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Senatorial candidate turns up thorium nuclear heat for U.S. economy

Posting in Design

Say it's so, Joe. Thorium and its rare earth counterparts could prop up the U.S. economy if they work as described by former congressman Joe Sestak, who is eyeing a run for senate again in 2016.

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CHICAGO - Small nuclear reactors based on entirely different designs from today's nuclear technology could help the U.S. secure a clean and independent energy and economic future, a former two-term congressman, Navy admiral and senatorial candidate said here.

Reactors that use liquid thorium fuel - rather than today's solid uranium - would be valuable sources of clean industrial heat as well as generating electricity, Pennsylvania Democrat Joe Sestak told the Thorium Energy Alliance Conference earlier this month.

Liquid thorium reactors - also known as thorium molten salt reactors - operate at much higher temperatures than conventional reactors. They could provide CO2-free heat for the high-temperature industrial processes fed today by CO2-emitting fossil fuel furnaces, Sestak said.

Those processes would include operations within the fossil fuel industry such as extraction and turning coal and natural gas into liquid form. The natural gas fracking industry, big in Sestak's home state, could be among the users.

Thorium molten salt reactors (TMSRs) provide a number of advantages over conventional nuclear. In addition to their potential as heat sources, they are safer, yield less long-lived waste, are more efficient and more resistant to weapons proliferation.

The U.S. developed a TMSR at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the 1960s. China is now developing them, in part with technology from Oak Ridge. A number of Western companies are attempting to revive the reactor type, using either liquid thorium or uranium (see links below for longer list), but face signifiant funding hurdles. Sestak encouraged TMSR developers - who often promote their technology for its CO2-free aspect - to team with the "strange bedfellows" of the fossil fuel industry which has money but carries a CO2 stigma.

“You have got to get allies on board,” Sestak told a crowd of thorium enthusiasts including scientists, engineers and businesspeople. “The best ones are unlikely bedfellows.”

Sestak noted that a thorium energy base could also help the U.S. regain control from China of vital rare earth metals. Rare earths occur in the same common minerals as thorium (despite their name, rare earth elements are not rare, yet China has managed to command over 90 percent of the world market).

Mining those minerals, such as monazite, would thus yield an energy source as well as the metals that are crucial across a wide range of products including missiles, radar, cars, magnets, lightbulbs, computers and smartphones. Rare earths are also key to renewable energy technologies like wind turbines and solar panels.

"I believe that thorium with rare earths is a way to enhance - greatly - the accessibility of our energy in so many fields, not just nuclear power," Sestak said.

Sestak, who narrowly lost a bold bid for Senate in 2010, is considering another run in 2016. As a retired admiral who commanded a nuclear powered aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, Sestak trusts nuclear safety. For more on him and on his Chicago presentation, see my Weinberg blog.

Photo of Joe Sestak at Thorium Energy Alliance Conference by Mark Halper.

More thorium reactors, on SmartPlanet:

The thorium-rare earth connection:

Another touch of nuclear heat:

You can find a rich archive of alternative nuclear stories here, including thorium, molten salt, pebble beds, fast reactors, modular reactors, fusion and more.

— By on June 23, 2013, 9:48 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