MIT Technology review reports that Senators representing several Western states, including Utah’s Orrin Hatch and Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, are working on legislation to promote thorium.
I am a big supporter of developing Thorium fission reactors and in particular molten salt reactors. I support the upcoming legislation from Orrin Hatch and Harry Reid.
They say it’s a cleaner-burning fuel for nuclear-power plants, with the potential to cut high-level nuclear-waste volumes in half. [I agree that thorium is cleaner burning]
“It makes a lot of sense in my view,” says Thomas Cochran, director of the nuclear program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, in Washington. He says that congressional action is needed to overcome resistance within the DOE to exploring thorium.
Using thorium in existing reactors means rethinking the “once through” nuclear fuel cycle employed today in most countries, including the United States. The cycle starts with uranium-oxide fuel enriched in the fissile uranium isotope U235. Fission of the uranium in a reactor generates heat to drive a nuclear power plant’s turbines, and it produces a highly radioactive blend of fission breakdown products, including plutonium that can be recovered to make nuclear weapons. Other fission products slow the chain reaction, requiring replacement of fuel every one or two years. The spent fuel is removed and stored on site, awaiting burial.
The challenge for thorium proponents is that the DOE already advocates another fuel cycle that promises to cut waste and manage proliferation risks: a so-called closed fuel cycle, whereby chemical reprocessing recovers plutonium from spent uranium fuel for reuse in conventional reactors.
Reprocessing is central to the DOE’s Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), whereby major nuclear players such as the United States would guarantee uranium fuel supply to countries that promise to return spent fuel–the plutonium within which could be used to make nuclear weapons.
The GNEP has many critics who argue that the reprocessing of spent fuel will be costly, will increase rather than limit the risk of diversion of fissile materials, and will do little to reduce high-level waste volumes. The DOE’s plan is to burn recovered plutonium by blending it with uranium. This produces a hotter and more toxic spent fuel that can only be burned in breeder reactors. Those reactors have, to date, proved infeasible at commercial scale.