Nuclear power plants generate large amounts of reliable energy and don’t release harmful carbon emissions. They also inspire fear of nuclear disasters and produce radioactive waste that we still don’t have any way to dispose of safely.
What if we could build nuclear reactors that produce much less waste, can’t be made into weapons, are much less likely to melt down and, as a bonus, create useful medical isotopes? It sounds like the perfect solution to our energy woes.
That’s what a Utah-based startup believes it could do by using thorium as a core fuel instead of uranium in a nuclear reactor.
What Is Thorium Nuclear Energy?
Alpha Tech Research Corp., the startup in Utah, has proposed a 30-megawatt test reactor would use thorium. Seven counties in the state are considering participating.
Utah is the perfect place for a thorium reactor, because it has ample supplies of two out of three of the materials that create a liquid salt to convey heat in a thorium-based reactor. Utah’s salt flats are rich in lithium. A single mine near Delta, Utah, produces 85 percent of the world’s beryllium.
Thorium, in its pure state, is a slightly radioactive metal found in rock and soil. It’s often a byproduct of mining operations. The material is what’s known as fissile, rather than fertile, which means it needs to be irradiated before it can be used as nuclear fuel. Once it absorbs neutrons through irradiation, it transmutes into uranium-233, which is a useful fertile fuel.
Although still being researched and developed, it may be possible to create a reactor that generates more U-233 than the thorium it consumes — a process known as breeding. If this design is successful, the resulting thorium reactor would be incredibly long-lasting.
Thorium vs. Uranium
While nuclear power has its upsides, a few drawbacks have stalled the industry and contributed to the closure of numerous nuclear plants in recent years. Some of the main problems are the potential and perceived dangers of the resource, as well as the creation of nuclear waste.
Using thorium instead of uranium could help relieve some of these difficulties.
Nuclear meltdowns are rare, but very scary and potentially disastrous. Thorium reactors, in theory, would never melt down. If the molten salt overheats, it would expand, which would slow down the process of fission. The reactors don’t need to compress their coolants under extreme pressures like most nuclear facilities, eliminating the risk of explosion.
Thorium-based plants would also produce 80 percent less waste than uranium-based ones. The waste it does produce would last for much less time. It has a half-life of just seven years.
Why Don’t We Use It?
If using thorium has so many advantages, why don’t we use it? Governments first began investing in nuclear plants for their potential in creating weapons. Nuclear power plants are derived from these weapons-based designs.
During the Cold War, the U.S. experimented with using thorium in nuclear reactors, but it wasn’t nearly as useful as other methods for making nuclear weapons. Because of this, the thorium projects were largely abandoned.
Today, this is an advantage, because it demonstrates reactors that use thorium are safer and less volatile than other types of plants.
Future of Thorium Plants
Although thorium technologies seem promising, we need more research and development before we know for sure how well they’d work. Researchers have proven parts of the technology, but there are still some things that need to be worked out.
The concept is established, but the engineering presents challenges. Some of the materials used can pose health risks, so ensuring safety is another hurdle. Reactor designs and projects would also have to meet standards specific to nuclear quality-assurance programs and pass environmental reviews.
The U.S. government estimates it would take until around 2050 to work out all the kinks and be able to use thorium as a nuclear fuel. If we do manage to safely and economically figure out how to do that, we could have ample energy supplies for many years to come.
Written by Kayla Matthews, Productivity Bytes