News
News Home
Quick Bites
Exploradio
News Archive
News Channel
Special Features
NPR
nowplaying
On AirNewsClassical
Loading...
  
School Closings
WKSU Support
Funding for WKSU is made possible in part through support from the following businesses and organizations.

Don Drumm Studios

Lehmans


For more information on how your company or organization can support WKSU, download the WKSU Media Kit.

(WKSU Media Kit PDF icon )


Donate Your Vehicle to WKSU

Programs Schedule Make A Pledge Member BenefitsFAQ/HelpContact Us
Science and Technology




Exploradio: Rediscovering the lost promise of Thorium energy
A group of nuclear enthusiasts is resurrecting an alternate nuclear reactor design abandoned by the US government in the 1960's

by WKSU's JEFF ST. CLAIR
This story is part of a special series.


Reporter / Host
Jeff St. Clair
 
Thorium is named after the Norse god Thor. A small group of atomic energy advocates believe it could be the nuclear fuel of the future.
Courtesy of Flickr, CC
Download (WKSU Only)
In The Region:

A group in Cleveland is promoting an alternative form of atomic power that promises safer and cheaper nuclear reactors. But critics say it may be too late for the technology to be a real player in the quest for clean energy.

In this week’s Exploradio WKSU’s Jeff St.Clair looks at the long-lost promise of energy from Thorium.

Exploradio: An alternate nuclear future

Other options:
MP3 Download (4:11)


An alternate nuclear power dream

It has the makings of a classic conspiracy theory.  Government scientists in the 1960’s developed a smaller, potentially safer form of nuclear power using a cheap and abundant fuel, only to have the program mothballed and kept secret for decades. 

The Thorium Molten-Salt reactor was one of several nuclear reactor designs developed at Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in a flurry of cold war innovation.  But the technology was scrapped in favor of today’s water cooled Uranium reactors. 

“And it’s really tragic because this was I think a far superior way to go,” according to Bill Thesling, executive chairman of the Cleveland-based Energy From Thorium Foundation.

He says, “They did a lot of work at Oak Ridge that proved the basic concept of fuel dissolved in a molten salt, that’s the game changer right there.”

 

The lost promise of Thorium power

Thesling and his group are promoting a radically different design than virtually all reactors operating today.  Instead of the standard solid enriched Uranium fuel in most reactors, the new design uses another element, Thorium, dissolved in a high temperature solution of fluoride salts.  Thesling says this alone is a major safety advantage over today’s high pressure reactors.

“The thing effectively cannot melt down because it’s already molten, so the concept of a meltdown is really not even at play,” according to Thesling.

And he says Thorium is a cheap and abundant mineral that doesn’t need expensive purification steps like Uranium.

Thorium reactors, “would solve the energy situation for the nation and for humanity,” according to Thesling.

Engineer Kirk Sorenson is Chief Technologist with the Energy From Thorium Foundation.  He blames the politics of the Nixon era for killing the Thorium molten salt reactor project, and laments the missed opportunity.

“It would have been great if back in the 70’s if the United States had made the decision to keep going with this technology.  We would have had Thorium reactors by the 90’s and by this point would have been completely energy independent, and would be for thousands of years, but that didn’t happen.”

The government’s thorium research was declassified in the 90s. Sorenson discovered it while working at NASA and he’s picking up where government scientists left off 45 years ago.. He’s one of just a few dozen Thorium evangelists in the US actively working on the abandoned technology.  

Not everyone is so excited about it, though.

 

The roadblocks to new reactor designs

Arjun Makhijani is a former nuclear scientist and head of the Washington-based Institute for Energy and Environmental Research

He says, “Thorium reactors have some safety advantages, but they also have a lot of disadvantages.”

For one thing, because each Thorium liquid salt reactor has its own chemical processing plant attached to it, Makhijani says it’s easier to siphon off bomb-making materials from the salt recycle stream.  He also says the technology needs expensive Uranium 233 fuel to initially maintain the reactions, "Thorium can't do it alone."

Kirk Sorenson acknowledges that significant engineering challenges remain before his Thorium molten salt reactor is ready for service.  His group also estimates a $1 billion price tag for the project.  But the biggest hurdle, he says, is convincing regulators that the design is safe in a time-frame investors can live with.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has never licensed a reactor of this type before, and Sorensen says, "everything else pales in comparison to that challenge.”

Arjun Makhijani agrees. He thinks regulators wouldn’t move quickly enough to allow a thorium reactor to play any part in reversing climate change. He says, even if all goes as the proponents claim it will take at least 20 years before a new reactor design could be certified, and, "by that time your global warming game is over.”

Makijhani says rapid advances in renewable energy mean the golden age of nuclear power will remain firmly in the past.

He believes, “before any of these reactors can be demonstrated to be viable they’re going to be economically obsolete.”

The Chinese government is launching a massive effort to build a Thorium molten salt reactor by the end of this decade. 

But in this country, despite the intense faith of a small group of activists, financial and regulatory realities mean the promise of limitless nuclear power from Thorium may remain an unfulfilled dream.

 

(Click image for larger view.)

Add Your Comment
Name:

Location:

E-mail: (not published, only used to contact you about your comment)


Comments:




 
Page Options

Print this page

E-Mail this page / Send mp3

Share on Facebook



Support for Exploradio
provided by:








Stories with Recent Comments

FitzGerald isn't giving up, but many Stark voters are worried, wary and weary
SB5 stands for "Snow Ball 5" because voters have about a snow ball's chance of remembering what it was.

Columbus groups are trying to pass a Bill of Rights to combat fracking
Its about time we make a stand against the criminal actions of an entire Indsutry.

Crystal Ball says Ohio governor's race is done
How much is the Kasich campaign paying you to keep repeating the phrase "woman who is not his wife"? Fitzgerald was in the car with a friend who happens to be f...

Plane that crashed killing Case students is a popular training aircraft
The following is incorrect. The last few words should read "UNDER maximum gross take-off weight." “They have a normal take-off speed and all those take-off...

Exploradio: The never-ending war against superbugs
Super Federico ,we are so proud of you ,and very lucky to be among your friends . Keep it up human kind needs people like you to survive .Thanks for being so d...

Ohio's Lyme disease-carrying tick population is exploding
Interesting report. The last sentence needs some editing. It isn't a good idea to "save garments carrying ticks for analysis." The garments carrying t...

Teach for America enters third year in Ohio
For more background on TFA, check out http://reconsideringtfa.wordpress.com/

Faith leaders hold week-long prayer vigil at Ohio Statehouse
I think this is the wrong link to the audio. Its Andy Chow about cigarette taxes.

A $30 million plan to turn Cleveland's Public Square from gray to green
The current plan is for the Land Bank, RTA, and Mr. Jeremy Paris to run a bus line through the new Public Square and cutting the park in half. Save Public Squar...

Medina County residents question safety of proposed natural gas pipeline
I'm very concerned about this nexus project. I've received mail requesting my permission to allow the company to survey my property. I don't understand how thi...

Copyright © 2014 WKSU Public Radio, All Rights Reserved.

 
In Partnership With:

NPR PRI Kent State University

listen in windows media format listen in realplayer format Car Talk Hosts: Tom & Ray Magliozzi Fresh Air Host: Terry Gross A Service of Kent State University 89.7 WKSU | NPR.Classical.Other smart stuff. NPR Senior Correspondent: Noah Adams Living on Earth Host: Steve Curwood 89.7 WKSU | NPR.Classical.Other smart stuff. A Service of Kent State University