Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Thorium Nuclear Reactors

From a green standpoint, nuclear power has a lot of advantages. It has no emissions, it has the ability to produce large amounts of energy, and it generates continuous power (doesn't have the intermittent issues like wind and solar). The problems with nuclear power is the nuclear waste, nuclear weapon proliferation, and Chernobyl like meltdowns.

So I was intrigued to learn about Thorium nuclear reactors over at Al Fin.

From innovations report:

The professor from the University of Bergen believes that a Thorium power plant is much safer and more efficient than traditional nuclear power reactors:

•There is no danger of a melt-down like the Chernobyl reactor
•It produces minimal radioactive waste
•It can burn Plutonium waste from traditional nuclear reactors with additional energy output
•It is not suitable for the production of weapon grade materials
•The global Thorium reserves could cover the world’s energy needs for thousands of years
That sounds like it handles the big issues with nuclear power. How exactly does it handle the waste and proliferation issues? From Cosmos Magazine:
As a result, the waste produced from burning thorium in a reactor is dramatically less radioactive than conventional nuclear waste. Where a uranium-fuelled reactor like many of those operating today might generate a tonne of high-level waste that stays toxic for tens of thousands of years, a reactor fuelled only by thorium will generate a fraction of this amount. And it would stay radioactive for only 500 years - after which it would be as manageable as coal ash.

In a non-proliferation sense, there are also good reasons to prefer a sub-critical thorium reactor, as it is impossible to make weapons-grade materials from thorium.
What about cost? From Accelerating Future:
Based on these numbers, over a 60-year operating lifetime, both plants produce 60 gigawatt-years of power. The total cost for the uranium plant is $4.9 billion, at a rate of $81.6 million per gigawatt-year. The total cost for the thorium plant is $490 million, at a rate of $8.16 million per gigawatt-year. Thorium power makes nuclear power ten times cheaper than it used to be, right off the bat.
That all sounds really good.

Ok then, if Thorium nuclear reactors are so good, why isn't anyone building them? From Cosmos:
While the ADS design has promise, it presents challenges. First, there's the design itself: while lab tests have proven the concept of using a particle beam to start the thorium fuel cycle, the physics of scaling it up to the size of a commercial reactor are unproven and could be more complex. Then there's the way the particle beam interacts with the spallation target and the fuel in order to operate efficiently. Also, while there are plenty of existing conventional nuclear reactors that can be fairly inexpensively converted to mixed thorium fuel, an ADS reactor would have to be designed, built and paid for from scratch.
Sounds like we still need some R&D to get past some issues before this can go commercial. Accelerating Future estimates this could happen by 2020.

With all of the advantages over traditional nuclear power and the ability to deliver huge amounts of emission free power, this looks like a promising green energy technology and more research should be done on this.

More on this topic can be found at TreeHugger and Energy from Thorium (including this good PowerPoint overiew).

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