Norway Begins Four Year Test Of Thorium Nuclear Reactor

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A Norwegian company is breaking with convention and switching to an alternative energy it hopes will be safer, cleaner and more efficient. But this isn't about ditching fossil fuels, but rather about making the switch from uranium to thorium. Oslo based Thor Energy is pairing up with the Norwegian government and US-based (but Japanese/Toshiba owned) Westinghouse to begin a four year test that they hope will dispel doubts and make thorium the rule rather than the exception. The thorium will run at a government reactor in Halden.

Thorium was discovered in 1828 by the Swedish chemist Jons Jakob Berzelius who named it after the Norse god of thunder, Thor. Found in trace amounts in rocks and soil, thorium is actually about three times more abundant than uranium.

The attractiveness of thorium has led others in the past to build their own thorium reactors. A reactor operated in Germany between 1983 and 1989, and three operated in the US between the late sixties and early eighties. These plants were abandoned, some think, because the plutonium produced at uranium reactors was deemed indispensable to many in a Cold War world.

Almost all of the world's nuclear power plants are uranium reactors. But interest in thorium reactors is strong, particularly in nuclear happy China.

Thorium is ‘fertile,’ unlike ‘fissile’ uranium, which means it can’t be used as is but must first be converted to uranium-233. A good deal of research has been conducted to determine if fuel production, processing and waste management for thorium is safe and cost effective. For decades many have argued that thorium is superior to the uranium in nearly all of the world's nuclear reactors, providing 14 percent of the world’s electricity. Proponents argue that thorium reacts more efficiently than uranium does, that the waste thorium produces is shorter lived than waste from uranium, and that, because of its much higher melting point, is meltdown proof. An added plus is the fact that thorium reactors do not produce plutonium and thus reduce the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation.

Some experts maintain that the benefits of thorium would be maximized in molten salt reactors or pebble bed reactors. The reactor at Halden is not ideal for thorium as it is a ‘heavy water’ reactor, built for running uranium. But it is also a reactor that has already received regulatory approval. Many thorium supporters argue that, rather than wait for ideal molten salt or pebble bed reactors tests should be performed in approved reactors so that their benefits can be more quickly demonstrated to the world.

But is thorium really cheaper, cleaner and more efficient than uranium? And if so, do the added benefits really warrant the cost and effort to make the switch? Data is still pretty scarce, but at least one report is urging us to not believe the hype.

Through their National Nuclear Laboratory the UK’s Department of Energy & Climate Change released a report in September that stated: “thorium has theoretical advantages regarding sustainability, reducing radiotoxicity and reducing proliferation risk. While there is some justification for these benefits, they are often overstated.” The report goes on to acknowledge that worldwide interest in thorium is likely to remain high and they recommend that the UK maintain a “low level” of research and development into thorium fuel.

The place where thorium is proven either way could be China. The country is serious about weaning itself off of fossil fuels and making nuclear power their primary energy source. Fourteen nuclear power reactors are in operation in China today, another 25 under construction, and there are plans to build more. And in 2011 they announced plans to build a thorium, molten salt reactor. So whether it be Norway, the UK, China, or some other forward-thinking countries, we’ll soon find out if thorium reactors are better than uranium ones, at which point more countries may want to join the thorium chain reaction.

Peter Murray

Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Singularity Hub since March 2011.

Discussion — 27 Responses

  • Improbus Liber December 11, 2012 on 10:20 am

    This is really good news. Thorium is the way to go for nuclear reactors.

  • mckarcane December 11, 2012 on 2:10 pm

    The headline got me excited for the implementation of LFTRs…I guess I’ll have to wait a bit longer.

    • FacebookUser1 mckarcane December 22, 2012 on 7:26 am

      The more important story to follow is the Chinese Academy of Science LFTR project, search Smartplanet articles on China LFTR. It is all being developed though for process heat to turn coal into fluids etc.

  • Paxus Calta-Star December 11, 2012 on 3:17 pm

    The author of this article clearly has not studied China’s energy plans. China is not planning on making nuclear power its primary energy source, this has never been the plan and continues not to be. China plans to build both more new hydro capacity and new wind capacity in the coming 5 years than it does nuclear capacity (see Nor has China said it is planning on weaning itself from fossil fuels.

    Thorium’s advantages, while significant as compared to uranium, still dont make it economically viable when compared to other already proved technologies, no matter how much it is hyped.

    • Stephen Kennedy Paxus Calta-Star December 11, 2012 on 5:11 pm

      Give it a few years Paxus and you will see that China will indeed make nuclear its primary energy source (the real competition is of course coal). They are already getting sick of wind and the problems it causes. Wind numbers ALWAYS refer to capacity … a good trick the windies learned early … multiply by 1/4 to get the true output and of course it is much worse than that as the power is completely unpredictable and random, which is why the problems of using wind on a power grid will always keep it as a marginal producer of power. In case you want to use Denmark … they dump wind energy when they have too much to neighbors with large hydro capacity and import nuclear/hydro when the wind isn’t blowing from those sources. They also have the most expensive electricity in Europe.

      • FacebookUser1 Stephen Kennedy December 22, 2012 on 7:22 am

        Wind fans usually suggest 30% capacity factor and offer 40-50% in cherry picked locations at mountain tops in Hawaii. But much of that 30% is unused.

        Now look up the “EU 2011 renewables report” and it makes glorious statements about how well all the REs are doing in the EU. It gives the TWh produced and the peak capacity for every imaginable RE type almost down to paddle pool hydro.

        Now divide the avg 80-85GW in wind capacity into the TWh and voila it was 21% for all of the EU. So use 1/5.

        It barely mentions nuclear except in weird reference, but the entire RE electrical output was massively dominated by EU nuclear, and even the EU-REs electrical was dominated by biomass and hydro with wind and solar barely worth mentioning.

  • Brandon Sergent December 12, 2012 on 3:57 am

    Thorium Now G+ community:
    Thorium Now is a group of individuals and organizations convinced that the key to humanity’s immediate and long term energy future is the proper exploitation of the Thorium atom.

    Honestly not spamming just trying to get us all linked up to some degree.

    Please also educate yourself about the u233 stockpile the DOE is spending a half Billion to vitrify.

    • Craig King Brandon Sergent February 16, 2014 on 10:15 am

      I don’t think thorium has not taken hold because of any suppression by hostile governments or the lack of a cheerleading group. The fact is thorium reactors have technological and financial issues that need resolving. If they are resolved without any special pleading then they will enter widespread use for the reasons of cleanliness, ease of disposal, safety and no use in weapons.

      Why you think it needs some form of mass, public support online is a mystery to me. Every person or company involved in power generation would love to have a financially and technically viable thorium power plant. They don’t encouragement such as you are promoting because it makes no difference at all.

      • fireofenergy Craig King February 17, 2014 on 6:40 pm

        Thorium is just another way to the closed cycle. Its main advantage is that it leads to fertile u233 instead of uranium 238’s fertile pu239. The u233 will lead to ever smaller amounts of the higher actinides, till finally, when plutonium is reached, there is a far smaller amount. Nevertheless, it’s all burned in the closed cycle, thus reducing the nuclear waste by about a factor of 100 or so over today’s once through (conventional, inherently unsafe water) reactors. That waste is fission products (no matter the reactor type).

        Therefore, we need a LARGE cheer leading group so that we can finally transition from (and save what’s left of) fossil fuels so they can be used for roads, tires, etc for very much longer. Conventional is not high enough temps to make liquid fuels, or desalinate water via the steam cooling process, either.

        The way I see it is this: If we are willing to spend $2 billion on just a 280MW solar plant that has just a max of 6 hours molten salt storage, requiring fossil fuels for back up…
        I think we should also DEMAND the superiority of the nuclear closed cycle! It’s been almost fully developed, proven to the demonstration level, and then funding was always cut before the more expensive commercial development stage (no wonder no investors are really that interested!).

        Now, I like solar (just not such expensive solar). It would take close to half a million sq mi for solar to power just half of a fully developed 10 billion person planetary civilization (wind could do the other half). But the “magic machines” needed to make all this (and all the storage for free) is just not happening anytime soon. Besides, fully 50 years of fission products (if closed cycle nuclear was used to power “everything”) would require just less than a million cubic meters of actual volume (but would probably be vitrified in a 5 to 1 mixture of glass for downgrading). It’s hard to imagine the processing wastes from an “equal amount of” renewables construction being much less. Furthermore, fission products, although really nasty, will decay back down to rather non toxic elements in about 1/1,000ths the amount of time it takes for so called spent fuel from today’s reactors.

        I think it’s about time to burn these so called wasted in the closed cycle in a molten fuels reactor (that does not use water for core cooling). And in the meantime, stop wasting money on old “along the way” research projects and go full force ahead with fusion development. If we don’t do the closed cycle in this meantime, we just might not make it to fusion, I mean economically AND ecologically (as we are headed into fossil fueled depletion into an over heated biosphere)!

      • Randy Jacobson Craig King August 8, 2015 on 10:57 am

        LFTRs are a highly disruptive technology because they blow up the fuel cycle centered business model of the nuclear power industry. Thorium is cheap to mine, cheap to convert to fuel and there is no need for reprocessing. The amount and half life of waste is a fraction of uranium. These are all the places where profit is earned and LFTRs change all that.

        Power generation itself is not a profit center in the industry. There is plenty for companies in the nuclear power industry not to like here.

  • Kama911 December 12, 2012 on 1:39 pm

    In addition to the four commercial reactors discussed in the story, there have been at least a dozen, perhaps a couple of dozen experimental thorium reactors built since the 1950’s and today. There should be lots of data to reveal lots of information. It is amazing that for all these decades, lurching from one energy crisis to another, going from one eco group to another all gnashing their teeth about pollution, that no party has picked up thorium torch. It is a mystery. The UK report stating that “there is some justification for these benefits (thorium’s), they are often overstated” is deliciously pregnant with enigmas. In a world starved for energy one would think Governments, Energy Providers and Players from the Pantheon of Eco, Anti Nuke Doomsday Cults would have been all over this since the dawn of the nuclear age. Thorium has been known to be a viable, probably superior fuel since day one. Thorium is probably so safe that it is scalable and would allow each vehicle and every home and building to have its own thorium power plant–eliminating the need for petroleum fuels and electrical companies. This may be the reason for all the power players keeping mum on the topic. Only now that China and India-no beholding to the status quo–are developing thorium reactors do we see the older powers waking up and taking notice.

    • FacebookUser1 Kama911 December 22, 2012 on 7:14 am

      I wouldn’t go as far as imagining a Thorium reactor in a car, but a ship, sub, train and even an airplane is feasible, although the shielding issue would kill the plane. The smallest practical Thorium LFTR plant is going to be as big as a small house.

      On the other hand I could imagine a micro thermal plant using minute samples of U233 and a small neutron source to trigger fission. It would probably be deadly though to be near and never allowed.

    • Jason Howard Kama911 January 4, 2013 on 6:38 pm

      If that were true then we would truly be facing possible extinction at the hands of greed, not the need for energy/weapons?

    • Craig King Kama911 February 16, 2014 on 10:17 am

      Perhaps you could expand , then, on your theory as to why it is not in widespread use today.

  • Miroslav Plachy December 13, 2012 on 6:49 am

    I am glad they are testing thorium but it looks like they are using the steam driven ones which are patheticaly ineficiant. They should be using the salt cooling ones. Oh well I am sure they will figure it out. The steam or water vapour in the atmosphere isa greenhouse gas and traps the heat.The picture is showing a lot of steam going up into the air. Grosly ineficiant.

    • FacebookUser1 Miroslav Plachy December 22, 2012 on 7:06 am

      That picture was taken off Wikipedia. Just copy it and paste into google image box and voila

      Its the Nuclear Power Plant at Cattenom France which is probably a 4GW cluster. They probably are 35% eff but not related to the article.

      The Halden Norwegian test reactor is quite tiny, it has no MWe output because it has no generator. It is just a thermal test device for researching fuels and processes.

      While water vapor is a green house gas, it is also the earths working fluid that takes heat from the surface out of the Troposphere. Think of a distributed heat pipe with water vapor as the working fluid and tornado storms driving the heat up to the -70c cold sink high above, that makes it into a thermal engine.

    • Charles Coombs Miroslav Plachy March 10, 2013 on 12:55 pm

      I agree, but the article states that they don’t use, say, LFTRs because the water/pebble bed generators are approved for use. The politics of this thing are every bit as important as any technological consideration.

  • fireofenergy December 16, 2012 on 7:03 pm

    Kinda sad to hear “… not to believe the hype”. ONLY back assward government type people would say that because they WANT to limit our energy supplies, they WANT to continue to use the (non melt down proof) water reactors as a fear tactic (so people will not want nuclear, so there will be no competitors to the already existing supply lines), and they WANT to keep the prices of solar and electrical (or heat) storage VERY expensive (to keep the fossil fuel people in business).
    I believe in global warming, but I don’t believe that we must cut our energy supplies (like every enviro organization wants us to do). Not yet! First, we MUST demand LFTR. Look it up, Kirk Sorenson, LFTR’s main advocate, was a NASA engineer (he can’t be all wrong!).
    The only hype is from all those communist minded people that want free countries to ration their energy supplies!
    The second best option (in case too many people are still afraid of LFTR) is to develop MACHINES that mass produce all the parts for solar and its storage… but the enviro whimps whine about that too. They are ONLY happy when ALL the energy supplies are cut, or at least, it seems that way.

    Only by covering hundreds of thousands of square miles can solar ever cut it. In the last century, we did that with paving machines, this century, we can do that with solar collection (preferably, not to dark in color, either)… But wouldn’t it be MUCH easier to go the way of the much more energy dense LFTR reactor? Yes it would (any physicist not paid by a government that want to limit its peoples, will tell you that).

    I wrote letters to some of congress to NO avail. We need more people promoting the REAL path to clean energy!

    Which raises another, possibly very much MORE important concern: Machine displacement! When machines “make everything”, perhaps the only jobs will be all those solar install jobs… but eventually, even they will be done by machine (and even an automated vehicle absent the driver!). There will be MORE productivity, but (way) less human jobs, therefore, we will need (machine created) wealth re-distribution… Read all about it in the comments section of (what I believe is) this site’s most all time popular article…

    • fireofenergy fireofenergy December 16, 2012 on 7:13 pm

      I re-read that part about the hype and did NOT mean emphasis toward the writer, just the government organizations, apologies!

    • FacebookUser1 Gregory Goble December 23, 2012 on 7:19 am

      Spamming for nickel power fuel for a totally unproven LENR technology, a wee bit premature.

      • fireofenergy FacebookUser1 December 23, 2012 on 7:43 am

        I already bought some and am now powering my entire community…lol

  • Ramsey Smith July 10, 2013 on 6:28 pm

    thorium plants don’t need the massive heat exchangers so wtf is the graphic at the top?

    • fireofenergy Ramsey Smith July 12, 2013 on 7:07 am

      It is being built in partnership with Westinghouse. That probably means that this is just another light water reactor that will be optimized to “burn” thorium.
      You know, they got to make money off that old zirconium fuel rod assembly (where the fission product, zenon “becomes” as a gas and slowly rips apart that arcane solid fuel rendering it useless at JUST the 2% or so level of consumption).

  • Facebook - gauravratia November 11, 2014 on 2:15 am

    Maybe you could extend , then, on your hypothesis regarding why it is not in across the board utilize today. like as Result Box