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Uranium Is So Last Century — Enter Thorium, the New Green Nuke

Dec 21, 2009 - Richard Martin-

Photo: Thomas Hannich

The thick hardbound volume was sitting on a shelf in a colleague’s office when Kirk Sorensen spotted it. A rookie NASA engineer at the Marshall Space Flight Center, Sorensen was researching nuclear-powered propulsion, and the book’s title — Fluid Fuel Reactors — jumped out at him. He picked it up and thumbed through it. Hours later, he was still reading, enchanted by the ideas but struggling with the arcane writing. “I took it home that night, but I didn’t understand all the nuclear terminology,” Sorensen says. He pored over it in the coming months, ultimately deciding that he held in his hands the key to the world’s energy future.

Published in 1958 under the auspices of the Atomic Energy Commission as part of its Atoms for Peace program, Fluid Fuel Reactors is a book only an engineer could love: a dense, 978-page account of research conducted at Oak Ridge National Lab, most of it under former director Alvin Weinberg. What caught Sorensen’s eye was the description of Weinberg’s experiments producing nuclear power with an element called thorium.

At the time, in 2000, Sorensen was just 25, engaged to be married and thrilled to be employed at his first serious job as a real aerospace engineer. A devout Mormon with a linebacker’s build and a marine’s crew cut, Sorensen made an unlikely iconoclast. But the book inspired him to pursue an intense study of nuclear energy over the next few years, during which he became convinced that thorium could solve the nuclear power industry’s most intractable problems. After it has been used as fuel for power plants, the element leaves behind minuscule amounts of waste. And that waste needs to be stored for only a few hundred years, not a few hundred thousand like other nuclear byproducts. Because it’s so plentiful in nature, it’s virtually inexhaustible. It’s also one of only a few substances that acts as a thermal breeder, in theory creating enough new fuel as it breaks down to sustain a high-temperature chain reaction indefinitely. And it would be virtually impossible for the byproducts of a thorium reactor to be used by terrorists or anyone else to make nuclear weapons.

Weinberg and his men proved the efficacy of thorium reactors in hundreds of tests at Oak Ridge from the ’50s through the early ’70s. But thorium hit a dead end. Locked in a struggle with a nuclear- armed Soviet Union, the US government in the ’60s chose to build uranium-fueled reactors — in part because they produce plutonium that can be refined into weapons-grade material. The course of the nuclear industry was set for the next four decades, and thorium power became one of the great what-if technologies of the 20th century.

Today, however, Sorensen spearheads a cadre of outsiders dedicated to sparking a thorium revival. When he’s not at his day job as an aerospace engineer at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama — or wrapping up the master’s in nuclear engineering he is soon to earn from the University of Tennessee — he runs a popular blog called Energy From Thorium. A community of engineers, amateur nuclear power geeks, and researchers has gathered around the site’s forum, ardently discussing the future of thorium. The site even links to PDFs of the Oak Ridge archives, which Sorensen helped get scanned. Energy From Thorium has become a sort of open source project aimed at resurrecting long-lost energy technology using modern techniques.

And the online upstarts aren’t alone. Industry players are looking into thorium, and governments from Dubai to Beijing are funding research. India is betting heavily on the element.

The concept of nuclear power without waste or proliferation has obvious political appeal in the US, as well. The threat of climate change has created an urgent demand for carbon-free electricity, and the 52,000 tons of spent, toxic material that has piled up around the country makes traditional nuclear power less attractive. President Obama and his energy secretary, Steven Chu, have expressed general support for a nuclear renaissance. Utilities are investigating several next-gen alternatives, including scaled-down conventional plants and “pebble bed” reactors, in which the nuclear fuel is inserted into small graphite balls in a way that reduces the risk of meltdown.

Those technologies are still based on uranium, however, and will be beset by the same problems that have dogged the nuclear industry since the 1960s. It is only thorium, Sorensen and his band of revolutionaries argue, that can move the country toward a new era of safe, clean, affordable energy.

Named for the Norse god of thunder, thorium is a lustrous silvery-white metal. It’s only slightly radioactive; you could carry a lump of it in your pocket without harm. On the periodic table of elements, it’s found in the bottom row, along with other dense, radioactive substances — including uranium and plutonium — known as actinides.

Actinides are dense because their nuclei contain large numbers of neutrons and protons. But it’s the strange behavior of those nuclei that has long made actinides the stuff of wonder. At intervals that can vary from every millisecond to every hundred thousand years, actinides spin off particles and decay into more stable elements. And if you pack together enough of certain actinide atoms, their nuclei will erupt in a powerful release of energy.

To understand the magic and terror of those two processes working in concert, think of a game of pool played in 3-D. The nucleus of the atom is a group of balls, or particles, racked at the center. Shoot the cue ball — a stray neutron — and the cluster breaks apart, or fissions. Now imagine the same game played with trillions of racked nuclei. Balls propelled by the first collision crash into nearby clusters, which fly apart, their stray neutrons colliding with yet more clusters. Voilè0: a nuclear chain reaction.

Actinides are the only materials that split apart this way, and if the collisions are uncontrolled, you unleash hell: a nuclear explosion. But if you can control the conditions in which these reactions happen — by both controlling the number of stray neutrons and regulating the temperature, as is done in the core of a nuclear reactor — you get useful energy. Racks of these nuclei crash together, creating a hot glowing pile of radioactive material. If you pump water past the material, the water turns to steam, which can spin a turbine to make electricity.

Uranium is currently the actinide of choice for the industry, used (sometimes with a little plutonium) in 100 percent of the world’s commercial reactors. But it’s a problematic fuel. In most reactors, sustaining a chain reaction requires extremely rare uranium-235, which must be purified, or enriched, from far more common U-238. The reactors also leave behind plutonium-239, itself radioactive (and useful to technologically sophisticated organizations bent on making bombs). And conventional uranium-fueled reactors require lots of engineering, including neutron-absorbing control rods to damp the reaction and gargantuan pressurized vessels to move water through the reactor core. If something goes kerflooey, the surrounding countryside gets blanketed with radioactivity (think Chernobyl). Even if things go well, toxic waste is left over.

When he took over as head of Oak Ridge in 1955, Alvin Weinberg realized that thorium by itself could start to solve these problems. It’s abundant — the US has at least 175,000 tons of the stuff — and doesn’t require costly processing. It is also extraordinarily efficient as a nuclear fuel. As it decays in a reactor core, its byproducts produce more neutrons per collision than conventional fuel. The more neutrons per collision, the more energy generated, the less total fuel consumed, and the less radioactive nastiness left behind.

Even better, Weinberg realized that you could use thorium in an entirely new kind of reactor, one that would have zero risk of meltdown. The design is based on the lab’s finding that thorium dissolves in hot liquid fluoride salts. This fission soup is poured into tubes in the core of the reactor, where the nuclear chain reaction — the billiard balls colliding — happens. The system makes the reactor self-regulating: When the soup gets too hot it expands and flows out of the tubes — slowing fission and eliminating the possibility of another Chernobyl. Any actinide can work in this method, but thorium is particularly well suited because it is so efficient at the high temperatures at which fission occurs in the soup.

In 1965, Weinberg and his team built a working reactor, one that suspended the byproducts of thorium in a molten salt bath, and he spent the rest of his 18-year tenure trying to make thorium the heart of the nation’s atomic power effort. He failed. Uranium reactors had already been established, and Hyman Rickover, de facto head of the US nuclear program, wanted the plutonium from uranium-powered nuclear plants to make bombs. Increasingly shunted aside, Weinberg was finally forced out in 1973.

That proved to be “the most pivotal year in energy history,” according to the US Energy Information Administration. It was the year the Arab states cut off oil supplies to the West, setting in motion the petroleum-fueled conflicts that roil the world to this day. The same year, the US nuclear industry signed contracts to build a record 41 nuke plants, all of which used uranium. And 1973 was the year that thorium R&D faded away — and with it the realistic prospect for a golden nuclear age when electricity would be too cheap to meter and clean, safe nuclear plants would dot the green countryside.


Updated: 2016/06/30

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