Tuesday, June 21, 2011

More Cheap Energy: The Thorium Fuel Cycle

The thorium fuel cycle is a nuclear fuel cycle that uses the naturally abundant isotope of thorium, Th 232, as the fertile material, instead of the U 235 used in the uranium fuel cycle. The advantages of the thorium fuel cycle are that thorium is naturally more abundant than uranium, and mined thorium consists of a single isotope that does not require separation - unlike uranium, which requires enrichment.

Wired did a profile of Kirk Sorensen and the thorium fuel cycle. Arguably, the uranium fuel cycle is just a cold war relic that was chosen to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. Sorensen writes the Energy From Thorium blog. Here is how he explains the advantages of liquid thorium fluoride reactors (LFTRs):

Almost every aspect of how LFTRs are cheaper and more expedient to produce is directly related to them having fundamental safety features which make them not require the massive overengineering of conventional nuclear reactors. While the fuel cost advantages of a LFTR over a conventional reactor appear overwhelming at first ($100,000 instead of $50,000,000) when you dig into the numbers it turns out that fuel costs aren’t a big driver of nuclear plant cost, because Uranium contains extraordinary amounts of energy itself. The extreme lengths you have to go to in order to overcome a conventional solid fueled plant needing to have excess fuel in the reactor and operate at greater than atmospheric pressure are what account for most of the price of conventional plants.
You should watch this video of Sorenson at a TEDx event this year giving a talk on LFTRs.

Regarding the investment potential of thorium, friend of the blog Alexander Rubalcava puts it thusly:
I looked into [thorium] a year ago and concluded that the industry structure and technology doesn't lend itself to good equity investments.

The mineral itself will never be very valuable. First, there are huge amounts of it in the Earth's crust, and it's created as a byproduct of Rare Earth Element mining. Second, the LFTR reactor design uses 99% of the potential energy in the fuel, as opposed to 1% for uranium reactors, so you could supply the whole electricity demand of the US on a few thousand tons a year. Third, unlike uranium which must be separated into high value U-235 and low value U-238, you just use all the thorium, so there's no refining play either.

Regarding reactor designs and engineering, someone's going to do this. LightBridge Corp. (LTBR) is trying to commercialize a design called seed-and-blanket, which can be used to upgrade existing nuclear reactors to run on thorium fuel. It is, and always has been, a science project stock, sort of like REFR or ENER or PLUG, except with even less revenue. At some point, someone in the world will build one of these things, but whether they use LTBR's technology and they get paid anything is another story. The company has been public for over a decade and has been loss-making the entire time.
My take is that knowledge about the thorium fuel cycle should inform our views about the cost and availability of energy. E.g. this is one more reason to think that an oil shortage will not cause a complete collapse of civilization.


portland_allan said...

LFTR is literally the 100 mpg carburetor that vested interests have chosen to deliberately kill.

I think it will be the Chinese that develop it commercially first. From there, it could spread to developing countries and Japan as the former is hungry and the later is desperate.

I doubt the Chinese putting it into production would be enough for it to make it's way to the US. You can forget about this being green-fielded, it would have to be retrofit into an existing plant. So that would require a bankruptcy by a power company with an existing nuclear facility that completely new management would use the brown-field plant to upfit a Thorium breeder. And that still doesn't address how they would get regulatory approval.

Taylor Conant said...

I could be wrong about this but fears about civilization collapse due to energy supply restrictions seem to imply "market failure" and the idea that the market is short-term, not long-term oriented by nature.

That is, this line of reasoning implies that the market would use up available, cheap, abundant supplies of energy until they were no longer available, cheap and abundant, but the price mechanism would never respond to these developments, rationing what was left of the known supply for its most valued uses while simultaneously incentivizing entrepreneurs to find new sources as well as new energy forms and catalysts completely.

It's as if a few neo-hippie/commie/statist worry warts, who doubt the efficacy of free markets fundamentally, would be the only ones who could see that civilization was in a rocket-powered bullet train headed straight into a brick wall called "cheap energy supply exhaustion" and none of the engineers in the locomotive had the ability or the idea to look out the windows and see what they were speeding towards.

I would assume that anyone who tries to "yeah, but..." this metaphor would rely on some kind of supporting evidence whose cause is ultimately government intervention, cartelization and arbitrary regulation, NOT the functioning of markets or the ability of entrepreneurs to foresee a coming collapse in supply.

CP said...

Good call Mr. Conant!

And in June 2011 when people were very overheated about commodities and energy!

CP said...