Nuclear Energy May Rise Again
A 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.