Thor's Hammer!

Well not really, but I'm sure the Norse god of lightning, thunder, storms, oaks and strength is at least in some part of the minds of the Norwegian engineers and scientists, who are presently testing Thorium in their experimental reactor. Their company is called Thor Energy and they are one of the few places in the world at which Thorium is actively being used to produce energy. Their five-year test seeks to determine which blend of elements produces the most stable and efficient reaction.

Thorium isn't anything new(obviously, it's billions of years old), it was explored as nuclear fuel for civilian and military purposes during the cold war, but because of it's complicated reactor requirements, was put on the shelf for some 30 years-- in the United states that is. Several other countries have experimented with its use since the United States introduced the technology during the 60's: Germany, India, U.K., Norway, China, Japan and a few others grace that list.

Currently, there is only one Nation attempting to implement Thorium Reactors as base load power plants on its grid: China. This is great news! Some people would disagree with my optimism, saying that China will rule the patent market on the Equipment for the cleanest of the reactor types that use thorium, the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor. That isn't good, I'll admit, but it is estimated that China will be able to produce the technology for as much as $3 billion less than the U.S. It will cost us less to buy from them than produce them here.

What about the Jobs? That's another discussion entirely, but I'll suffice to say that I hate to see them go to China simply because the labor is cheaper. Who will china sell their reactors and fuel to? Again a question begging to be answered at another time. Do know that there is an American company working on a molten uranium reactor and Japan is building a test reactor using a Thorium-Plutonium molten salt fuel, but neither of these is quite as good as the Th-232/U233 LFTR reactor in terms or cleanliness or safety. It's a technology who's time will come.

China needs this badly. Their Coal plant production, which often does not include combined cycle technology, or carbon sequestration, is the most caustic in the world.

That's Beijing and no that isn't Fog. It's a polluted haze that often sits over the city (especially on days with no  windy,) which is causing Hundreds of thousands of deaths and respiratory problems for Chinese citizens every year. In China alone, estimates attribute as many as 250,000 deaths per year to particulates from coal plants. With their new LFTR reactors, China will be able to significantly reduce it's emissions and slowly reverse the damage they have done to their ecosystem, without further propagating many of the problems that face conventional nuclear plants.

Now there are those out there who talk about Thorium in a sense that likens it to traditional Nuclear energy. Let me be very clear: It's vastly different. This isn't your grandpappy's reactor. Yes we are still taking advantage of heat released when the strong nuclear force being severed, but the byproducts are very different, they don't use water to cool them, the fuel is resistant to weaponization, and it has many different industrial applications.

Many of the products in the decay chain of Th 232-U 233 breeder reactors have significantly shorter half-lives as compared to the LWR (light water reactor) U-238/P-239 counterparts, whose half-lives can be as long as 200,000 years. What do I mean by significantly shorter? Well after 350 years, the waste from a thorium reactor will be no more adverse to your health than uranium ore fresh out of the earth. This doesn't necessarily shatter an environmentalist's argument against the waste, but it should also be noted that little to no transuranic (elements heavier than uranium) waste is produced.

Not to one up my previous point, and I'ma let myself finish, but this is the best reactor of all time. A LFTR reactor can actually use the spent rods from old nuclear reactors (the rods are mixed with thorium into one fuel,) significantly reducing environmental risk previously brought on by the nuclear power industry. Similarly, Ben Lindly, a PhD candidate at Cambridge designed a way to use the old waste in traditional reactors and Japan is working on implementing the design as we speak.

What about actinide waste says my one reader who knows a thing or two about nuclear reactions? In a LFTR most of those are burned up too. It almost seems that for every problem conventional Nuclear power has, this reactor design has a solution.

The passive safety of LFTR's has also leaped one of the hurdles that environmental groups have placed in front of Nuclear Energy. Ignorance leaves a lot of room for fear and there are a lot of people praying on people's perceptions of nuclear power plants, especially after Fukushima. They cast the fear of meltdowns over all of nuclear energy, instead of doing their research. In a LFTR reactor, you are more likely to be crushed by a falling wind generator than die to a meltdown. It just can't happen, because there literally isn't enough fissile material in the molten salt to cause a catastrophic chain reaction. The safety is built passively into the reaction's composition.

To be fair, U-233 can be used to make a weapon however, it's very difficult and the resulting device isn't very powerful. Let's be real though, there were bombs less than three years after Chicago pile-1 split its first atom. During the cold war, we tested far more nuclear weapons technologies than we did civilian applications. In some senses the ability to create a thermo-nuclear device is a right of passage for a countries military, as sad as that is, it might be true.

My absolute favorite part of the LFTR reactor is some of the secondary products that can be made inexpensively by these reactors. Because a LFTR operates at a much higher temperature than a regular reactor, as it is a molten metal salt mixture in the core and is cooled by liquid fluoride instead of water, it's heat can be put to many more uses than simply creating steam. On the laundry list is methanol, ammonia, and water desalination. Interestingly, the Wind energy business is also interested in creating methanol, but the electrolysis method is not nearly as effective as a base load thorium plant performing the same action.

The reason we are seeing this secondary use of energy is that wind is unreliable, and they are often producing energy when the load is low (making the wind energy virtually useless as the base load plant can't easily quit production to make way for the resurgent wind farm) or not producing energy when it is needed. This commercial application of energy does create net zero carbon fuels, but it isn't going to be much to write home about.

Going back to my favorite part of a LFTR reactor, we find one of the most interesting potential applications. There has been recent research done with attaching alpha-decaying particles to antibodies that bind to cancer cells. While bound to the cell, the metal with a relatively short half-life with shoot off an alpha particle, whose effective radius is only a couple cell diameters, and will hopefully kill the cancer cell. The benefit of this kind of treatment it's ability to target widespread forms of cancer, which are difficult to treat with traditional radiation therapy (Leukemia for example), while avoiding the widespread damage that Chemotherapy causes.

One such radioisotope is formed during the decay chain of LFTR reactors: Bismuth 213. Practicality tells me that it won't be LFTR reactors creating these and instead specially designed reactors like those creating technetium-99 (the most widely used radioisotope in medicine,)  but the research into the molten salt reactor will help those wishing to use thorium's products for medicine.

I believe that the arguments against LFTR reactors will fall on deaf ears when our country is ready to make the switch, and I hope it is a project that our government will soon add to its focus. The reactor has far-reaching, positive impacts on the way we create energy. It's cleaner, safer, cheaper in the long run (thorium is basically free and considered waste in mining operations,) and better than any of the renewable energies at producing a power at the base load level. Who knows, maybe this might be the next lift our economy needs.


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