Nuclear power, for all of its risks and drawbacks, remains the most efficient large-scale energy producing technology available today. In fact, it is the only energy producing technology in which engineers take account for all waste produced and fully costs waste disposal into the finished product.
But what if nuclear scientists invented a meltdown-proof reactor that produced no waste? This is the promise of new Thorium molten salt reactor technology.
In order to understand the difference between today’s newest molten salt reactors (MSRs) and the nuclear power plants of yesteryear, we need to start at the beginning of the nuclear era.
Which Element – Thorium or Plutonium?
Back in the 1950s, when nuclear superiority was of paramount importance to the American political and scientific community, two parallel methods for producing nuclear power existed.
- The Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR), which produced clean nuclear energy on a small scale – small enough for initial designs to call for nuclear-powered airplanes. The drawback to Thorium is that the nuclear reaction is not self-sustaining – reactors still need uranium and a neutron source to start.
- The Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR), which produces more nuclear waste, but also produces plutonium, making it the more advantageous option in the early days of the Cold War. These reactors produce self-sustaining nuclear reactions, but require tight regulation because of the ability to create nuclear weapons from their reaction.
In this context, it’s easy to see that the decision to focus on PWRs was based purely on political and military expediency. If the United States had instead focused solely on developing reactors based on the thorium element at this time, it would have put itself at a dangerous strategic disadvantage.
This, however, happened more than a half-century ago – now, thorium molten salt reactor technology has had time to mature, and new breakthroughs have made it vastly preferable to the PWR technology that has ruled the nuclear energy field for decades.
Today, nine countries possess a total of almost 15,000 individual nuclear weapons, and more than 400 nuclear reactors run non-stop to produce 13% of the world’s energy supply. Now, the world needs clean nuclear power and harder to weaponize, not easier.
Most of the world’s currently operating nuclear reactors are based on PWR technology, producing an estimated 370,000 metric tons of nuclear waste to date.
What Makes Today’s Thorium Molten Salt Reactors Special?
New thorium-based nuclear technology addresses three of the most pressing concerns of modern nuclear power generation.
- MSRs are Meltdown-Proof. Because the thorium-based nuclear reaction is not self-sustaining, there is no chance of meltdown occurring. The basic reasoning behind this is the fact that the fuel is already molten down – it’s in the name. Experiments in the early 1960s showed that even in worst-case disaster conditions, overheating an MSR would simply cause the liquid fuel salts to slowly drain into cooling tanks and solidify – no explosion, no release of pressurized radioactive particles, no need for operator intervention whatsoever.
- They Reduce the Threat of Nuclear Weaponization. Thorium is not an element that can be enriched for weapons-grade nuclear capability. In fact, thorium molten salt reactors can consume the fuels that would otherwise be used to power nuclear weapons. This can reduce the amount of weapons-grade fuel in the world.
- MSR Technology is Clean. While thorium reactors do produce nuclear waste, the elements they leave behind remain radioactive for a relatively short period of time – 300 years compared to the 1,000+ years plutonium takes to decay. Furthermore, thorium reactors can consume the spent fuel rods currently decaying in nuclear waste disposal sites, reducing their overall radioactivity by squeezing the remaining power out of them.
Is Thorium the Energy Source of the Future?
Several high profile nuclear organizations believe so. China is currently investing in a heavy slate of thorium-powered molten salt reactors and plans to have their first reactors running and tied to the national power grid within 15 years.
At the same time, the United States, Europe, India, and Indonesia are also experimenting with thorium-powered nuclear reactors. Scientists see breakthroughs in nuclear efficiency and safety as being the crucial step towards realizing a clean thorium-powered future.
This technology addresses the environmental drawbacks of coal because it does not produce CO2, and does not pollute the atmosphere. It can replace fossil fuels in areas where solar or wind power is problematic – such as in nations located in the global South or North where power generation is limited seasonally.
While critics have tended to claim that nuclear power is not sustainable in the long term, the truth is that a global power grid based on the thorium – which is far more abundant than uranium or plutonium – can reliably generate power for millions of years. The thorium molten salt reactor may be the answer to today’s greatest energy problems.