Monday, July 2, 2007

Thorium Reactor Concept in India

I'm not sure what to think about the story below. The nuclear engineer in me is excited to watch the development of breeder reactor technology for thorium - a widely abundant resource. Then there's the historian in me that gets sick at his stomach, realizing the that my country, the United States, has already built most of the ideas talked about in this paper over forty years ago.

We built test versions that worked, then we threw them in the trash heap, in our arrogance, drunk on cheap fossil fuels and abundant energy, never planning for the day when power generation would be a precious commodity. A day that is very, very close to dawning.

Thorium reactor in India soon!
from The Times of India

...The novel Fast Thorium Breeder Reactor (FTBR) being developed by V. Jagannathan and his team at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) in Mumbai has received global attention after a paper was submitted to the International Conference on Emerging Nuclear Energy Systems (ICENES) held June 9-14 in Istanbul.

Power reactors of today mostly use a fissile fuel called uranium-235 (U-235), whose
"fission" releases energy and some "spare" neutrons that maintain the chain reaction. But only seven out of 1,000 atoms of naturally occurring uranium are of this type. The rest are "fertile", meaning they cannot fission but can be converted into fissionable plutonium by neutrons released by U-235.

Thorium, which occurs naturally, is another "fertile" element that can be turned by neutrons into U-233, another uranium isotope. U-233 is the only other known fissionable material. It is also called the "third fuel". Thorium is three times more abundant in the earth's crust than uranium but was never inducted into reactors because - unlike uranium - it has no fissionable atoms to start the chain reaction.

I know that nuclear power is frowned upon by most of the Peak Oil crowd. Fine, frown away. It is the only source of power that can be built to provide MORE fuel at the end of a cycle than what you started with. We've built them. They work.

As for other thorium fuel ideas, there is a company called Thorium Power working hard to implement a design that works in existing PWRs - a way to bridge the gap betwen current reactors and a new generation of designs.

Yes, there are problems with these reactors - since we've only built a few prototypes, there have been engineering problems to work out. But the technology is there. (And I still really like the molten salt version of the thorium-to-U233 breeder - another concept that was built and that worked and that was abandoned).

We are never going back to a world of supercheap fossil fuels (unless a major Depression deflates asset values across the globe - and then the fuel may be cheap for awhile, but you won't have two nickels to rub together in order to pay for it, so what would it matter). We can go to a world where electricity is still available in reliable, abundant amounts.

I fear that world lies on the other side of The Great Collapse, though. The Elliott Wave structure of nuclear power generation looks grim and I doubt the ability of the Baby Boomer Generation to adequately plan for the long-term health of the country. But - we can hope. And we can work towards new technologies that will save some areas of the country from the worst of the downturn, ready to spring forward when the bear market grinds to a close.

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