Thorium challenges nuclear establishment
In an article last month in The (Nashville) Tennessean, "Advocates Want Reactors to Use Alternative Fuel," Anne Paine quotes Paul Genoa, director of policy development at the Nuclear Energy Institute: "There's a huge investment and infrastructure in this country that goes back 50 years. You don't just walk away from that and try the shiny new toy, even if the shiny new toy might work better." The "shiny new toy" is the thorium molten salt reactor (TMSR). Genoa's use of the words "might work better" is misleading. In the 1950s, while Adm. Hyman Rickover was building his solid-fuel uranium reactor that would power the Nautilus, the first nuclear-powered submarine, scientists at Oak Ridge were designing a strategic bomber powered by a tiny, 3-foot-diameter molten-salt reactor. The atomic bomber never flew, but the research was a complete success. Research on molten-salt technology continued until 1969, when it was, basically, put on the shelf, where it remains. The reasons had nothing to do with the brilliance of the reactor design, which performed flawlessly for 17,000 hours.Indeed, if TMSR technology had been chosen in the 1950s as the path to the future, there is no chance that today there would be a groundswell of people like me and many others advocating a change to solid-fuel reactors. The thorium community recognizes that the continuing disaster at Fukushima, Japan, is the wake-up call for a change in technology going forward, and we believe that it should be TMSR technology. As director of policy development for the NEI, Genoa should welcome, rather than pooh-pooh, a frank discussion of our ideas. Let me count the ways TMSR is superior to current solid fuel reactors: 1. Molten-salt reactors burn thorium, an element three to four times more abundant than uranium. America has already enough to power the country for centuries. Only 10 percent of the uranium we use is mined in this country. 2. Only a tiny fraction of uranium produces power, so it must be enriched, which is very expensive, while 100 percent of thorium is usable without enrichment. 3. TMSR fuel is a mixture of nuclear fuel and very hot molten fluoride salts, a liquid like water. TMSR cannot melt down because it already operates in a molten state. 4. TMSR operates practically at living-room pressure. Solid-fuel reactors operate at thousands of pounds of pressure, hence their huge, expensive containment structures. 5. TMSR is "walk-away" safe. If anything goes wrong, even with no power or personnel, it will shut itself down automatically. 6. All current solid-fuel reactors have to be shut down periodically to refuel after only 4 percent of their fuel energy has been used. TMSR is over 99 percent efficient and can be refueled while it is making electricity. Its long-term waste is measured in pounds, not tons, and is harmless in about 300 years, not 300 centuries. 7. The 96 percent of the fuel that current reactors do not burn ends up as very toxic radioactive waste with its vexing disposal problem. That waste can be burned in the molten-salt reactor, as can plutonium from decommissioned weapons. 8. TMSRs are small, modular and can be manufactured on an assembly line, loaded on trucks, taken where they are needed and practically plugged in. 9. TMSR does not contribute to proliferation, and terrorists won't care. 10. TMSR emits no greenhouse gases or other environmental pollutants. I was privileged to address the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future in Washington May 13. I praised Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander's "Blue Print for 100 New Nuclear Reactors in 20 Years," but I lamented that he calls for more solid-fuel reactors. Genoa should join with Alexander and the thorium community to take a close look at the "shiny new toy" that is TMSR. It satisfies every wish in the senator's blueprint better than any other technology in existence. In his plan, Alexander asks rhetorically, "Isn't it time we got back in the game?" The Chinese have already answered that question. Their answer is TMSR. What will ours be?
Robert Orr Jr. is a Franklin, Tenn., lawyer who advocates for the development of thorium as a fuel source. This column originally appeared in The Tennessean.