Checking Up On Thorium

August 28, 2008 | 1 Comment

It’s been most of a year since I had a look at thorium in the details about reactors. The news in the interim has been good with the thorium reserves in the U.S. proven up with confirmed discoveries, primarily in the Lemhi Pass area that Thorium Energy, Inc holds.

The most interesting thing is the U.S. and India are concluding a deal that might be an exchange of technology from India’s thorium reactor research and the U.S. overcoming the non participation by India in the non-proliferation treaties. The Indian path of self-determination precluded signing the treaties as the neighbors, Pakistan in particular is highly dangerous, because of religious motives and also it is in possession of atomic weapons. Even more to justify the point, Pakistan has violated the treaties through surreptitious sales of technology that enables such notables as North Korea and Libya to be or have been starting atomic weapons programs. Pakistan’s behavior and record make India, the non-signer look like the diamond quality character one wants for a partner, non-proliferation treaty or not. The old prohibition now 30 years on that prevents materials transactions and technology transfers needs to die off soon. That would allow the U.S. to provide India with uranium seed fuel to trigger the Indian thorium technology reactors.

This leaves India in the drivers seat to work out arrangements with the International Atomic Energy Administration and the Nuclear Suppliers Group. It’s thought that these agreements will bring India into the top tier of nuclear countries without the old treaty dragging the country back 3 decades.

What might be the technology of interest to the U.S. is the Indian three step plan to get to a mainly thorium fueled atomic power system. Seema Singh of IEEE Spectrum recently interviewed Ratan Kumar Sinha, head of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre’s reactor design group. He explains why thorium hasn’t taken off yet, “Thorium has a much lower neutron multiplication rate than plutonium, and hence you cannot achieve power levels in a reactor as high as with plutonium. When burned, thorium initially acts like a blotting paper for neutrons and keeps absorbing them. But this exercise also means it is getting enriched and converted into U-233, which will pay dividends later on. Once the energy generated has reached 40,000 megawatt-days per metric ton, U-233 starts contributing many more neutrons than what has been lost in absorption by thorium. So you tend to get economic benefits of thorium if you have a fuel that can run up to 40,000 MWd/t and beyond. But most early generation reactors had lower burn-up values of around 15,000 to 20,000 MWd/t. These have, of course, risen to about 40,000 MWd/t in recent time. So the world is now thinking of thorium.”

Harry Goldstein of IEEE Spectrum interviewed Sudhinder Thakur, a 58-year-old mechanical engineer with a degree from the University of Delhi, who is executive director of corporate planning for the Nuclear Power Corp. of India Ltd. (NPCIL), a government enterprise charged with building and running the country’s nuclear power plants. Here Mr. Thakur briefly explains the Indian plan, “We have a very limited amount of uranium but plenty of thorium, and so we have developed a three-stage program to exploit it. In the first stage, we load pressurized heavy-water reactors with natural uranium, which consists of 99.3 percent uranium 238 and 0.7 percent uranium 235. That 0.7 percent produces most of the power. Some of the uranium 238 does, however, get converted to plutonium, and when the spent fuel comes out, we can separate the plutonium out.

In the second stage, we load the right mix of plutonium and uranium 238 into fast breeder reactors, which produce energy and more plutonium. Later on, we put a blanket of thorium around the reactor, and some of it converts to uranium 233, which we extract. In the third stage, we use the uranium 233 as fuel.

We have enough thorium in the country to meet requirements for thousands of years, much more than our supplies of coal or other sources of fuel. So, this three-stage program has great potential, but the technologies needed for the final stage will take decades to fully develop.”

SSTAR Thorium Reactor Design

SSTAR Thorium Reactor Design

The Indian path isn’t the only one of course. The U.S. is quietly looking into thorium-fueled reactors, too. Certain interested parties are such as the Department of the Navy, NASA, the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and obviously the Department of Energy. Agencies of the UN are said to be asking questions as well as some oil exporting countries and numerous commercial companies.

It seems that the glacially slow negotiations between the U.S and India have borne some fruit. The Indians can be expected from their progress to date and the expressed intentions to get the international agreements in hand fairly soon. The last obstacle is that the U.S. Senate must ratify the new agreement reached with the U.S., which is a sure cause for mild alarm.

Thorium is a more abundant reactive element than uranium and simply doesn’t present the dangers of early uranium reactors. As the Indian’s well know from their determination to be self sufficient that uranium is a finite resource not just in their own country but worldwide in a few decades. Much can be done to extend the life of uranium fuel as Brian Wang at NextBigFuture points out, but as consumers we sure hope and expect that governments seek the lowest cost provisioning of atomic reactors.

Uranium reactors are at the fourth generation for sales and construction now, with sixth generation designs in research. Thorium is way back in the level of invested intellectual power today. But the seeds are planted now and most of the world has realized that thorium-fueled nuclear power has an important role.

The thorium checkup is looking good, if tediously slow progress. Perhaps the most important thing to be doing is to start expecting that governments worldwide pour on the energy to get the installed cost of reactors reduced as far and as fast as possible. It’s clear now that reactor installations can be fueled for centuries to come, and we would be better off building them sooner than later. There is a lot on the Internet about thorium. Some sites to start with are:

World Nuclear Association

Charles Barton’s Nuclear Green Revolution

Energy From Thorium Blogspot and

The Thorium Energy, Inc. corporate blog by Douglas Castle


1 Comment so far

  1. A Thorium Update | New Energy and Fuel on November 26, 2008 6:06 AM

    […] Last month saw Senator Orrin Hatch pop a bill, S 3680 IS in the 110th Congress as his district has a confirmed site of a huge quantity of thorium that would serve America for a long time. Its called Lemhi Pass, the link here is to a Google Search. We’ve also looked at thorium here more than once; click here for a prime post with informative links at the bottom. […]

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