The July 20 Times Argus commentary by John Sales addressed the urgency and the environmental necessity to consider a new generation of electricity production design. If people will allow themselves to get past the word “nuclear” and really listen to an objective comparison to the alternatives, they would see that we have very few options and we must take the path of least risk and soon.
Until we resolve some serious technical problems — like electrical storage and distribution — solar and wind cannot meet our very large national base load demands. Coal supplies 52 percent of our current production but is clearly the worst choice with oil running a close second. Only nuclear has the potential of meeting our demands and saving the environment. Let’s examine why and how.
U.S. coal-based power plants burn about 1.7 billion tons of coal annually. Over a period of 40 years, a single typical coal-fired power plant will use nearly 4.17 million tons of coal. The amount of pollutants created by that burning is mind boggling and includes massive quantities of fly ash, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, mercury, arsenic, lead, cadmium and more than 30 others.
Within that volume of burned coal is also what has been previously reported as trace amounts of various radioactive materials. Little-known but very credible studies have shown that those trace amounts are not so small after all.
In a study titled “Radiological Impact of Airborne Effluents of Coal and Nuclear Plants” in Science magazine, it was reported that “Americans living near coal-fired power plants are exposed to higher radiation doses than those living near nuclear power plants.” This was confirmed by the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements, which proved that the effective nuclear dosage exposure to the general population from coal plants is 100 times that from nuclear plants. It further concluded that the energy content of nuclear fuel released in coal combustion is more than that of the coal consumed. The study showed that the release of nuclear components from coal combustion far exceeds the entire U.S. consumption of nuclear fuels.
By contrast, a light water reactor, similar to Vermont Yankee, uses about 35 tons of uranium annually, which is derived from the mining of about 250 tons of natural uranium. The liquid-fueled thorium reactor that John Sales described would use about one ton of thorium, which is derived from mining about 1.6 tons of natural thorium. A light water reactor creates less than 700 pounds of waste per year, and that is including 661 pounds of nuclear waste. A liquid-fueled thorium reactor would produce less than 40 pounds of waste including its nuclear byproducts.
This small amount of fuel and waste from a liquid-fueled thorium reactor is due to their design — they are called breeder reactors. They actually create (breed) more of the fuel that they need to use to make electricity. Even more amazing is that they can use the spent nuclear fuel from other light water reactors as fuel to make more electricity. This creation and reuse is not endless, but over the life of a liquid-fueled thorium reactor power plant, it will create about 1,000 times less nuclear waste than the typical light water reactor and is capable of using and consuming our stockpile of nuclear waste that we now have. When the liquid-fueled thorium reactor has recycled the fuel as much as it can, the radiation has been reduced from a half-life of 24,000 years (typical from a light water reactor) to just over 30 years.
There are dozens of other differences and benefits of the liquid-fueled thorium reactor design. It does not use water as a coolant, so there are no cooling towers and much less plumbing. It operates at about the same pressure as a typical city water supply. The largest part of a light water reactor is the reactor vessel — a massive structure built to withstand very high pressures and temperatures, making it a very expensive and complex construction. In a liquid-fueled thorium reactor, the lower pressure and liquid fuel means the reactor vessel building is much less complex and smaller. It can even be constructed off-site and trucked in for assembly.
The liquid-fueled thorium reactor design has passive inherent safety features that preclude even the remotest possibility of an explosion, meltdown or burning. The primary fuel, thorium, is 2.5 times more abundant than uranium and is used in its natural pure form, eliminating much of the mining and refining processes associated with uranium production. A liquid-fueled thorium reactor cannot produce weapons-grade materials without shutting down its power-generating capabilities and then only at great expense — making it easy to identify any nefarious use. The coolant it does use (a liquid called molten salt) does not evaporate or boil at high temperatures, eliminating the potential of an explosion like the ones at Fukushima and Chernobyl. The liquid molten salt fuel means that there is no down time to refuel (recycle). Other benefits combine to make this a very safe, efficient and economical source of power.
There are some technical hurdles to be resolved but none that present major problems. There are limitations, risks and benefits associated with every source of power, but we cannot afford to delay any longer. American-made liquid-fueled thorium reactors would solve our and the world’s power requirements for the next 1,000 years.
Tom Watkins is a retired Navy officer and former business consultant. He lives in Montpelier.
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