Several firms are working on new reactor technologies that replace the classic uranium fuel rods with less expensive and less polluting ones, composed of thorium.
“There are no technical hurdles,’ says John Kutsch, executive director of the Thorium Energy Alliance, an industry trade group, pointing out the process itself is already technologically proven.
“At this point, it’s more like a plumbing problem than a technology problem,” he says.
Thorium is arare earth elementthat’s more easily found and more widely available than uranium, with a higher energy production capacity.
According to physics Nobel laureate Carlo Rubbia, a ton of thorium could produce as much energy as 200 tons of uranium or 3,500,000 tons of coal.
That gives utilities operating thorium plants abundant energy from a cheap, easy-to-get fuel that creates few waste products itself, while providing a flexible design that allows for smaller power plants at lower price points.
Kutsch estimate you could launch a “fully fuelled and protected” 50MW thorium-powered nuclear for around $100 million.
According to The Keystone Center, an energy think tank, a new 1000MW uranium-fuelled reactor could cost up to $4 billion to build.
Even chaining 10-to-20 of the thorium plants together in a “farm” to rival the uranium plant’s output would halve its cost, coming in at $1-2 billion.
Like many new energy technologies, the time until commercialization is measured in years, not quarters.
Canon Bryan, CEO of thorium technology firm Thorium One, estimates thorium technologies have another 9 to 12 years to go before achieving commercial scale—although a 10-20MW test plant by Norwegian firm THOR Energy could be up and running in as little as five years.
Regulatory requirements are another hurdle to quick adoption.
While these companies and others, like Virginia-based Lightbridge, continue to test their own thorium-based designs, government approval of any new nuclear fuel design will require a lot of performance data “which currently doesn’t exist,” says Albert Machiels, senior technology executive at EPRI, the Electric Power Research Institute.
Machiels describes the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s, NRC, process to qualify new nuclear fuels as “pretty demanding.”
“At the earliest, you’re talking a decade or more,” he adds.
But while the NRC’s “Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future” still has a few months to draft a report that could lead to the biggest expansion of U.S. nuclear energy in decades, thorium should get its place at the table, says Thorium One’s Bryan.
Aside from lower costs, thorium-powered reactors don't generate anything that can be used for weapons, as is the case with uranium isotopes, meaning that a thorium reactor can only serve to generate electricity.
In addition, thorium, unlike other forms of nuclear energy, does not produce climate-effecting greenhouse gases.
The Thorium Energy Alliance’s Kutsch adds that just pulling uranium and thorium from coal currently mined in the U.S.—and disposing of the combustible portion of the coal—would provide more energy with none of the carbon emissions and other pollution created by firing coal.
As for waste storage concerns, thorium-derived waste has a radiotoxicity period of less than 200 years, compared to the million-year-plus period estimated for uranium fuels, making it easier to handle, says Bryan.
No matter what national policies are set around future nuclear power production, uranium-powered plants are about to get squeezed.
Both Thorium One and Thor Energy say stocks of uranium fuels are stable through 2016, but after that is a question mark.
The $50 billion worldwide nuclear industry is expected to double by then, says Bryan.
“There simply isn’t enough uranium,” he adds.
The U.S. produces less than 4 million pounds of uranium per year, while its 104 nuclear reactors consume 55 to 60 million pounds a year, importing the rest from Australia and Canada.
Bryan says the next decade of domestic uranium production is “sold out”, as is the production of 60 to 70 percent of the top-10 largest uranium mines in the world, to established nuclear energy programs in countries like France and Japan and upstarts like China and India.
In November, uranium prices spiked from their $40 to 45 pound range after the Chinese government said it would build over 100,000 megawatts of nuclear power—roughly equal to the capacity of all U.S. nuclear power plants running today—by 2020.
Thorium, however, is three- to four-times more abundant than uranium, and typically found in surface deposits that are easier and cheaper to mine.
“There’s enough (easily available) thorium to power the entire globe for thousands and thousands of years,” says Bryan.
Another plus is that it is possible to repower existing power plants with thorium reactors—which some expect China to do down the road with its new coal and nuclear ones.
Kutsch agrees that thorium technology may not be entirely groundbreaking, but he says it’s still a big leap forward compared to the decades-old technology in America’s current nuclear fleet.
“We could easily do that here in the U.S.,” says Kutch. “This is what fusion wanted to be."