Could thorium revive the nuclear energy industry?

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For decades, the nuclear energy sector has been considered the black sheep of the alternative energy market thanks to a series of high profile disasters like Chernobyl, Fukushima and Three Mile Island. But recently the sector received the support from the Trump administration, which called for a $ 1.5 billion bailout of the declining US uranium industry in an attempt to build up sufficient federal stocks for national security purposes.

Yet nuclear power may soon receive another blow in the arm that could dramatically improve its reputation in the public eye: replacing thorium with dangerous uranium in nuclear reactors.

Thorium is now touted as the great green hope for clean energy production, producing less waste and more energy than uranium. Thorium is resistant to fusion, contains no military-grade by-products, and can even consume legacy plutonium stocks.

A potential breakthrough

The United States Department of Energy (DOE), Texas A&M Center for Nuclear Engineering and Science, and the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) have partnered with Chicago Clean core thorium energy (CCTE) to develop a new thorium-based nuclear fuel which they called ANEEL. ANEEL, which is the abbreviation for “Advanced Nuclear Energy for Enriched Life”, is a proprietary combination of thorium and “High Assay Low Enriched Uranium” (HALEU) which hopes to solve some of the thorniest problems in nuclear power, including costs. high and toxic waste.

ANEEL can be used in traditional boiling water and pressurized water reactors, but works best when used in heavy water reactors. More importantly, ANEEL reactors can be deployed much faster than uranium reactors.

A key advantage of ANEEL over uranium is that it can achieve a much higher burnup rate of 55,000 MWd / T (megawatt-days per ton of fuel) compared to 7,000 MWd / T for fuel. to natural uranium used in water reactors. This allows fuel to stay in the reactors for much longer, which means much longer intervals between stops for refueling. For example, India Kaiga-1 unit and Canada’s PHWR Darlington unit hold the world records for uninterrupted operations at 962 days and 963 days, respectively.

Thorium-based fuel also has other key advantages. One of the most important is that a much higher fuel combustion reduces plutonium waste by over 80%. Plutonium has a shorter half-life of about 24,000 years compared to the half-life of uranium 235 of just over 700 million years. Plutonium is highly toxic even in small doses, causing radiological disease, cancer and often death. In addition, thorium has a lower operating temperature and a higher melting point than natural uranium, which makes it inherently safer and more resistant to core melting.

The renewable energy properties of thorium are also quite impressive.

There is more than twice the thorium in the earth’s crust than uranium; In India, thorium is 4 times more abundant than uranium. It can also be extracted from seawater like uranium, which makes it almost inexhaustible.

The thorium curse?

ANEEL could soon become the fuel of choice for countries operating CANDU (Canada Deuterium Uranium) and PHWR (Pressurized Heavy Water Reactor) reactors such as China, India, Argentina, Pakistan, South Korea and Romania. These reactors are cooled and moderated using heavy water under pressure. Another 50 countries (mostly developing countries) have either launched nuclear programs or have expressed interest in launching them in the near future. Overall, only 50 of the 440 existing nuclear reactors in the world can be fueled using this new fuel.

Related: World’s No.1 Oil Trader Sees Crude Inventories Diminish This Year Nuclear power is experiencing another mini-renaissance.

Trump is not the only nuclear friend: the industry has also received new approval from an unexpected source: the Covid-19 pandemic.

The current energy crisis has helped highlight the billing of nuclear energy as the most reliable energy source, which ostensibly gives it a serious advantage over other renewable energy sources such as wind and solar that exist at the lower end of the reliability spectrum.

Source: Energy.gov

Meanwhile, Unite, the largest union in Britain and Ireland, supported The UK’s Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) calls for massive nuclear investment, saying global investment in the nuclear industry will be needed to revive the post-pandemic UK economy, while meeting the EU’s goal of decarbonising all of its industries by 2050.

Last year, EU leaders recognized nuclear energy as a means of combating climate change but mainly touted a hydrogen economy in their last higher targets. Related: The World’s Most Expensive Roughs Are Getting Expensive Again

Given the strong public response, however, it remains highly doubtful whether nuclear power can really make a meaningful comeback here in the United States. Still, the United States will likely have a ready market for its new thorium fuel since it signed bilateral nuclear treaties – including the Accord 1-2-3– related to security, the non-proliferation of weapons and nuclear materials with no less than 48 countries.

However, it remains to be seen whether the new thorium fuel will actually see the light of day.

The main sticking point in promoting thorium as a cleaner nuclear fuel is that it has not been proven on a commercial scale. Thorium MSRs (molten salt reactors) in development since the 1960s by the United States, China, Russia and France, but not much has ever come of it.

Nuclear radiologist Peter Karamoskos of the International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) has advised the world not to hold its breath:

« Without exception, [thorium reactors] have never been commercially viable, and none of the planned new models appear, even remotely, to be viable. Like all nuclear power generation, they rely on large subsidies from taxpayers; the only difference is that with thorium and other breeder reactors, they are an order of magnitude higher, which is why no government has ever continued their funding.. «

Nuclear enthusiasts can only hope that ANEEL will not also fall victim to the thorium curse.

By Alex Kimani for OilUSD

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