The case for Thorium. 12. Atmospheric pressure operating conditions, no risk for explosions. Much safer and simpler design.

Molten Salt nuclear Reactors operate under Atmospheric pressure  conditions, no risk for explosions. Materials subjected to high radiation tend to get brittle or soften up. Molten Salt Thorium nuclear reactors operate under atmospheric conditions so the choice of materials that can withstand both high temperatures and high radiation is much greater, leading to a superior and less expensive design.  There is no high pressure gas buildup and the separation stage can be greatly simplified, leading to a much safer design. (From Wikipedia:)

The LFTR needs a mechanism to remove the fission products from the fuel. Fission products left in the reactor absorb neutrons and thus reduce neutron economy. This is especially important in the thorium fuel cycle with few spare neutrons and a thermal neutron spectrum, where absorption is strong. The minimum requirement is to recover the valuable fissile material from used fuel.

Removal of fission products is similar to reprocessing of solid fuel elements; by chemical or physical means, the valuable fissile fuel is separated from the waste fission products. Ideally the fertile fuel (thorium or U-238) and other fuel components (e.g. carrier salt or fuel cladding in solid fuels) can also be reused for new fuel. However, for economic reasons they may also end up in the waste.

On site processing is planned to work continuously, cleaning a small fraction of the salt every day and sending it back to the reactor. There is no need to make the fuel salt very clean; the purpose is to keep the concentration of fission products and other impurities (e.g. oxygen) low enough. The concentrations of some of the rare earth elements must be especially kept low, as they have a large absorption cross section. Some other elements with a small cross section like Cs or Zr may accumulate over years of operation before they are removed.

As the fuel of a LFTR is a molten salt mixture, it is attractive to use pyroprocessing, high temperature methods working directly with the hot molten salt. Pyroprocessing does not use radiation sensitive solvents and is not easily disturbed by decay heat. It can be used on highly radioactive fuel directly from the reactor. Having the chemical separation on site, close to the reactor avoids transport and keeps the total inventory of the fuel cycle low. Ideally everything except new fuel (thorium) and waste (fission products) stays inside the plant.

One potential advantage of a liquid fuel is that it not only facilitates separating fission-products from the fuel, but also isolating individual fission products from one another, which is lucrative for isotopes that are scarce and in high-demand for various industrial (radiation sources for testing welds via radiography), agricultural (sterilizing produce via irradiation), and medical uses (Molybdenum-99 which decays into Technetium-99m, a valuable radiolabel dye for marking cancerous cells in medical scans).

Mo-99 is used in hospitals to produce the technetium-99m employed in around 80% of nuclear imaging procedures. Produced in research reactors, Mo-99 has a half-life of only 66 hours and cannot be stockpiled, and security of supply is a key concern. Most of the world’s supply currently comes from just four reactors in Belgium, the Netherlands, Russia and South Africa, and recent years have illustrated how unexpected shutdowns at any of those reactors can quickly lead to shortages. Furthermore, most Mo-99 is currently produced from HEU targets, which are seen as a potential nuclear proliferation risk.

With the Mo-99 having a half-life of 66 hours and being continuously separated out from the fertile core in a LFTR, this seems to be the ideal vehicle to cheaply produce ample supplies of this valuable medical resource.

Published by

lenbilen

Retired engineer, graduated from Chalmers Technical University a long time ago with a degree in Technical Physics. Career in Aerospace, Analytical Chemistry, computer chip manufacturing and finally adjunct faculty at Pennsylvania State University, taught just one course in Computer Engineering, the Capstone Course.

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