Intelligent Energy

Safe nuclear: Japanese utility elaborates on thorium plans

Safe nuclear: Japanese utility elaborates on thorium plans

Posting in Design

Mark Halper's thorium trail winds back to London, where Japan's Chubu Electric reaches him to confirm it does indeed regard the long neglected nuclear fuel as a 'future possible energy resource.'

Takashi Kamei from the Research Institute for Applied Sciences in Kyoto is developing thorium-based reactors.

Yesterday, I wrote that Japanese utility Chubu Electric Power Co. is investigating the possible use of thorium as an alternative form of nuclear power that would be safer, less weapons prone and more efficient than conventional uranium fueled reactors.

That report came from my trip to the Thorium Energy Alliance Conference in Chicago, where Takashi Kamei from the Research Institute for Applied Sciences in Kyoto showed delegates a May 31 video clip from Japanese TV. Serving as the translator, Kamei said the video stated that Chubu was starting a research program at its conventional Hamaoka nuclear station to look into deploying thorium in liquid form, in a type of reactor known as a molten salt reactor.

I had every confidence in Kamei’s presentation, which is why I ran with it. But it’s always good to hear these things straight from the source. Kamei is not a Chubu employee, so, as I indicated yesterday, I had sent Chubu an email last Friday seeking confirmation and elaboration.

They had not replied by the time I wrote my story. But when I landed at Heathrow Airport in London this morning and fired up my BlackBerry, there it was - a statement from Chubu's investor relations department saying they regard thorium as "one of future possible energy resources."

Maybe yesterday’s ditty  prompted their response, or maybe it was just the usual international, big company lag time from Friday. Whatever, here’s word-for-word what Chubu sent me. Thank you Chubu. I’ve added the boldface:

"Thank you for contacting us concerning thorium molten salt reactors.
We announced our plan of stepped-up efforts for nuclear R&D on May 31st.
Our plan consists of two parts;
1.We will establish "Nuclear Safety R&D Center" at Hamaoka nuclear power station
on July 1st to promote R&D using Nuclear Power plants as R&D fields.
2.Regarding R&D subjects which need broad cooperation between external
institutions, we will promote and implement joint research and publicly offered
research with institutes and universities. Subjects of research will include
future nuclear energy like thorium rectors. This program will start in 2013. Our
main activity will be to support institutions and universities financially.
We consider thorium as one of future possible energy resources, but there are
many challenges to be solved toward actual utilization. Therefore we considered
basic studies to be very important from a long-term view point and decided to
support institutions' basic study on thorium utilization.
Regards,
Chubu Electric Power Co., Inc.      June 7 2012"

Some thorium experts regard liquid thorium in a molten salt reactor (MSR) as the optimal way to deploy the fuel, although some people advocate using it in solid form in a more conventional, water-cooled reactor.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory developed a thorium molten salt reactor in the 1960s, when the U.S. was deciding between uranium and thorium as a nuclear fuel.

Under President Richard Nixon, the U.S. abandoned the Oak Ridge project and charted a uranium future, in part because uranium, yielded weapons-linked waste desirable in the Cold War arms build up. Thorium is not as proliferation prone

Flibe Energy in Huntsville, Ala., is developing a thorium MSR based on the Oak Ridge design, and including a failsafe plug that allows the liquid fuel to drain into a tank in an emergency, averting the possibility of a reactor meltdown such as what happened at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant last year.

In Japan, Kamei himself is working on different thorium reactor designs, including an MSR as well as one that uses a particle accelerator to trigger a nuclear reaction. More on that another time.

Photo: Thorium Energy Alliance via wn.com.

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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