Regular readers here will know that I’ve been following the story of a technology that has some exciting potential to change the playing field of our energy production and consumption. Proposed nuclear power projects based on thorium instead of uranium have really interested me and this latest report from Popular Mechanics adds even more to the mix:
Three to four times more plentiful than uranium, today’s most common nuclear fuel, thorium packs a serious energetic punch: A single ton of it can generate as much energy as 200 tons of uranium, according to Nobel Prize-winning physicist Carlo Rubbia. In the mid-twentieth century, some U.S. physicists considered building the nuclear power landscape around thorium. But uranium-fueled reactors produced plutonium as a byproduct, a necessary ingredient for nuclear weapons production, and uranium ended up dominating through the Cold War and beyond.
Thorium could recapture the lead if a Virginia-based company called Lightbridge (formerly Thorium Power) fulfills its promise. Lightbridge was founded on the vision that the existing fleet of nuclear reactors would continue to function for decades to come, so its proprietary nuclear fuel assembly—which features a small amount of uranium surrounded by a blanket of thorium—is designed to work in light water reactors, the most common variety in service worldwide. The company is also developing an all-metal fuel capable of incorporating thorium. “This is like going from leaded to unleaded fuel for your car—the operation [of the reactors] is the same,” says Seth Grae, Lightbridge’s CEO.
In all of the previous articles on the matter, one of the largest and most-mentioned challenges to the widespread deployment of thorium-based technology in nuclear power generation has been the commercialization aspects – the designs proposed are still experimental which means the return on the investment is still theoretical. Lightbridge’s approach does 2 things: 1) it relies on time-tested, proven designs and 2) leverages existing deployments to minimize investment risk. By changing out just the fuel component and leaving everything else about the reactor the same, you remove the requirement to re-tool much of the industry and you allow the continued use of the existing knowledge base and personnel training.
We also gain the benefits of using thorium to fuel the reactor. This means we’re using a fuel that’s more plentiful than uranium, we’re generating less waste byproduct, the waste we do generate is significantly less hazardous and for less time, and we remove a serious security concern in that the reactors are no longer producing any weapon-grade material. In a previous article, it was suggested that if we could, somehow, convert all of our current reactors over to thorium fuel we could run those reactors for 1000 years on just the thorium that the US has within its own borders. I suggested that another way to look at it was that we could triple the number of reactors in production today and still be able to power them on our own domestic resources into the 24th century. The question was how we could get to that “somehow”. Lightbridge has that method.
I did notice that the article mentioned that Lightbridge was a Virginia-based company. What was really fun to find out was that they’re local to us here in northern Virginia. In fact, they’re right over next to one of the Tyson’s Corner malls we visit every so often so I’ve likely even seen their place with my own eyes. Oh, and they’re a publicly-traded company (LTBR, on NASDAQ) just in case you were wanting to invest in companies with a real potential to get us off of oil-based power production.
I’m keeping my eyes on this stuff and will pass along anything else I hear.