Many nuclear experts believe that the future of safe, effective, nuclear power lies in deploying thorium fuel rather than uranium, the firewood of choice that has prevailed ever since the world first starting splitting atoms to feed the grid in 1956.
Thorium proponents point out that the metallic element is more plentiful than uranium, leaves far less long lived waste, can effectively help burn existing waste, reduces the prospects of making weapons from waste, and that it can avoid meltdowns.
But who’s making it work? Which countries are taking the lead? China? India? Norway? Do you simply put it into conventional reactors? Or should you build alternative reactors that optimize its advantages? Should you run it in liquid or solid form? How do you overcome some of the engineering and materials challenges for proposed alternative reactors like molten salt machines? And, as thorium itself is not fissile, what’s the best way to excite it into a state of chain reactions? Is industry even interested in it?
Some of the world’s brightest minds in thorium and nuclear science will offer their answers to these questions next week, as they gather at CERN, the internationally famous physics lab in Geneva, for the fifth annual Thorium Energy Conference.
“Thorium offers a route to safe, clean nuclear energy,” said Jean-Pierre Revol, a CERN physicist and president of the international Thorium Energy Committee (iThEC). “The number of renowned scientists coming to ThEC13 gives a clear signal that a truly international cooperation is forming to herald a new era in nuclear energy, with clear benefits for the world.”
Geneva-based iThEC has organized the conference along with Stockholm’s International Thorium Energy Organization. Together, they have put together an impressive roster of big thinkers and problem solvers including Nobel prize winning particle physicist Carlo Rubbia and former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) boss and United Nations weapons inspector Hans Blix to help map out the thorium road. As a sign that industry is taking thorium seriously, the agenda includes insights from engineering stalwart Rolls-Royce, and from nuclear power giant Areva, known more for its conventional nuclear technologies than for thorium.
The intensive program kicks off in earnest on Monday morning, when particle accelerator expert Rubbia will present one of the early sessions. That should help set the tone for a strong thread of accelerator science that will run through the confab humming a stone’s throw from CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) – the world’s largest accelerator known for its hunt of the Higgs Boson, dark matter and antimatter. Conference host Revol himself leads an LHC team.
Some thorium enthusiasts believe that the best way to coax thorium into fissioning is to bombard it with particles from an accelerator. Beginning Wednesday, the accelerator theme will take over many of the sessions, with presentations from scientists investigating thorium accelerator technologies in the U.K., China, France, Switzerland (Revol will present), Japan, South Korea, Venezuela, Russia, India and the U.S., and earlier in the week, from Belgium’s MYRRHA project.
But non-accelerator approaches should also get a full hearing, with presentations scheduled from the likes of Kirk Sorensen, president of Flibe Energy, the Huntsville, Alabama company that is hoping to revive the molten salt reactor (MSR) designed by the late Alvin Weinberg (and who inspired the Weinberg Foundation, publisher of this blog) at Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the 1960s.
Not all MSR experts agree on the same design, and to that end, other enthusiasts will discuss their preferences for fuel mixes, corrosion-resistant materials, plumbing configurations and the like. Speakers will come from the U.K., the Czech Republic, France and elsewhere – including Weinberg Foundation chairman John Durham and Jan Uhlir from the Czech Nuclear Research Institute Rez, which is testing high temperature reactor using coolant materials from the U.S. Industry will also weigh in, as Rolls-Royce presents on Tuesday about “Opportunities and Challenges for Thorium in Commercial MSRs,” following an address by Areva.
Talks will also cover different technologies on how to process and re-use waste in thorium reactors.
A NEW TWIST ON CONVENTION
Some thorium backers such as Norway’s Thor Energy strongly believe that the world should not wait for alternative reactors, but should run thorium in conventional reactors cooled and moderated by water. Thor CEO Oystein Asphjell will summarize some early positive results that Thor has spotted in its ongoing thorium irradiation tests at Norway’s Halden test reactor.
Other presenters, from Turkey and India, will outline ideas for deploying thorium in heavy water reactors including the Canadian CANDU design. Sumer Sahin, from Turkey’s Atilim University, will also discuss building hybrid fission/fusion reactors using thorium.
Through it all, former weapons inspector Blix should serve as a reminder that thorium augurs a great reduction in the weapons-related waste potential of nuclear power, when he delivers a talk on Tuesday morning entitled “Thorium Power and Non-Proliferation.”
For a sense of national commitments, the conference has rounded up speakers from a number of government energy agencies and laboratories to provide updates. Speakers include Xu Hongjie from the China Academy of Sciences’ Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics, the site of last year’s Thorium Energy Conference 2012. China has more than one thorium reactor under development and is using technology from the U.S.
Toshinobu Sasa from the Japan Atomic Energy Agency will present on “The Japanese Thorium Program,” – sure to draw interest in how thorium can help Japan reinstitute nuclear power following its post-Fukushima shutdown. Sweden, India, the EU, the U.K.’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, the IAEA and Belgium will also sketch out the initiatives – some more active than others – under their purviews
Regardless of the approach that any country, company, scientist or engineer is taking, the conference as a whole, within spitting distance of the Large Hadron Collider, hopes to step up the pace of thorium’s arrival into the commercial nuclear marketplace.
The Weinberg Foundation will be there updating you with regular blogs and tweets.
For the full agenda, click here
Photos: Globe is from CERN. Hans Blix is from the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization via Flickr. Carlo Rubbia is from Bastian Greshake via Flickr.