Nuclear Power. Why we chose Uranium over Thorium and ended up in this mess. Time to clean up.


I was born in Sweden, on the beautiful west coast where fishing was a way of life, the sunsets magnificent in the summer and the sailing around the skerries and in the fjords could never be forgotten. On the West Coast is also the second largest Swedish city, Gothenburg, home of the famous Chalmers’ Technical University.
The year was 1948 and the Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl had made his famous “Kon-Tiki expedition” sailing on a balsa raft from South America to Polynesia. Apr 30 is the official day to celebrate the arrival of spring in Sweden and Chalmers celebrates it in its own way with a parade somewhat like the Mardi Gras parade in Latin countries. I was there as a 6 year old lad when the float with a rather imaginative copy of the Kon-Tiki raft rattled by. I say rattled, for a galvanized wash tub was hooked on in the back with a rope and it made a loud metallic noise going down the cobblestones. This was the greatest thing I had seen or heard, so I decided right then and there to become a Chalmerist.
Sweden is a beautiful country with clean and abundant water, beautiful forests, a coast line full of small islands and fertile valleys, where the long summer days provide enough growing days to ensure good harvests. The nature is fragile, sensitive to acid rain and pollution. As I grew up I noticed a sharp deterioration in the water quality, there was too much nitrogen in the lakes, “we are fertilizing or lakes on average four times as much as our land” was a quote that stuck in my mind. The acid rain that came in from England and Germany killed the trouts in the cold mountain lakes, and algae bloom took out the oxygen in the larger lakes. In addition we had been treating our seed with Mercury, so carnivorous birds and animals were threatened with extinction.
The time came to apply to University, and to my delight I was accepted to Chalmers’ as a Technical Physics major. I felt, maybe I can do my part by becoming a Nuclear Engineer and help solve the energy needs of the future. The Swedes at that time championed the heavy water – natural Uranium program following the Canadians. Sweden was at that time non-aligned, so it was not privy to any atomic secrets, it had to go it alone. They settled on the heavy water moderated natural Uranium process because Sweden had an ambition to produce its own nuclear bomb. Officially this was never talked about, and I was not aware of it at that time. They could have gone with Thorium instead, but Thorium produces very little Plutonium, and what it produces is PU-238, not suitable for bomb making. I was excited to learn about all the possibilities and signed up for a couple of nuclear classes. One lab was to design a safety circuit, then run the heavy water research reactor critical and hopefully watch the reactor shut down from your circuit, not the safety shutdown.
Then the word came that U.S. will sell partially enriched uranium at bargain basement prices if Sweden agreed to abandon the heavy water project and sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, a treaty being formulated by U.N. Sweden was in awe about U.N, all the problems of the world were to be solved through it and it had such capable General Secretary in Dag Hammarskjöld, a Swede.
I looked at the light water partially enriched Uranium nuclear power plants being developed and decided to have no part with it, not because of safety concern but it was the design that produced the most nuclear waste of any of the available designs. At that time there was still optimism that fusion would be ready by about the year 2010 or so. The cost of maintaining spent fuel in perpetuity was never considered, so light water reactors became the low cost solution.
India on the other hand refused to join the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, kept their heavy water program going and had by 1974 produced enough plutonium for one nuclear bomb, which they promptly exploded. They still use heavy water moderated reactors, but since India is low on Uranium but rich in Thorium they have now converted one heavy water reactor to thorium with a Plutonium glow plug. It is set to go on-line in 2011. (1) They are also developing molten salt Thorium reactors, but full production is still a few years off.
There we have it. We could have gone with Thorium from the beginning, but the cold war was on, and the civilian peaceful use of nuclear energy was still all about nuclear weapons. Once all the bombs we could ever need were developed the greatest asset of nuclear power became its greatest liability.
We need to start over with Thorium, producing 0.01% of the long term wastes of other processes.
There is enough Thorium around to last a million years at today’s cost. They can be built and produce energy for about 60% of the cost of a light water plant, and the total cost of ownership is even less since it produces and consumes its own fuel as you go. We will run out of just about every other ore long before then. As time goes by, garbage dumps will look more and more attractive, having batteries, Mercury lamps, poisons galore, but also useful stuff capable of producing energy and fuel for transportation. There are ongoing plans to convert garbage to jet fuel is taking place(2)
The future will need more energy to clean up the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. Thorium is one part of the answer. Wind and solar are only blips on the energy chart, ethanol made from corn or other edible sources should be done away with, other biofuels can only do so much. Nuclear will have to play an increased role. Go Thorium!
• (1) India has a vision of becoming a world leader in nuclear technology due to its expertise in fast reactors and thorium fuel cycle. India’s Kakrapar-1 reactor is the world’s first reactor which uses thorium rather than depleted uranium to achieve power flattening across the reactor core. India, which has about 25% of the world’s thorium reserves, is developing a 300 MW prototype of a thorium-based Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR). The prototype is expected to be fully operational by 2011, following which five more reactors will be constructed. Considered to be a global leader in thorium-based fuel, India’s new thorium reactor is a fast-breeder reactor and uses a plutonium core rather than an accelerator to produce neutrons. As accelerator-based systems can operate at sub-criticality they could be developed too, but that would require more research. India currently envisages meeting 30% of its electricity demand through thorium-based reactors by 2050.

(2)(Feb 18, 2010) British Airways has announced plans to source a part of its fuel supplies from waste municipal waste to fuel plant. The company plans to procure 16 million gallons of green jet fuel annually from the Solena plant that would come up in London.
The plant which is expected to come online in 2014 would convert 50,000 tonnes of municipal waste into jet-grade fuel. The volume of fuel supplied initially would be 2 percent of the total fuel consumption of British Airways. This would cut down on the carbon emissions generated due to the conventional jet fuel, kerosene.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted July 19, 2011 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

    Ever heard of Shippingport? I had a boss who managed there while thorium was used. Commerically, it was unviable Check out Wikipedia. I am talking 98% conversion to electrical power. No pot heater can do that.

    • lenbilen
      Posted August 21, 2011 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

      The Shippingport reactor was our first commercial reactor devoted strictly for peaceful use. It was only 60 MW and had outlived its useful life in 1982.
      It was a light water moderated breeder reactor making U233 out of Thorium. The breeding ratio was about 1.013.
      When it was decommissioned in 1982 the Three Mile Island accident had happened and the nation was in no mood to accept any more nuclear power stations. The regulatory climate had changed drastically, so any new nuclear power stations had to be over 500 MW to be able to carry the increased regulatory cost. It was also by then a pressurized light water reactor. The profitability of Thorium reactors come with a molten salt moderator, not light water.
      (The following paragraphs are taken from http://atomicinsights.com/1995/10/light-water-breeder-reactor-adapting-proven-system.html
      The light water breeder reactor was a technical success. It demonstrated a sophisticated way to more effectively use a proven technology and to make better use of natural resources. It even demonstrated a way to significantly reduce the volume of high level nuclear waste per unit of electrical power output.

      Unfortunately, the program leaders were not focused on factors that make new innovations successful in the market. The following weaknesses prevented commercial success.
      •There was little effort to promote the technology. Knowledge of the program is rare even within the nuclear industry. There is little chance of an unknown idea – particularly one with as much potential impact as a light water breeder reactor – becoming a new technical standard.
      •The core engineers did not pay enough attention to production difficulties. The assembly of the core modules required a great deal of manual labor including 2,000 precise measurements for each module. This effort implies a high production cost even if raw materials are used more efficiently.
      •There was no effort to develop other uranium-thorium reactors in an effort to help spread the fixed cost of fuel material production.
      •The program was viewed as Admiral Rickover’s pet project.

      Professional rivalry or ingrained hard feelings against Rickover probably helped seal the fate of the program. By the time the experimental core was shut down, the Secretary of the Navy had already declared his intention to retire Rickover. By the time that the core had been analyzed, Admiral Rickover was dead and many of his strongest political supporters were either retired or dead.


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