Does Thorium Deserve a Role in Next-Generation Nuclear Energy?


"The world is still using the raw materials and components with one of the basic designs that built the first commercial nuclear power reactor more than a half-century ago."

Thorium reactor

There is a lot of innovative thinking about the next generation of nuclear power plants. With so many bright minds, an extensive supply chain and some far-sighted research and development work underway throughout the world, I wonder how long we'll have to wait until a truly bigger, better, game-changing nuclear power process or technology grabs center stage.

The nuclear industry doesn't exactly need a game-changing alternative to significantly grow its prospects. Except in the U.S. and perhaps Japan, Germany and Italy, the nuclear industry is poised to grow steadily. At last count there were about 430 reactors operating worldwide and about 70 reactors under construction or ready to break ground. The latter number includes last week's announcement by UK Prime Minister David Cameron about plans for two new conventional, uranium-fueled nuclear reactors on a coastline about 200 kilometers west of London.

What gets me is that the world is still using the raw materials and components with one of the basic designs that built the first commercial nuclear power reactor more than a half-century ago. Sure there have been some advances and numerous tweaks along the way for boiling-water and light-water reactors, but nothing that I would categorize as a dramatically cleaner, less-wasteful, lower risk—and yet still affordable—technology.

Several of the nuclear advocates I spoke to agree that today's reactors essentially are new versions of old cars. We have yet to witness a significant leap forward. Does that do justice to the future of nuclear? I would argue it does not.

There are dozens of R&D efforts underway. If you're focused on how electricity is generated in the U.S. you might not be aware of them. Prospects for real change seem best in China and India because they need lots of additional generating capacity. I spotlight these two countries because they have cost-effective access to a raw material that could fuel one of the next-generation options AND and they appear willing to do something with it: mining and using thorium as a substitute for uranium and liquid-fueled, instead of solid-fueled, reactors.

Thorium you say? This is naturally-occurring radioactive chemical element discovered in 1828 by a Swedish chemist who named it after Thor, the Norse god of thunder. It is mined along with valuable "rare earth" elements used in the manufacture of numerous products such as solar panels and smart phones.

To hear thorium advocates talk about it, the nuclear industry has stuck to uranium and the basic engineering that gave the world the atomic bomb in the 1940s and the means to power nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers heading into and out of The Cold War. Along with it came – and remains -- the legacy of possible meltdowns, long-lived radioactive waste, a good deal of public mistrust after highly publicized accidents and certain troubling maintenance issues involving tritium and other byproducts.

Nuclear power in the U.S. was enjoying a renaissance of sorts through the 1990s and early 2000s. But the increasing availability of natural gas from shale rock formations deep underground drawn to the surface by hydraulic fracturing has made nuclear simply too expensive for any energy utility in the U.S. to consider buying it without a massive federal subsidy and/ or upfront payments by ratepayers. That might work for utilities in South Carolina and Georgia, but not elsewhere.

For China, India and other countries demanding more electricity, every option is on the table. Their appetites span the universe of possibilities from conventional to next-generation reactors, some relying on uranium, some with thorium and some using both. New reactors might be built for always-on, base load generation; or they might arrive as smaller, modular reactors close to major electricity loads.

Thorium-fueled reactors have been on the drawing boards since the first uranium-fed, commercial nuclear power plant in the world began generating electricity in Shippingport, PA in 1958. During the ensuing years, co-incidental research by Alvin Weinberg at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) on a "molten salt" water reactor using thorium was demonstrating certain advantages over uranium-fed reactors. The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and its chairman, Glenn Seaborg in a 1962 report on civilian nuclear energy, recommended that President John Kennedy "guide the program in such directions to make possible the exploitation of the vast energy resources latent in the fertile materials, uranium-238 and thorium."

1962 Report

This report spotlighted a recommendation to pursue civilian nuclear power not with uranium as the raw fuel but with thorium. CREDIT: Energy From Thorium Foundation

But amid lobbying by companies heavily vested in uranium-fed, solid-fuel, water-cooled reactors, there wasn't enough support in Congress to follow through on the Atomic Energy Commission's recommendation. Some historians assert the case for thorium reactors ran out of steam after Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas 50 years ago. Weinberg hung around ORNL until he was effectively pushed out in the early 1970s.

"It was like building an Edsel when you have the blueprint for a Porsche. . .It was one of the great technological missteps in history," asserts Richard Martin in Super Fuel, which unabashedly paints a way for thorium.

Today the science and vision forged by Alvin Weinberg lives on at the Weinberg Foundation in London and is actively discussed at events such as the annual Thorium Energy Conference taking place this week in Geneva, Switzerland.

One of the major nuclear R&D efforts underway is a Chinese-U.S. collaboration led by the Department of Energy's (DOE) assistant secretary for nuclear energy, Peter Lyons and Jiang Mainheng of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. According to a March 2012 presentation by the Chinese Academy on thorium-fed, molten salt, reactors reported here by Mark Halper, the blogger-in-residence at The Weinberg Foundation, China has demonstrated keen interest in thorium. (See accompanying slide from that presentation.)


This slide is from a presentation asserting that the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) intends to mine, use and control thorium for next generation nuclear reactors. The full video is embedded at the end of this post. CREDIT:

A DOE spokeswoman denied thorium is the focus of their collaboration. Rather it is to "foster nuclear energy collaborations among scientists, laboratories, research institutes and universities in the U.S. and China" to "expand a safe, reliable and secure domestic nuclear energy industry in both countries" covering "molten salt coolant systems; nuclear fuel resources; and nuclear hybrid energy systems." It should be noted that thorium could work with either or all three of those options.

The U.S.-Chinese collaboration is one of many U.S. coordinated bilateral nuclear R&D programs in place with countries such as France, Russia, the Czech Republic, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Ukraine and South Korea.

James Kennedy, a consultant in St. Louis, MO, expresses concern about the U.S. – Chinese accord. At a recent conference by the Thorium Energy Alliance in Chicago, he said, "You can't have the world move on without you with what for all practical and measurable purposes is a safer form of energy. . . Why are we sustaining the energy system that was the byproduct of the Cold War?" These and related remarks start around the 10 minute mark of video findable at the embedded URL above.

To be sure, any transition to thorium-fueled reactors would take decades. Seth Grae, CEO of nuclear consultancy Lightbridge in McLean, VA, which makes its living serving countries with existing, uranium nuclear power reactors, is one of many who cautions that thorium is no panacea and would have its own set of technical, political and regulatory issues.

For one, thorium is still "nuclear" and still likely to draw vocal opposition. But what if there is a real value-added by deploying thorium, such as using the massive piles of spent nuclear fuel stored around the country as a fuel? The next generation of nuclear power could run, at least in part, on the energy still accessible in those fuel rods. And in the process, go a long way toward answering: what do plant operators do with the highly-radioactive waste?

"Now is the appropriate time to take another look at all the realistic options, especially with respect to how one or more of them could burn spent fuel as its fuel," said Wendolyn Hollard, a clean energy consultant who has served as Director, Strategic Development & Technical Partnerships at the Savannah River National Laboratory.

The advantages of thorium and liquid-fueled reactors deserve to be researched and, if practical, developed and offered to the world in ways that could measurably tackle the world's climate challenges while sustaining and expanding a valuable industry with high-paying jobs. That's what China, India, as well as, Norway, South Korea, South Africa and other nations seem to have in mind.

How this plays out remains to be seen. At a recent conference commemorating the 40th 'anniversary' of the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo against the U.S. by Securing America's Future Energy, GE Chairman & CEO Jeffrey Immelt said he doesn't foresee nuclear being a high priority for his successor. But for his successor's successor, nuclear could be part of the equation, even in the U.S.

How the myriad visions in around the world for thorium translate into new nuclear power plants remains to be seem. It could boil down to two things: 1) The ability of advocates to re-create a research and development path for thorium supported by the U.S. government and enabled by a less-restrictive U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission; 2) Whether enough industry suppliers are willing to support it.

I look forward to readers' comments on these and other next-generation nuclear options and writing about them. I'll close with some additional examples to keep your eyes on. They may, or may not, use thorium as a fuel:

  • Thor Energy in Oslo, Norway has begun testing thorium in a reactor there;
  • Indian planners are moving towards a three-stage development program, the last of which would be powered by thorium. One plan is to build 60 reactors and convert all of them to run on thorium by 2032.
  • Flibe Energy co-founded by Kirk Sorensen in Hunstville, AL, is reportedly working with the U.S. Defense Department on a thorium-fed reactor;
  • A research program by Candu of Canada and China National Nuclear Corporation is developing a design that could use thorium fuel as well as recycled uranium; and
  • Microsoft founder Bill Gates and his Terra Power startup in Bellevue, WA are drawing lots of interest, especially when thorium enters the conversation.

Jim Pierobon
The Energy Collective

Get Our Streetwise Reports Newsletter Free

A valid email address is required to subscribe