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Hopes Build for Thorium Nuclear Energy

By Professor Chris Rhodes | Wed, 29 February 2012 23:37 | 0

There is much written to the effect that thorium might prove a more viable nuclear fuel, and an energy industry based upon it, than the current uranium-based process which serves to provide both energy and weapons - including "depleted uranium" for armaments and missiles. There are different ways in which energy might be extracted from thorium, one of which is the accelerator-driven system (ADS). Such accelerators need massive amounts of electricity to run them, as all particle accelerators do, but these are required to produce a beam of protons of such intensity that until 10 years ago the prevailing technology meant that it could not have been done. As noted below, an alternative means to use thorium as a fuel is in a liquid fluoride reactor (LFR), also termed a molten salt reactor, which avoids the use of solid oxide nuclear fuels. Indeed, China has made the decision to develop an LFR-based thorium-power programme, to be active by 2020.

Rather like nuclear fusion, the working ADS technology is some way off, and may never happen, although Professor Egil Lillestol of Bergen University in Norway is pushing that the world should use thorium in such ADS reactors. Using thorium as a nuclear fuel is a laudable idea, as is amply demonstrated in the blog "Energy from Thorium" (http://thoriumenergy.blogspot.com/). However, the European Union has pulled the plug on funding for the thorium ADS programme, which was directed by Professor Carlo Rubbia, the Nobel Prize winner, who has now abandoned his efforts to press forward the programme, and instead concentrated on solar energy, which was another of his activities. Rubbia had appointed Lillestol as leader of the CERN physics division over two decades ago, in 1989, who believes that the cause is not lost.

Thorium has many advantages, not the least being its greater abundance than uranium. It is often quoted that there is three times as much thorium as there is uranium. Uranium is around 2 - 3 parts per million in abundance in most soils, and this proportion rises especially where phosphate rocks are present, to anywhere between 50 and 1000 ppm. This is still only in the range 0.005% - 0.1% and so even the best soils are not obvious places to look for uranium. However, somewhere around 6 ppm as an average for thorium in the Earth's crust is a reasonable estimate. There are thorium mineral deposits that contain up to 12% of the element, located at the following tonnages in Turkey (380,000), Australia (300,000), India (290,000), Canada and the US combined (260,000)... and Norway (170,000), perhaps explaining part of Lillestol's enthusiasm for thorium based nuclear power. Indeed, Norway is very well endowed with natural fuel resources, including gas, oil, coal, and it would appear, thorium.

An alternative technology to the ADS is the "Liquid Fluoride Reactor" (LFR), which is described and discussed in considerable detail on the http://thoriumenergy.blogspot.com/ blog, and reading this has convinced me that the LFR may provide the best means to achieve our future nuclear energy programme. Thorium exists naturally as thorium-232, which is not of itself a viable nuclear fuel. However, by absorption of relatively low energy "slow" neutrons, it is converted to protactinium 233, which must be removed from the reactor (otherwise it absorbs another neutron and becomes protactinium 234) and allowed to decay over about 28 days to uranium 233, which is fissile, and can be returned to the reactor as a fuel, and to breed more uranium 233 from thorium. The "breeding" cycle can be kicked-off using plutonium say, to provide the initial supply of neutrons, and indeed the LFRwould be a useful way of disposing of weapons grade plutonium and uranium from the world's stockpiles while converting it into useful energy.

The LFR makes in-situ reprocessing possible, much more easily than is the case for solid-fuel based reactors. I believe there have been two working LFR's to date, and if implemented, the technology would avoid using uranium-plutonium fast breeder reactors, which need high energy "fast" neutrons to convert uranium 238 which is not fissile to plutonium 239 which is. The LFR is inherently safer and does not require liquid sodium as a coolant, while it also avoids the risk of plutonium getting into the hands of terrorists. It is worth noting that while uranium 235 and plutonium 239 could be shielded to avoid detection as a "bomb in a suitcase", uranium 233 could not, because it is always contaminated with uranium 232, which is a strong gamma-ray emitter, and is far less easily concealed.

It has been claimed that thorium produces "250 times more energy per unit of weight" than uranium. Now this isn't simply a "logs versus coal on the fire" kind of argument, but presumably refers to the fact that while essentially all the thorium can be used as a fuel, the uranium must be enriched in uranium 235, the rest being "thrown away" and hence wasted as "depleted" uranium 238 (unless it is bred into plutonium). If both the thorium and uranium were used to breed uranium 233 or plutonium 239, then presumably their relative "heat output" weight for weight should be about the same as final fission fuels? If this is wrong, will someone please explain this to me as I should be interested to know?

However, allowing that the LFR in-situ reprocessing is a far easier and less dangerous procedure, the simple sums are that contained in 248 million tonnes of natural uranium, available as a reserve, are 1.79 million tonnes of uranium 235 + 246.2 million tonnes of uranium 238. Hence by enrichment 35 million tonnes (Mt) of uranium containing 3.2% uranium 235 (from the original 0.71%) are obtained. This "enriched fraction" would contain 1.12 Mt of (235) + 33.88 Mt of (238), leaving in the other "depleted" fraction 248 - 35 Mt = 213 Mt of the original 248 Mt, and containing 0.67 Mt (235) + 212.3 Mt (238). Thus we have accessed 1.79 - 0.67 = 1.12 Mt of (235) = 1.12/224 = 4.52 x 10*-3 or 0.452% of the original total uranium. Thus on a relative basis thorium (assuming 100% of it can be used) is 100/0.452 = 221 times as good weight for weight, which is close to the figure claimed, and a small variation in enrichment to a slightly higher level as is sometimes done probably would get us to an advantage factor of 250!

Plutonium is a by-product of normal operation of a uranium-fuelled fission reactor. 95 to 97% of the fuel in the reactor is uranium 238. Some of this uranium is converted to plutonium 239 and plutonium 241 - usually about 1000 kg forms after a year of operation. At the end of the cycle (a year to 2 years, typically), very little uranium 235 is left and about 30% of the power produced by the reactor actually comes from plutonium. Hence a degree of "breeding" happens intrinsically and so the practical advantage of uranium raises its head from 1/250 (accepting that figure) to 1/192, which still weighs enormously in favour of thorium!

As a rough estimate, 1.4 million tonnes of thorium (about one third the world uranium claimed, which is enough to last another 50 years as a fission fuel) would keep us going for about 200/3 x 50 = 3,333 years. Even if we were to produce all the world's electricity from nuclear that is currently produced using fossil fuels (which would certainly cut our CO2 emissions), we would be O.K. for 3,333/4 = 833 years. More thorium would doubtless be found if it were looked for, and so the basic raw material is not at issue. Being more abundant in most deposits than uranium, its extraction would place less pressure on other fossil fuel resources used for mining and extracting it. Indeed, thorium-electricity could be piped in for that purpose.

It all sounds great: however, the infrastructure would be huge to switch over entirely to thorium, as it would to switch to anything else including hydrogen and biofuels. It is this that is the huge mountain of resistance there will be to all kinds of new technology. My belief is that through cuts in energy use following post peak oil (and peak gas), we may be able to produce liquid fuels from coal, possibly using electricity produced from thorium, Thorium produces less of a nuclear waste problem finally, since fewer actinides result from the thorium fuel cycle than that from uranium. Renewables should be implemented wherever possible too, in the final energy mix that will be the fulcrum on which the survival of human civilization is poised.

By. Professor Chris Rhodes

Professor Chris Rhodes is a writer and researcher. He studied chemistry at Sussex University, earning both a B.Sc and a Doctoral degree (D.Phil.); rising to become the youngest professor of physical chemistry in the U.K. at the age of 34.
A prolific author, Chris has published more than 400 research and popular science articles (some in national newspapers: The Independent and The Daily Telegraph)
He has recently published his first novel, "University Shambles" was published in April 2009 (Melrose Books). http://universityshambles.com

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