A Norwegian company led by Alf Bjørseth will start burning thorium fuel in a conventional test reactor owned by Norway’s government with help from U.S.-based nuclear giant Westinghouse.

Bjørseth is now running his private company Scatec AS, and establishing new companies within Scatec based on the latest technologies in the areas of renewable energy and advanced materials, including a thorium fuel effort through a holding company called Thor Corporation.

Thor Corporation owns Thor Energy and also has shares in businesses related to thorium fuel, thorium mining and separation of rare earth elements.  Fen Minerals holds the mining rights to the Fen deposits in South Norway, which are rich in thorium and rare earth elements. The third company is Norwegian Separation Technology, a company in the process of developing a novel separation method for rare earth elements.

Natural Thorium Ore. Click image for more info.

The company has completed a 2-year thorium fuel cycle feasibility study which concludes that thorium-based nuclear fuel has several advantages over uranium-based fuel, including better waste characteristics, improved proliferation resistance, and abundant raw material supply.

Thor Energy has established a consortium that will fund and run a 5-year thorium irradiation project to be conducted at the Norwegian government owned Halden Nuclear Reactor.  Halden, typically described as a “test reactor,” also provides steam to a nearby paper mill. The move should bring thorium closer to replacing uranium as a possible safer and more effective nuclear power source.

Thor’s chief technology officer Julian Kelly explained Thor Energy will deploy a mix of solid thorium mixed with plutonium – a blend known as “thorium MOX”.

The plan isn’t the one most thorium enthusiasts have been hoping for.  Many professionals believe thorium’s advantages are most pronounced in alternative reactor designs such as molten salt reactors and pebble bed reactors, rather than today’s conventional solid-fuel water-cooled reactors.

Some thorium fans have realized it may be best to insert thorium into the energy scene by first putting it to use in reactors that already have regulatory approval.

Halden Heavy Water Reactor Flow Diagram. Click image for the largest view.

Best or not, Thor is testing the thorium fuel in a conventional reactor at Halden cooled by “heavy water”.  This is not the same as regular light water reactors built commercially around the world.  The cooling is by deuterium or water with an isotope of hydrogen.

With plutonium seed in the fuel mix, the reactors would not only generate power, but they would also eliminate dangerous waste left over from other nuclear operations and thus help address the problem of what to do with that waste.

The consortium reaches pretty far.  Thor will fabricate some of its own thorium MOX in partnership with Norway’s Institute for Energy Technology. Britain’s National Nuclear Laboratory – owned by the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change – will also provide some, as will the European Commission’s Institute for Transuranium Elements.

Westinghouse is helping to fund the project, as are other of Thor’s industrial partners including Steenkampskraal Thorium Ltd., a South African company that is developing a thorium-fueled pebble bed reactor.  Other partners include the Finnish utility Fortum and the French chemicals company Rhodia.

That news ought to cheer all the thorium enthusiasts.

Yet Westinghouse doesn’t like to discuss its thorium activities publicly.  It is likely the firm believes working alternatives could undermine the company’s conventional nuclear business. Rumors have it Westinghouse has at least a few thorium-connected and alternative nuclear projects in the works.  One is out now and it isn’t a direct competitor as such.

Westinghouse is also known to be the commercial adviser on the U.S. Department of Energy’s collaboration with China on developing a molten-salt cooled reactor.  Westinghouse has also helped organize many of the alternative nuclear sessions at the American Nuclear Society convention just held in San Diego California.

This is great news worthy of Norway and her citizens.  The element thorium was named by the region’s ancestral God Thor, they have rich deposits, and a great deal of competency and intellectual prowess.  The test will very likely work out and that could offer reactor operators an alternative to uranium and ever more plutonium.

It will be fascinating to see the results.  The wait will be long though; it takes quite a while to burn through nuclear fuel.


Comments

4 Comments so far

  1. Matt Musson on November 26, 2012 7:49 AM

    The greatest problem with adopting Thorium fuel is not technical. It is financial.

    When GE designs and helps to build a reactor, it is configured to run on GE machined fuel rods. That is like Kodak selling a camera and then providing film in perpituity. There is an ongoing revenue stream and a clear business plan.

    In a molten salt reactor, thorium is not machined but comes in as a pure chemical. The ongoing revenue stream is not there.

  2. Martin Kral on November 27, 2012 7:19 AM

    At least it is a start to resolve the waste management issue. I was never in favor of storing it underground.

  3. MrGadget on December 10, 2012 11:36 AM

    That business model (build a few plants, supply fabricated fuel exclusively) is born out of the reality that the plants are few and far between and tremendously expensive, while the fuel is a constant need. MSR / LFTR is the same model in reverse: Many smaller & cheaper plants, assembled from production line modules, with year-over-year manufacturing revenue, while delivering perhaps a service-life supply of fissile & fertile & blanket materials & chemicals for each deployment.

    Additionally, there’s fission product sales, which need small containers that may not be reusable, thus must be steadily produced on a production line.

    There’s still the mining, transportation, storage, packaging, and delivery of the fissile & fertile & blanket materials and chemicals.

    Plenty to work with to build a business model around.

  4. Henning Dekant on December 28, 2012 11:01 PM

    While Thorium will give the nuclear industry another lease on life, I strongly hope that there is enough political will to eventually retire these old reactor designs, and to move to inherently safe sub-critical reactors.

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