Utah Thorium Energy FAQs
What is Thorium?
Thorium is a naturally occurring element. It is found around the world, including large reserves in the US and it is as common as lead. In a proper reactor, the thorium is converted to uranium 233, which can be fissioned (split), which releases enormous amounts of energy. There is enough thorium in the world to provide for all society’s energy needs for thousands of years.
What is molten salt and why is it important?
Current nuclear reactors in the United States use solid, ceramic fuel (uranium dioxide) with water cooling. These reactors, I believe have served us well, but the benefits of having the nuclear fuel as a molten salt leads to many overwhelming advantages. Please see my blog on the 10 benefits of thorium molten salt reactors.
How are molten salt reactors different than current nuclear reactors?
Current nuclear reactors in the US use solid ceramic (uranium dioxide) fuel pellets incased in zirconium metal tubes and cooled with regular (light) water. These reactors, I believe have served us well, but the benefits of having the nuclear fuel as a molten salt leads to many overwhelming advantages. Please see my blog on the 10 benefits of thorium molten salt reactors.
What is the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)?
The NRC is the bureaucratic US Federal agency chartered by Congress to promote nuclear power. Needless to say, the NRC has done the very opposite of their charter since they were created.
What is radiation?
Radiation is essentially energy traveling through the space around us. It can consist of actual atomic particles or electromagnetic waves. Most radiation is inherent in our natural environment and we humans have developed repair mechanisms within our bodies to repair damage to our cells do to radiation.
Isn’t radiation dangerous?
Radiation can be dangerous, depending on the dose and the dose rate that a person may be exposed to. We live in an environment that is inherently radioactive at low levels and these thorium molten salt reactors are designed with three levels of protection to contain the radioactive material in the core. To understand more about doses, please see my post on “The Dose Makes the Poison”.
What is the linear no-threshold (LNT) hypothesis?
This hypothesis states that all radiation down to zero causes negative effects on the human body. The hypothesis has been proven false again and again, but it is still used by regulatory agencies to set exposure limits to ionizing radiation. By the way, there is nowhere on earth where the radiation is zero.
What is a chain reaction?
A nuclear chain reaction is where an atom is fissioned (split). This releases particles called neutrons from the nucleus (center) of the atom. These neutrons strike the nuclei of other atoms which cause them to split and release more neutrons. This is a chain reaction.
Are thorium reactors safe?
They are walk away safe, as shown by the experience of the MSR at Oak Ridge in the 1960s.
Are thorium molten salt reactors risky?
No, they are walk away safe and can’t melt down. They are designed using physical laws to make them stable and safe. In the event of an emergency, the reactors are designed to drain the molten salt in to safe, passively cooled tanks, without any human intervention.
Why can’t we just rely on wind and solar power?
Wind and solar are intermittent and diffuse and cannot provide for a modern industrial economy like the one we currently enjoy in the United States.
What about nuclear waste from thorium reactors?
Much of what remains of the nuclear fuel from a thorium molten salt reactor is marketable as industrial materials. The graphic below shows what is left after a molten salt thorium reactor produces 1000 MW of electricity (enough to power a large city) for one year.
Where is thorium found?
Thorium is found in Idaho and Utah, among other places in the US and the world. It is as abundant as lead in the earth.
Who invented the thorium molten salt reactor?
Eugene Wigner and others at Oak Ridge National Lab in Tennessee invented the molten salt thorium reactor.
How much will these reactors cost?
These reactors can be cost competitive with gas and coal electrical plants.
What about Chernobyl? Three Mile Island? Fukushima?
Please watch my post on the “Babushkas of Chernobyl” to see the vast difference in the rhetoric and reality of the “world’s worst nuclear disaster” and then you can ask as I do, what about them?
Are thorium molten salt reactors dangerous?
They are inherently safe due to the laws of physics used to design them. In the event of an earthquake, station power loss, or the like, the molten salt fuel drains into passively cooled storage tanks without human intervention.
What about nuclear proliferation?
No country has chosen to use the thorium fuel cycle to make nuclear bombs. Thus, the thorium fuel cycle is very proliferation resistant.
Can nuclear weapons be made in thorium molten salt reactors?
Yes, technically nuclear weapons can be made from thorium, but no country has chosen to do so. There are much better ways to build a nuclear bomb than using thorium.
What is nuclear power?
Nuclear power comes from the binding energy in the nucleus of certain atoms that can be split in a controlled chain reaction. This energy is a million times more concentrated than the energy released by burning coal, oil, or gas. This is what makes it possible to power the entire planet with thorium for thousands of year.
What can thorium molten salt reactors power?
Anything powered by electricity and any process that uses heat can powered by molten salt thorium reactors.
Why do we need thorium molten salt reactors?
Yes, we do. Fossil fuels will not always be relatively cheap, like they are now. If we want to continue to live in a modern industrial society we must use this wonderful technology.
Can’t we just do without nuclear power since it is dangerous?
No, we cannot do without nuclear power. Wind and solar, because they are diffuse and intermittent cannot power a modern industrial society, like ours. It’s like using a kettle over an open fire and refusing to use a microwave oven. It just does not make sense not to use peaceful, clean and abundant thorium power.
Is economic prosperity linked to energy use?
Most definitely economic prosperity is connected with energy use. Here is a graph that shows various countries and their energy use as it relates to gross domestic product. The more energy a country uses, the more it produces.
Isn’t nuclear power subsidized by the US government?
Yes, it is true that nuclear power has benefited from money from the US Federal government. This is a historic fact. However, I am not advocating or asking for money from any government agency, I am trying to convince people that this is a beneficial technology
How does the thorium molten salt reactor work?
What will happen if we don’t do anything?
At some point, energy users (me and you) will run out of cheap fossil fuels. When that happens, our lifestyles will decline irreversibly unless we use this technology.
Aren’t Germany and Japan moving away from nuclear power because of Fukushima?
Yes, but that doesn’t have much to do with the actual dangers of nuclear power as much as it has to do with shameless, self-promotion of natural gas, coal, and shipping companies who stand to gain tens of billions of dollars by the shuttering of nuclear power.
Why does this issue matter to me?
We are absolutely dependent on energy to run our modern lifestyles. If we don’t do anything our energy intensive lifestyles will decline permanently and irreversibly if we continue to refuse to use thorium power.
Is there a non-geeky way to explain thorium molten salt reactors to others?
I am desperately trying to find a way to explain this most important technology to others without boring them to death with techno geek speak. Let me know how I am doing by leaving a civilized, substantial, and intelligent comment. I welcome such to help me refine my presentation.
Source: Lessons for the Liquid-Fluoride Thorium Reactor
July 20, 2009
Mountain View, California