Dozens of scientists at work on thorium, an alternative to uranium
For the past five years, a group of Czechs and Australians have been working on the beginnings of a partnership to develop an energy source they say could be the answer to Europe’s growing energy needs and lower emissions goals, but without the safety risks associated with nuclear reactors. Now, following the meltdown of the Daicchi nuclear plant in Japan, which raised major safety questions, they say they have found new momentum in their project to develop a thorium-fueled molten salt reactor (MSR).
MSRs are just one of many types of reactors that use thorium but are increasingly seen as potentially holding the key to restarting Europe’s stalled nuclear renaissance. The thorium – supplies of which are much more abundant than uranium – is dissolved into liquid hot salts, eliminating the risk of meltdown and producing less radioactive waste. The process also allows existing uranium waste to be thrown into the fuel mix. In addition, the products from some MSR models can’t be used for the creation of nuclear weapons.
“With Fukushima, the need to find safer energy sources has become the number one thing in all countries for energy security and safety, and the Czech Republic is a leader in this field,” said Bob Stephens, who partners with Thorium Energy Pty. Limited, a Czech and Australian partnership with around 50 scientists working on the development of commercial MSRs.
The first MSR was developed in the United States in the 1960s, but funding was later diverted to nuclear weapons technology. Since then, numerous solid-fuel reactors have been established that use thorium, mostly in Canada, Russia, India and Germany, but work on MSRs has been all but shelved.
Now, concerns about energy security and nuclear safety are helping to drive greater funding sources for research and development of nuclear alternatives, Stephens said, adding that the partnership is on track to unveiling an official consortium later this year to begin the research and development phase of their project, for which there is an estimated “outer limit of five years.”
“In Australia, there are great resources, and then the Czechs have the brains and the technology. Put together these two facts, and it results in a really great relation between these two countries,” said Peter Stepanek, managing director of Thorium Energy Pty. Limited.
There are more than a few global efforts developing MSRs, with China potentially leading the way after the government agreed to fund a private company with goals of producing a small MSR within five years.
But whether MSRs will be a major factor in the global energy mix remains to be seen, as time estimates for deployment range from five years to more than 50, a variable related to the amount of money funneled into development in a time when cash is tight, and, perhaps more strongly, to the tough licensing procedures as well as how cost-effective MSRs will be.
“This particular proposal for the use of thorium is very credible and has been demonstrated, but it’s just one of several modes, and if you’re talking strictly about getting energy from thorium, there are others that would leapfrog the MSR in terms of getting licensed,” said Julian Kelly, senior project manager for fuel technology at the World Nuclear Association.
His estimate is 20 years before there could be a significant MSR presence, while there are several models of thorium reactors more developed than MSRs that also meet some of the concerns.
“There has been a lot of emotion and excitement about thorium, but you need a clear strategy assessment of what you want out of your thorium fuel,” Kelly said.
No single reactor model can exploit all the different advantages of thorium, he said, as some produce more energy than is consumed while operating at lower temperatures, and others can burn off uranium waste.
“You have to ask what your motivating factors for using thorium are. Then that will dictate the technology choice and how you do your research and development efforts,” he said.
For the Czech Republic, in light of policy proposals that suggest nuclear energy will continue to be a major part of the energy mix for the foreseeable future, MSRs can be used as a “credible waste management system” alongside uranium nuclear reactors, Kelly said.
Thorium Energy Pty. Limited representatives would not reveal details like funding sources or partners but did say they were in contact with supportive Czech policymakers.
“As that matures and progresses, we will move to memorandums of understanding between various industry groups in the Czech Republic and Australia, and formally move forward. That’s where we’re at and nothing more,” Stephens said.