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Science and Technology

Exploradio: Rediscovering the lost promise of Thorium energy
A group of nuclear enthusiasts is resurrecting an alternate nuclear reactor design abandoned by the US government in the 1960's

This story is part of a special series.

Reporter / Host
Jeff St. Clair
Thorium is named after the Norse god Thor. A small group of atomic energy advocates believe it could be the nuclear fuel of the future.
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A group in Cleveland is promoting an alternative form of atomic power that promises safer and cheaper nuclear reactors. But critics say it may be too late for the technology to be a real player in the quest for clean energy.

In this week’s Exploradio WKSU’s Jeff St.Clair looks at the long-lost promise of energy from Thorium.

Exploradio: An alternate nuclear future

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An alternate nuclear power dream

It has the makings of a classic conspiracy theory.  Government scientists in the 1960’s developed a smaller, potentially safer form of nuclear power using a cheap and abundant fuel, only to have the program mothballed and kept secret for decades. 

The Thorium Molten-Salt reactor was one of several nuclear reactor designs developed at Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in a flurry of cold war innovation.  But the technology was scrapped in favor of today’s water cooled Uranium reactors. 

“And it’s really tragic because this was I think a far superior way to go,” according to Bill Thesling, executive chairman of the Cleveland-based Energy From Thorium Foundation.

He says, “They did a lot of work at Oak Ridge that proved the basic concept of fuel dissolved in a molten salt, that’s the game changer right there.”


The lost promise of Thorium power

Thesling and his group are promoting a radically different design than virtually all reactors operating today.  Instead of the standard solid enriched Uranium fuel in most reactors, the new design uses another element, Thorium, dissolved in a high temperature solution of fluoride salts.  Thesling says this alone is a major safety advantage over today’s high pressure reactors.

“The thing effectively cannot melt down because it’s already molten, so the concept of a meltdown is really not even at play,” according to Thesling.

And he says Thorium is a cheap and abundant mineral that doesn’t need expensive purification steps like Uranium.

Thorium reactors, “would solve the energy situation for the nation and for humanity,” according to Thesling.

Engineer Kirk Sorenson is Chief Technologist with the Energy From Thorium Foundation.  He blames the politics of the Nixon era for killing the Thorium molten salt reactor project, and laments the missed opportunity.

“It would have been great if back in the 70’s if the United States had made the decision to keep going with this technology.  We would have had Thorium reactors by the 90’s and by this point would have been completely energy independent, and would be for thousands of years, but that didn’t happen.”

The government’s thorium research was declassified in the 90s. Sorenson discovered it while working at NASA and he’s picking up where government scientists left off 45 years ago.. He’s one of just a few dozen Thorium evangelists in the US actively working on the abandoned technology.  

Not everyone is so excited about it, though.


The roadblocks to new reactor designs

Arjun Makhijani is a former nuclear scientist and head of the Washington-based Institute for Energy and Environmental Research

He says, “Thorium reactors have some safety advantages, but they also have a lot of disadvantages.”

For one thing, because each Thorium liquid salt reactor has its own chemical processing plant attached to it, Makhijani says it’s easier to siphon off bomb-making materials from the salt recycle stream.  He also says the technology needs expensive Uranium 233 fuel to initially maintain the reactions, "Thorium can't do it alone."

Kirk Sorenson acknowledges that significant engineering challenges remain before his Thorium molten salt reactor is ready for service.  His group also estimates a $1 billion price tag for the project.  But the biggest hurdle, he says, is convincing regulators that the design is safe in a time-frame investors can live with.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has never licensed a reactor of this type before, and Sorensen says, "everything else pales in comparison to that challenge.”

Arjun Makhijani agrees. He thinks regulators wouldn’t move quickly enough to allow a thorium reactor to play any part in reversing climate change. He says, even if all goes as the proponents claim it will take at least 20 years before a new reactor design could be certified, and, "by that time your global warming game is over.”

Makijhani says rapid advances in renewable energy mean the golden age of nuclear power will remain firmly in the past.

He believes, “before any of these reactors can be demonstrated to be viable they’re going to be economically obsolete.”

The Chinese government is launching a massive effort to build a Thorium molten salt reactor by the end of this decade. 

But in this country, despite the intense faith of a small group of activists, financial and regulatory realities mean the promise of limitless nuclear power from Thorium may remain an unfulfilled dream.


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