Posted by Mark Halper

It would be a new Springfield if Homer worked at a thorium reactor.

LONDON – The World Nuclear Association is making a laudable start at trying to “rebrand” nuclear. But as became apparent here yesterday, it’s missing a trick.

“In the aftermath of Fukushima, we have to take a lead in rebranding nuclear power,” WNA acting director general Steve Kidd said in an address at a conference organized by the UK’s Nuclear Industry Association (NIA).

The WNA is the global trade body for the conventional nuclear industry. It wants to assure that the public broadly perceives nuclear as an effective, safe source of carbon free energy. And as Kidd noted, following the meltdowns at the Fukushima plant after Japan’s tragic 20110 earthquake and tsunami, “That’s a pretty tall order.”

Indeed it is. Even though the nuclear industry has a stellar safety record, and even though – to consider the gravest of statistics – it has killed few people over the years compared to the deaths caused by fossil fuels, it still struggles around the world against impassioned nuclear opposition.

One way to help offset that would be to champion the safer and more efficient alternative nuclear designs that the industry rejected 40-some years ago, when it instead settled on inferior designs that rely on solid uranium fuel and water cooling.

OPTIONS

Alternatives such as liquid molten salt reactors, high temperature pebble bed reactors, fast reactors (which to be fair were the industry’s objective at one point) and others represent improvements in both safety and operating efficiency, especially in some cases where they run on thorium fuel instead of uranium.

The liquid thorium molten salt reactor that Alvin Weinberg designed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee in the 1960s serves as one stellar example.

Among its benefits: It runs safely at high temperatures; it could serve as an effective industrial heat source as well as an electricity generator; it leaves behind less dangerous waste than today’s reactors and its waste lasts only a fraction of the time; it does not require potentially dangerous pressurization; and in the unlikely event of a serious problem, a “freeze plug” melts away and allows fuel to drain harmlessly into tank – meltdown averted.

The design is undergoing a revival, with companies like Flibe Energy and Ottawa Valley Research working on related models, and with China intent on building them.

Likewise, other designs are poised for a comeback. Russia is accelerating its fast reactor program, and South Africa’s Steenkampskraal Thorium Ltd is advancing a pebble bed reactor.

IF IT AIN’T BROKE

So, wouldn’t it make sense for the WNA to embrace these ideas? To leverage them as something like a “not the same old nuclear”?

No, says Kidd.

“I’m very strongly against that idea,” Kidd replied when I inquired whether the WNA should be promoting safer alternatives.

“We cannot be seen to be suggesting that current operation of reactors is unsafe,” he said. “These reactors (conventional reactors) are licensed by the national regulators as being safe to operate and the public trusts in their national regulator…The point is, the reactors in operation around the world today are safe.”

The irony is that WNA is a group that’s highly knowledgeable about the potential advantages of the alternatives. Its impressive website is rich in information about them. As just one example, read what the WNA has to say about thorium.

But as the industry association controlled by the makers of large, conventional nuclear plants the WNA just isn’t ready to parlay that wealth of knowledge into a promotional push. The WNA, founded in 2001, is not far removed from its roots as the former Uranium Institute.

NOT JUST THE FACTS

It has been steadily attempting that, among other ways, by building a fact-rich website full of information on nuclear’s advantages, not the least of which is that it’s a carbon-free source of round-the-clock power.

Kidd said that facts alone will not be enough.

“We’ve really got to get into people’s psychology, into their emotions, because obviously the factual approach can only get you so far,” Kidd said, noting that the industry is fighting against people’s preconceived notions of safety and weapons threats.

“I think the best branding people, the best marketing people, in the world, can probably overcome that,” he said.

It would be easier if they started to work with words like “thorium.”

Image: Andrea Omizzolo via Flickr.

Comments

  1. John Laurie says:

    The WNA are not going to say that molten salt reactors are “safer” than LWRs – that would be suicidal on their part (even if they certainly know it to be true). It may be acceptable for them to say “CHEAPER, for the same level of safety”.

  2. Martin Kral says:

    The first thing that needs to be removed from the old branding of nuclear is those cooling towers. That is the symbol of something nasty and is no different than the stacks at the coal plants. I remembered seeing those two towers billowing steam from miles away on my way to a secluded retreat in the Central California foothills back in the 1970’s.

    My point is that the current reactors (those towers) have a perceived image of a potential disaster if there is a meltdown and there is also all that ‘waste’ in storage. I think it is important to replace uranium with thorium but equally important is to address the waste/fuel issues. If you scan the anti-nuke sites, it is always about the waste and the issues of storage. Personally, I am not to concern about proliferation. If everyone has a bomb, maybe they will think twice before using it once.

  3. Robert Hargraves says:

    A public debate over which reactor technology is safer or which generates less waste is probably not helpful to advancing the use of advanced nuclear power. All modern reactors are safer than other energy sources; all reactors generate some radioactive waste that must be sequestered for centuries. Arguments based on “less harmful” concept only draw public attention to the harm, not the benefits. The benefits of the liquid fluoride thorium reactor include its potential to produce energy cheaper than coal, addressing the global warming issue and also bringing affordable electricity to developing nations. Further benefits are the high temperature that can enable hydrogen production and the synthesis of climate-neutral liquid fuels for vehicles.

  4. Edward says:

    “We cannot be seen to be suggesting that current operation of reactors is unsafe.” An industry that is unable to say it can improve is a senescent industry whose days are numbered. If the industry does find good marketers, this is the first thing they will discover.

    The industry has been projecting the same message for 50 years – closed ranks, everything is under control, danger is insignificant. The result? Public trust going down. Safety regulations ratcheted up. Increasing nuclear electricity in developing countries is offset by declining nuclear electricity in developed countries. Globally the industry is in stasis, struggling to hold on to its existing small market share.

  5. Wiebe says:

    I don’t think increased use of nalecur will hurt the oil industry. Nuclear is used for baseload electricity production and relatively little of our petroleum-based fuel stocks are used for that. Unless large-scale electric substitution comes into play in the transport sector, petroleum fuels will continue to dominate that.Where nalecur will make a difference is displacing the use of natural gas in utility operations. NG is a valuable fuel that is readily transportable using existing infrastructure and is well-matched to end use, such as space heating and fuel for cooking in homes and businesses. Better to use NG there than burning it in boilers or gas turbines.If we go to a hydrogen-based economy then nalecur can contribute in the transport fuels sector as well. That is further off but the DOE NHI program has that as its focus and eventual demonstration goal.

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