• 3 minutes e-car sales collapse
  • 6 minutes America Is Exceptional in Its Political Divide
  • 11 minutes Perovskites, a ‘dirt cheap’ alternative to silicon, just got a lot more efficient
  • 1 day How Far Have We Really Gotten With Alternative Energy
  • 2 days Bad news for e-cars keeps coming
  • 10 days For those of you who are full of __it.
Al Fin

Al Fin

Al Fin runs a number of very successful blogs that cover, energy, technology, news and politics.

More Info

Premium Content

A New Nuclear Revolution – Safe, Clean and Abundant

Somewhere in Cheshire an energy revolution is brewing. Modern nuclear researchers are developing new approaches to safe subcritical reactors, using fertile thorium as fuel. The new reactor designs will be incredibly safe, proliferation resistant, and will produce only miniscule and easily stored amounts of long-lived nuclear waste.

Thorium Accelerator Reactor 

Imagine a safe, clean nuclear reactor that used a fuel that was hugely abundant, produced only minute quantities of radioactive waste and was almost impossible to adapt to make weapons. It sounds too good to be true, but this isn’t science fiction. This is what lies in store if we harness the power of a silvery metal found in river sands, soil and granite rock the world over: thorium.

One ton of thorium can produce as much energy as 200 tons of uranium, or 3.5 million tons of coal, and the thorium deposits that have already been identified would meet the entire world’s energy needs for at least 10,000 years. Unlike uranium, it’s easy and cheap to refine, and it’s far less toxic. Happily, it produces energy without producing any carbon dioxide: so an economy that ran on thorium power would have virtually no carbon footprint.

Better still, a thorium reactor would be incapable of having a meltdown, and would generate only 0.6 per cent of the radioactive waste of a conventional nuclear plant. It could even be adapted to ‘burn’ existing, stockpiled uranium waste in its core, thus enormously reducing its radioactive half-life and toxicity.

...The good news is that, thanks to funding from the Research Councils UK Basic Technology Programme, we’ve taken the first, critical step to making this dream a reality – constructing an incredibly hi-tech, cutting-edge machine with a surprisingly ordinary name: Emma.

Daresbury, the science park where Emma lives in a big, bare building with solid concrete walls more than two feet thick, isn’t especially scenic – it’s overlooked by a power station and stands on the boggy Cheshire flatland between Runcorn and Warrington, at the head of the Mersey estuary.

...Emma is a particle accelerator, the first of an entirely new type. Since the first such machines were built nearly 80 years ago, accelerators – devices that propel beams of electrons, protons or other particles to high speeds – have played a vital role in experimental physics, opening up fresh insights into the origins of the universe and the nature of matter. But most are big and expensive. The best known and biggest of all is the Large Hadron Collider operated by CERN in Switzerland, an underground ring 17 miles in circumference, which cost billions to construct.

Emma is different. She is the world’s first ‘non- scaling, fixed-field, alternating-gradient’ (NS-FFAG) accelerator. In layman’s terms, says Bliss, this means she is a ‘pocket-sized’ machine, the prototype of a new generation that will be significantly smaller and cheaper than its predecessors.

And this is Emma’s special significance. Making particle accelerators affordable means they could be built and used in practical, everyday settings – such as thorium power stations. The key to thorium energy is likely to be the further development of ‘pocket-sized’ machines – precisely the kind of accelerator that looks and behaves like Emma.

... Thorium atoms only start to undergo fissile nuclear reactions and thus to release their energy when they’re bombarded with neutrons, and these would have to be supplied by an external source – ultimately, an accelerator.

‘This means the margin of safety is far greater than with a conventional plant,’ says Cywinski. ‘If the accelerator fails, all that will happen is that the reaction will subside. To stop the reactor, all you would have to do is switch off the accelerator.’
And if hit by an earthquake, he adds, even one as powerful as the one that wrecked Fukushima, a thorium plant would be ‘intrinsically safer’.

‘There’d be some residual radioactivity heating the core, but sustained nuclear fission would simply stop. Everything would cool much faster. You’d be left not with potential catastrophe, but just a heap of molten metal and metal oxides.’

This type of plant – dubbed the Energy Amplifier by the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Carlo Rubbia in 1993, when he patented the basic design – wouldn’t be simple. Because neutrons carry no electrical charge, the magnets in a particle accelerator have no effect on them.

Hence, the way to generate the neutrons necessary to trigger nuclear reactions in thorium would be to build a ‘spallation source’ in the middle of the reactor core. This is a substance – molten lead, for example – which produces neutrons when you fire a beam of protons at it. That beam, in turn, would come from a particle accelerator.

...Last year, ThorEA published a report, Towards An Alternative Nuclear Future, which concluded it should be possible to build the first 600MW power plant fuelled by thorium with three attached ‘pocket-sized’ NS-FFAG accelerators within 15 years, at a cost of about £2 billion – making it highly competitive in relation to fossil-fuel or conventional nuclear alternatives. 

Using "pocket-sized" accelerators to generate spallation neutrons to breed fissile U233 from fertile Th232 might allow for highly scalable and versatile reactor designs, which would certainly be safer than any nuclear reactors currently generating power. And nuclear is by far the safest form of power generation currently in existence.

Below, you can see researcher Rachael Buckley standing inside the EMMA device.


EMMA Device

Thorium itself is plentiful, and will be quite cheap once the infrastructure is developed. The cost for subcritical reactor designs depends mainly on the cost of the accelerators and reactor vessels, and containment. The fuel itself is a negligible expense. And by reducing the quantity of waste to be stored and lowering the proliferation potential of the reactor dramatically, those costs would also plummet.

This technology will also be useful in the perpetual fight against cancer.
‘I’m optimistic we can build a machine that overcomes the technical challenges and would be applicable for cancer therapy straight away,’ he says. ‘I think Pamela can be built for an overall cost of £10-15 million, and would take about five years. And that would be a crucial stepping stone towards a thorium power station. It wouldn’t be cheap. But it would be highly competitive.’

It will take time to put the pieces together, but the writing is on the wall, if modern humans will only take the time to read it and take action.

By. Al Fin

Download The Free Oilprice App Today

Back to homepage

Leave a comment
  • Anonymous on June 14 2011 said:
    It's almost too good to be true and yet it's not :lol: I just hope that the future of thorium reactors won't be affected by the recent events in the nuclear industry(fukushima)...but sadly, I think it will.
  • Anonymous on June 15 2011 said:
    LET'S BUILD ONE AND SEE!See this excellent introductory article on Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors: http://www.wired.com/magazine/2009/12/ff_new_nukes/
  • Anonymous on June 15 2011 said:
    In Jan-2011, China announced that it plans to mass-produce and export small Thorium LFTR reactors. This will result in a dramatic reevaluation of the whole Carbon-Price debate! This is a rough 'google' translation of the Chinese announcement.."Yesterday, the Chinese Academy of Sciences started the first one of the science and technology projects, “the future of advanced nuclear fission energy – nuclear energy, thorium-based molten salt reactor system” project was officially launched. The scientific goal is to developed a new generation of nuclear energy systems, (with China to have) all intellectual property rights to all the technical levels reached in the trial." A relevant article is.. “zero-carbon-electricity” at vs2020 dotcom
  • Anonymous on June 16 2011 said:
    As I understand it, the process involved in using thorium relies on converting the thorium to uranium 233 by a series of atomic decay's. The U233 is what actually runs reactor around which the power station is built. So thorium is just an initial step to producing U233, which, I read, is itself contaminated by U232 and other radio-active isotopes. It would seem that it is not as simple and safe (U233 can be used in nuclear weapons) as appears on the surface?
  • Anonymous on June 16 2011 said:
    Hi John. Yes, a tiny percentage of uranium is needed in the mix to start most types of thorium reactors, but, it is the thorium that is consumed. After 20 years, that tiny percentage of uranium is still there while most of the thorium is gone. It would be quite pointless and extremely difficult to extract those few pounds of uranium from tonnes of solidified salt.

Leave a comment

EXXON Mobil -0.35
Open57.81 Trading Vol.6.96M Previous Vol.241.7B
BUY 57.15
Sell 57.00
Oilprice - The No. 1 Source for Oil & Energy News