Prime Minister David Cameron addressing an international summit of energy secretaries in London earlier this year. That’s UK Dept. of Energy (DECC) boss Ed Davey next to him, followed by U.S.chief Steven Chu and DECC minister Greg Barker. Thorium is slowly entering DECC’s clean energy radar.
Welcome again to the Weinberg Foundation blog, aka The Thorium Trail, where as we announced here yesterday, we will provide a steady stream of updates on the future of energy: Safe, peaceful nuclear power that cuts the CO2 cord and eases climate change. We will trot the globe looking at developments in thorium fuel, molten salt reactors and many other alternative nuclear technologies that are safer and more efficient than the uranium, water-cooled designs that have defined the industry for half a century.
Our first full post comes from the UK, where earlier this month the government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change published a curious report on thorium – a fuel that did not, at first glance, seem to impress DECC as a promising replacement for uranium.
A quick read of DECC’s Comparison of thorium and uranium fuel cycles looks almost dismissive.
“Thorium has theoretical advantages regarding sustainability, reducing radiotoxicity and reducing proliferation risk,” the executive summary states. “While there is some justification for these benefits, they are often over stated.”
Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the fuel that could minimize long lived dangerous waste, mitigate weapons proliferation, eliminate meltdowns, and run more economically than today’s uranium reactors.
The muted assessment, prepared for DECC by the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) – a privately run vestige of the defunct uranium stalwart British Nuclear Fuels Limited – notes that “the thorium fuel cycle at best has only limited relevance to the UK.” It concludes that the claim that thorium is inherently safer than uranium “is not sufficiently substantiated and will not be for many years, if at all.”
READING BETWEEN THE LINES
But here’s the curious bit: We know here at the Weinberg Foundation that NNL is indeed more open to thorium than its conclusions suggest. We recently visited NNL at their headquarters in Sellafield, England, where they were clearly interested in learning more about thorium technologies, such as those under development in China including a molten salt thorium project.
And as we read beyond the report’s headline coolness, we spot plenty of encouragement. While downplaying thorium, the summary points out that “Nevertheless, it, is important to recognise that world-wide there remains interest in thorium fuel cycles and as this is not likely to diminish in the near future. It may therefore be judicious for the UK to maintain a low level of engagement in thorium fuel cycle R&D by involvement in international collaborative research activities.”
|Judicious indeed! Because as DECC/NNL itself spells out, thorium, while having “limited relevance,” also proffers many advantages over uranium.For instance, the report says thorium can operate more efficiently than uranium. “The thorium fuel cycle is in principle capable of achieving higher conversion ratios in thermal reactors than uranium fuel, which is advantageous for resource availability,” it states, adding that thorium “converts” into fissile material at nearly twice the rate that occurs in the uranium process.
Out with the old, in with the thorium? With Cameron’s government struggling to find backers to replace reactors such as this relic at Oldbury-on-Severn, now’s a good time to consider alternatives like thorium.
It notes that thorium leaves behind much less nasty waste, pointing out that it “generates only trace quantities of plutonium and higher actinides, which can reduce the long term radiotoxicity of spent nuclear fuel.”
DECC even begins to describe how difficult it can be to fabricate a bomb from the thorium fuel cycle, thus giving credence to claims by thorium supporters who say that thorium can eliminate the weapons proliferation risk. DECC notes that the thorium process includes traces of uranium 232, a substance so full of gamma ray emissions that no terrorist would survive contact with it in the first place.
Certain alternative reactor designs would draw out these advantages more than conventional water-cooled nuclear plants. DECC is particularly keen on very high temperature gas reactors (VHTRs), which tend to be gas-cooled. It also notes that thorium fuel could mix with plutonium and help the UK dispose of its troublesome stash of that deadly stuff.
So how is it that despite acknowledging all these benefits, DECC concludes that the thorium case is generally “overstated” and of limited relevance to the UK?
In part, by issuing a few specific refutations. For instance, on proliferation, DECC says that an intrepid bomb maker can circumvent the deadly U232. It concludes that the justification for thorium reducing proliferation risks “is not very strong.” (Of all the claims for thorium’s advantages, the proliferation argument is perhaps the most debated, and we welcome your comments and feedback on this or any other aspect).
IT’S THE ECONOMY, MAESTRO
But each time we read through the report, it strikes us that the main impediment to tapping thorium’s potential is, as DECC sees it, economics – the lack of funding to advance thorium development into a commercial state.
Or to put it another way, the entrenched British (read Western) nuclear industry – the half a century year-old uranium value chain – will not make the necessary investments to migrate to a superior technology when iterative improvements on conventional reactors will suffice.
That’s the sort of ossified thinking that got Big Media and Telecom in trouble as the Googles and Skypes came along.
To be clear, DECC did not exactly phrase it that way. “While economic benefits are theoretically achievable by using thorium fuels … in current market conditions the position is marginal and insufficient to justify major investment by utilities,” it says.
“The thorium fuel cycle is disadvantaged because all the supporting infrastructure would have to be established from scratch,” it adds. “Furthermore, since the energy market is driven by private investment and with none of the utility companies investing or currently developing either thorium fuels or thorium fuelled reactor concepts, it is clear that there is little appetite or belief in the safety or performance claim.”
Meanwhile, China has no such investment reluctance. It has a bevy of alternative nuclear research projects underway, including several thorium initiatives. In one, the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics has committed 400 experts and $350 million to building a small test thorium molten salt reactor by 2017 (we’ll bring you more about this in another post soon).
The DECC report can be read as an endorsement of thorium, but as a carefully worded, reluctant one in the face of a dominant uranium industry and in light of the government’s efforts to rescue plans to build new reactors with money from the uranium industry.
It’s no wonder then that DECC recommends at least “a low level of engagement” with international thorium efforts. “This will enable the UK to keep up with developments, comment from a position of knowledge and to some extent influence the direction of research. Participation will also ensure that the UK is more ready to respond if changes in technology or market forces bring the thorium fuel cycle more to the fore,” it says.
Or as someone recently commented, it might also leave the country in a position to one day – soon even – have to license thorium technology from the East.
Photos: Cameron et al, from DECC. Oldbury nuclear plant from David Bowd-Exworth via Wikimedia Commons.
Note: An earlier version of this story referred to NNL as “privatized.” NNL is “privately managed” by Ohio-based Battelle Memorial Institute, services firm Serco and the University of Manchester. The UK government owns it.