up a reliable track record of use (hitting singles). Replicate the successful efforts along the edges of the empire (go for runs batted in, RBI’s). If any of these questions and metaphors get anyone thinking on working from the edges I’ll be happy to have helped.

    Thanks for taking the time to write your piece and thanks for reading this. Cheers!

    P.S. it is finally spring here in Oberlin Ohio and I so have baseball on my mind, Go Tribe!

  • Jeff Walther
    April 12, 2013 - 6:33 pm | Permalink

    Nicely optimistic, but I see at least two points of failure.

    First, of all, you assume that when the USA economy declines and other economies ascend, that the people of the USA will finally realize the benefits of nuclear energy. I disagree. If they will not see it before then, they will not see it at that time either.

    Look at all the deception, misleading, outright lies, and hiding of facts that are going on in this area, for whatever reason. When the USA is overshadowed by countries which supercharge their economies with clean, cheap nuclear electricity, the media and the “green” movement still will not admit that the ascendant nations have superior energy policy. The “greens” will find some other cause to blame. They’ll claim we have too little unreliables. Or that all the nuclear and fossil fuels we still have are getting in the way and hurting the economy or something similarly non-sensical, but into which they can throw a few truths to cover their nest of lies.

    The example of France vs. Germany is available for all to see and easily accessible. The relative prices of electricity (Eu.13 vs Eu.27), generating sources (80% nuclear vs. some irrelevant yet costly unreliables), and per GDP CO2 emissions (lowest in industrialized world, vs. one of the highest) are simple for anyone to look up. Yet few people will. And those who do will not believe.

    And when the facts are pointed out, an anti-nuke person will show up and try to direct the audience to poisoned (or, if you prefer, vandalized) articles on Wikipedia regarding the nuclear program in France.

    No, if the nuclear industry doesn’t get into the PR game and start playing, it won’t matter how many real world examples there are, and how far other nation’s exceed the USA’s accomplishments, the people in the USA simply won’t be allowed to know that nuclear is the path to a bright, prosperous future with a clean environment.

    My second issue with your article, is that this future must somehow be thorium based. I don’t really care which fissioning fuel is used, but current reactor designs are good enough, easier to get into production politcally and economically, and they use uranium.

    If you want a bright future for thorium technology, first you need to help advocate and educate for uranium. All the fission technologies are being kicked off the island by ignorance, and they all need to fight that ignorance together. The differences between fission technologies are not going to cause some to be acceptable and others not, to the ignorant and mislead and certainly not to the folks profiting from the anti-fission movement.

    If any of us are to progress, then all fission technologies must gain acceptance by overcoming the lies and ignorance which are currently dominant in the popular culture.

    • admin
      April 12, 2013 - 8:47 pm | Permalink

      Thanks Jeff. I mostly agree with you. The US is at least involved with the Chinese in their R & D on Thorium Molten Salt reactors. Yes also on your point about any type of fission. I just think that in the next 50 years Thorium will become more commonly used because of it’s abundance. But as we are learning MSRs run well on Uranium in fact a recent article about the Integrated Molten Salt Reactor has a design that uses U238 which is completely proliferation safe. In addition I feel that once the Molten Salt catches on which might not happen while I’m alive it will become the preferred method of fission.

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  • Quick Facts: [Thorium Element 90 in periodic table] [Burns up fuel much more efficiently than traditional reactors] [leaves barely any waste behind] [3 x more abundant than uranium] [MSRs run at high temp in liquid molten mixture of fluoride - heat useful for purifying water] [looks like blue water] [no pressure needed] [much safer because of passive safety] [Less expensive to build because it is smaller and easier to build with no pressurized containment needed] [can run without water therefore good for dry and remote locations][molten salt is very stable]

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