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Power Technology

Thorium: The Wonder Fuel That Wasn't 204

Lasrick (2629253) writes "Bob Alvarez has a terrific article on the history and realities of thorium as an energy fuel: For 50 years the US has tried to develop thorium as an energy source for nuclear reactors, and that effort has mostly failed. Besides the extraordinary costs involved, In the process of pursuing thorium-based reactors a fair amount of uranium 233 has been created, and 96 kilograms of the stuff (enough to fuel 12 nuclear weapons) is now missing from the US national inventory. On top of that, the federal government is attempting to force Nevada into accepting a bunch of the uranium 233, as is, for disposal in a landfill (the Nevada Nuclear Security Site). 'Because such disposal would violate the agency's formal safeguards and radioactive waste disposal requirements, the Energy Department changed those rules, which it can do without public notification or comment. Never before has the agency or its predecessors taken steps to deliberately dump a large amount of highly concentrated fissile material in a landfill, an action that violates international standards and norms.'"
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Thorium: The Wonder Fuel That Wasn't

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  • Yikes ... (Score:1, Insightful)

    by gstoddart ( 321705 ) on Monday May 12, 2014 @02:40PM (#46981873) Homepage

    Never before has the agency or its predecessors taken steps to deliberately dump a large amount of highly concentrated fissile material in a landfill, an action that violates international standards and norms

    What could possibly go wrong?

  • Never before??? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 12, 2014 @02:46PM (#46981945)

    " Never before has the agency or its predecessors taken steps to deliberately dump a large amount of highly concentrated fissile material in a landfill, an action that violates international standards and norms."

    Clearly this person knows nothing about what happened during the cold war at Rocky Flats, Hanford, and the Savannah River sites.

  • by Mr D from 63 ( 3395377 ) on Monday May 12, 2014 @02:49PM (#46981983)
    ^Yeah, I know some article submitters have an agenda. Too bad they feel the need to choose such BS to try to make their case rather than submitting something with a little credibility. FUD is very important to the cause.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 12, 2014 @02:51PM (#46982011)

    Parent seems unable to distinguish between his own non-expert opinion and the opinion (true or not) of an expert with long history in the study of this subject matter.

    If parent can think of a criticism, it's a safe bet the author has heard it before and believes it has been addressed. Unless parent has evidence that the author is unaware of these concerns, or intentionally misleading the reader of the article, he is just being arrogant.

    The fact that it looks like a glaring hole to you (non-expert) doesn't mean it really is.

  • by mbone ( 558574 ) on Monday May 12, 2014 @03:04PM (#46982149)

    Well, I am a physicist, and I think that the article was badly written and intended to produce more heat than light. If the author has heard such complaints and believes they have been addressed, he sure didn't do a good job doing so.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 12, 2014 @03:18PM (#46982307)

    Thorium 232 + a neutron -> Uranium 233.

    No entirely accurate.

    Th232 + n -> Th233 -> U233 + e

    You forgot to bombard the Th 233 with a positron going backward in time.

  • by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Monday May 12, 2014 @03:19PM (#46982317)

    Just about anyone can call themselves a scientist, or an advisor. I find it incredible the number of people still duped by those claims.

    Indeed. Anyone that calls the NNSS a "landfill" and talks about "dumping" U233 there, is clearly trying to push an agenda, and is willing to mislead and distort facts in order to do so. That is not science.

  • by lister king of smeg ( 2481612 ) on Monday May 12, 2014 @03:24PM (#46982399)

    Much of the reason that it hasn't been developed after 50 years as you say is because the people writing the cheques for nuclear research want dropable/launchable nukes that they can blow up the planet. So when someone suggest a possible safer option that does not produce the wanted isotopes for making a big boom, it gets very little funding.

  • by Rhywden ( 1940872 ) on Monday May 12, 2014 @03:43PM (#46982631)

    Yes. And that solar-collision orbit requires a speed of 31 km/s. You're forgetting that you're on an elliptical orbit around the sun - every nudge towards the sun merely reduces the smaller axis of the elliptical trajectory around the sun.

    The "nudge" would work if both objects (target and object to push) were at relative rest. But they aren't at rest. You start out with the Earth's orbital velocity around the Sun.

    That, by the way, is also the reason why missions to Mercury are rare - it's quite expensive. By the way: Shooting stuff completely out of the solar system would only require about 41% of the energy you need to get to the Sun. Sounds weird, but that's orbital mechanics for you.

  • by Pinhedd ( 1661735 ) on Monday May 12, 2014 @03:46PM (#46982675)

    No one is going to be manufacturing a traditional implosion style nuclear weapon out of Uranium-233 any time soon. However, a dirty bomb would contaminate a very large area with gamma emitting Uranium-232, causing quite a headache.

  • by Izaak ( 31329 ) on Monday May 12, 2014 @04:56PM (#46983557) Homepage Journal

    That article comes of as an attack piece from someone who feels threatened (maybe someone with serious investment in traditional reactor tech?). He makes ridiculous claims about the US spending decades trying to get thorium reactors working (we did not), and about many companies trying to create thorium reactors in past decades (they did not), and makes scary claims about a small amount of thorium 233 and its potential to make bombs (far more refined plutonium and uranium exists and is more easily weaponized). The truth is, the US made only one test thorium reactor decades ago, and it proved the potential for a sustained thorium cycle. The current research challenge is only around extracting waste products from the molten salt fuel mixture, and that is well within our technical capabilities. The only thing stopping the development of working LFTR reactors is the will and funding to do it.

    I would pick apart the article in more detail, but I suspect other people have already beat me to it.

  • Sadly, valid (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Animats ( 122034 ) on Monday May 12, 2014 @05:00PM (#46983631) Homepage

    The problems had nothing to do with the use of thorium fuel. It had everything to do with a badly designed cooling system that used He instead of water.

    The Ft. St. Vrain story is rather sad. The plant had a large number of minor problems that made it too expensive to run. It was converted to natural gas.

    Every reactor design which had something complicated happening within the radioactive parts of the system has been a commercial failure. Standard boiling-water reactors and pressurized-water reactors are very simple both mechanically and chemically inside the reactor vessel. All the complexity is outside, where it can be fixed if necessary.

    Sodium-cooled reactors have sodium fires. Pebble-bed reactors have jams. (There's a prototype in Germany that's so jammed it can't be decommissioned.) Helium-cooled reactors have leaks. Reactors which require an adjacent chemical processing plant have all the problems of a chemical plant for radioactive materials. Anything which goes wrong in the radioactive part of the system is a huge deal to fix. The history of exotic reactor designs is not good. Many of the exotic ideas have been funded and built, but the results are not impressive.

    Meanwhile, boring old BWR and PWR reactors have a long life and good uptime.

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