Thorium Nuclear: The Race We Started and Are Now Losing
While China’s GDP is still only roughly one third of the US’, China is gaining fast, with Deutsche Bank predicting that it will surpass the US by the early 2020s. So, if China were to embark on a research and development project with the aim of patenting and manufacturing a design for the next generation of nuclear power, one that would revolutionize the cost, availability, and safety with which nuclear energy is produced, we should be rushing to compete, right?
On January 25, at its annual Chinese Academy of Sciences conference, The People’s Republic of China announced such a project. Its vision is to have a marketable thorium Molten-Salt Reactor (MSR)—a form of liquid-fuel reactor—within 20 years.
There would be many advantages to transitioning from today’s solid-fuel, uranium reactors to largely thorium-driven, liquid-fuel reactors. One metric ton of thorium yields 200 times more energy than one metric ton of uranium, and 3.5 million times more energy than one metric ton of coal. It can burn the plutonium residue left by uranium reactors, providing a means by which to eliminate our current stores of radioactive waste. It would leave behind very little waste of its own, which would only require storage for a few hundred years, rather than the few hundred thousand years required for the waste of today’s reactors. Making weapons from the byproducts would be nearly impossible. Because the reactors would be built at atmospheric pressure, they would be much smaller, safer and cheaper. But not only would the reactors be cheaper: the amount of fuel required to produce one gigawatt of electricity in a thorium reactor would cost an estimated 1/6000th of what we pay today for one gigawatt worth of fuel in our uranium reactors.
Perhaps the centerpiece to these advantages is that thorium is far, far more common than uranium, and the US is sitting on top of roughly 15% of the world’s massive supply, second only to Australia. So thorium nuclear appears to be a very long-term solution to our energy demands (potentially for tens of thousands of years). Investment should be a no-brainer. There’s no need to put all our eggs in one basket, but leaving it empty would be negligent. After all, it’s quite the basket.
US physicists first hatched the idea of thorium nuclear after the Manhattan Project in the late 1940s, and hundreds of tests were performed from the ‘50s through the early ‘70s at the Oak Ridge National Lab, under then-director Alvin Weinberg. These tests demonstrated thorium’s superiority to uranium, a large reason being its production of more neutrons per collision, contributing to its significantly higher potency, efficiency and cleanliness. Weinberg’s team also worked on liquid-fuel reactors, and completed a functional thorium MSR reactor in ’65. Weinberg continued to champion thorium nuclear going forward, but to no avail: higher-ups wanted the plutonium leftovers from uranium reactors to make atomic bombs, and uranium reactors were already the industry standard. In 1973, Weinberg was finally given the boot, the US nuclear industry signed contracts to build a record 41 (uranium) nuclear reactors, and the research on thorium nuclear came to a close.
So why didn’t we pick up where we left off as soon as the proliferation of nuclear bombs was no longer on our to-do list? To be fair, there is one hang-up with thorium MSR reactors: once the reaction starts, it keeps going, potentially indefinitely. The design would have to be virtually immune to corrosion from hot, radioactive salt. Once this issue is overcome, however, the reactors would be practically harmless, assuming no outside interference. And to be clear, this is not seen as a potential roadblock, so there really is no good reason we aren’t already funding an R&D team. Funding research on a thorium MSR reactor is not a long-shot, but rather a long time comin’. Sure, MSR reactors are not the only viable approach to a fourth-generation nuclear reactor, but they appear to be the best option for thorium.
Some die-hard green proponents among you might be thinking, “That’s nice that it’s cleaner than today’s reactors, but I don’t like the idea of storing radioactive nuclear waste for hundreds of years. Plus, safer is great, but there’s still a chance of something going wrong. Let’s put all our resources into developing truly clean, safe technologies like solar and wind.”
While I would love to see this happen, we nevertheless need a cost-efficient, completely reliable baseline output for our electricity grid. Solar thermal farms in southwestern deserts and wind farms along coasts might be cost-efficient sources of energy, but they’re not reliable enough. Sure, we could employ a variety of renewables to mitigate lulls in the production of any given one, but to actually run this nation on them we would need to overcompensate for our demand by a huge margin, and then have a massive system of energy storage. Not only would the energy storage be an enormous investment, but also the cost-efficiency of the systems would be relatively poor, due to diminishing returns. If the U.S. were not in economic competition with other nations, this might be feasible, but for now we must accept that such a future is not realistic. And that’s the hopeful answer, coming from one who would love to see as green a future as possible: thorium nuclear could potentially be so cost-efficient that, even in ideal conditions, renewables would not be able to compete, and would thus remain at the fringes of our energy supply. Not quite ideal, but far better than the fossil fuels and nuclear reactors of today.
Nuclear energy is a necessary ingredient in our transition away from fossil fuels, and thorium appears to be the way to go. It would be most unfortunate if we started this race ten years from now, lost it, and found ourselves adding the next generation of nuclear reactors to our list of Chinese import dependencies while scurrying to finish our own design. I would prefer taking steps to reduce our roughly $900 billion debt to an eventual superpower over hastening the end of our economic dominance.