Could a relatively unknown element named thorium revolutionize the nuclear industry and provide cheap, clean and safe power? A growing number of scientists, businesses and governments think so, including China, which has made thorium power a strategic energy priority. Thorium was first discovered in Scandinavia and named after Thor, the Norse god of thunder. Originally pioneered as a superior nuclear fuel source by renowned American nuclear physicist Alvin Weinberg, thorium power technology was all but killed by the U.S. military’s requirements of producing fissile material for nuclear weapons. Despite his major contributions to nuclear science early on during the Manhattan Project, Weinberg was eventually fired from Oak Ridge National Laboratory by the Nixon administration for his persistent advocacy of thorium power. His important contributions for improved power generation were simply left to gather dust. There is now, however, a growing awareness and an increasing demand for using thorium as a fuel source.
The nuclear industry’s status-quo reactors were built during the Cold War and all use solid uranium oxide fuel rods. Critics point out that they operate with less than 1% nuclear fuel efficiency. That is shockingly wasteful when considering that uranium is about as rare within the earth’s crust as the precious metal platinum. Thorium, on the other hand, is four times more abundant.
The status quo process is even more wasteful when one considers how much energy goes into mining, enriching, preparing uranium fuel rods, managing waste and securing the whole chain against the dangers of nuclear proliferation. The issues surrounding operational safety are another key disadvantage of older systems.. There are many complex systems needed to actively maintain safety. As the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant experienced, unexpected events can knock out even the backup safety systems.
Kirk Sorensen, a former NASA scientist, rediscovered Weinberg’s work at Oak Ridge. He has been instrumental in raising awareness and has founded the company Flibe Energy to advance a particularly promising technology known as a Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor, or LFTR for short (pronounced “lifter”). Using thorium as a fuel and a liquid salt as a coolant instead of water makes a significant difference. The chief benefit advocates point to is improved safety. Passive operational safety can be built into the reactor design using well-understood chemical properties. Advocates also argue that the thorium supply chain would eliminate risks of fuel being redirected and used as a weapon. Another important benefit is drastically improved fuel efficiency, reducing both inputs and toxic wastes. Jiang Mianheng, son of former Chinese president Jiang Zemin, has also visited Oak Ridge National Laboratory, along with a group of Chinese scientists to learn as much as they can about thorium fueled molten salt reactors. People are recognizing the opportunity as the concept works marvelously — at least in theory.
Challenges remain in further research and development before thorium power technology could actually be deployed commercially. While the United States and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory remain the home of thorium technology, China is ambitiously off and running with it. Jiang Mianheng is leading a thorium power project for China’s National Academy of Sciences with a start-up budget of $350 million (USD). He already has a team of 140 Ph.D. scientists, aims to have a staff of 750 by 2015, and eventually plans on having 1000 researchers. China is not alone, however. Norway’s Thor Energy has partnered with Japan’s Toshiba-Westinghouse to test thorium within a conventional reactor in Oslo. Japan also appears to be going further by having thorium enthusiast and head of the International Institute for Advanced Studies Takashi Kamei pursue molten salt reactors. Prime minister Shinzo Abe has also voiced that new reactors built in Japan would be “totally different from the ones built 40 years ago.”
In a recent Bloomberg interview, U.S. Department of Energy Executive Director Peter W. Davidson, expressed the DOE’s interest in partnering with companies offering alternative nuclear technologies. With $10.3 billion remaining in loan guarantee authority, the department plans on deciding this year if they are going to solicit new applications from innovative nuclear technology companies. “Everybody is on board to help support the industry, it’s just whether the industry is ready for support yet,” said Davidson.