November 26, 2007

Congress pushes for re-examination of Thorium nuclear power

MIT Technology review reports that Senators representing several Western states, including Utah's Orrin Hatch and Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, are working on legislation to promote thorium.

I am a big supporter of developing Thorium fission reactors and in particular molten salt reactors. I support the upcoming legislation from Orrin Hatch and Harry Reid.

They say it's a cleaner-burning fuel for nuclear-power plants, with the potential to cut high-level nuclear-waste volumes in half. [I agree that thorium is cleaner burning]

"It makes a lot of sense in my view," says Thomas Cochran, director of the nuclear program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, in Washington. He says that congressional action is needed to overcome resistance within the DOE to exploring thorium.

Using thorium in existing reactors means rethinking the "once through" nuclear fuel cycle employed today in most countries, including the United States. The cycle starts with uranium-oxide fuel enriched in the fissile uranium isotope U235. Fission of the uranium in a reactor generates heat to drive a nuclear power plant's turbines, and it produces a highly radioactive blend of fission breakdown products, including plutonium that can be recovered to make nuclear weapons. Other fission products slow the chain reaction, requiring replacement of fuel every one or two years. The spent fuel is removed and stored on site, awaiting burial.

The challenge for thorium proponents is that the DOE already advocates another fuel cycle that promises to cut waste and manage proliferation risks: a so-called closed fuel cycle, whereby chemical reprocessing recovers plutonium from spent uranium fuel for reuse in conventional reactors.

Reprocessing is central to the DOE's Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), whereby major nuclear players such as the United States would guarantee uranium fuel supply to countries that promise to return spent fuel--the plutonium within which could be used to make nuclear weapons.

The GNEP has many critics who argue that the reprocessing of spent fuel will be costly, will increase rather than limit the risk of diversion of fissile materials, and will do little to reduce high-level waste volumes. The DOE's plan is to burn recovered plutonium by blending it with uranium. This produces a hotter and more toxic spent fuel that can only be burned in breeder reactors. Those reactors have, to date, proved infeasible at commercial scale.

The global status of thorium reactor and molten salt reactors

Considering mass production of thorium reactors and links other Thorium articles


Sigma said...

Brian, what is your take on this nuclear reactor/cell:


bw said...

I had a brief mention of the nuclear reactor/cell in my article on picking technologies that make for a more robust and disaster resistant civilization

The initial claimed ($1400/kw) prices look similar to what the current generation of large scale conventional reactor. I believe Thorium reactors would be better in terms of fuel efficiency (lack of waste). The Hyperion reactors are scaled up versions of the nuclear batteries that we have been sending into space.

I have not seen the full technical design analysis of the Hyperion reactor.

They have many good features Hyperion also offers a 70% reduction in operating costs (based on costs for field-generation of steam in oil-shale recovery operations), from $11 per million BTU for natural gas to $3 per million BTU for Hyperion. The possibility of mass production, operation and standardization of design, allows for significant savings.

Because of the inherent properties of uranium hydride, Hyperion is "cleaner," producing only a tiny fraction of the waste produced by other types of reactors. Water is not used in the process, so there is no danger of pollution to local water bodies.

One of the greatest energy conundrums is accessing the estimated 500+ billion barrels of recoverable oil in U.S. oil shale fields. Hyperion would change the current almost self-defeating cost-production ratio caused by the use of natural gas to power steam engine extraction and refinery machinery. Over five years, a single Hyperion reactor can save $2 billion in operating costs in a heavy oil field.

So there are definitely good and large energy niches for the Hyperion reactor. Smaller reactors with similar per KW costs as larger reactors allow for more distributed power and less losses in transmission.

If they can hit the $40 million per 27 MW unit, that would be very good. Ultimately I believe the Thorium molten salt reactor is better. The molten salt reactor would also be made smaller, safer, cleaner and cheaper and more fuel efficient.

I hope the Hyperion proceeds, it is definitely a lot better than coal and oil and natural gas. 4000 of them would double the energy in the USA from nuclear power. At $100-160 billion they would be worth it and would be great for helping the US blunt peak oil by better tapping oil shale and Canada to tap the oil sands.

bw said...

My latest posting has the technical details from the patent.