The earthquake that hit Japan on March 11 caused enough damage to at least 11 of Japan’s 55 nuclear reactors that they will have to be repaired before power production can resume. Three reactors are so badly damaged that they are releasing short term radioactive gases. Three reactors have suffered a significant hydrogen explosion from released gases from exposed and overheated fuel rods and much secondary damage has occurred. Three reactors are now in a stage of a partial meltdown, they will never be restarted again and the radiation poisoning the environment will last for millennia. In addition there was a fire in the spent fuel compartment of a fourth reactor releasing much radiation.
This is the problem with Uranium based nuclear power generation. These particular reactors are of the GE Mark-1 type, the design is from the 60’s, and there has been complaints the safety updates and inspections have been falsified. They were designed to withstand a 7.0 earthquake, further reinforced by the Japanese to an 8.2 earthquake. The tsunami wall around the complex was built 30 feet high, but the tsunami was 39 feet. Be that as it may, the tsunami took out the backup generators and the earthquake was severe and sudden enough that some of the SCRAM-rods could have been jammed. Time will tell what the failure mode really was. We seem to have a significant safety problem with nuclear power.
Is there a better way? Let us look at the history of nuclear power. Fission from Uranium 235 was confirmed in 1938 and fission from U-233 was discovered in 1942. During that time WWII was raging, and the Germans had a head start with many superior nuclear scientists. Some had fled to the U.S. but many remained. Germany had captured Norway and there was excess hydroelectric power available in Rjukan so they started to manufacture heavy water. When they had made a whole railroad container car of heavy water , the “Heroes of Telemark” managed to sink the ferry it was transported on and the German program was set back, probably by a year.
Meanwhile in the U.S. the Manhattan Project was going on. They used brute force to separate out enough U-235 out of natural Uranium. Copper was in short supply so they could not get enough to make all the electromagnets necessary for the separation. Not to worry they availed themselves of the silver in Fort Knox, making the best magnets the world has ever seen.
Germany capitulated May 5 1945, but not Japan and on August 6 the first nuclear bomb was dropped, changing life as we see it forever. The nuclear nightmare had started. In the 50’s the Oak Ridge ‘boys’, (the laboratory, not the quartet) proved that nuclear power from Thorium was a realistic power source, but then the nation was more interested in making plutonium for nuclear bombs, and thorium based reactors did not produce enough bomb-making material. So Thorium was mothballed and the Uranium based reactors won the day. Thus the military industrial complex gained virtual monopoly on nuclear power, and that is why we are now in a terrible fix trying to promote nuclear power.
Sweden started a heavy water project but the light water reactors proved more economical and the development cycle much faster thanks to the military applications un US. India refused to join the nuclear proliferation treaty so they were shut out of access to enriched uranium and light water reactor technology. What to do? They built a heavy water reactor that uses natural uranium instead. The beauty of that process is that it produces even more plutonium than what is possible with light water reactors. So they built their nuclear bomb, pretending to promote peaceful nuclear energy. What if we instead had said: “Forget the bombs, go with Thorium instead?” Would there be any difference?
Thorium is four times more abundant than Uranium, and is found as a byproduct when mining rare earth and heavy metals. It is radioactive, but not more than the background radiation found everywhere. It is at the “banana level”, about as radioactive as bananas. Thorium is completely safe from terrorists, it cannot be used for anything sinister. You only need very small quantities to fuel a reactor, and since it is a by-product it can be bought for the price of refining it, about $40 per Kg. There is enough Thorium around to produce power at today’s level for over a million years.
Thorium can generate electricity at a cost of about 4 cents/kWh, even when all regulatory requirements are satisfied. It generates 0.01% of the long term waste products of a Uranium reactor, and can even consume some of the waste-products from uranium based production. There is no risk of boil-overs since the fuel is already molten and at atmospheric pressure.
Sounds too good to be true? Let us take a look at the thorium reactors and see what they seem to promise.
1. Cheap and unlimited raw material.
2. Produces electricity at a cost of about 4 cents per kWh.
3. 0.01% waste products compared to a Uranium fast breeder.
4. Radioactive waste lasts max 300 years instead of a million years.
5. Can deplete some of the existing radioactive waste and nuclear weapons stockpiles.
6. Produces Plutonium-238 needed for space exploration.
7. Does not produce Plutonium239 and higher used in Nuclear bombs.
8. Produces isotopes that helps cure certain cancers.
9. Earthquake safe.
10. No risk for a meltdown, the fuel is already molten.
11. Very high negative temperature coefficient leading to a safe control.
12. Atmospheric pressure operating conditions, no risk for explosions.
13. Scales beautifully from small portable generators to full size power plants.
14. No need for evacuation zones, can be placed in urban areas.
15. Rapid response to increased or decreased power demands.
16. Lessens the need for an expanded national grid.
17. Russia and China is starting up a Thorium program
18. India has an active Thorium program.
19. Lawrence Livermore Laboratories is developing a small portable self-contained Thorium reactor capable of being carried on a low-bed trailer.
20. The need for a Yucca Mountain nuclear storage facility will eventually go away.
Obstacles in the path of Thorium reactors.
1. They are fast breeder reactors and fast breeders have a bad reputation for potential risks. The political resistance is enormous.
2. The military industrial complex (GE, Westinghouse, etc. ) has an enormous investment in Uranium based light water reactor technology. They would like to keep it that way.
3. The NRC is nearly impossible to move forward.
4. The political power landscape will change. Thorium based nuclear power is best left to regional control, and the world body trying to control all aspects of power generation would have a much harder time establishing total control.
5. Electricity will to a lesser degree be produced from coal, leaving the coal states with less clout.
Where do we go from here? India has for a long time been the only serious developer of Thorium based nuclear energy, a program that has been languishing too long since it has zero military applications, Thorium power produces 0.01% of the nuclear waste of conventional nuclear power, Thorium is abundant in Australia, India and the U.S. She should encourage cooperation on this type of nuclear energy. Thorium based generators can be made safe from earthquakes in a way no other nuclear energy can. Even though Thorium reactors are fast breeder reactors they are inherently stable and can be placed on barges in rivers. They are also superior in adapting to variations in power need, in short: we are way behind in developing the nuclear power for the future.
All of us should read up and try to understand the Thorium process and be ready to give a reason why we should not abandon nuclear power but change direction in this critical time. We need a new “Manhattan project” for energy. This time all the silver in Fort Knox will not save us, for we have lost the ability to do it by using brute force. Instead we will have to take a decentralized approach, developing small to medium size Thorium reactors near centers of power consumption. This will lessen our dependence on the National Grid, a grid that is vulnerable to terror attacks. Thorium reactors are not vulnerable to attacks, they can be neutralized and shut down with gravity alone, the one force that is always there.