Will thorium be the new nuclear energy provider?
A study team of the Louvain University (KU Leuven, Belgium) wants to investigate if thorium nuclear power plants can provide part of the energy of the future. They hope to have thorium energy on the energy net before 2050.
The study team consists (among others) of Nathal Severijns (nuclear physicist), Griet Ceulemans (sustainability specialist) and Baldwin Van Gorp (communication scientist).
They want to accelerate research into thorium nuclear power so that these power plants can take over from the old nuclear (uranium powered) plants as soon as possible.
Thorium is a sort of Holy Grail in the search for ‘clean’ and safe nuclear energy. Experts from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the Technical University in Delft (TU Delft, the Netherlands) and the Belgian research centre for nuclear energy (SCK in Mol) expect a breakthrough before 2050.
According to the Louvain researchers, this breakthrough can be realized sooner. To realize this, we have to prepare the implantation of small nuclear thorium power plants now, so we can begin to build them the moment the researchers and technicians give the green light.
Close to cities
In Canada there is a research project that should lead to a prototype reactor before 2030. The Louvain researchers want to start something similar in Belgium and want to be ready in 2035. Ten years later there should be thorium power plants all over the country.
These small nuclear plants should be built in the vicinity of cities, like gas power plants are now, because the security risks are reduced. The only problem is that the researchers working on it are not sure that the development timing can be respected.
Also according to the vision of this research team, thorium energy will be an additional source of energy providing at a maximum one fourth to one third of the energy needed, the rest being provided via renewable energy.
The researchers want to stress they’re not a nuclear group of lobbyists. “The potential of thorium in the climate discussion is high”, says Nathal Severijns, “but if it appears that we’re wrong, we will be as happy in the knowledge that we have at least tried it.”
How it works
As an ore, thorium is three times more available than uranium. It is processed in a so-called molten salt reactor and the process has the advantage that a meltdown is not possible and that the reactor halts automatically when problems occur.
To produce 1 gigawatt of energy you need 250 ton of uranium or 1 ton of thorium. The reactor transforms thorium into uranium U-233 and burns it to produce energy. The nuclear deposit has no plutonium or other radioactive materials in it.
After 10 years, 83% of the deposit can be re-used in medicine or the industry, the remaining 17% have to be stored safely as nuclear waste for at least 300 years.
To compare: for the same energy production 35 tons of nuclear waste from a conventional uranium 235 power plant have to be stored for at least 10.000 years.