Posted by Mark Halper

“We’re ready.” Julian Kelly and Thor Energy will start testing solid thorium MOX fuel in January, with help from Westinghouse, Britain’s National Nuclear Laboratory, and others.

SHANGHAI – Norway’s privately held Thor Energy this January will start a four year live test of solid thorium fuel in partnership with industrial companies including nuclear giant Westinghouse, Thor revealed here today.

Speaking at the Thorium Energy Conference 2012, chief technology officer Julian Kelly said Thor will burn ceramic pellets of thorium plutonium oxide inside the Norwegian government’s Halden test reactor.

Thor will use fuel provided by the UK’s National Nuclear Laboratory and by the European Commission’s Institute for Transuranium Elements (ITU). It will also fabricate some of its own in partnership with Norway’s Institute for Energy Technology. The first batch will come from ITU.

“We don’t often spend a lot time being excited in the nuclear industry these days, but this is an exciting thing for us,” Kelly said. “We’re ready to go.”

Thor’s objective is to show that thorium plutonium fuel, known as thorium MOX, can operate safely and efficiently in a conventional reactor.

“We expect this experiment to yield data that will be used to demonstrate the safe, long term performance of ceramic thorium MOX fuels, and that this information will directly support the approval of a commercial irradiation of such fuels,” Kelly said. “We very much need this reactor to appeal to a regulator audience and also a power reactor operator audience. It’s not just a purely academic exercise.”

THE CALL OF THE FOUR HUNDRED

The Halden reactor is a heavy boiling water model (HBWR). The results will allow Thor to extrapolate performance of solid thorium MOX in a pressurized water reactor (PWR).

BWRs and LWRs account for almost all of the 430-plus nuclear reactors operating commercially today.

Many thorium supporters prefer to put thorium into alternative burners such as liquid molten salt reactors and pebble bed reactors. Although those reactors optimize thorium’s benefits more than conventional reactors do, none operate commercially today. They will require time not only for development, but also for regulatory approval (as will a new fuel like thorium MOX).

By running thorium in approved and existing designs and reactors, Thor would hasten the fuel’s commercial arrival.

Thorium augers reactors that are safer and more efficient than conventional uranium reactors. They don’t leave as much long-lived dangerous waste and in designs like molten salt and pebble bed, they are in principle meltdown proof. They also reduce the weapons proliferation threat.

Kelly downplayed suggestions that efforts should focus on alternative reactors.

CATALYST

He called the imminent test of thorium MOX in a conventional reactor, “a great catalyst for other thorium fuel undertaking worldwide,” and said, “it’s a great technology springboard to some other medium term thorium fuel possibilities.”

Thor is a privately held company owned by Norwegian technology firm Scandinavian Advanced Technology. Besides Westinghouse, NNL and ITE, Thor’s partners in the thorium MOX test include South Africa’s Steenskampskraal Thorium Ltd., which as we noted here recently is developing a thorium pebble bed reactor.

Other partners include Finnish utility Fortum, and French chemical company Rhodia, which possesses thorium that has been processed out of rare earth minerals.

Thorium MOX represents not only a potentially safer and better fuel than uranium, but also an opportunity for usefully disposing of plutonium waste of the sort that NNL is concerned with at its operations in Sellafield, England. NNL is part of the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change.

Companies in the nuclear fuel business  like Westinghouse could add a plutonium disposal revenue stream.

Although Westinghouse does not like to publicly discuss its thorium involvement, this is second time in recent months that its activities have wandered into the thorium community. News broke over the summer that Westinghouse was serving as the commercial adviser on the U.S. Department of Energy’s collaboration with the Chinese Academy of Sciences on the development of high temperature molten salt reactors.

Photo by Mark Halper

Comments

  1. Martin Kral says:

    Am not experienced enough to know what the technical advantages would be to replace uranium with thorium in the existing LWR plants. I don’t think it will change the perception of nuclear energy. I think I know enough to realize that thorium is not the keyword, but molten salt is. When combined, TMSR is the new age and a new perception for nuclear energy. At least, that is how I perceive it and convey it to others.

    • Raul Parolari says:

      @Martin Kral: “Thorium is not the keyword, but molten salt is. When combined, TMSR..”

      I am not a physicist but I think that both “Thorium” and “Molten Salt” are equally important keywords. Yes, you are right: “Molten” is important; Alvin Weinberg’s intuition that the nuclear material should be in liquid form is fundamental.

      But Thorium (Th-232) plays a fundamental role too: it is the “Fertile” element which generates the U-233 fissile fuel (which is also dissolved in the liquid fluorides).
      And U-233 is unique: when it is hit by a neutron, it fissions 90% of the time, emitting more than 2 neutrons (which is the condition to continue the reaction).

      But U-233 is not present in nature any longer; it can only be produced by Th-232!

      So there you have it: both “Thorium” and “Molten Salt” are the keywords.

      • Robert says:

        Warren, I am not against fusoin energy per se, but I am against the political leverage it offers to the Greens as yet another reason for why not to develop nuclear energy. They might say they are for fusoin only because they know its a red herring to use against fission. If the technology was deployable tomorrow, I’m sure they would find a reason to be against it because it would be “centralized” energy or something else. Meanwhile they will be perfectly happy to disingenuously embrace it because like so many, they are betting against its failure, or rather its 30-years-away reputation.I agree with everything you say, but the problem with giving fusoin a thumbs up is giving the anti-nukes yet another diversion. Yucca mountain worked perfectly for this type of ploy. There is really no good reason why we still have an electrical system that makes pollution. It could have been replaced years ago for far less than it would now. It shouldn’t cost much more than $400 billion to double the reactor fleet we now have, but it probably won’t be that cheap. Doing that with AP1000’s as you mention would eliminate half the coal problem. There would still be a huge margin to cover with more advanced LFTR technology, but we should be starting now.

    • Jenn says:

      Stay with this guys, you’re helpnig a lot of people.

  2. Marcelo Pacheco says:

    Thor Energy success will help Thorium’s future success.
    1 – Having operational commercial reactors using Thorium is way better than none.
    2 – Plutonium + Thorium MOX fuel allows for 24 month operating cycles, current reactors operate on 12 or 18 month cycles. The longer the cycle, the more energy the reactor produces total and the more energy is produced per ton of spent nuclear fuel created
    3 – Many countries have reprocessing programs and are already producing traditional MOX fuel (reactor grade plutonium + depleted Uranium), Thorium MOX fuel is quoted to cost the same to make as regular MOX, while offering safety, energy production and remaining plutonium in the spent fuel (all incremental advantages)
    Last but not least, Thor Energy solution is applicable to every PWR/BWR reactor in the world:
    Some countries like the USA don’t do reprocessing but have weapons grade Plutonium stockpiles they wish to dispose, Plutonium+Thorium fuel results in maximum plutonium disposal (almost no new plutonium is produced, combined with longer burnup cycles resulting in very high disposal of plutonium, and after a high burnup cycle plutonium has a isotope mix completely useless for nuclear weapons)
    In Europe UK and France already have reprocessing facilities. It currently costs far more to make MOX fuel than to make fresh LEU fuel. But with Thorium MOX fuel resulting in a more productive reactor, the higher productivity might offset the higher cost of reprocessing, making reprocessing from an environmentally oriented solution into an economical alternative.
    Finally, thorium offers higher thermal conductivity and higher melting point, with Silicon-Carbide cladding 100MWd/year burnup cycles might be possible (TWICE current burnup levels of fresh and regular MOX fuel). Making it possible to achieve 36 month burnup cycles AND higher power levels for reactors without safety reduction. The big problem with nuclear in the USA for instance is the very low cost of natural gas. Whatever we can do to help existing reactors continue to be economical might save reactors from early retirements.
    That being said, yes, I would much rather have any MSR reactor instead, even a DMSR.

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