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Using Thorium to Satisfy Worldwide Energy Needs

"Once you start looking more closely, it blows your mind away. You can run civilisation on thorium for hundreds of thousands of years, and it’s essentially free. You don’t have to deal with uranium cartels," he said.

Thorium is so common that miners treat it as a nuisance, a radioactive by-product if they try to dig up rare earth metals. The US and Australia are full of the stuff. So are the granite rocks of Cornwall. You do not need much: all is potentially usable as fuel, compared to just 0.7pc for uranium. _Telegraph

img src="http://cdn.oilprice.com/uploads/AB359.png" border="0" alt="Thorium Reactor" title="Thorium Reactor" width="641" height="479" />

A sub-critical nuclear reactor is far safer than a conventional reactor, but it will only work when fed neutrons from the outside. In the case of the sub-critical Rubbia reactor design discussed below, the outside neutrons are provided via "spallation." The entire process is completely controllable, and thus safe.

...work by Nobel laureate Carlo Rubbia at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) on the use of thorium as a cheap, clean and safe alternative to uranium in reactors may be the magic bullet we have all been hoping for, though we have barely begun to crack the potential of solar power.

Dr Rubbia says a tonne of the silvery metal – named after the Norse god of thunder, who also gave us Thor’s day or Thursday - produces as much energy as 200 tonnes of uranium, or 3,500,000 tonnes of coal. A mere fistful would light London for a week.

Thorium eats its own hazardous waste. It can even scavenge the plutonium left by uranium reactors, acting as an eco-cleaner. "It’s the Big One," said Kirk Sorensen, a former NASA rocket engineer and now chief nuclear technologist at Teledyne Brown Engineering.

...The Norwegian group Aker Solutions has bought Dr Rubbia’s patent for the thorium fuel-cycle, and is working on his design for a proton accelerator at its UK operation.
Victoria Ashley, the project manager, said it could lead to a network of pint-sized 600MW reactors that are lodged underground, can supply small grids, and do not require a safety citadel. It will take £2bn to build the first one, and Aker needs £100mn for the next test phase.

...A few US pioneers are exploring a truly radical shift to a liquid fuel based on molten-fluoride salts, an idea once pursued by US physicist Alvin Weinberg at Oak Ridge National Lab in Tennessee in the 1960s. The original documents were retrieved by Mr Sorensen.
Moving away from solid fuel may overcome some of thorium’s "idiosyncracies". "You have to use the right machine. You don’t use diesel in a petrol car: you build a diesel engine," said Mr Sorensen.

Thorium-fluoride reactors can operate at atmospheric temperature. "The plants would be much smaller and less expensive. You wouldn’t need those huge containment domes because there’s no pressurized water in the reactor. It’s close-fitting," he said.
Nuclear power could become routine and unthreatening. But first there is the barrier of establishment prejudice.._Telegraph

By Al Fin

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  • Anonymous on September 02 2010 said:
    When I began to teach energy economics, which was a long time ago, I knew about thorium. And it was clear to me then that all of the talk about a shortage of fissionable materials was nonsense. At the same time I wonder if Carlo Rubbia hasn't gone off the deep end. Thorium is good, but is it really that good?
  • Anonymous on September 30 2010 said:
    Thorium is not a fissionable material. It is a fertile material that, after absorbing a neutron- will turn into protactinium 233- which has a half life of 27 days and then decays to uranium 233 which then can be used as a fissle material. Ok so slightly more complicated. Also so far the only good option for cooling the reactor is molten salt which costs more than a water reactor. The technology exists but needs further development; there are different problems that need to be addressed including convincing the public that its safe and designing a reactor that is economically viable. luckily for us, thorium is even harder to make into a bomb than plutonium so the risk of proliferation is negligible
  • mike Conley on January 17 2012 said:
    Nuclear power isn’t the problem. The problem is with the reactors we’ve been using to make it. If the reactors at Fukushima had been Molten Salt Reactors (MSRs) they wouldn’t have a mess on their hands.

    Molten salt reactor technology was developed at Oak Ridge National Labs in the 1960s. Although the test reactor worked flawlessly, the project was shelved, a victim of political considerations and Cold War strategy. But MSRs have been gathering a lot of new attention since the events in Japan.

    An MSR (sometimes referred to as a LFTR – Liquid Fuel Thorium Reactor) is a completely different kind of reactor, as different as an electric motor from a gasoline engine. It can’t melt down, and automatically adjusts its output to meet changing workload demands. It requires no active cooling system and can be installed anywhere on earth, even an underground vault. A tsunami would roll right over it, like a truck over a manhole cover.

    MSRs use liquid fuel?nuclear material dissolved in molten fluoride salt. Solid-fuel reactors are atomic pressure cookers, with the constant danger of high-pressure ruptures, meltdowns, and the forceful ejection of radioactive material. MSRs don’t use water, and always operate at ambient pressure.

    An MSR can deliver 750ºC heat for industrial processes, or spin a high-temperature gas turbine to generate power. If disaster strikes and an MSR springs a leak, the spill cools to an inert lump of rock, chemically locking the nuclear material inside. The fuel can all be recovered and used again.

    MSRs burn Thorium, a mildly radioactive material more common than tin and found all over the world. America has already mined enough Thorium to power the entire country for 400 years. It’s found by the ton in the tailings of our abandoned Rare Earth Element mines.

    MSRs are highly resistant to proliferation. Thorium is bred into 233Uranium inside the reactor, but only enough to keep the MSR running, so no stockpiling occurs. While 233U is an excellent fuel, its harsh radiation makes it nearly impossible to steal, and extremely difficult to use in a weapon.

    Liquid fuel can be continuously cleaned of the contaminants that spoil solid fuel. This unique feature enables MSRs to consume fuel so thoroughly that they can even use the spent fuel from other reactors, cleaning up our legacy of nuclear waste while producing a miniscule amount of waste themselves.

    A 1-gigawatt MSR, big enough to power a city of one million, will run on one ton of Thorium per year, or about 2 teaspoons per hour. The long-term waste will be the size of a basketball, and virtually harmless in just 300 years.

    Google: MSR, LFTR, Thorium Energy. See the Wired.Com article “Uranium Is So Last Century.”
  • Tim Norris on July 03 2012 said:
    Carlo Rubbia's patent on Thorium energy amplifier based upon high-energy particle beams and spallation targets is about to expire; thereafter, there is freddom-to-operate from the PR point of view for third parties. Such sub-critical reactors are an unnecessary complication and makes Thorium power needlessly expensive. Moreover, such proposed reactors suffer the same problem that the Zirconia cladding on solid fuel rods cannot handle the neutron flux involved. In other words, this is a sub-optimal design by a long way.

    A simpler Thorium LFTR without accelerator is a much better configuration and also potentially much cheaper (whilst also being very safe)and can be refueled "on the fly".

    A variant on a simple configuration as originally proposed by Dr Alvin Weinberg is the best configuration and also the best way to get this valuable nuclear technology commercialized quickly. The accelerator-driven solid-fuel Thorium configuration proposed by Aker Solutions and based on Carlo Rubbia's proposal is an economic non-starter (too big, too costly and potentially too unreliable as the accelerator is likely to suffer frequenct breakdowns). Investors should not invest in the accelerator-driven configuration for logical commercial reasons. The approach now being pursued by Rolls Royce for Thorium LFTR is a much much better solution.

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