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

14 comments:

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?

http://www.counterpunch.org/haniffa02282006.html

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!
-Saurabh

Riaz Haq said...

Here are excerpts from a Washington Post report about China-Pakistan nuclear deal:

"President Obama has strongly advocated for restrictions on the spread of nuclear technology. But his administration has said little publicly about the China-Pakistan deal. Meanwhile, the administration announced Tuesday that China, despite its misgivings, had signed on to a draft U.N. Security Council resolution sanctioning Iran."

"A senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk more freely, said the United States is waiting for China to detail how it plans to proceed with this transaction. "We don't have much clarity, and so the issue has not ripened in the government," he said. He said any claim that the reactors are grandfathered "would be a hard case to make," but China could seek a formal exemption from the guidelines -- which are voluntary in any case.

Indeed, complicating matters is that the United States, after hard lobbying, in 2008 won a specific exemption at the NSG for trade with India, Pakistan's nuclear-armed rival. Pakistan has long wanted its own exemption -- and the United States has refused -- but the administration may not want to roil relations with Islamabad at a time when their partnership on counterterrorism is seen as crucial."

"Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said the China-Pakistan deal "is some of the fallout of the India-U.S. civil nuclear agreement" -- which included the special exemption for nuclear trade. The deal was a Bush administration initiative -- but was avidly supported by then-Sens. Barack Obama, Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Hillary Rodham Clinton."

Riaz Haq said...

Despite Iran and Pakistan signing on an ambitious gas pipeline deal with its possible extension to India, the multi-billion project is unlikely to take off, according to the text of an American diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks.

A source, whose name has been removed, in the cable confided to the US diplomat in a private conversation on June 4, 2009 that he viewed near-term implementation of the Iranian-Pakistani gas link project as "very unlikely", the cable said.

Shubham 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 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.
'Vandalised'

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...

Here's PakistanToday on nuclear power expansion in Pakistan:

ISLAMABAD - Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) envisages production of 8,800 MW by the year 2030 through nuclear power reactors. Two nuclear power plants, 340MW each, are under construction at Chashma and expected to be commissioned by 2016 with Chinese assistance. Construction of these power plants became possible after a long-standing agreement, while three other nuclear power plants already commissioned in the country are performing well. According to official sources, the allocation for PAEC is almost 11% of the total federal development budget estimated at Rs 360 billion for the financial year 2012-13.
Officials said a major chunk of the PAEC budget has been allocated to two nuclear power plants.
“An amount of Rs 34.6 billion has been set aside for Chashma Nuclear Power Plants, C3 and C4. The total cost of these two projects is Rs 190 billion which will be partially funded by a Rs 136 billion Chinese loan.
The government has so far spent Rs 62.4 billion on the mega project having a 660 MW generation capacity. With Rs 34.6 billion additional spending, the government will be able to complete almost half of the work by June 2013, an official said. According to an official in Ministry of Science and Technology, government is harmonising the efforts made in the energy sector by different ministries, departments and research centres by creating an ‘Energy Council’ with heads of relevant organisations. The council will be entrusted to advise on priority areas for Research and Development (R&D) and management of resources and to fill the gaps.
Acquisition of technology for building nuclear power reactors through R&D, as well as transfer of technology agreements is also in consideration, he said.


http://www.pakistantoday.com.pk/2013/01/24/news/profit/paec-to-produce-8800-mw-by-2030/