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Nuclear Energy May Rise Again

Molten Salt ReactorA different kind of nuclear reactor may be in the offing now that Terrestrial Energy has cleared a hurdle to get financing. The US Department of Energy has just asked it to submit the second part of an application to get a loan guarantee.

In 2014, the Energy Department said it could potentially make $12.5 billion available to build advanced reactors. As for Terrestrial, it is asking for as much as $1.2 billion to build a 195 megawatt molten salt reactors. They can burn “thorium” that may not only be safer but also create less radioactive waste than uranium.

The technology “represents true innovation in safety, cost and functionality. It offers safe and reliable power solutions for electricity production, and energy for industrial process heat generation,” the company said in a statement. “Together, these extend the applicability of nuclear energy far beyond its current footprint.”  

Terrestrial is working with the Idaho National Laboratory to find a suitable site for the project — one that would be federally owned.

Thorium is abundant in nature, with about four times the amount in the earth’s crust than uranium. When used as a nuclear fuel, the whole cycle produces less radioactive waste than does uranium. But the thorium fuel cycle still makes radioactive material that must be warehoused and some say it does produce an isotope of uranium that could be used in nuclear weapons, although plutonium that is the preferred method is not a byproduct.

Why has this country chosen uranium over thorium? The decision was made in the 1950s during the emergence of nuclear power generation. That was during the Cold War and the U.S. government had decided that the national treasury would be invested in uranium fuels, as they can be more easily enriched to make nuclear bombs.

Today, the U.S. might have chosen a different path. But it would be too costly to retrofit the existing nuclear energy infrastructure to comport with the thorium fuel cycle. The supply chain is now fully stocked and includes everything from uranium suppliers to reactor designers.

In the United States, a handful of nuclear plants have closed shop because they could not compete with combined cycle natural gas plants. And two have closed because of technical issues. While this country is working to get four new nuclear units up-and-running in Georgia and South Carolina, it is also partnering with China and Canada’s Terrestrial Energy to operate the highly advanced next-generation nuclear plants.

As for China, its next-generation 100 megawatt smaller plant could be operational within a decade.

“While simple black and white statements about thorium versus uranium are the easiest point to get across, the real story is about a particular type of reactor, called molten salt reactors whose main feature is a liquid fuel form which gives outstanding potential benefits in safety, fuel economy and waste issues,” says David LeBlanc, an expert with Terrestrial Energy.

“Molten salt reactors are all-liquid fuel, or ‘pre-melted,’ which offers great potential for reactor safety and cost innovation,” adds LeBlanc, in prior email exchanges. “They do not need to keep coolant flowing to the reactor because the fuel itself is the coolant.”

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6 thoughts on “Nuclear Energy May Rise Again

  1. There are a number of molten salt designs being developed and the choice of light water design decades ago was inevitable, given the inability back then to produce metals that could withstand the corrosive effects of molten salt. Molten salt reactors have been built in the past but required uranium too highly enriched to be practical. The claim that Thorium is plentiful , or produces less nuclear waste is an odd argument,since molten salt reactors will burn mostly “nuclear wastes” (which are hardly wastes) for a very long time and can burn uranium extracted from seawater at ridiculously low fuel costs. So a molten salt reactor burning nuclear wastes will acheive far more than a reactor burning Thorium, which does nothing to reduce the amount and radioactivity of our nuclear wastes. Burning Thorium makes little sense, regardless of how one looks at it. But the issue of fuel to be used will be settled as these molten salt reactors come online. Transatomic Power, Terrestrial Energy, Chinese developers , and especially Moltex Energy, which has the cheapest and most ingenious design, claiming levelized costs of under 2 cents per kWhr, with no advanced metallurgy required and a simpler design that utilizes existing nuclear technology, is my bet for the leader of the pack. Everyone familiar with power production knows at this point that molten salt, regardless of the design, is the future of energy. Cheaper than all other technologies and safer than all of them and capable of load following and environmentally far , far more desirable than windmills and unreliable solar panels, with a practically free and limitless source of energy (just the nuclear wastes now available could provide all the power we need for the next 1000 years.). Only the diehard, out of touch environmentalists still push for idiotic, expensive, unreliable, environmentally obscene “renewables”

  2. Very interesting Erica. Tony’s arguments are persuasive and I am convinced that driver less electric cars will be mainstream within 10 years.Not so convinced about solar. While the cost of the panels may be decreasing once the grid is not there (the end game) then any installation will need to power a house or facility during the day and another will be required to charge the battery overnight. That is not reflected in his cost analysis.In other words you require TWO solar arrays AND a charging facility not one. However what I do see (and he mentioned only in passing) is that future electric cars will charge them selves as they move around since the body panels can be made into solar collectors. The car then becomes transport and power utility combined into one. Intriguing. Coal oil and gas will be the first to disappear and likely nuclear will be the last to go but for sure it is on the cards. You may be surprised to know that I am a nuclear engineer by training and have been telling the industry to reduce its costs for years to no avail. So I think the writing is on the wall for centralized power of all types. As far as car ownership goes I still think that many people will want to own their own vehicles. Personally I cannot abide using filthy public transportation and avoid it at all costs and I certainly will not want to ride in a car that hundreds of others have ridden in. However the concept of sharing a single car for the whole family is appealing. Thank you for that link. Brilliant. We shall see if it comes to pass.

  3. My understanding is Terrestrial Energy is a uranium fuel cycle. Though it can use spent fuel, so still better than what we have. China is in a multi-step process of getting to Thorium molten salt. Other companies like Flibe Energy are going straight to Thorium molten salt, but are far away from it.

  4. Solar is extremely misleading. Its theoretical maximum for capacity is only 31%. Assume no clouds, no rain, no snow, and you still need 3.14GW of solar panels with charging infrastructure to generate 1GW of baseload electricity. This number yet increases the further you get from the equator.

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