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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Should Greens consider Thorium reactors?

Debate topic for pragmatic GREENs

Thanks to a tweet by Enviralment I just read an article on Thorium reactor technology that I think people should read. Thorium reactors have been around for quite some time but because of their inability to be weaponized they never received the same funding or hype that conventional (uranium) reactor technology received. I've looked at thorium technology a number of times not only as because I love tech stuff but also as GREEN compromise position to the outright moratorium on nuclear plants.

Thorium has a number of major advantages or Uranium reactors

1. Fuel is 10 times more abundant and readily available in the waste streams of existing metal mines. This will ensure a good supply without additional mining of any kind especially Uranium mining. Thorium technology will also keep fuel prices low compared to what will happen if a major build out of new Uranium reactors is begun. Ur prices have been suppressed for decades because of the availability of reprocessed Russian warheads taken out of service in arms control deals, this supply stream is ending and Ur prices will skyrocket in the next decade if major new projects come on line.

2. Thorium reactors are self regulating and don't need expensive and dangerous high pressure systems, lower costs and lower risk.

3. Thorium waste is only hot for a couple hundred years and contains fewer exotic and toxic materials. While still a major storage problem this fact greatly improves the long term logistics of nuclear waste.

4. Thorium reactors can be built without worries of weapon development, You can't make a bomb from it so places like Iran can build them without threatening their neighbours.

5. Thorium reactors can be used to downgrade the toxicity of other nuclear wastes containing plutonium while using them as part of the fuel mix. This reduces dangerous waste and weapons grade fuel, win/win.

So, if an increase in nuclear reactors is inevitable as many people including some environmentalists now believe would it not make sense to throw our support behind a more earth friendly nuclear alternative (thorium) rather than stubbornly demand no nukes at all?

In a energy deficient future were we may lose the all or nothing argument against Uranium reactors, is thorium both viable and comparably safe enough that greens should consider this technology a compromise position to a nuclear moratorium?

I'm realistic/pessimistic enough to believe we may well lose the nuclear argument in a energy starved future, I'm also pragmatic enough to think we should at least debate a lesser of evils compromise where both sides can claim a victory?

I'm torn but would still like to see it debated by real environmental and nuclear experts

What do you think?

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Sudbury Steve said...

Thanks for bringing this to our attention. I have to admit, I know very little about Thorium reactors, or thorium in general. But you've turned me on to wanting to know more now.

It sounds like the upsides are pretty positive (although I can't be wild about 200 years for waste to lose its radioactivity, but that's a lot better than uranium). What are the downsides?

And why aren't there more of these reactors out there (I understand the desire for weaponizational materials, but I still would have thought that maybe some country would have invested more into this tech if there are so many advantages...like a Japan or a Canada maybe).

As the song lyric goes from the movie "Grease" (which my wife forces me to watch at every opportunity) Tell me more, Tell me more!

Canadian silver bug/Green Assassin Brigade said...

These things have never been big money makers and take skid loads of $ develop, without gov money developing and backstopping loses in construction there was no one else willing to build them. Plus once Ur was installed as king, you have both the mining lobby and the existing manufactures making damn sure no one else brings a technology to market.

Too few are built to sustain two different technology streams, so until we shun Ur, Thorium will lag.

I'm not a techy but it it's still a big expensive construct with some of the risks of a reactor, but I've heard nothing that makes them seem worse and my list of things that make them sound better.

Perhaps it's like the betamax of nukes,, a better machine but never marketed properly.

arcs_n_sparks said...

Light water reactors got a head start because of Naval propulsion and, as mentioned, the need for nuclear weapon material production. The country quickly down-selected to this reactor type.

Also, the thorium reactor as originally developed at Oak Ridge was a liquid fuel reactor (molten thorium salt). This was outside of the regulatory experience base that was developing for solid fueled uranium reactors.

For the reasons stated, it is time to revisit this power producing approach. More safety, less waste, and less proliferation potential.

Kristy said...

Very interesting! Where should I look for more information?

I love reading about relative risk. Nice to see an eco-person doing that for a rare change, instead of long do/don't lists that sometimes border on the aesthetic.

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