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.
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