One Step Closer to a Thorium Fueled Power Plant

Alf Bjorseth, famed venture investor and Renewable Energy Corporation (REC) founder is behind the nuclear startup Thor Energy.  Thor Energy will conduct a series of tests with Swedish utility Vattenfall to study the feasibility of thorium reactors. The nations of Scandinavia, Norway and Sweden get on pretty well even though Norway managed to split a little over 100 years ago.

Norway doesn’t have commercial nuclear reactors, but it has a research reactor where the Vattenfall tests will take place.  Norway also is thought to have the third largest reserves of thorium in the world.  Maybe, but for certain they do have very good thorium oxide reserves well suited for power generation.  How large the reserve is hardly matters.

The Fen Thorium Complex Deposit. Click image for the largest view.

Bjorseth is someone to take seriously; he founded REC, the large solar manufacturer that does everything from silicon and wafers to power plants. REC pulled in approximately $1.5 billion of revenue last year. In 2005, Bjorseth retired from REC to concentrate on Scatec a clean technology incubator based in Norway that’s supporting Thor Energy.

Some early reactors burned thorium, but the industry stayed with uranium because of the large amounts of heat generated by that fission reaction that in turn makes the desirable capital-per-gigawatt calculation. There was also lots of cold war pressure to make raw weapons materials.

Thorium proponents note a lack of controversial side effects that combined with more information about thorium, could change the pubic perception.  Bjorseth says, “We believe it is not a technical challenge. The challenge is to generate the data.”

Some of the information that might persuade the Norwegians and Swedes is available in an English pdf file.

In a quick overview the summary notes Bjorseth’s aim is to build and operate 2 thorium-based power plants of +2000MWe each in Norway, starting in 2017. Some things are already underway: developing possible mining and processing of thorium from the Fen deposit near Ulefoss, Norway, working out technical feasibility, development and approval of a thorium fuel-cycle and identification of suitable reactors, the possible cooperation with utilities and large, power consuming industries for future power sales, informing the Norwegian public and political sector of the potential for substantial, inexpensive, climate neutral power plants, then preparations for application for a commercial license for building and operating a thorium power plant in Norway.

With that completed Bjorseth hopes to make reactor sales and supply fuel to other countries.  How about that for getting the goals set up?

The pdf goes on to illustrate a list of advantages to Norway for a Thorium fueled reactor effort.  He makes a good, practical and economically compelling case.  Against that the pdf succinctly addresses the uranium competition issues that give opponents the most concern:  the risks of accidents, the weapons grade material in the spent fuel, and the enormous periods needed to wait out the spent fuel’s toxicity matter – over 100,000 years.

Thorium Information. Click image for the largest view.

Bjorseth also points out that burning coal puts out much more radiotoxicity than fission reactors.  That’s an often repeated and generally ignored fact.  Lots of heavy radioactive waste is getting concentrated around the world and most of the less developed countries make no effort to catch the burned ash and keep the material out of the atmosphere.

It seems that the Indian nuclear industry has thrown in behind Bjorseth’s effort.  Putting together the nation of Norway, Sweden’s Vattenfall utility and the Indian nuclear industry for a concentrated effort looks like a major political coup.  Bjorseth just might trigger a new industry’s growth.

The pdf goes over several pages of basic information about ‘conventional’ reactor designs.  Some designs are already in the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission proceedings based on uranium fuel.  But Bjorseth leaves out the molten salt reactor design, the design known from the 1960s and 1970s to be the optimal means to use thorium fuel in the safest reactor.  It’s a design that has already gone where Bjorseth wants to go.

The pdf notes that the consumer costs would be lower than uranium fueled reactors and the risks of using fossil fuels whose price is subject to those wild swings can be avoided.

The pdf closes with observations that should motivate the Norwegians.  The nation is already deep into a fossil fuel industry declining from the North Sea fields, Norway is already highly electrified, hydropower is about as developed as practical, the thorium supply is gigantic; thorium reactors are feasible, practical and cheap.

If Norway can bring itself up to speed on thorium powered reactors, cheap power could be available in as few as ten years.  The matter is the time Norwegians spend arguing out the program, as without a political support – the idea is dead.

That could be said of lots of countries.  It’s to Norway’s credit that someone like Bjorseth is getting organized and speaking out.  Not being a big country can have advantages in advancement of technology adoption.  Lets hope Norway can lead with common sense.

As an American it seems odd to hope and root for the nationals of other countries to get something world class done.  It might be cultural.  Bjorseth is looking out for his country while in the U.S. people like Bill Gates and Nathan Myhrvold are hustling their own uranium design in hopes of making even more money over the obvious better fuel and technology.  Go Bjorseth, go.  Maybe your example will affect others in a world class way.

A hat tip to Al Fin for first noticing the news.

Original post: New Energy and Fuel

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