Back in early March shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, President Biden signed an executive order to ban the import of Russian oil, liquefied natural gas, and coal to the United States. Although the ban together with EU sanctions have been blamed for skyrocketing global energy prices, U.S. refiners are none the worse for wear since Russia supplied just 3% of U.S. crude oil imports. However, the punters were quick to point out that one notable export was left off of that list: uranium. The U.S. is far more reliant on Russian uranium, and imported about 14 percent of its uranium and 28 percent of all enrichment services from Russia in 2021 while the figures for the European Union were 20 percent and 26 percent for imports and enrichment services, respectively. Russia is home to one of the world’s largest uranium resources with an estimated 486,000 tons of uranium, the equivalent of 8 percent of global supply.
Recently, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy reiterated his calls on the U.S. and the international community to ban Russian uranium imports following the Russian shelling near Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhya power plant.
Many experts, however, contend that banning Russian uranium is easier said than done thanks to Russia’s status as the world’s leading uranium enrichment complex--accounting for almost half the global capacity--and that is something that cannot be easily replaced.
The U.S. currently has one operational plant managed by its UK-Netherlands-Germany owners that can produce less than a third of its annual domestic needs. Further, the country currently has no plans to develop or find sufficient enrichment capacity to become domestically self-sufficient in the future.
In contrast, China’s China Nuclear Corporation is working to double its capacity to meet the needs of China’s rapidly growing civilian nuclear reactor fleet, so that by 2030 China plans to have nearly one-third of global capacity.
With the Biden administration having set a goal of reaching 100 percent carbon-free energy by 2035, nuclear power will likely continue to be a hot-button issue despite being a low-carbon fuel mainly because conventional nuclear fuel creates a lot of hazardous waste.
What would give nuclear energy a major boost would be a significant technological breakthrough in substituting thorium for uranium in reactors. The public would likely be far easier to bring on board with the removal of dangerous uranium.
Thorium is now being billed as the 'great green hope' of clean energy production that produces less waste and more energy than uranium, is meltdown-proof, has no weapons-grade by-products and can even consume legacy plutonium stockpiles.
The United States Department of Energy (DOE), Nuclear Engineering & Science Center at Texas A&M and the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) have partnered with Chicago-based Clean Core Thorium Energy (CCTE) to develop a new thorium-based nuclear fuel they have dubbed ANEEL. ANEEL (Advanced Nuclear Energy for Enriched Life) is a proprietary combination of thorium and “High Assay Low Enriched Uranium” (HALEU) that intends to address high costs and toxic waste issues.
The main difference between this and the fuel that is currently used is the level of uranium enrichment. Instead of up to 5% uranium-235 enrichment, the new generation of reactors needs fuel with up to 20 percent enrichment. Last year, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved Centrus Energy’s request to make HALEU at its enrichment facility in Piketon, Ohio, becoming the only plant in the country to do so. However, more could be on the way if the new fuel proves to be a success.
While ANEEL performs best in heavy water reactors, it can also be used in traditional boiling water and pressurized water reactors. More importantly, ANEEL reactors can be deployed much faster than uranium reactors.
A key benefit of ANEEL over uranium is that it can achieve a much higher fuel burn-up rate of in the order of 55,000 MWd/T (megawatt-day per ton of fuel) compared to 7,000 MWd/T for natural uranium fuel used in pressurized water reactors. This allows the fuel to remain in the reactors for much longer meaning much longer intervals between shut downs for refueling. For instance, India’s Kaiga Unit-1 and Canada’s Darlington PHWR Unit hold the world records for uninterrupted operations at 962 days and 963 days, respectively.
The thorium-based fuel also comes with other key benefits. One of the biggest is that a much higher fuel burn-up reduces plutonium waste by more than 80%. Plutonium has a shorter half-life of about 24,000 years compared to Uranium-235’s half-life of just over 700 million years. Plutonium is highly toxic even in small doses, leading to radiation illness, cancer and often to death. Further, thorium has a lower operating temperature and a higher melting point than natural uranium, making it inherently safer and more resistant to core meltdowns.
Thorium’s renewable energy properties are also quite impressive.
There is more than twice thorium in the earth’s crust than uranium; In India, thorium is 4x more abundant than uranium. It can also be extracted from sea water just like uranium making it almost inexhaustible.
The thorium curse?
Hopefully, ANEEL could soon become the fuel of choice for countries that operate CANDU (Canada Deuterium Uranium) and PHWR (Pressurized Heavy Water Reactor) reactors such as China, India, Argentina, Pakistan, South Korea, and Romania. These reactors are cooled and moderated using pressurized heavy water. Another 50 countries (mostly developing countries) have either started nuclear programs or have expressed an interest in launching the same in the near future. Overall, only about 50 of the world’s existing 440 nuclear reactors can be powered using this novel fuel.
Nuclear energy is enjoying another mini-renaissance of sorts.
The ongoing energy crisis has been helping to highlight nuclear energy’s billing as the most reliable energy source, which ostensibly gives it a serious edge over other renewable energy sources such as wind and solar which exist at the lower end of the reliability spectrum.
Meanwhile, Unite, Britain and Ireland’s largest union, has backed the UK’s Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) call for massive nuclear investments by saying that comprehensive investment in the nuclear industry will be necessary to kick-start the UK’s post-pandemic economy, while also fulfilling the EU’s goal to decarbonize all its industries by 2050.
Given heavy public backlash, however, it remains highly doubtful whether nuclear energy can really make a significant comeback here in the U.S. Still, the U.S. will probably have a ready market for its new thorium fuel since it has signed bilateral nuclear treaties--including the 1-2-3 Agreement--related to security, weapons non-proliferation and nuclear materials with no less than 48 countries.
It could if the new thorium fuel becomes a reality, which is far from a given. It’s not proven on a commercial scale. Thorium MSRs (Molten Salt Reactors) have been in development since the 1960s by the U.S. China, Russia, and France yet nothing much ever came of them.
Nuclear radiologist Peter Karamoskos, of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) has advised the world not to hold its breath:
“Without exception, [thorium reactors] have never been commercially viable, nor do any of the intended new designs even remotely seem to be viable. Like all nuclear power production they rely on extensive taxpayer subsidies; the only difference is that with thorium and other breeder reactors these are of an order of magnitude greater, which is why no government has ever continued their funding.”
ANEEL offers another possible way back to nuclear, but only if it succeeds where thorium has not–so far.
By Alex Kimani for Oilprice.com
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