St. Charles Herald-Guide

Nuclear power production in the aftermath of Japan

By Dan Juneau - March 25, 2011

The voices of doom are already predicting the end for energy derived from nuclear reactors in the aftermath of the Japanese reactor failures.

Germany is already signaling a retrenchment from its nuclear energy program. China and other nations are also announcing a re-examination of their nuclear power generation plans.

These are serious issues since nuclear-generated power supplies 17 percent of the electric power generated worldwide and 20 percent of the total in the U.S.

But what if the nuclear system failures in Japan could lead to an expansion, not a reduction, of nuclear-generated power? What if that expansion was the result of safer, less expensive reactors with much less nuclear waste? What if this new type of reactor could greatly reduce the dangers of nuclear weapons proliferation in the world? And, finally, what if the solution to cleaner, safer nuclear power was something that brought many on both sides of the “global warming” debate together in support of a new approach?

All of that may sound too fanciful to be true, but the common denominator is a nuclear reactor technology that was proven in the past to work but is not now being used. It's called a Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR).

Years ago, just such a reactor was proven to work at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, but the technology was abandoned in favor of reactors that produced the plutonium necessary for the nation's nuclear weapons program. Basically, the U.S. military dictated the direction our nuclear power industry took. Perhaps it is time to rethink that direction.

The LFTRs are fueled by thorium. In an article in the July/August 2010 edition of American Scientist magazine, authors Robert Hargraves and Ralph Moir made a compelling case for thorium reactors. As they point out, only 500 tons of thorium could supply all of the nation's energy needs for a year.  They note that in one small area near the Montana/Idaho border, there is an estimated 1,800,000 tons of thorium.

One of the major advantages of LFTRs is the low generation levels of nuclear waste. Wastes from an LFTR are about 10,000 times less toxic than those from a standard nuclear reactor. Indeed, safety is a great selling point for the LFTRs. The problem in the Japanese reactors didn't come from the core where power is generated. It came from the storage ponds where spent solid fuel rods are stored. There are no such rods in the LFTRs since they have liquid cores. The standard reactors operate under tremendous pressure that requires complex tubing and pumping systems to prevent overheating and explosions. In the LFTRs, the coolant is not pressurized, making it inherently safer.

From a cost standpoint, LFTRs can be produced at a lower cost because of the different cooling systems and also because the LFTRs do not need the hugely expensive containment systems that the standard reactors need. Thorium, as mentioned previously, is also much less expensive to obtain than uranium.

The unique nature of these reactors also works against the problem of nuclear proliferation in the world. These reactors don't produce the excess amounts of fissionable material that standard reactors produce, the by-products that can be diverted into weapons of mass destruction.

It is extremely costly to decommission a standard nuclear reactor, and when it is decommissioned, all of the ancillary equipment to transmit the electricity becomes almost useless. LFTRs could be sited in the same vicinity of a decommissioned reactor, maintaining much of the support facilities of that site.

The disaster in Japan shouldn't kill the quest for clean, safe nuclear energy. Thorium reactors just may be the new generation that moves nuclear power forward.