Saturday, September 29, 2012

Let's Consider Having Two Thorium-Fuelled Nuclear Reactors in Northern Alberta and Sakatchewan

Mention the words "nuclear power" , and you're likely to get a  knee-jerk reaction against them, particularly from people on the left who assume that "nuclear" means "uranium" or "plutonium", which therefore produces large amounts of highly poisonous waste that (in the case of plutonium) has a half-life of 25,000 years and continues in a highly radioactive state for even longer.  Uranium and plutonium power poses a perpetual environmental and health and safety risk, even if  there isn't a meltdown or an accident related to earthquake, tsunami  terrorist attack or other natural or man-made disaster that will threaten human populations.

But what if there were a nuclear fuel  that only produces 10% as much waste as uranium, and  if that  waste only lasted in a poisonous state for about 200 years?  And if the technology associated with that fuel  was less prone to meltdown? These features of thorium-fuelled nuclear technology might be enough to make me come off the fence in favour of thorium reactors in Alberta and Saskatchewan, both in order to reduce greenhouse gases in the tar sands and in order to meet our long-term energy needs. Two hundred years is a waste management problem on a human scale, and we should not be afraid of it.

The construction of these two reactors could also make Canada a leader in this technology--which really isn't that new or experimental; it has just languished because of the ways in which  military priorities have skewed research and development. Ironically, India (whom we got started in uranium technology with CANDU reactor sales in the 1970s) is now pulling ahead of us in thorium technology.

Canada has about 100,000 tonnes of economically available thorium-- not as much as India, Australia, the U.S. or Brazil, but  more than enough to support two reactors.  We need not be hostage to a foreign supplier.

Using thorium in existing reactors has been likened to using bio-fuel  in a Hummer.  But when the reactors are built from scratch as thorium reactors, they are highly efficient. If Canada were quicker out of the blocks, we could be a world leader in this green technology. That is in addition to the other benefits  touted by supporters of  conventional nuclear power, including the following arguments gleaned from Yahoo!:
"1. All the nuclear waste from all the reactors in the USA operating since the 1950s would fit on a football field.
2. If we had used breeder reactors and reprocessed the fuel -- it would have reduced the waste in #1 above by 70%! But Jimmy Carter and a compliant Congress passed a law forbidding reprocessing in the 1980s.
3. By altering the isotopes-- which is what happens in a breeder reactor -- we can reduce the half life to hundreds of years rather than thousands of years.
4. Nuclear waste is a SOLID-- encased in glass or other durable material and placed in a bore-hole reaching down 40,000 ft into a subduction zone-- its gone for millions of years. Yes we can drill that deep.
Nuclear power has ZERO CO2-- and by the way the first nuclear reactor at Penn State is still operating safely (after more than 50 years)."

With thorium power, we would not have to get bogged down in arguments about how fool-proof breeder reactors  are (point #2) or how easy or safe deep waste burial is (point#4).  The quantity and quality of thorium waste present clearly manageable risks. 


KimLJohnson said...

Nice post from Edmonton for the prairie provinces, Mark!

I have a business in the US developing Molten Salt processes, whose best benefit to Mankind will be their superb efficiency extracting Energy from Thorium.
Due to Entrenched Interests however, getting there requires some Strategy, which you can find in the first two links of my G+ profile:

By the way Edmonton has another staunch Th proponent, my G+ friend Robert Pratt, who works as Siemens: The conversation's after the photos, but if you can't see it try this:

Bernard von Schulmann said...

Nuclear reactors are not entirely CO2 free. There is a very small amount during operation, but there is a much large amount in the construction and de-commissioning of the plant. The mining of the thorium is also not CO2 free.

Mark Crawford said...

Bernard: I do not disagree with you--when I say we should "consider", I just mean consider. CO2 emissions would have to be added in the calculation; I tend to assume that they would greatly reduce the amount of CO2 produced by not having a reactor, but I could be wrong. All I know comes from listening to Quirks and Quarks and visiting a few websites.