Nuclear power is a forbidding energy source, both for its spectacular failures in places like Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima, and for its general incomprehensibility. It’s (relatively) easy to understand how burning oil, gas, or coal produce energy, but most of us can’t fathom what goes on inside those monolithic concrete cooling towers and the facilities they lie within.That’s especially problematic when we start talking about one nuclear technology being better than another, as is currently the case. There’s a swelling of momentum for a next generation of nuclear power, and with it come new buzzwords, like thorium, molten salt, and fast reactors. It would be nice to know more about this phenomenon without enrolling in a physics course. Which brings us to the Economist‘s Babbage blog, which earlier this week delved deeper into the current state of nuclear energy, while putting it into historical perspective:
Most of today’s reactors, whether they use boiling water or pressurised water, trace their ancestry back to the USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear submarine, launched in 1954. At the time, the [light water reactor (LWR)] was just one of many reactor designs that existed either on paper or in the laboratory—using different fuels (uranium-233, uranium-235 or plutonium-239), different coolants (water, heavy water, carbon dioxide or liquid sodium) and different moderators (water, heavy water, beryllium or graphite)….In hindsight, that was a terrible mistake. Producing copious quantities of plutonium is just about the last thing a commercial reactor needs to do. It creates huge handling and storage problems as well as all manner of security and proliferation headaches. On top of that, the LWR’s other drawbacks ensured that commercial reactors would henceforth be more expensive to build and costlier to operate than might otherwise have been the case.
Which is where molten salt and thorium reactors come in:
One advantage of liquid fuels is that they are not subjected to the radiation damage or structural stresses that cause the fuel rods in conventional reactors to swell and distort. Also, because they use a liquid fluoride salt for a coolant, there is no high-pressure water to deal with. Operating at atmospheric pressure, no containment vessel is therefore needed. The xenon gas that poisons the fuel rods in a conventional reactor simply bubbles out of a liquid fuel, while other fission products precipitate out and cease absorbing neutrons from the chain-reaction underway….
Today, the thorium reactor is a non-starter, at least in America and other countries that have invested heavily in light-water technology. But things are different in India, a country with no uranium but an abundance of thorium. India plans to produce 30% of its electricity from thorium reactors by 2050. Being plentiful and cheap, thorium is the only fuel that stands a chance of generating electricity as cheaply as burning coal. As such, it is the only fuel capable of weaning the world off the biggest single polluter of all.
If you’re like us, much of this will still make you go cross-eyed, but it’s worth reading the whole thing to get a better idea of the options ahead for nuclear energy. The West has already invested in the LWR reactors to help supply its baseload power, and won’t be making the massive investments necessary for a new kind of nuclear power mix any time soon. But as we’ve said before, the developing world doesn’t need to make the same mistakes as the the developed has. As Babbage notes, India is already planning on going the thorium route, and China is leading the way in the research and development of thorium reactor technology. The proliferation of these new reactors could supply hundreds of millions with power, without emitting greenhouse gases. That’s good for everyone.[Nuclear reactor image courtesy of Shutterstock]