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Bill Gates Is Beginning To Dream the Thorium Dream 327

Daniel_Stuckey writes "TerraPower, the Gates-chaired nuclear power company, has garnered the most attention for pursuing traveling wave reactor tech, which runs entirely on spent uranium and would rarely need to be refueled. But Terrapower just quietly announced that it's going to start seriously exploring thorium power, too."
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Bill Gates Is Beginning To Dream the Thorium Dream

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  • Finally! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by CrimsonAvenger ( 580665 ) on Wednesday July 24, 2013 @04:10PM (#44373571)
    Wow, I finally have a reason to like/admire Bill Gates....
    • Re:Finally! (Score:5, Funny)

      by networkBoy ( 774728 ) on Wednesday July 24, 2013 @04:13PM (#44373621) Homepage Journal

      oblig: as long as the cores don't have a BSOD...
      That would be bad.

      But in all honesty, I do like that his efforts are being spent on something like this, where the benefit to humanity is great.

      • Re:Finally! (Score:5, Funny)

        by Jeremiah Cornelius ( 137 ) on Wednesday July 24, 2013 @05:17PM (#44374393) Homepage Journal

        "I Came, I Thorium, I Barium".

    • Re:Finally! (Score:5, Funny)

      by Kazymyr ( 190114 ) on Wednesday July 24, 2013 @04:16PM (#44373637) Journal
      I agree, it's time we take thorium seriously. And if Bill Gates is the one who makes it happen, more power to him! (pun not intended)
      • Re:Finally! (Score:4, Informative)

        by nojayuk ( 567177 ) on Wednesday July 24, 2013 @04:40PM (#44373907)

        I saw an announcement recently about thorium fuel elements [world-nuclear-news.org] being loaded into a reactor for long-term engineering research to see how they perform physically. There's not a great demand for thorium fuel cycle operations at the moment though when uranium is so cheap [uxc.com] and plentiful.

        • I don't think thorium/uranium is not that important to the final price of the electricity. the construction and decomissioning cost(although this cost is being carried by the government) of the reactors *is*.

          • Re:Finally! (Score:5, Informative)

            by nojayuk ( 567177 ) on Wednesday July 24, 2013 @05:48PM (#44374661)

            The bit about decommissioning costs being paid for by the government is a lie. Nuclear power plants in the West build and maintain a reserve fund to pay for end-of-life decommissioning, usually based on a percentage of the cost of the electricity generated and sold. In the US that's 0.1c to 0.2c per kWh IIRC.

            Government taxpayers only pay for decommissioning non-power reactors such as the ones used to make weapons-grade cores for bombs etc. Decommissioning power reactors is paid for by the electricity consumer in the end. This isn't particularly onerous -- France's electricity consumers pay about 13c Euro per kWh for their nuclear generated electricity and that includes a decommissioning levy. Germany's electricity generated by lignite coal and Russian gas and a small amount of renewables costs twice that much to the consumer while it emits nearly twice as much carbon per kWh generated.

            As for construction costs being paid for by the governnment, that's untrue as well -- there may be loan guarantees from a given government but those loans to pay for the upfront costs of building the reactors are commercial financial instruments, meant to be paid off over forty years and more of the reactor operating and generating sellable electricity. I don't actually know of a Solyndra-style billion-buck default on a loan guarantee for a nuclear construction project.

            You are correct about the cost of fuel being a minor part of nuclear operations though. Thorium is a solution looking for a problem, basically -- there's lots of uranium around, it's dirt cheap, so cheap that major sources can't be economically exploited yet since they're in very remote areas of the world and getting them to market would be more expensive than they're worth.

            The research into using thorium is very long-term. Centuries from now when uranium becomes scarcer thorium might become the go-to non-carbon fuel but right now it's only an interesting laboratory curiosity.

            • decommissioning costs: ... In many countries either the funds do not appear sufficient ...
              http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_decommissioning#Cost_of_decommissioning [wikipedia.org]
              and so: the taxpayer pays the rest.

              +various government bodies for security, the storage of the waste, ...

              • Re:Finally! (Score:5, Informative)

                by nojayuk ( 567177 ) on Wednesday July 24, 2013 @06:47PM (#44375203)

                Most if not all decommissioning is paid for over the reactor's operating period. Some funds are not fully paid up yet as the reactors have only been operating for a decade or two or three. By the time they get shut down the funds will be paid up and a bit more probably.

                Decommissioning an undamaged reactor isn't that expensive. It might take a few decades but nearly all of that will be waiting for some residual radioactivity to decay after the last load of spent fuel is removed. The rules about residual radioactivity are ridiculously tight in the US -- "scrap steel from gas plants may be recycled if it has less than 500,000 Bq/kg (0.5 MBq/kg) radioactivity (the exemption level). This level however is one thousand times higher than the clearance level for recycled material (both steel and concrete) from the nuclear industry, where anything above 500 Bq/kg may not be cleared from regulatory control for recycling." Weird isn't it? It's like folks are irrationally scared of nuclear power for some reason.

                The operators pay for the waste storage and treatment too with another levy on the electricity generated. In the US that's about 0.1 cents US per kWh IIRC. The spent fuel, being nuclear material and therefore regarded as strategic is entrusted to the government to deal with. The total fund for dealing with the spent fuel is over 30 billion bucks and rising.

                Finland's current fund for dealing with its spent fuel is well over a billion bucks, raised similarly by a levy on the generating companies. They're spending about 800 miliion bucks building an deep underground depository in granite that should handle a century's worth of spent fuel from their existing and planned reactors, with operating costs covered by the levy paid for by the electricity consumers.

            • by Ungrounded Lightning ( 62228 ) on Wednesday July 24, 2013 @07:59PM (#44375817) Journal

              Thorium is a solution looking for a problem, basically -- there's lots of uranium around, it's dirt cheap, ...

              The big point of thorium reactors is that they don't produce plutonium. This made it less attractive during the Cold War, when producing plutonium for building bombs was considered a plus. Thus they were what was developed before opposition to nuclear plants made designing and building new ones uneconomic - at least in the US.

              In the current age of avoiding nuclear weapon proliferation, this potentially makes such designs less expensive to build and operate due to lower regulation and less need for defense against interception of spent fuel by budding bomb-makers, to convince the bureaucrats to let things proceed.

              Such lower regulation and lower costs might make it possible to proceed with the necessary research, design, and deployment and still hope to make a profit.

              • by nojayuk ( 567177 ) on Wednesday July 24, 2013 @08:49PM (#44376361)

                Power reactors didn't produce weapons-grade plutonium anyway. PWRs and such salt the Pu-239 they breed from U-238 with Pu-240 when it captures another neutron and that screws up implosion weapon designs to the point where they don't work right if at all. There were some dual-use reactor designs like the British Magnox and the Russian RMBK-4 that could be operated to breed purer forms of Pu-239 but by the time they came on-line in the 60s the major Powers had made all the Pu-239 (a few hundred tonnes in total) they'd ever need from dedicated short-cycle breeder reactors in places like Hanford and Windscale. You don't need reactors at all to build U-235 weapons of course, just enrichment facilities.

                The good news is that molten-salt thorium reactors work by breeding Th-232 into U-233 and that can be easily extracted and turned into quite usable nuclear weapons (the US fired off a couple of test U-233 shots in the 50s, I don't know if the Soviets ever did). Given that a molten-salt thorium reactor positively requires a reprocessing plant which can extract the U-233 to keep it running is just another bonus for any wannabe new entrants to the nuclear weapons club assuming molten-salt thorium ever gets productionised.

        • There have been at least 2 thorium reactors that have already been built and successfully run. One was a research reactor in the U.S., which was in operation (on and off) for years. I have forgotten where the other was.

          India is currently in the process of building a thorium-based electricity generating plant.

          Seriously, if the U.S. doesn't jump on this soon, we'll be left in the dust when it comes to clean energy. I have no idea why we haven't yet, unless it has been due to lobbying by the energy compa
          • Re:Finally! (Score:4, Interesting)

            by nojayuk ( 567177 ) on Wednesday July 24, 2013 @06:04PM (#44374815)

            The molten-salt reactor built in the US back in the 60s had a maximum output of 7MW thermal -- it never generated any electricity, the heat was dumped to air. A modern GenIII uranium reactor like those coming on-stream in China and elsewhere produces about 4500MW thermal /1600MW of electricity 24 hours a day, and with downtime for refuelling, inspection and maintenance as needed they are expected to operate for sixty years at least -- a century of operation is not impossible given the extreme overengineering that goes into the core components involved.

            It's a bit like saying someone who built a model aircraft engine that ran for a few hours means they can design a reliable efficient cost-effective truck engine based on the same principles. Good luck with that.

            As for the proposed Indian thorium reactors they are basically standard PWRs and heavy-water BWRs fuelled with a mixture of thorium, medium-enriched uranium and plutonium derived from conventional low-enriched uranium nuclear reactors of the sort in operation around the world today. Thorium (Th-232) isn't a good nuclear fuel by itself, it needs to be bred into fissile U-233 with neutrons from U-235 and Pu-239/240 before its energy can be extracted. India want to go this route because they're not signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and therefore limited in their access to the world's nuclear materials markets and they don't have good native sources of uranium ore. If it were otherwise they probably wouldn't bother.

            • As I clearly stated, the thorium reactor that the U.S. built was experimental. It wasn't designed to commercially generate electricity, it was designed to run experiments on.

              Even so, it did a very good job of proving the concept.

              "As for the proposed Indian thorium reactors they are basically standard PWRs and heavy-water BWRs fuelled with a mixture of thorium, medium-enriched uranium and plutonium derived from conventional low-enriched uranium nuclear reactors of the sort in operation around the world today."

              I didn't try to claim it was a molten-salt reactor. It still makes use of the thorium energy cycle and is demonstrably safer than current designs. [newscientist.com]

              Further, they have been planning to use thorium as a primary fuel since the 1950s. [wikipedia.org]

      • I just hope we don't have to change all our plugs and all our electrical equipment to fit the new power service from Gates.
        • Bill Gates style would have him force socket makers to only sell his brand of electricity. Steve Jobs and Sony are the 'this is the new connector that obsoletes all your old ones, isnt it great?!
        • Re:Finally! (Score:5, Funny)

          by almitydave ( 2452422 ) on Wednesday July 24, 2013 @04:47PM (#44373983)

          Rumor has it the new thorium reactors will put out 640 kW, which oughta be enough for everybody.

          • Did Gates or Microsoft have anything to do with the 640 k limit? I thought that was an IBM limitation.
          • Rumor has it the new thorium reactors will put out 640 kW, which oughta be enough for everybody.

            Don't worry, the management tools will leave less then 500 kW for everyday use.

          • Rumor has it the new thorium reactors will put out 640 kW, which oughta be enough for everybody.

            640 kW from my Personal Reactor? That's enough for me.

        • It's a possibility, but even if not I'm pretty sure you will need a subscription to XBox Live.

      • And if Bill Gates is the one who makes it happen, more power to him! (pun not intended)

        If not intended, at least appreciated.

    • Re:Finally! (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Valdrax ( 32670 ) on Wednesday July 24, 2013 @04:20PM (#44373683)

      What about all the stuff his foundation does about malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV? Or the stuff he's doing for sanitation and disaster relief? Heck, even if you're looking for something closer to home, then what about try to fund a better condom so that people will be faced with less of a choice between pleasure and safety?

      I may not like the man and bear a huge grudge for some his more destructive effects on the computer industry, but all of that kind of seems piddling compared to the effect his actions will have on billions of the world's poorest people. I have been forced to grudgingly admire him for quite some time now over his philanthropy and the transparency and effectiveness of his charity compared to some of its "rivals."

      • Re:Finally! (Score:5, Interesting)

        by i kan reed ( 749298 ) on Wednesday July 24, 2013 @04:29PM (#44373793) Homepage Journal

        Don't forget the widespread parasite infection rate due to his work on cheap sanitation infrastructure. The last "generation" of excessively wealthy philanthropists did wonderful things, like build universities, parks, and feed the homeless. This "generation" seems intent on fixing the world, which, while neocolonialist, is really promising in the amount of progress.

        • Re:Finally! (Score:5, Informative)

          by i kan reed ( 749298 ) on Wednesday July 24, 2013 @04:45PM (#44373965) Homepage Journal

          The missing phrase in my post here is decrease in, it was not an oblique reference to Windows virus infection rates.

        • Don't forget the widespread parasite infection rate due to his work on cheap sanitation infrastructure.

          What, Gates built a cheap sanitation infrastructure, leading to widespread parasite infection? You probably meant the opposite, but I find the phrasing confusing.

        • excessively wealthy philanthropists did wonderful things, like build universities, parks, and feed the homeless

          Last generation? That was more like 5 generations ago.

          • Hence the "quotes"

          • Re:Finally! (Score:5, Insightful)

            by timeOday ( 582209 ) on Wednesday July 24, 2013 @06:46PM (#44375197)
            He didn't mean biological generations. The previous wave of hyper-concentration of wealth in the US was the late 19th and early 20th century. (Wikipedia entry on robber barons [wikipedia.org].) At this time, recent industrialization had allowed commerce to achieve national scale, but regulation was still primarily state-by-state, so business was running rings around government. This triggered the rise of the federal government and its greatly expanded role in regulating interstate commerce. Globalization, with little corresponding rise in global governance, has lately caused a recurrence of the pattern. I suppose it will also trigger a recurrence of the solution, namely increased regulation of global trade. It will be annoying in some ways, but global corporations have truly made regulation and taxation into a joke by global jurisdictional arbitrage, so it is inevitable.
        • by Mashiki ( 184564 )

          Being realistic, people can shove the whole "neocolonialist" bit up their ass. It's pretty much come to a point of force regions to get better, or leave it to the loon fringe environmental groups who refuse to let them improve at all. Norman Borlaug put it best when he said: "You can't build a safe and stable society on empty stomachs and human misery."

        • This "generation" seems intent on fixing the world

          probably why the human population has roughly doubled (from 4 to 7 B) in the last 50 years.

          Now we need to fix that problem.

      • but all of that kind of seems piddling compared to the effect his actions will have on billions of the world's poorest people.

        Yep. Especially when teamed up with Monsanto*. The actions will have quite an impact.

        [*] http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/poverty-matters/2010/sep/29/gates-foundation-gm-monsanto [guardian.co.uk]

    • I knew there was a reason to put up with Windows mediocrity all these years ;-)

      • Well much of windows Mediocrity is based on keeping backwards compatibility to the old 16bit DOS systems.

        MS DOS - Microsoft Big hit. It started the PC Compatible Computer. There was a lot of software written for DOS
        Windows 1 - ME, Well it still needed to Run DOS apps.
        Windows NT-8 It needs to run the Windows 32bit (Win 3.1+ (Windows 3.1 while a 16bit shell to DOS, supported 32bit extensions))

        The standard PC of the MS-DOS days would cringe from a system like Linux/Unix as it was more towards the mainframe sy

        • ...Once the hardware got to a point (the 386) Microsoft had too much backward compatibility to deal with to really make the OS stable...

          Then why were Windows/386 and Windows 3.0 so unstable? DOS 3.3 was about the only stable operating system to ever come out of Microsoft prior to XP and XP maintained backwards compatibility with 2K and NT. Try again on excuses for why Microsoft has trouble creating a stable operating system.

          Microsoft doesn't get "eaten alive" due to vendor lock in (just try to order a desktop or laptop with Linux instead of Windows from HP, Dell, etc.) and due to IT infrastructure investment at large companies. I'm curr

    • Re:Finally! (Score:4, Funny)

      by Reverand Dave ( 1959652 ) on Wednesday July 24, 2013 @04:27PM (#44373771)
      Bill Gates as a person, separate from Microsoft does a lot of good in the world through his foundation and personal charitable contributions. When he stepped down as the CEO of MS, he got to hand the asshole mantle to Balmer who is now wearing that motherfucker like no one else can.
      • Now all we have to do is wait for the anti nuclear hippies to show up and piss in the cereal bowl.

    • Yea, he's only the most generous philanthropist in the world. Fuck helping people, I want cheap power
      • by Necron69 ( 35644 )

        You do realize that access to reliable and cheap electricity is one of the major divides between rich and poor in the world?


    • Wow, I finally have a reason to like/admire Bill Gates....

      I know. I'm sure he won't ask for any government grants for the research either.

      Sorry, but Bill is still Bill with better publicists.

    • by BLKMGK ( 34057 )

      Yeah but check out the company they appear to be working with - a "spin out of Intellectual Ventures". The description of which sounds VERY trollish to me and indeed IV has been named that so...

      "Director of innovation Latkowski declined to say whether or not TerraPower has filed any MSR patents. In addition to running innovation and related partnerships, Latkowski also “oversees the development, maintenance and protection of TerraPower’s intellectual property portfolio” according to his co

    • Wow, I finally have a reason to like/admire Bill Gates....

      It is kind of strange. After so many years of hateing him so passionately, He reties and uses his money for things I tend to think are good ideas.
      This has really messed with my fragile little mind. :)

  • I don't know why Thor feels so second-rate. Superman doesn't have a day of the week and an element named after him.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday July 24, 2013 @04:26PM (#44373749)

    You'll need to start at the beginning of the entire nuclear reactor concept. If you can find it, and it will take a little digging, you'll stumble upon a paper and subsequent decision from 1947-49. In it, the reactor lead engineer who also worked on some of the first nukes, stated we now have 'an endless supply of cheap energy' from a Thorium reactor design.

    Now why wasn't it implemented? It did not produce enough byproduct plutonium for nuclear bombs.

    Hopefully, they'll pull all of the detractors of Thorium kicking and screaming into the future, because this tech. needs to be fully explored and ultimately implemented.

    I'd cite, but I'm on a phone. Sorry...

  • by Trepidity ( 597 ) <delirium-slashdotNO@SPAMhackish.org> on Wednesday July 24, 2013 @04:38PM (#44373875)

    Thor Energy [thorenergy.no] started a trial [extremetech.com] earlier this month.

    Turns out that Norway has one of the world's largest thorium deposits, which is part of the motivation. I guess having huge oil deposits, hydro-energy resources, and wind-energy resources wasn't enough...

    • by nojayuk ( 567177 ) on Wednesday July 24, 2013 @05:20PM (#44374423)

      Good grief, what an utterly crap article! So many things they got wrong... Lessee, the thorium experiment involves eight (8) pellets of mixed-oxide thorium/plutonium fuel in a single fuel rod loaded into a low-powered heavy-water research reactor fuelled mostly with enriched uranium (the reactor is designed to accept other fuel elements like the thorium MOX rod for testing purposes which is why the test is being carried out in Norway). Thorium needs a neutron flux to breed Th232 up into fissile U233 and produce energy hence the mixed-oxide formulation of the pellets mentioned. Assuming the MOX pellets get commoditised they'll need an ongoing future supply of Pu to continue making them and that can come only from either reprocessing fuel rods from regular uranium reactors of the type running today or breeder reactors also burning uranium although the track record of breeders hasn't been too good up till now, lots of engineering problems with molten sodium leaking and consequential fires. Note that the travelling-wave reactor design mentioned in the original article is basically a breeder using guess what? as a coolant. Oops.

  • Thorium has already been "seriously explored." How about a turnkey reactor design?
  • The thing about the Thorium-power dream is that the time frame puts it sometime after flying cars, strong AI, and colonies on the moon. For example: India has had a concerted 3-stage nuclear power program to make use of its abundant thorium. That project started in the 1950's. (Likewise, experiments with thorium have occurred throughout the world since the 1960's). India just recently entered "stage 2" where fast breeder reactors can start producing uranium-233 which is the seed for later thorium reactors.

    • This is SlashDot where irrational nuke love is guaranteed karma whoring. I'm no expert, but every time I've looked up one of these "obvious" technologies people rave about here there's always something like this behind the numbers.

  • by nurb432 ( 527695 ) on Wednesday July 24, 2013 @05:27PM (#44374495) Homepage Journal

    Has always been the future. Sure, efficiency is not as high as in the full blown nuclear plant with 'new' rods, but if you can run your car/house/cell phone on waste. its a win/win.. 'cheap' universal power and delayed waste.

  • by schweini ( 607711 ) on Wednesday July 24, 2013 @07:09PM (#44375391)
    There's a fascinating video on the "Solve For X" site that follows this Thorium advocate around. It's very convincing!

    https://www.solveforx.com/moonshots/thorium-an-energy-solution-thorium-remix-2011 [solveforx.com]
  • by MtViewGuy ( 197597 ) on Wednesday July 24, 2013 @11:25PM (#44377509)

    I think in the end, once we start to scale up the molten-salt reactors based on Alvin Weinberg's research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, it could open the door for the biggest breakthrough in electricity generation in many, many years.

    The liquid fluoride thorium reactor has several major advantages over uranium-fueled reactors:

    1. It uses commonly-found thorium-232 dissolved in molten sodium fluoride salts as fuel, vastly cheaper than uranium-235 processed into fuel rods.
    2. it does not need a pressurized reactor vessel.
    3. It can even use reprocessed spent uranium-235 fuel rods or even plutonium-239 from dismantled nuclear weapons dissolved in molten sodium fluoride salts as reactor fuel.
    4. During an emergency (SCRAM) shutdown, all you need to do is dump the liquid fuel mix out of the reactor vessel. It can be done completely mechanically, very important in earthquake-prone areas like Japan or the US West Coast.
    5. By using closed-loop Brayton turbines to generate electricity, we eliminate the need for expensive cooling towers or having to locate the reactor site near a large body of cooling water.
    6. The amount of nuclear waste generated is very small, and the waste only has a half-life of under 300 years. That means waste disposal can be done at disused salt mines or salt domes--if the nuclear medicine industry doesn't grab it first!

    The Department of Energy should help design a "cookie cutter" complete LFTR generating plant rated at 1,000 MW output, and build possibly over 100 of them across the continental USA. This would allow us to phase out many older coal-fired power plants and create enough elecctric generating power to do things like electrifying all our long-distance railroads and even do large-scale water desalinization.

Adding features does not necessarily increase functionality -- it just makes the manuals thicker.