By Mark Halper
Posting in Cities
Mark Halper's thorium trail winds to Chicago, where he discovers a power company from Japan investigating the alternative to uranium that could help revive the country's nuclear scene.
CHICAGO - Advocates of alternative forms of nuclear power say that the meltdowns at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power station last year underscore the need to move away from conventional designs and onto other nuclear technologies.
The researcher, Takashi Kamei, told a thorium conference in Chicago last week that Chubu Electric Power Co. has launched a research program aimed at improving the safety of nuclear power plants, and that, “This research center includes the use of thorium as a future fuel.”
Speaking at the Thorium Energy Alliance Conference, Kamei showed a May 31 video news clip from Japanese television that, according to his translation, cited the thorium program at Chubu.
Chubu has 3 conventional reactors at its Hamaoka nuclear power station that have a combined capacity of 3.6 gigawatts (it also has another two reactors there undergoing decommissioning).
The plant is currently shut down – as are all of Japan’s nuclear reactors following Fukushima. Chubu serves about 16 million people in central Japan. Nuclear, when operating, represents 15 percent of its power portfolio. The company says on its website that it is currently spending $1.2 billion on earthquake and tsunami protection measures for its existing reactors, set for completion by the end of this year.
Kamei said the utility is also specifically looking into an alternative reactor design that would use liquid thorium fuel in a reactor cooled by molten salt – a radically different approach from the solid uranium, water cooled reactors such as the ones that melted down at Fukushima.
Proponents of liquid thorium reactors say that the design eliminates the proliferation threat from nuclear waste (some critics dispute that claim), and that compared to uranium reactors, it leaves benign waste that has a short lifetime.
Some supporters like Flibe Energy in Huntsville, Ala., say that liquid thorium also runs far more efficiently than solid fuels – uranium or thorium – and that the liquid approach includes a failsafe plug that allows reactive material to drain into a holding tank in the event of an emergency.
Flibe wants to build a liquid thorium reactor based on 1960s designs from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, when thorium was part of the developing mix of U.S. nuclear power technologies. Under President Nixon, the country settled on uranium over thorium in part because uranium yielded weapons-oriented waste that was useful during the Cold War arms build-up.
Images: Nagoya from Chris 73 via Wikimedia. Chubu Electric nuclear plant and map from Chubu website video.
More from the thorium trail, on SmartPlanet:
- Safe nuclear: UK eyes thorium
- Safe nuclear: Let the thorium debate begin
- Safe nuclear: India’s thorium reactor
- Fukushima’s lesson: ‘Alternative’ nuclear, not ‘no’ nuclear
- Watch replay of nuclear’s future, with dash of rare earth
- Why safe nuclear will rely on rare earth minerals
- Meet the future of nuclear power: 8 guys in China
- How nuclear will make oil greener
- The new face of safe nuclear
Jun 5, 2012
I still insist that you should not create waste without a place to put it, reprocessed or not. Does thorium really eliminate the waste problem? Given what we have already poured into our environment, I believe sending the crap to fry in the sun is probably safer and cheaper than continuing to make, store and reprocess nuclear waste.
Please, stop inclining that it's possible to make a weapon using spent nuclear fuel. It is not. Spent fuel is very high in Pu-240, which is a particularly nasty isotope to have in weapons since it causes spontaneous fissions and may result in criticality accidents, premature detonations, and in the event of a successful detonation, a "fizzle". You cannot separate Pu-239 (the bomb stuff) from Pu-240 in a centrifuge either, they are too close in mass. You also have all those other isotopes of plutonium that will interfere with bomb neutronics. The US built a single bomb using reactor-grade waste plutonium, which did not even come from a reactor on US soil. The waste came from a MADDOX reactor in the UK specially designed to produce very pure Pu-239 while still generating an electrical output (Pu-239 breeders on US soil were power hogs requiring several coal plants to power). The plutonium was less than 90% Pu-239 and more than 6% Pu-240, so it was termed "reactor grade" rather than weapons grade by the US military at the time. This whole story is what sprung the rumor that you can use any reactor waste to build a working nuclear weapon, and prompted Carter to ban nuclear waste reprocessing in the US. The result of that speaks for itself, large volumes of nuclear waste, 95% of it uranium which could be extracted and reused safely, while the remaining 5% could be sent to repositories, for 1/20th of the cost.
I actually thought thorium would be a good agent to be used to stop the flow of oil from the BP Deepwater Horizon spill in the GOM a few years ago.
Carter worked on nuclear subs while in the Navy which made him more than a little familiar with the dangers of nuclear power. He was pro alternative energy and even founded the Department of Energy to coordinate the research of alternatative energy sources. Yet he too ignored thorium.
...to finally try SAFE Nuclear? This will be the death of our species -- the fact that we must create MAJOR catastrophes, in order to learn what an aware kindergartener could have told us: Don't make things that kill people.
...that there is widespread misunderstanding about the lack of connection between spent nuclear fuel and nuclear weapons. I think you final point about reprocessing is a little off, however. What I read these days indicates that it's simply cheaper to use freshly mined uranium than to remove it from SNF; thus reprocessing wouldn't pay, even if it were allowed. There has been an overhang of U and Pu on the market due to supply from decommissioned weapons. In addition, more U deposits have been found over the years. Australia mines lots of U and exports it, having no nuclear program either for weapons or power production. The supply/demand picture may well change in the future, of course, making reprocessing make economic sense as well as good sense in other ways.
Not only did he ignore thorium, but he also put in place the executive order still in force today that forbid the US from reprocessing spent nuclear fuel to use again, due to non-proliferation concerns. But from what I've read, France does this successfully. It may be time to revisit this decision to close the nuclear fuel cycle on current plants, and reduce the amount of high level radioactive waste we have.
Does the cost effectiveness of reprocessing change when one takes account storage costs for the high level waste that all our power plants shouldn't be holding and should be in Yucca Mountain? Seems like storing 95% less high level radioactive waste (if we can ever politically commit to that instead of pushing off the responsibility to the reactor owners who by law were supposed to no longer be storing it) would be a lot cheaper than digging up fresh.