The Atomic Show #040 – Thorium power – interview with Kirk Sorensen
Thorium is a nuclear fuel source with a lot of potential. Kirk Sorensen blogs at Energy from Thorium; he talked with Rod and Shane on December 5, 2006
Thorium is a heavy metal that is not directly useful as a nuclear reactor fuel. In certain kinds of reactors, however, it can provide high quality heat for a very long time.
Kirk Sorensen became intrigued with thorium fueled reactors after reading about the Light Water Breeder on Atomic Insights. (Disclosure – Rod Adams is the primary author of the articles on Atomic Insights.) He now blogs at Energy from Thorium. Kirk has provided an incredible resource for the world by gathering a number of papers from Oak Ridge and other national laboratories that discuss the technical details of a number of different thorium reactor concepts.
As someone once said, there is a word for interesting people that are one important step removed from crazy – that word is passion. Kirk has a passion for thorium and sees it as a way to overcome many arguments against the use of nuclear power.
Warning – this conversation gets into enough technical detail to excite hard core geeks, but we try to go back and explain our thoughts in more accessible English.
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It’s clear from the discussion above that essentially only two kind of reactors can use thorium cycle: CANDU heavy water reactor and HTGR in the form of “pebbles” or block type like those developed in Germany and Us.LWR (like Shippingport experience showed) are not excluded,but if I understood correctly,are less efficient
So is it possible to compare HWR and HTR fuel economy regarding thorium use?
IMHO,heavy water is a better moderator than graphite,although helium or other gases allow higher temperatures/thermal efficiencies;on the other hand,HTR have higher burn-ups than HWR which enhance conversion/breeding.However,HWR fuels are far simpler than TRISO to reprocess.
It’s not worthless to note that India choices heavy water reactor to developed its ambitious thorium strategy,of course without forget fast breeders program
Of course I don’t forget molten salt reactors
It is certainly possible to compare HWR and HTR fuel economies and to add in comparisons to other coolant possibilities.
There are probably papers on Kirk’s Energy from Thorium blog that do a reasonable job in making those kinds of reactor distinctions.
For my money, the more interesting question is the overall practicality and profitability of the application. Though it may not be the most “fuel efficient” use, there is a serious company (Thorium Power, Ltd. with a plan to use thorium in existing light water reactors because it sees that as a significant market – there are 440 operating light water reactors in the world that all need fuel on a regular (if some infrequent) basis.
There is certainly also opportunity for thorium in pebble bed reactors – after all, the second German pebble bed reactor was called the THTR – Thorium High Temperature Reactor. However, any company that wants to sell thorium based fuel soon will not spend too much time on this yet, since there is a tiny market for pebble bed reactor fuel.
Thanx Rod for your response.To use in existing LWR is certainly the best thing to do in the short time
However,it could be interesting to look at other strategies;for example I found some numbers in these docs regarding thorium use in LWR and German pebble beds
“Near breeding” is achievable in pebble bed reactors (conversio ratio in the order of 0,97 in the uranium 233-thorium cycle),while in LWR according to the second doc
“the 233U-232Th fuel consumes only 12 kg/TWh of uranium (85 kg/TWh of 235U in a conventional uranium fuel)”. I’m not very sure about the uranium cycle value (85 kg/TWh ?),but it’s important to note that thorium is not only an “other” energy source,but definitely a “better” energy source than uranium
Hi, I just wanted to invite everyone who’s interested in this subject to participate in the
Energy from Thorium Discussion Forum
Energy from Thorium Weblog
do you think investing in thorium laden land is a practical idea?
What is the difference between a Thorium reactor and a fast neutron or integral fast reactor?
What company/mine along the idaho border has this reserve of thorium? Perhaps “thorium power” will continue its relations beyond the “UEA” into the thorium rich India and someday gain the recognition that this thorium deserves.
Sorry it has taken me a while to get around to responding – you can find the information that you want regarding the Lehmi Pass thorium deposit on the Thorium Energy web site.
Regarding the bit of discussion on this show about Al Gore’s stance on nuclear.
Gore’s latest (2009) book “Our Choice”, his first published effort since he won the Nobel, has a chapter “The Nuclear Option”.
The first sentence: “In the world’s debate over how to produce electricity without generating massive quantities of greenhouse gas pollution, there is a radioactive white elephant in the middle of the room: nuclear power”.
He uses a quote from MIT The Future of Nuclear Power to say “nuclear power faces stagnation and decline”, and he states without a source that “an actual decline in global capacity and output in 2008” occurred.
The problem, according to Gore, is not “Three Mile Island”, “Chernobyl”, or “the long running and still unresolved dispute over what to do about… waste”.
No, Al tells us, factor number one is “the grossly unacceptable economics of the present generation of reactors”.
Pay no attention to “the experts at MIT” as Al himself calls them, who in their 2009 update to The Future of Nuclear Power noted that new nuclear would be cost competitive with new coal right now if a mere $25 a tonne charge were to be put on CO2 emissions…. Al is on a roll.
Al serves up some lovely cherries he’s picked from Forbes magazine, i.e. the 1985 article written by James Cook, “Nuclear Follies”:
“The failure of the US nuclear power program ranks as the largest managerial disaster in business history, a disaster on a monumental scale”, and
“For the United States, nuclear power is dead – dead in the near term as a hedge against rising oil prices and dead in the long run as a source of future energy. Nobody really disputes that”.
Al wouldn’t want us to actually read the Forbes piece however. The case Al makes in this nuclear chapter is that nuclear is dead as an option in the entire world. The Forbes piece he quotes from makes a completely different case. For instance:
“It wasn’t the technology that doomed nuclear power in the U.S. As experience everywhere demonstrates, the technology is as sound and productive as its promoters always have claimed it would be”,
and there is this:
“American engineering, American equipment, American constructors are building plants all over the world and bringing them in at roughly one-quarter to one-third the cost of plants in the U.S. We can do it technically. We have to learn to do it institutionally, rationalizing the process to eliminate the adversarial system that we have presently”
That Forbes article makes for sobering reading for someone like myself who would like to believe the US can turn to nuclear now on a massive scale to decarbonize its entire economy, as it describes “the bungling the industry was capable of” back then, that “boggles the mind”.
However, continuing on with Gore’s attitude to nuclear. Gore is or has become a typical cherry picker who lifts choice quotes from pro-nuclear material to argue the opposite of what the reports he’s quoting from conclude.
Skipping through the rest of his case:
He touts the Desertec plan to power the EU with solar thermal from the Sahara later on in the book. The documents supporting that plan state their projected cost is 12.8 to 16.7 cents per kwhr. Solar is the future of energy production even at this price, Gore believes, whereas although “the experts at MIT” as Gore tells us they are, think new nuclear will come in at 8-9 cents per kwhr, nuclear is dead dead dead.
France doesn’t have low cost nuclear power, Gore hints. The “government” owns the plants, and you know what “government” is and does. Al would like us to believe that everything anyone has heard about French success is all lies. He merely smears the South Korean program and the programs in all other countries just before he goes into his suspicions about French lies, but offers no information at all. Al’s case is that because there were problems in the US, nuclear is dead to the entire world, and he’s sticking to it.
There’s a bottleneck for would be constructors because Japan can only make four critical castings a year, the world’s nuclear industry didn’t have standardized designs for the last generation, therefore…, and Al even writes:
“there are also doubts about the future of electricity demand”.
I kid you not – page 158. Al would like to see all coal plants, worldwide, phased out as quickly as possible, he has declared that removing the CO2 from the emissions of even new coal plants is a very iffy pipe dream, and he actually writes that there is some question whether there will be demand for a low carbon source such as nuclear even if the entire world faces the “planetary emergency” he has declared CO2 emissions to be.
On a more serious note, Al goes on. When he worked in the White House “every nuclear-weapons-proliferation problem we faced was connected to a reactor program”.
If the US decides to go nuclear now, it will set the example, the world will go nuclear and many reactors will end up “in countries that most people would agree should not possess nuclear weapons”.
And, of course, there isn’t enough fuel for a massive expansion of nuclear power. Ahem. And if there is, “reprocessing” which “has been labeled “recycling” by pro-nuke forces:
“actually increases the overall volume of waste”.
Ta da. Although these pro-nuke people use “highly misleading” arguments, according to Gore, they actually come up with facts Al doesn’t dispute, such as
“it [recycling] does reduce the volume of high level waste”.
I suppose the real problem all along has not been the high level waste. It was the overall volume of anything that can be described as “waste”. Who knew?
Plutonium could become much more widely available. “An increasing number of experts have concluded in recent years that reprocessing is a dangerous and poor choice”.
The last word Al has in this chapter is about cooling water. Now it is taken to be fact in climate science that climate change will alter where and how much Earth’s water falls as rain, where and how much it will accumulate in rivers and lakes – but the expectation is that overall, the world will be wetter because a warmer atmosphere can hold more water vapor. Al sums all this up by saying the problem with water and nuclear power is “low water levels and drought conditions”. Because in a 2003 EU wide drought nuclear plants reduced output to conserve water, in the future, “the cost of nuclear generated electricity” could be “even less competitive than it is already”. End of chapter.
Sorry about all this detail. Whatever he’s done in the past that got you to say positive things about what he’s said, it seems clear that Al Gore is now spreading lies and disinformation about nuclear power.
He wants the world to face a “planetary emergency”, i.e. the excess emission of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, and although he sees this crisis as so serious it threatens the continued existence of civilization, he doesn’t want us to actually take it seriously by facing the situation with all resources available.
We are supposed to adopt the solar and “renewable” power, no nukes agenda of a previous generation of environmentalists who decided nuclear was the problem when the danger of the use of fossil fuels was not appreciated, and we aren’t supposed to reassess the situation now that we know more.
David – Thank you for such a detailed comment. Would you mind if I promoted it to the status of “Guest post” on Atomic Insights?
Note: In my defense of any comments about Gore being somewhat pro-nuclear, the show you are commenting on was produced well before Gore released his last book. It is also possible that I was referring to his father, Al Gore, Sr. His dad was a member of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy and once proposed that the government build a number of reactors because investor owned utilities were not moving fast enough to take advantage of the technology that had been proven by government programs.
I would have to go back and listen to the show again to see if that was the case.
Many thanks to Kirk Sorensen and the rest of you for the tireless efforts you are making to produce a real solution to our energy problem. Itseems to me that thorium is the answer.
Your collective wisdom contrasts sharply with the collective stupidity of many of our politicians. While they at last want to do something to reduce our fossil fuel dependency, they are not reducing the rules and regulations that make it so expensive to build and operate those facilities with the result that the development is non-financable. The government’s almost criminal solution is to offer loan guarantees. That is exactly the same policy the politicians came up with to force lenders to make bad real estate loans. We know how successful that was. Keep up your good work and we can hope that sanity may take over at some point
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