The Guardian in the UK is reporting that India has started the process of building the world’s newest thorium fueled prototype nuclear power plant.  As prototypes go, this is a big one with a proposed rating at 300MW or about 30% of a customary 1GW uranium fueled station.  This commitment deserves congratulations.  Finally thorium has a toehold on the world power generation markets and its far less worrisome than a uranium solution.

In a rare interview, Ratan Kumar Sinha, the director of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) in Mumbai, told the Guardian that his team is finalizing the site for construction of the new large-scale experimental reactor, while at the same time conducting “confirmatory tests” on the design saying, “The basic physics and engineering of the thorium-fuelled Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR) are in place, and the design is ready.”

Once the six-month search for a site is completed – probably next to an existing nuclear power plant – it will take another 18 months to obtain regulatory and environmental impact clearances before building work on the site can begin.

Sinha continues, “Construction of the AHWR will begin after that, and it would take another six years for the reactor to become operational,” meaning that if all goes to plan, the reactor could be operational by the end of the decade.

For decades the development of workable and large-scale thorium reactors has been a dream for nuclear engineers, while for environmentalists it has become a major hope as an alternative to fossil fuels.

In the U.S. Kirk Sorenson is at work promoting a firm named Flibe Energy that will initially design, develop and demonstrate a small modular liquid-fluoride thorium reactor for the US military at a designed power level of 20 to 50MWe.  Sorenson’s firm is headed to factory-produced and modular design with lower capital costs by using gas turbine equipment.  Flibe offers extremely low fuel-cycle costs through use of thorium in a liquid fluoride form.

Thorium Reactor Graphic by Popular Science. Click image for the largest view.

Sinha says that if all goes to plan, the Indian thorium fueled reactor could be operational by the end of the decade.

Producing a workable thorium reactor would be a massive breakthrough in electric power generation. Using thorium – a naturally occurring moderately radioactive element named after the Norse god of thunder – as a source of atomic power is not new technology.  The U.S. did promising early research in the 1950s to 1970s only to shelve the effort in favor of the uranium fuel that produced weapons supplies in the spent fuel.

India has the among world’s largest thorium deposits, and with a world hungry for low-carbon energy, it has its eye on a potentially lucrative export market for the technology. For more than three decades, India’s nuclear research program had been subject to international sanctions since its controversial 1974 nuclear tests. But after losing its pariah status three years ago as a result of the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal, India is eager to export indigenous nuclear technology developed in research centers such as the BARC.

Its not all perfect, thorium reactors won’t start without a tiny bit of trigger fuel, like uranium or plutonium.  But the thorium reactors spent fuel wouldn’t have any more trigger fuel than when started and that would be well burned through.

The Indian effort is using low-enriched uranium – which India is permitted to import under the 2008 Indo-US deal.  The new reactor has the design flexibility for using trigger fuel or either plutonium or low-enriched uranium.  This approach sets a very highly marketable standard with many more potential customers.

India’s low-enriched uranium/thorium fuel combination design is currently at pilot stage and is at work setting up for testing the fuel combination.

This should be a wake up call to the rest of the nuclear power industry.  There is a huge market out there and thorium fueled reactors offer nearly no weapons proliferation risk and the spend fuel risk is managed over decades instead of hundred of centuries.

And the power could be very, very cheap for consumers.

Along with the congratulations, we’re sending along encouragement.  Failing dirt-cheap fusion in the future, thorium offers centuries of low risk low cost power for billions of people.  It’s time for billions of them to wake up and take notice.


5 Comments so far

  1. Matt Musson on November 7, 2011 7:40 AM

    Because Thorium reactors do not create much nuclear waste – they have not been chosen by governments for nuclear power.

    In the nuclear waste from commercial uranium reactors – there is a small amount of plutonium. Governments wanted uranium reactors in order to get that plutonium so they could build bombs.

    As stated in the article – thorium needs a trigger to get started. The Indians say they will use some low enriched uranium. The US would probably use some of it’s stock piles of U238. However, one of the new ultra efficient compact linear accellerators could be used to supply the necessary start up neutrons. That would create a switch on / switch off reactor.

  2. JP Straley on November 7, 2011 8:00 AM

    “Flibe offers extremely low fuel-cycle costs through use of thorium in a liquid fluoride form.”

    This is a bit misleading. The thorium is dissolved in molten salt, a mixture of lithium fluoride and beryllium fluoride.

    The fact that Sorenson is doing the development for the military is something of a clever way to get around the NRC, which would regulate the development of LFTR out of existence before it was ever on the ground. The military has different regulatory status compared to civilian groups.

    A small quibble: in a worst case situation, it should be possible to start a LFTR using outside neutrons generated by a purpose-built accelerator.

  3. Matt Musson on November 7, 2011 1:53 PM

    One of the problems with LFTR is that it uses bulk chemical fuel.

    Current Uranium reactors use machined fuel rods. This provides a continual revenue source for the group that designs and builds the reactor – much like how Kodak used to make money selling film for their cameras.

    The business model for the LFTR is different than the current model. And, the nuclear industry is going to have a problem with it.

  4. Nick Lyons on January 23, 2012 4:11 PM

    @Matt M: It is a common misconception that nuclear weapons material (e.g. Pu239) is obtained from spent nuclear reactor fuel. Although it is true that spent nuclear fuel contains this isotope, it is much easier to obtain pure Pu239 from reactors designed and operated specifically to produce it. For instance, to my knowledge, none of the weapons in the US nuclear arsenal contain material obtained from spent nuclear fuel from commercial reactor operations–it was produced in reactors (at Hanford, etc) designed specifically to breed Pu239 from U238. Commercial reactor ‘waste’ contains undesirable (from a weapons’ POV) Pu isotopes which are extremely difficult to separate from the desirable Pu239 isotope, since they are chemically identical.

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