Is Thorium an Answer to Global Warming?

It’s always seemed to me that nuclear power would have to be part of the solution of the global warming problem: even if the planet’s population were to remain constant, and even if planet-wide energy use were to remain steady, we would still have to dramatically cut CO2 per capita emissions. The problem with nuclear power–or more accurately, uranium-based nuclear power–is the waste product. Not only is radioactive waste produced, but the byproducts of the reaction can be used to build nuclear weapons. So I was very intrigued by this Wired article about thorium-based nuclear power:

When he took over as head of Oak Ridge in 1955, Alvin Weinberg realized that thorium by itself could start to solve these problems. It’s abundant — the US has at least 175,000 tons of the stuff — and doesn’t require costly processing. It is also extraordinarily efficient as a nuclear fuel. As it decays in a reactor core, its byproducts produce more neutrons per collision than conventional fuel. The more neutrons per collision, the more energy generated, the less total fuel consumed, and the less radioactive nastiness left behind.
Even better, Weinberg realized that you could use thorium in an entirely new kind of reactor, one that would have zero risk of meltdown. The design is based on the lab’s finding that thorium dissolves in hot liquid fluoride salts. This fission soup is poured into tubes in the core of the reactor, where the nuclear chain reaction — the billiard balls colliding — happens. The system makes the reactor self-regulating: When the soup gets too hot it expands and flows out of the tubes — slowing fission and eliminating the possibility of another Chernobyl. Any actinide can work in this method, but thorium is particularly well suited because it is so efficient at the high temperatures at which fission occurs in the soup.

Unfortunately, in 1973, the U.S. committed to uranium nuclear power since it would yield plutonium which could be used to build nukes (fucking brilliant). Fortunately, thorium is being revisited, but, as you might imagine, a concept originated in the U.S. will probably be adopted first overseas:

Overseas, the nuclear power establishment is getting the message. In France, which already generates more than 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, the Laboratoire de Physique Subatomique et de Cosmologie has been building models of variations of Weinberg’s design for molten salt reactors to see if they can be made to work efficiently. The real action, though, is in India and China, both of which need to satisfy an immense and growing demand for electricity. The world’s largest source of thorium, India, doesn’t have any commercial thorium reactors yet. But it has announced plans to increase its nuclear power capacity: Nuclear energy now accounts for 9 percent of India’s total energy; the government expects that by 2050 it will be 25 percent, with thorium generating a large part of that. China plans to build dozens of nuclear reactors in the coming decade, and it hosted a major thorium conference last October. The People’s Republic recently ordered mineral refiners to reserve the thorium they produce so it can be used to generate nuclear power.
In the United States, the LFTR concept is gaining momentum, if more slowly. Sorensen and others promote it regularly at energy conferences. Renowned climatologist James Hansen specifically cited thorium as a potential fuel source in an “Open Letter to Obama” after the election. And legislators are acting, too. At least three thorium-related bills are making their way through the Capitol, including the Senate’s Thorium Energy Independence and Security Act, cosponsored by Orrin Hatch of Utah and Harry Reid of Nevada, which would provide $250 million for research at the Department of Energy. “I don’t know of anything more beneficial to the country, as far as environmentally sound power, than nuclear energy powered by thorium,” Hatch says. (Both senators have long opposed nuclear waste dumps in their home states.)

There are technical challenges–thorium rods would be housed for much longer times in a corrosive salt medium, and nobody knows what this means for safety. But if these problems are surmounted (and it seems like they could be), this could put a serious dent in our CO2 emissions. And the U.S. has a 1,000 year supply of thorium.
We’ll just have to find other reasons to invade foreign countries, I suppose….

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33 Responses to Is Thorium an Answer to Global Warming?

  1. Hi–nice article. Just to correct a few things, the liquid-fluoride thorium reactor DOESN’T use “thorium rods in corrosive salt”…the thorium itself (as thorium tetrafluoride) is dissolved in another salt mixture (lithium fluoride and beryllium fluoride). The mixture is NOT corrosive in the right materials (nickel-based alloy called Hastelloy-N) and is totally chemically stable. It doesn’t react with air or water and can’t burn. It is also impervious to unlimited radiation damage, which is what allows you to completely extract the energy from thorium and minimize your waste to almost nothing.

  2. That brings back memories. In Robert Heinlein’s 1947 book Rocketship Galileo, he has the intrepid explorers building a rocketship with a thorium reactor and using zinc as a propellant. It’s a pity the world got sidetracked with uranium.

  3. D. C. Sessions says:

    The trouble is that after someone in France or China has a working thorium reactor online, we’ll study its performance and safety for ten or twenty years before authorizing a program to design a purely American one on different principles. Give that ten or so years to establish a pilot plant. Once the pilot plant has been running for another ten or twenty years, the second-generation plant program might be authorized, with the objective of a commercial plant design in a decade or so. Once the design is complete, the regulatory and legal battles shouldn’t take more than fifteen years, after which construction shouldn’t take more than another ten years.
    Altogether, seventy-five to ninety-five years before the first plant goes online, after which we could be putting another plant online every five to ten years.

  4. India’s been on the thorium bandwagon since I was a kid, 30 years. There is one big breeder reactor slated to open in the next couple of years. I am not sure why it has taken so long, probably a combination of a challenging scientific problem and the need to work in isolation because of the lack of sharing of nuclear technology.
    For more on the Indian interest in thorium,

  5. Dunc says:

    It’s an interesting technology, but nowhere near ready for mass commercial roll-out yet. Don’t hold your breath.
    Mind you, it might get here quicker than fusion…

  6. DavidC says:

    No doubt it’s a promising technology and should be researched as such, but the reality of climate change is here now.
    The Indians are developing a thorium prototype right now. Due to go online this year. They currently envisage meeting 30% of their electricity demand through thorium-based reactors by 2050. That’s assuming it all goes according to plan. 2050. 40 years away. And they have a jump on the rest of the planet.
    We don’t have 40 years to wait for some wonderful, new technology to save a liveable climate. That’s the stark reality.

  7. Mark says:

    So is now the time to buy stock in LightBridge (ticker LTBR)?

  8. psweet says:

    Scientific American (Earth 3.0, or somesuch) ran an article last year, I believe, that illustrates a definite problem with nuclear (and even some solar) power. Any high-temp energy production requires a lot of water, both as the ultimate coolant and to provide steam to run the turbines. While in some places this isn’t an issue, in many areas water stresses are already important societal problems. It’s difficult to see how this otherwise interesting concept is going to mesh with water issues.

  9. Fortunately there are wonderful present-day nuclear power technologies that have never supplied explosive material for weapons, and have no potential for a Chernobyl: PWRs, BWRs, CANDUs.

  10. Birger Johansson says:

    Just a few details: Thorium is strictly speaking not a fuel. Thorium is regarded as “fertile”, not “fissile”: If thorium absorbs a neutron (which may come from the fission of U235 or Pu239) it undergoes two stages of decay and becomes a fissionable isotope of uranium.
    A properly designed “breeder” reactor, starting with the right mix of uranium isotopes and thorium can create more fuel than it burns (unlike plutonium breeder reactors, it can be done with “slow” neutrons). Wikipedia has a lot of details. BTW India is working on a thorium breeder design.

  11. llewelly says:

    Unfortunately, in 1973, the U.S. committed to uranium nuclear power since it would yield plutonium which could be used to build nukes (fucking brilliant).

    Doubly ironic, special purpose plutonium production reactors were already producing far more plutonium, at much less cost, than uranium reactors designed for electrical production ever could. In fact, the additional plutonium production capacity added by reactors that were not sole-purpose plutonium producers was never needed.
    In any case … LFTR would have been a great solution to AGW had we not frittered away 20 years listening to the deniers. But now – as pointed out by DavidC – it can only be a very late-starting piece of a smaller solution. I’d love to see the US get started on LFTRs soon. But they cannot be a primary solution to AGW. We’ve lost that opportunity.

  12. Thorium is most definitely a fuel. What else would you call the substance that you feed the reactor to keep it going? Thorium converts to U233 which gets burned and produces the neutrons that turn more thorium into U233. But thorium is the essential, basic fuel of the whole operation.

  13. GaryB says:

    First: I think it’s probably a myth that the US chose uranium reactors so that there would be plutonium for bombs. I rather suspect that when it came time to commercialize, the nuclear weapons technology and engineers simply knew how to make uranium work in a reactor and knew that it would work.
    Second, In reference to comment 8: LFTR would be a very high temperature but low pressure reactor running in a salt. There’s no reason that you need any water for it (Thorium doesn’t disolve in water), you can have another salt system driving the turbines.
    Finally, high temperature reactors can have other uses, such as desalinating water, producing hydrogen fuels and as the heat source for industrial processes that need a lot of heat.

  14. abb3w says:

    The point that Birger Johansson was trying to raise is that Thorium is not capable of sustaining a chain reaction by itself. You need another source of neutrons (U235, PU239, or exotic tricks with fusion or a particle accelerator) capable of a sustained reaction to start the TH232 breeding the U233. While thorium is the dominant fuel, it’s not the basic fuel.
    Which means if you want to use Thorium as a fuel, you need to plan ahead a bit.

  15. Alex Besogonov says:

    Thorium reaction has to be ‘jump started’, but once it’s going, it’s self-sustaining.

  16. Tercel says:

    One very unfortunate fact that has not been brought up yet is that most of the opposition to nuclear power has virtually nothing to do with it’s technical merits. Most people have an irrational fear of anything with the word “nuclear” in the name. Even worse, the most vocal opponents of nuclear energy are also the people most often identified as climate advocates (eg. Greenpeace), so it seems unlikely that a politician would heed the pro-climate message and the pro-nuclear message at the same time.
    This is why it’s so important for rational thinkers (ie. us) to call out bullshit from people who are ostensibly “on our team.” Even more important, I think, than pointing out the bullshit from people we so obviously disagree with, like the religious right.

  17. G.R.L. Cowan says:

    … Most people have an irrational fear of anything with the word “nuclear” in the name …
    … it’s so important for rational thinkers (ie. us) to call out bullshit”
    Such as blaming the public for fears that governments impute to it so as to protect their fossil fuel revenues.
    Since those weekly billions require many deaths per week of members of the public, it must be the public’s own choice to resist nuclear energy development, and continue to die lucratively, mustn’t it.

  18. Paul Obembe says:

    Don’t forget,
    What little waste produced in a Thorium reactor remains Dangerous for only 500yrs, not the tens of thousands in a Uranium reactor.
    Also a Thorium reactor can be used to burn-up todays Uranium rector wastes.
    Its a WIN WIN WIN proposition

  19. Bunny says:

    I can never resist playing devil’s advocate in thorium fuel cycle debates.
    Thorium decays to U233, which decays to U232. U232 is wildly unstable (half-life of 70 days, as opposed to millions of years for U238) and emits a very high-energy gamma as it decays. Spent fuel operations require massive shielding, even compared to conventional spent fuel operations. The short half-life strikes some as an advantage (waste is less dangerous quicker) but the short-term hazards are considerable.
    This is the only nuclear waste I have ever encountered that has frightened me, and I’ve looked thru oil-filled glovebox windows.

  20. G.R.L. Cowan says:

    … Thorium decays to U233, which decays to U232
    That would be a neutron-emission decay. (Actually 232-U is a minor byproduct of neutron irradiation of thorium, not a main decay product.)
    U232 is wildly unstable (half-life of 70 days
    Pretty sure that’s years, not days …
    I’ve looked thru oil-filled glovebox windows.
    Presumably at researchers on the other side, safely protected …

  21. MarkusR says:

    The question is: is it worthy of a subsidy?

  22. Paul Obembe says:

    Your statement is very well founded. The treatment of U232 will have to be closely monitored and Highly Standardized.
    The Short Half life minimizes environmental damage even as exposure risk to workers is considerable. This ONE part of the fuel cycle will and can be contained by said standardization.

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  25. Omega Centauri says:

    Thanks bunny, I had long heard that Thorium (or U233) fission causes high energy gammas, which require some extra engineering, but I didn’t know anything about the mechanism. This is probably the origin of the claims that it is not cost effective (compared to Uranium reactors).
    psweet@8. The simplest and cheapest way to make electricty is to use steam turbines, and likely use a lot of water in cooling towers (or heat up a river). These are not necessary for the generation of power, one could use air cooling, and either not use steam, or use it in a closed cycle. All these things will cost more, but in arid regions they may be required.

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  27. chris says:

    40 years ago, the scientists at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab developed a way to generate cheap, renewable and clean energy from the ocean (OTEC). A successful pilot was built in Hawaii. Then the Reagan era started and all alternative energy projects were cancelled and the DOE was filled with nuclear, coal and gas people. You can see the results. Nothing that isn’t nuclear, coal or gas gets anywhere! Check out Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion on Wikipedia or google it.

  28. Mark Goldes says:

    There are revolutionary energy systems under development that are less expensive and far less complex.
    One example is fractional Hydrogen. Few with science backgrounds believe it is possible, let alone close to producing power, however, Rowan University has confirmed excess heat and GEN3 Partners, who advise Fortune 100 firms have reproduced the experiments.
    BlackLight Power claims they will demonstrate 50-75 kW prototype systems this year and megawatt plants in 2012.
    Six utilities, including PacifiCorp and Conectiv, have signed Agreements to purchase more than 8,000 megawatts of electricity.
    Our own firm is developing fractional Hydrogen to power hybrid vehicles.
    While we disagree with BlackLight concerning the theory and our technology is very different, building on engine experiments done 30 years ago, we do agree that using fractional Hydrogen a barrel of water can provide energy equivalent to 200 barrels of oil.
    For an outline of this and other hard to believe breakthrough technologies, see:
    The love affair with cars might open a surprisingly rapid path the reducing the need for fossil and uranium fuels.

  29. Calum Coburn says:

    Great to see a safer technology emerging to fill part of peak oil’s gap. Shame the author is duped into believing the Climate Warming hoax. I was duped too, until about 9 months ago when I started reading non-mainstream propaganda. There’s no excuse not to be informed, start with ‘ClimateGate’ and ‘Lord Christopher Monckton’. Happy reading!

  30. Dr. D says:

    If you read the mainstream news you will be decieved. If you don’t read the mainstream news you will be decieved.

  31. loquacite says:

    In further response to Comment 19. I asked some waste experts from the National Labs about the storage and handling infrastructure for U233 waste (which includes by-product U232, and its decay product Tl208). (By the way, I will confirm that U232’s half-life is ~70 years, not 70 days.)
    In handling, there is clearly a need for enhanced shielding infrastructure. Whereas handling Pu isotopes, a simple glovebox is sufficient; in order to handle a critical mass of U233 (5 kg) that is 5 PPM U232, a minimum of 1800 tons of lead shielding is required in order to prevent fatal exposure from the Tl208, which emits 2.6 MeV, and has a half-life of 3 minutes.
    In storage, however, another expert assures me that the existing cooling ponds are more than sufficient to contain the waste product and its associated emissions. And storage in ponds of U233 waste would of course be a lesser time period, owing to the hotter waste.
    So, the synopsis is that the waste management infrastructure need not change to accommodate a thorium fuel cycle — unless the U233 is recycled. Spent rods can be unloaded from the core and deposited into the cooling ponds by remote handling, as usual.

  32. Thought provoking stuff. When it’s time to relax and unwind
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  33. Justmeint says:

    I am enjoying learning about Thorium…… I have linked back to this site from my latest blog……
    I have recently been introduced to Thorium….. Thanks to similar radioactive properties to the uranium used to power the world’s nuclear reactors – and its by product, plutonium, used in nuclear weapons – thorium can also be used to power a controlled nuclear reaction that heats water, producing steam to power turbines that produce large quantities of electricity.

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