Updated Mon, Mar 31, 2014 4:03 pm
It has the makings of a classic conspiracy theory. Government scientists in the 1960’s developed a smaller, potentially safer form of nuclear power using a cheap and abundant fuel, only to have the program mothballed and kept secret for decades.
The Thorium Molten-Salt reactor was one of several nuclear reactor designs developed at Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in a flurry of cold war innovation. But the technology was scrapped in favor of today’s water cooled Uranium reactors.
“And it’s really tragic because this was I think a far superior way to go.”
Bill Thesling is the executive chairman of the Cleveland-based Energy From Thorium Foundation.
“They did a lot of work at Oak Ridge that proved the basic concept of fuel dissolved in a molten salt, that’s the game changer right there.”
Thesling and his group are promoting a radically different design than virtually all reactors operating today. Instead of the standard solid enriched Uranium fuel in most reactors, the new design uses another element, Thorium, dissolved in a high temperature solution of fluoride salts. Thesling says this alone is a major safety advantage over today’s high pressure reactors.
“The thing effectively cannot melt down because it’s already molten, so the concept of a meltdown is really not even at play.”
And Thesling says Thorium is a cheap and abundant mineral that doesn’t need expensive purification like Uranium.
“It would solve the energy situation for the nation and for humanity, and that’s kind of our reason for doing it.”
Engineer Kirk Sorenson is Chief Technologist with the Energy From Thorium Foundation. He blames the politics of the Nixon era for killing the Thorium molten salt reactor project, and laments the missed opportunity.
“It would have been great if back in the 70’s if the United States had made the decision to keep going with this technology. We would have had Thorium reactors by the 90’s and by this point would have been completely energy independent, and would be for thousands of years, but that didn’t happen.”
The government’s thorium research was declassified in the 90s. Sorenson discovered it while working at NASA and he’s picking up where government scientists left off 45 years ago.. He’s one of just a few dozen Thorium evangelists in the US actively working on the abandoned technology.
Not everyone is so excited about it, though.
Arjun Makhijani is a former nuclear scientist and head of the Washington-based Institute for Energy and Environmental Research.
“Thorium reactors have some safety advantages, but they also have a lot of disadvantages.”
For one thing, he says, it’s easier to siphon off bomb-making materials from thorium reactors. He also says the technology DOES have to use some uranium— to kick-off the reactions.
Kirk Sorenson acknowledges that significant engineering challenges remain before his Thorium molten salt reactor is ready for service. His group also estimates a billion dollar price tag for the project. But the biggest hurdle, he says, is convincing regulators that the design is safe in a time-frame investors can live with.
“We’ve got a licensing authority, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, that has never licensed a reactor of this type before and that’s going to be a challenge and I think everything else pales in comparison to that challenge.”
Arjun Makhijani agrees. He thinks regulators wouldn’t move quickly enough to allow a thorium reactor to play any part in reversing climate change.
“By the time, if all goes as the proponents claim, in this country at least, it will be 20 years before you can get a certified reactor. By that time your global warming game is over.”
Makijhani says rapid advances in alternative energy mean the golden age of nuclear power will remain firmly in the past.
“Before any of these reactors can be demonstrated to be viable they’re going to be economically obsolete.”
The Chinese government is launching a massive effort to build a Thorium molten salt reactor by the end of this decade.
But in this country, despite the intense faith of a small group of activists, financial and regulatory realities mean the promise of limitless nuclear power from Thorium may remain an unfulfilled dream.