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Conventional nuclear giant Areva strikes thorium deal

Posting in Energy

Rock on. This lump of monazite on display in Geneva from South Africa's Steenkampskraal mine contains thorium and rare earth minerals. It could represent energy's future.

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GENEVA - One reason the nuclear industry is not moving rapidly to superior and safer technologies including thorium fuel is that its entrenched value chain moans out for more of the same old uranium and for large, traditional reactors.

That could be starting to change, as one of the world's biggest reactor companies, Areva, publicly declared an interest in thorium.

Speaking at the Thorium Energy Conference 2013 here last week, Areva vice president Luc Van Den Durpel said the French company has struck a research and development deal with €12.8 ($17.3) billion Belgian chemical stalwart Solvay to investigate the possible uses of thorium as a nuclear fuel.

Areva's Luc Van Den Durpel, speaking in Geneva last week, says maybe just maybe there's something to this thorium after all.

"Solvay and Areva have made an agreement to have a joint R&D program working on the whole set of thorium valorization (validation)," Van Den Durpel said in a presentation on the campus of international physics lab CERN, as I first reported on my Weinberg blog.

Many people believe that thorium augurs safer nuclear power that leaves much less long-lived waste than uranium, reduces the risk of weapons proliferation, effectively breeds new fuel, and that can support higher temperature operations. The increased temperature supports more efficient electricity generation and makes nuclear a candidate to replace fossil fuels as a source of industrial process heat. There is also about four times more thorium than uranium in the earth's crust.

Thorium is part of a growing movement to develop alternative nuclear technologies including altogether different reactors including "molten salt," "pebble bed" and "integral fast reactors," among others, all of which promise varying advantages in safety, waste, proliferation, cost and efficiency. In some cases, proponents of the different reactor types advocate thorium, in others they do not.

In its agreement with Solvay, Areva is not exactly racing toward a thorium future. Van Den Durpel ruled out any short term deployment and called the "medium term" a "possibility" in which Areva would mix thorium with other fuels like uranium and plutonium in conventional reactors. He said any transition to 100 percent thorium fuels would "take decades at least." He based his assessments on using thorium in conventional reactors. (For more click on the Weinberg link above.)

Solvay is interested because it processes rare earth minerals which contain thorium, a mildly radioactive element that is considered waste. For rare earth companies, thorium separate from rocks like monazite requires special costly storage, but it could be put to use as an asset if thorium reactors were to emerge. Manufacturers put rare earth metals into everything from missiles to cars to cellphones, so there is a potential ready-made source of extracted thorium.

Well known figures who promoted thorium at the conference included former UN weapons inspector Hans Blix, and Nobel Prize winning physicist Carlo Rubbia. Blix lauded thorium's proliferation resistance, and Rubbia said thorium has "absolute pre-eminence" over all other fuel types.

Photos by Mark Halper

More from CERN's thorium conference:

The thorium-rare earth connection, from SmartPlanet and elsewhere:

Thorium test bed:

Click here for a rich archive of nuclear stories, including many accounts of nuclear alternatives such as thorium, molten salt, pebble beds, fast reactors, modular reactors, fusion and more.

— By on November 6, 2013, 6:50 PM PST

Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure