Nuclear Power – Thorium and Other Perspectives

Fabian Böck / 8 July 2019 / Read: 8m 20s

Nuclear power is a sensitive topic, especially in Germany. But, this article is entirely free from ideology. It is mostly about technology. And it's foremost about business. And, since BOECK | BUSINESS NEWS covers technological progress from around the world, it is, of course, also about this particular source of power–including Thorium.

Mathematically Right?

We all know the numbers: Demand for energy keeps rising dramatically, the world's population will increase existentially, and a critical mass of scientists consider renewables to fall short of people's expectations potentially. We hope these predictions aren't right, but what if they are?

Nuclear power–on paper–has been a reliable source of carbon-free energy which could compensate for some disadvantages that other clean technologies bring up; at least. However, scientists might have answers to all of the main concerns on nuclear power, plus however, this source of energy has served tremendously over several decades enabling unprecedented human development, nuclear power is not particularly popular on this planet.

Since the Fukushima accident took place in 2011, several countries rushed out of nuclear like Japan (obviously) and Germany. Even people in France are said to have a strong dislike of nuclear power, although–or maybe because–they rely on that source of electricity by more than 70%. In high-income countries, nuclear power is in an idle or to be phased out. It's fair to say that this technology is not on the uprise.

"Who exactly will pay that bill?"

Considering all detriments humankind may have experienced with nuclear power, nobody would have a problem with a farewell like that. Unless, nuclear power is actually leaving a serious low carbon and high energy source gap which cannot be replaced so easily. An official report of the IEA states quite realistically: "Without additional nuclear, the clean energy transition becomes more difficult and more expensive – requiring $1.6 trillion of additional investment in advanced economies over the next two decades." 1.6 trillion. 1,600 billion. 1,600,000 million. Who exactly will pay that bill?

Let's face it: Nuclear power, regardless of all socio-ecological sensitivities, is the most sophisticated way to put physics into use for humanity. Considering all the problems that culminate in global warming, skyrocketing population, a rise of energy demand, and economic downfalls, one should at least think about alternative ways to solve or bridge these problems. Next-generation nuclear power could be one of them.

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Nuclear Power Worldwide

With respect to the Fukushima accident in 2011, some advanced economic countries like Japan and Germany decided to pull the plug on nuclear power immediately. Japan bets on renewable technology and replaces the gap that nuclear power has left in the meantime with coal. In Germany, the last nuclear power plant will be phased out by 2022. Instead, renewable technologies are highly gaining momentum due to subsidies, cost reductions, efficiency improvements, and people's favor for green technology. Germany encourages other countries to follow this approach, as well.

In the US, where around 100 from the world's roughly 450 nuclear power plants are located, nuclear power is stuck, too. Operational licenses allow for many more decades of nuclear energy, however, some nuclear power plants have already been turned off and many more are at stake due to market price conditions. Governments prioritizing and subsidizing other technologies make it nearly impossible for nuclear power to compete in the energy sector properly.

France, which relies heavily on nuclear power, has not yet decided on what direction to go. Until then, France benefits from nuclear energy both helping to reach its climate targets and providing electricity prices half of Germany's. Other leading European countries like the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden, opt for a different approach. The Netherlands announced that they would increase their nuclear power activity to deal with future energy demands and to meet their climate targets. Sweden has decided to turn back its exit from nuclear power. Norway is into nuclear R&D as well, and so is private company ThorCon.

"China will then run the world's largest nuclear power industry"

Russia, India, and China, not very surprising, use nuclear power very progressively. China, not very surprising either, is becoming the most relevant site on earth where future nuclear technologies will have a real chance to come online. China spends billions on R&D and aims for setting up next-generation nuclear power plants within 15-20 years from now. What may seem long, is a short period considering that even tested nuclear reactor designs take roughly a decade to build. China will then run the world's largest nuclear power industry with alone 30 plus new nuclear power plants of different reactor designs (molten-salt reactors, high-temperature gas-cooled reactors, and sodium-cooled fast reactors). Additionally, China might become the most relevant nuclear power plant provider in the world. While advanced western economies withdraw from that source of power, China is absorbing intelligence to grow on that technology vastly.

Thorium — and Molten-Salt Reactors

Well, thorium. Since thorium is famous around the world for a while now, we can keep the introduction short. Tested around the 1960s, thorium as a component sank into oblivion until scientists reactivated that idea in the mid-2000s. While thorium and molten-salt reactors gain more and more attention within science, it seems that there is no space left in public for any consideration whatsoever due to an ever-growing trend for renewables.

Atomic number 90, thorium, is a weakly radioactive chemical element. It has an ultra-high melting point, which makes it a perfect fit for nuclear power since it solves one of the main issues uranium might have. Uranium can meltdown if not handled and cooled accordingly. Moreover, thorium doesn't have to operate on high pressure, it is not based on water cooling, and it doesn't use solid fuel. Devil's in the details, though.

"technology to power the world, treat diseases, and lead humanity into deep space"

So, to get a sense of the specifics, watch this sharp piece from 2012, embedded below. It's about Kirk Sorensen, former nuclear technologist and NASA aerospace engineer, founder of Fible Energy. His company works on Liquid Floride Thorium Reactors as technology to power the world, treat diseases, and lead humanity into deep space. Maybe science has progressed since then, however, showing this video almost feels like citing a classic:


Molten-salt reactors base on the same physics as the previous generations: Initiate controlled chain reactions that create heat. This heat boils water to steam, which then drives a turbine to generate electricity. One of the major advantages is the safety aspect, as we learned, reducing the expensive and redundant safety systems of current reactor designs vastly. In theory, they also produce much less radioactive waste because they might consume up to 100% of their fuel. And, the misuse for military purposes is said to be far less likely due to that different process. Molten-salt reactors can either run on thorium or liquid uranium salts, or both. But, more scientists say that thorium would have advantages, like it is chemically more efficient and also more abundant. It is unlikely to run out of thorium within significant time.

There are actually many more experts involved in thorium-based molten-salt reactor technology with Bill Gates being one of the most prominent and China being one of the most powerful. Countries like India and China are spending serious R&D budgets on thorium and new nuclear reactor technology.

21st Century Technology

Since nuclear power technology got stuck in the 1970s, it is evident that there must be many more ways to explore nuclear technologies today. Although some experts say, current technology was already safe enough, and high costs only resulted from concessions to the public fear, I think, let's keep an eye open to technological progress. And, if it helps to reduce prejudices from the public, it might have a useful side-effect. So, as for new nuclear technologies, we can put another element into use (thorium), we can utilize high-precision simulator technology to explore various scenarios, we can talk about entirely new, next-generation reactor designs, and, we can have an outlook on the progress of fusion technology.

Today, digital power plant simulators deliver much better intel on even the most extraordinary scenarios. You can take virtual-reality tours through all layers of a reactor where no human being could ever place a foot into. So, you can evaluate different procedures and completely different reactor designs. Of course, simulation technology and it dealing with unexpected difficulties can never represent reality 100%. However, this way to approach real-life scenarios is unparalleled and highly advanced, and it serves as a great indicator. China uses this simulator technology to set up plans for its upcoming experimental reactors.

As for the reactor design, nuclear power isn't nuclear power. In general, people only know current nuclear power plant technology running on heavy water reactor technology and uranium. Most of them being reactor generation I or II, only a few generation III (e.g., AP 1000). All in all, there are way more reactor designs, seven of which being considered as safest:

  • heavy water reactors
  • boiling light water reactors
  • pressurized light water reactors
  • high-temperature gas-cooled reactors
  • fast neutron reactors
  • accelerator driven reactors
  • molten-salt reactors

High-temperature gas reactors are said to be meltdown-safe but might have issues being competitive. Accelerator driven reactors and molten-salt reactors, so far, are still at a conceptual stage. Those reactor designs especially, using waste as fuel raise questions on how to accomplish that in real life and if it produced more waste actually. Experiments will tell, hopefully.

As mentioned before, China is actively involved in R&D on new technology, using simulator technology to provide intel for their experimental plants. Energy company TerraPower, which is funded by Bill Gates, alongside several startups, are involved in testings like that, as well. Bill Gates fosters this technology and urges the US to take the lead in terms of nuclear power. The US has started to set up a new test reactor with GE Hitachi's PRISM technology. Finally, in the Netherlands the company Nuclear Research and Consultancy Group has built a molten-salt reactor that is powered by thorium. When some last questions could be answered (e.g., waste and corrosiveness), this test reactor is aimed to be commercially scaled up.

And, there is fusion. It may be a completely different article since it's a different story for the distant future, which might not help actual improvements in nuclear technology very much. However, since it is a subject of much speculation, much interest, and much nuclear technology, it's worth having a brief look at fusion technology: To start off, there is the international ITER project operating in the field of nuclear fusion research and plasma physics experiments whose testing is estimated to start by 2027. ITER is said to be over time and over budget significantly, though. The EU funds almost half of the money. So, do also watch the stellarator project of Germany's research institute Max Planck Institute (Greifswald). Finally, first commercial projects are gaining attention and raising money like the fusion technology designs from US company Commonwealth Fusion Systems. We will expand on fusion technology in another article.

"keep an eye on which revolutionary technology is within grasp"

Fusion technology has the potential to be much safer while producing far less radioactive waste compared to current fission technology. So long, it's only theory. So keep an eye on which revolutionary technology is within grasp: next-generation molten-salt reactors for example. It is complicated enough to find common ground within the regulatory framework. To be licensed, regulatory commissions want to see an actual reactor design and be able to ask real questions, before considering to license at all. Nuclear energy startups have to spend those 200 million Dollars to build a test reactor in advance, though. Hen and egg.

What's the Problem?

Awareness. Period. There is no common ground to discuss on that matter free from prejudices. I don't think that this general public attitude, this fear of meltdown, uncontrollable waste, and misused weaponry is necessarily exaggerated too much. Some things could go horribly wrong, and they might. Take people's sense seriously. However, when we see other parts of the world highly committing to a possible solution that could be solving so many problems, it is our duty to be paying attention.

Fact is, the political agenda is pretty much set, the industry is delivering on that, and renewable energy technologies may become viable components for the long-term energy mix. However, what if it's not enough? What if renewables don't even remotely deliver on their expectations? What if governments have spent all those 1.6 trillion Dollars, mentioned by the IEA before, on subsidies? Wouldn't it be great to have another technology to fill the gap in these high demand times?

The market alone will not be able to handle this problem. Because investors are not afraid of next-generation nuclear power, they are worried about politicians not approving of that new technology. Just like the actual climate, the investment climate is stressed day by day. We see next-generation nuclear technology having a chance only in large-scale subsidized environments like China.

"wouldn't let intellectual property flow to parties that will sell it back to us in a decade"

Maybe western countries could be even trying? What about concentrating money and focus on this matter as for the Large Hadron Collider (which raises some public safety concerns as well, by the way). So, we could, at least, keep an open mind for technology alternatives. We could maintain human capital in nuclear engineering and wouldn't let intellectual property flow to parties that will sell it back to us in a decade–probably for those 1.6 trillion Dollars we might have already spent in the future. Think about it.

More articles on New Energy.

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