Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Can Thorium Energy Save Planet Earth?

In addition to green energy from water, wind and sun, is there a source of clean, renewable and plentiful energy that can satisfy the growing needs of the humankind without destroying the planet earth? The answer is a qualified yes. Many scientists believe that the answer lies in developing and exploiting the abundant but mildly-radioactive element thorium in a redesigned nuclear fuel cycle. Large deposits of thorium oxide are found in many countries of the world, including United States, China, India and Pakistan. There are significant concentrations of thorium oxide in Kerala, India and Mardan, Pakistan. Research conducted by Dr. Muhammad Haleem Khan at Punjab University's Institute of Chemistry found thorium oxide concentrations of 6.5% in Badar near Mardan in Pakistan, and 5.9% in Kerala, India. (Reference: Dr. M.H. Khan, 1992, Chapter 4, Page 114).

Rising concerns about climate change caused by carbon emissions are forcing a second look at nuclear energy. But the uranium-based nuclear power has had a bad name for various reasons, including potential for more disasters like Three-Mile-Island and Chernobyl, as well as genuine worries about nuclear weapons proliferation from uranium/plutonium byproducts, and highly radioactive waste disposal.

Just yesterday, a fire at an Indian nuclear research facility killed two people, according to the BBC News. And last month, more than 90 Indian workers suffered radiation injuries due to contamination of drinking water at the Kaiga Atomic Power Station in Karnataka, India.

In addition to the high-profile case of nuclear proliferation by Pakistani scientist AQ Khan, there have been other cases posing the nuclear proliferation threat from India, particularly as it dramatically expands its nuclear energy production after the US-India nuclear deal. In July 1998, India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) seized eight Kg. of nuclear material from three engineers in Chennai. It was reported that the uranium was stolen from an atomic research center. The case still remains pending. On November 7, 2000, IAEA disclosed that Indian police had seized 57 pounds of uranium and arrested two men for illicit trafficking of radioactive material. IAEA had said that Indian civil nuclear facilities were vulnerable to thefts.

Thorium-based reactor technology addresses many of the above concerns to a great extent. Dr Hashemi-Nezhad of Australia's Sydney University says thorium has all of the benefits of uranium as a nuclear fuel but none of the drawbacks. Dr Hashemi-Nezhad believes thorium waste would only remain radioactive for 500 years, not the tens of thousands that uranium by-products remain active. The thorium reactor byproducts are not suitable as fissile material for nuclear weapons, reducing concerns about dual-use of peaceful nuclear technology.

"In fact, the green movement must come behind this project because we are moving in a direction to destroy all these existing nuclear wastes, to prevent nuclear weapons production, to [prevent] Chernobyl accident happening again," the Australian ABCOnline quotes Dr Hashemi-Nezhad as saying.

Although thorium itself cannot support a nuclear chain reaction, subjecting thorium to a stream of accelerated neutrons from plutonium inside a nuclear reactor turns this element into uranium-233, which can support fission. For this reason, the designers of nuclear plants have long considered the possibility of combining thorium with a fissionable isotope, which would prime the reaction. Increasing concerns about the diversion of plutonium from spent nuclear fuel to the construction of nuclear weapons has prompted a revival. Thorium-based nuclear fuels would leave far less waste plutonium than conventional fuels. What is more, the plutonium created is of a type that is not weapons-grade. The nuclear power industry is unlikely to adopt thorium for economic reasons alone, but should policymakers mandate its use in an effort to limit the proliferation of weapons and alleviate waste-disposal safety concerns, the technical modifications required of nuclear power plants would be readily achievable.

The idea of thorium reactors for nuclear energy is not new, according to a story published by Wired Magazine. It was first detailed in 1958 in a book titled "Fluid Fuel Reactors" under the auspices of the Atomic Energy Commission as part of its Atoms for Peace program. But it was not pursued at the time because the US was in the midst of a major nuclear arms buildup requiring large amounts of enriched uranium and plutonium for its WMDs. The use of thorium would not help in the weapons production, because the waste from thorium is not suitable for weapons.

The Wired Magazine article features Kirk Sorensen who is championing the revival of research and development into thorium reactors in the United States. Sorenson runs a blog "Energy from Thorium" that is bringing together a community of engineers, researchers, amateurs and enthusiasts talking about thorium.

When Sorensen and his online community of scientists began delving into the history of thorium work done by Alvin Weinberg at Oak Ridge National Lab, they discovered not only an alternative fuel but also the design for the alternative reactor, according to the Wired story. Using that template, the Energy From Thorium team helped produce a design for a new liquid fluoride thorium reactor, or LFTR (pronounced “lifter”), which, according to estimates by Sorensen and others, would be some 50 percent more efficient than today’s light-water uranium reactors. If the US reactor fleet could be converted to LFTRs overnight, existing thorium reserves would power the US for a thousand years.

Currently, there are active research programs in the United States, China and India, the biggest coal users and polluters in the world, to develop thorium fuel cycles. The research teams are exploring various approaches, including Ur+Th oxide rods and Ur and Th fluoride solutions, the latter preferred in the United States for its higher efficiency and safety. While there is promise in the technology, it is far from ready for commercial exploitation. In the mean time, the best way to tackle the climate change menace is to reduce the use of coal and other fossil fuels, and focus on hydro, solar and wind energy development in the foreseeable future.

Related Links:

Renewable Energy to Tackle Pakistan's Energy Crisis

Pakistan Leads South Asia in Clean Energy

Uranium Is So Last Century--Enter Thorium

Scientist Urges Switch to Thorium

Energy from Thorium Blog

US-India Nuclear Deal


Anonymous said...

Thorium cycle is promising but difficult to master the basic thing is fluroide salt is very corrosive and thus unsafe the desi approach is to use CANDU reactors but this needs lots of pluonium to kick start the process i.e pu fissions and converts th232 into u233 which inturn breeds more u33 till after 5 yrs it becomes self sustaining i.e you just put th232 for the next 60 years.
India will comission the first such plant (300MWe)in 2015 but it may well be a tech dead end.

Anonymous said...

A dumb question from someone who flunked maths and science. Can't cattle be used to turn generators/turbines and generate electricity. Years ago when I pedalled my bicycle the dynamo would be activated and the lamp would work. Same principle - but use cattle instead of human feet. Come to think of it - why not human feet? We have lots of these in South Asia.
And may all South Asians diminish their egos and increase their friendship in 2010!

Anonymous said...

Nobody claims india is perfect but is open to get the imperfection out rather than getting into an internal rut. That is precisely what happens in countries which are dictatorial like pakistan.

Riaz Haq said...

anon: "Nobody claims india is perfect but is open to get the imperfection out rather than getting into an internal rut. That is precisely what happens in countries which are dictatorial like pakistan."

A harsh critic of Pakistani government, politics, and policies, Irfan Husain, writing in Pakistan's Daily Dawn, has an interesting anecdote: A foreign journalist working for a newsmagazine's South Asian bureau says he loves Pakistan because "In India, when you write a critical article, the people are furious with you. In Pakistan, when you write a critical article, everyone agrees with you."

And here's traveler-blogger Sean-Paul Kelly talking about lack of sanitation in India:

In my opinion the filth, squalor and all around pollution indicates a marked lack of respect for India by Indians. I don't know how cultural the filth is, but it's really beyond anything I have ever encountered. At times the smells, trash, refuse and excrement are like a garbage dump. Right next door to the Taj Mahal was a pile of trash that smelled so bad, was so foul as to almost ruin the entire Taj experience. Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai to a lesser degree were so very polluted as to make me physically ill. Sinus infections, ear infection, bowels churning was an all to common experience in India. Dung, be it goat, cow or human fecal matter was common on the streets. In major tourist areas filth was everywhere, littering the sidewalks, the roadways, you name it. Toilets in the middle of the road, men urinating and defecating anywhere, in broad daylight. Whole villages are plastic bag wastelands. Roadsides are choked by it. Air quality that can hardly be called quality. Far too much coal and far to few unleaded vehicles on the road. The measure should be how dangerous the air is for one's health, not how good it is. People casually throw trash in the streets, on the roads. The only two cities that could be considered sanitary in my journey were Trivandrum--the capital of Kerala--and Calicut. I don't know why this is. But I can assure you that at some point this pollution will cut into India's productivity, if it already hasn't. The pollution will hobble India's growth path, if that indeed is what the country wants. (Which I personally doubt, as India is far too conservative a country, in the small 'c' sense.)

Mayraj said...

Nuclear power plants are costly. For a country that desperately needs to manage its tiny treasury properly wrong road!
Did you miss that article in Counterpunch which interview and Indian nuclear specialist who said this was wrong road for India?

Riaz Haq said...

Mayraj: I think Indians (and Pakistanis) are determined to significantly expand nuclear power generation capacity, regardless of the issues associated with it. For both, thorium would be a safer alternative to the current uranium or plutonium-based power plants. Besides, Indians are planning to build thorium reactors and build a business around it that could be quite lucrative for them, creating a large number of better-paying jobs for their people while reducing the radiation risks.

Mayraj said...

If they are small maybe;but, I don't know any resiource that is not renewable is subject to peak production. As Makhijani mentioned, the power grid is weak. Such plants are a burden on the system. But the waste management problem remains. The material remains radioactive for several hundred years. But, hey not the first counter productive policy these countries have embraced.

Anonymous said...

'The material remains radioactive for several hundred years. '

After 100 years the material is no more radioactive than the ore from which it was extracted from.

Besides wind,solar etc can never give you baseload power i.e its too erratic dependant on how well the wind blows and how much the sun shines,so unless there is a major breakthrough in battery tech it is never gonna be more than 5% of your electricity source.
Nuclear is the way to go but current nuclear plants only utilize 0.7% of the ore i.e U235 this is highly inefficient.

The future is fast breader reactors for uranium based power which utilize 70% + of the uranium(Russia is currently the world leader)and thorium based CANDU reactors(we already have a small prototype in operation which runs on thorium first grid connected plant should be built in ~2015.

In the future with advances in materials sciences MSR should become viable in 2025-2030 timeframe Japan+Russia+US are building a 100MWe prototype Fuji MSR.

In FBR tech the russians have a very advanced concept known as the BREST reactor which uses liquid lead as a coolant and is highly modular.

Nuke power rules!

Shubham Singh Tomar said...

here's a wiki-piece
India's Kakrapar-1 reactor is the world's first reactor which uses thorium rather than depleted uranium to achieve power flattening across the reactor core.[27] India, which has about 25% of the world's thorium reserves, is developing a 300 MW prototype of a thorium-based Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR). The prototype is expected to be fully operational by 2011, following which five more reactors will be constructed.[28] Considered to be a global leader in thorium-based fuel, India's new thorium reactor is a fast-breeder reactor and uses a plutonium core rather than an accelerator to produce neutrons. As accelerator-based systems can operate at sub-criticality they could be developed too, but that would require more research.[29] India currently envisages meeting 30% of its electricity demand through thorium-based reactors by 2050.[30]

Shubham Singh Tomar said...

American estimates in tonnes (2010)
Country Reserves
United States 440,000
Australia 300,000
Brazil 16,000
Canada 100,000
India 290,000
Malaysia 4,500
South Africa 35,000
Other Countries 90,000
World Total 1,300,000
why can't i see pakistan ???

Riaz Haq said...

Here's a BBC report of Indian protest against the "world's biggest nuclear plant" proposed to be built in Maharashtra state:

One person has died after police in western India clashed with locals protesting against the planned construction of a nuclear power plant.

Police said they were forced to open fire after protesters attacked a police station close to the proposed site in Jaitapur, in the state of Maharashtra.

Construction of the $10bn (£6bn) plant - expected to be the biggest in the world - is due to begin this year.

The proposal has sparked massive protests across the country.

Residents in the area gathered near the proposed site, expressing anger at the plan, which they fear threatens their traditional fishing grounds.

Madhukar Gaikwad, an official from the Ratnagiri district, said about 700 to 800 fisherman and villagers surrounded a local police station in the village of Nate and started to vandalise it.

"The mob burnt down the records room, destroyed computers and a TV set and put a police van on fire.

"We tried to disperse them by using tear-gas and cane-charge. We used plastic bullets as well, but nothing worked. Finally, we used live ammunition in which one person was injured who died on his way to the hospital," he said.

More than 50 people were injured, including police officers.

Protests have been mounting over the proposed 9,900 megawatt, six-reactor facility, which is being built with technical help from the French energy giant Areva.

Environmental experts say that Konkan, the region in which Jaitapur lies, is one of the most biodiverse regions on earth - and claim it will be destroyed by the plant.

Last December, the Indian magazine Outlook titled an article about the Jaitapur plant "The rape of Eden".

Others have expressed concern that the facility is being built in a seismically-active area.

Riaz Haq said...

Tech Billionaires Bet on Fusion as Holy Grail for Business
Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates are among titans chasing almost Iimitless energy source

Sam Altman became a tech sensation this year as the CEO of OpenAI, the artificial-intelligence startup that seems pulled from science fiction.

But Mr. Altman, who has been among Silicon Valley’s most prominent investors for more than a decade, has placed one of the biggest bets of his career on a company that might be even more futuristic: a nuclear-fusion startup called Helion Energy Inc.

He is one of a number of tech founders and billionaires who hope to harness the process that powers the sun and stars to deliver almost limitless energy. Jeff Bezos, Peter Thiel, Bill Gates and Marc Benioff are among those betting that the decadeslong goal of building fusion reactors is now within years of being reality.

Mr. Benioff calls fusion a “tremendous dream.”

“It’s the holy grail. It’s the mythical unicorn,” said Mr. Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce Inc., who invested in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology spinout called Commonwealth Fusion Systems, which aims to create compact power plants. Mr. Gates is also an investor.

Fusion has long been seen as a clean-energy alternative to sources that burn fossil fuels and release greenhouse gases. Other technologies and applications being developed in the race for fusion power include powerful magnets, better lasers or radiation therapy for cancer research.

Fusion, Mr. Benioff added, “has no limits if you can get it to work.”

Developers mostly in the U.S., Canada and Europe have been riding a wave of momentum since August 2021, when scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory came close to achieving more energy in a fusion reaction than was put in with lasers, a goal known as net gain.

Many grew to believe that a breakthrough was imminent. It came in December when the national lab achieved net gain for the first time.

Nuclear fusion occurs when two light atomic nuclei merge to form a single heavier one. That process releases huge amounts of energy, no carbon emissions and limited radioactivity, but companies would have to sustain fusion reactions and engineer a way to turn that energy into net power.

The old saw about fusion is that it is a mirage years away and always will be. It is a long-shot bet even with the high-risk world of venture funding.

Mr. Benioff said he was persuaded by Vinod Khosla, the Sun Microsystems co-founder who was an early investor in private fusion, historically the province of academia and national labs.

Mr. Khosla’s interest hinged on the ability to build a large high-temperature superconducting electromagnet. He spent 15 months on due diligence and hired three teams to evaluate the design before investing.

He thinks that several fusion designs should be tested and is investing in another firm, Realta Fusion, a spinout from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Even if one of them can work, the planet is much better off is how I look at it,” he said.

As an investor, Mr. Khosla sees fusion this way: “Financially either you lose one times your money or you can make a thousand times your money,” Mr. Khosla said. “That’s the math of fusion.”

Industrial firms, major oil companies and sovereign-wealth funds are backing efforts along with the Department of Defense, which is in search of a toaster-sized power system for satellite propulsion.

“There’s a reasonable probability at least one, maybe two companies will demonstrate fusion conditions in this decade,” said Ernest Moniz, who is the chief executive of the nonprofit research group Energy Futures Initiative and a former U.S. Energy Secretary.

Mr. Moniz, a physicist, said that improvements in large-scale machine learning have sped experiments and helped several companies achieve or approach the extreme temperatures and pressures needed for fusion reactions.

Riaz Haq said...

Cyrus Janssen
While everyone has been focused on Russia, China launched one of the most advanced nuclear reactors that burns thorium. Why is this important? With this tech, China now has enough thorium to power the country for the next 20,000 years!

Full Story 👇


China gives green light to nuclear reactor that burns thorium – a fuel that could power the country for 20,000 years

It has several advantages over uranium reactors, including safety, reduced waste, better fuel efficiency and suitability for use in arid landlocked areas
The tech is expected to strengthen China’s energy security as the nation has abundant thorium reserves

China’s nuclear safety watchdog has issued an operational permit for the nation’s first thorium reactor, marking a significant milestone in the country’s pursuit of advanced nuclear technologies.
The reactor, a two-megawatt liquid-fuelled thorium molten salt reactor (MSR), is located in the Gobi Desert city of Wuwei in Gansu province and is operated by the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
The permit, issued by the National Nuclear Safety Administration on June 7, allows the Shanghai Institute to operate the reactor for 10 years and it will start by testing operations.

The permit specifies that the Shanghai Institute is responsible for the safety of the reactor and must comply with all relevant laws, regulations and technical standards.

Thorium MSRs are a type of advanced nuclear technology that use liquid fuels, typically molten salts, as both a fuel and a coolant. They offer several potential advantages over traditional uranium reactors, including increased safety, reduced waste and improved fuel efficiency.
Thorium is also a more abundant resource compared with uranium, and China has significant thorium reserves.

Riaz Haq said...

China gives green light to nuclear reactor that burns thorium – a fuel that could power the country for 20,000 years

The reactor is a significant achievement for China’s nuclear energy sector, according to experts in China’s nuclear industry who asked not to be named because they were not authorised to speak to the media. They said it showed the country’s progress in developing and deploying advanced nuclear technologies and positioned China as a potential leader in thorium reactor technology.
The Shanghai Institute has also launched a follow-up project – a small-scale modular thorium molten salt reactor research facility – at the same desert site to advance the technology and address technical challenges, according to information on the institute’s website.
Small-scale modular reactors offer several benefits, including flexibility, enhanced safety features and cost-effectiveness, according to the institute.

The large-scale use of thorium reactor technology has the potential to enhance China’s global competitiveness in the energy sector. It could strengthen China’s energy security, position the country as a leader in advanced nuclear technologies and contribute to environmental sustainability.
However, a number of technical, regulatory and economic challenges will have to be overcome if the reactors are to be deployed successfully on a large scale, according to industry experts.
Previous attempts failed
The project was launched in 2011, but construction did not start until 2018.
Its groundbreaking ceremony made national headlines because the construction contractor hired Taoist monks to pray for heavenly blessings for the hi-tech project.
The reactor was expected to take six years to build, but scientists and engineers completed the work in about three years afte r the work went more smoothly than expected.
It took environmental authorities more than two years to confirm that the facility met the highest safety standards, according to the permit.

China is not the first country to build a thorium reactor, but no previous attempts went beyond the experimental stage.
Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in the United States conducted the Molten-Salt Reactor Experiment from 1965 to 1969, successfully showing the feasibility of a thorium MSR. However, it did not progress to commercial use because of a combination of factors, including limited funding and shifting priorities.
Another early thorium MSR project, also conducted by the ORNL in the 1950s, was the Aircraft Reactor Experiment, which aimed to develop a compact, portable reactor for potential use in aircraft. But the project faced technical challenges, including issues with fuel containment and corrosion, which ultimately led to its discontinuation.
India has also been pursuing thorium-based nuclear technologies, including MSRs. The Indian Molten Salt Breeder Reactor project, initiated in the 1980s, aimed to develop a thorium-based breeder reactor.
However, the project has faced challenges related to materials compatibility, fuel reprocessing and overall system complexity and has not progressed to commercial-scale use.
Going critical
According to the information provided in the permit, the thorium MSR will undergo test operations after the initial loading of fuel.
The test includes the first approach to criticality, the point at which a nuclear reaction becomes self-sustaining. This is a crucial step in the reactor’s start-up process and involves carefully controlled conditions to ensure a safe progression towards a self-sustaining state.

Riaz Haq said...

China gives green light to nuclear reactor that burns thorium – a fuel that could power the country for 20,000 years

Another test involves intentionally taking the reactor out of operation or reducing its power level below 90 per cent of its maximum capacity. It is important to have control over this process to ensure that the reactor is operating within safe limits and that any changes or adjustments are approved and monitored.
A test report should be submitted to the National Nuclear Safety Administration within two months of completing all the experiments specified in the testing plan, according to the permit.

From uranium to thorium
China is believed to have one of the largest thorium reserves in the world. The exact size of those reserves has not been publicly disclosed, but it is estimated to be enough to meet the country’s total energy needs for more than 20,000 years.
The abundance of the resource makes it an attractive option for China. If molten salt reactors prove to be successful and viable for commercial deployment, they could help expand China’s nuclear energy supply to inland cities.
One of the advantages of thorium MSRs is their flexibility in terms of location.
The use of molten salts as both a fuel and a coolant allows for more efficient heat transfer and potentially eliminates the need for large quantities of water, which is a significant advantage in areas where water resources are limited.
By using thorium MSRs, China could potentially establish nuclear power plants in cities far from coastal areas. This could help diversify the country’s energy mix, reduce dependence on fossil fuels and meet the growing energy demand from inland regions.
China unveils design for first waterless nuclear reactor
20 Jul 2021

While China has made progress in the development and implementation of thorium MSR technology, several nuclear experts noted this did not necessarily mean all technological challenges had been overcome.
Developing and deploying new nuclear technologies, including thorium MSRs, can be expensive. The launch of the Shanghai Institute’s small-scale modular thorium molten salt reactor project indicates China is interested in further reducing the cost of the technology, they said.
Thse reactors are typically built in a factory and then transported to the site for installation. They can be installed in many types of environments, including remote or off-grid areas. Their smaller size enables easier scalability, allowing for incremental capacity additions based on energy demand.
This modular approach to building and installation can potentially reduce construction costs and project timelines. The ability to manufacture components in a factory setting and transport them to the site can streamline the construction process and improve cost efficiency.
China reportedly plans to sell small thorium reactors to other countries as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing’s global infrastructure plan.
They can provide a nuclear entry point for countries or regions with smaller energy demands or limited grid infrastructure. Their smaller capacity and modular nature makes them more accessible and financially viable for these markets.