Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Who is Developing Thorium Power?

If thorium power means little or nothing to you, and you are not aware of its huge potential benefits, then take a look at my blog piece Thorium – A New Direction in Power Generation.  If you can only spare a few minutes just watch the opening video by Kirk Sorensen! If, however, you are already a LFTR (Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor) enthusiast or you are researching this field, and want to know more about who is developing power from thorium then read on.

A schematic design for a Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor
The internet is buzzing with presentations, videos and articles extolling the advantages of using thorium in Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors, but who are the major players and who is going to get there first? This blog is a review of the current state of progress in the use of thorium as a nuclear fuel and concerns the main countries and companies involved in the field. It has been based on internet research and, in true blogging tradition, it’s a mixture of fact and personal opinion! [So that it's clear which is which, comments are enclosed in square brackets like this.]

In President Obama’s January 2011 State of the Union address, he refers to clean energy from a variety of sources, including nuclear, as one of the many innovations required to restore employment, but although U.S. Energy Secretary Stephen Chu  is aware of thorium, so far there has been little U.S. government interest shown in it apart from the promotion of a Bill in Congress by two senators.

US Senators Orrin Hatch and Harry Reid Promote Thorium
Senator, Orrin Hatch, Utah and Senator Harry Reid, Nevada are promoting thorium and they proposed a Bill in the 2nd session of the 111th Congress, called AMENDED S.3060: Thorium Energy Security Act of 2010. (Nevada has its own website promoting Thorium) The Bill was read in Congress on 3rd March 2010 and was passed to the US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources where it has been allowed to expire. This committee is concerned with all forms of energy including oil and gas.

(The bill was proposed in a previous session of Congress. Sessions of Congress last two years, and at the end of each session all proposed bills and resolutions that haven't passed are cleared from the books. Members often reintroduce bills that did not come up for debate under a new number in the next session).

There are three U.S. private companies backing thorium.  The first two, Lightbridge (formerly Thorium Power) and Flibe Energy, have rather distinct objectives.  The third company Transatomic Power has only recently been announced.

Lightbridge - Seth Grae - President
Light Bridge is a company formed in 1992 (originally named Thorium Power Inc.) which was established to exploit nuclear fuel designs developed by Dr Alvin Radkowsky,  who is one of the founding fathers of the U.S. nuclear industry. (This nicely written piece by Leslie Allen gives the background to how the company was formed). 

Lightbridge has a long-standing and ongoing working relationship with the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow.  They generate revenue from providing consulting engineering services to foreign governments.  As well as offering and developing nuclear fuel designs for existing reactor systems, they are also developing thorium based fuel systems. They do not appear to be proposing to develop Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors LFTR’s.

This article describes Lightbridge’s Russian interests and mentions that the Kurchatov Institute is already running thorium solid fuel rods in their IR-8 research reactor. Lightbridge is particularly aware of the potential for plutonium disposal using LFTR technology in the Russian context.

Whilst Lightbridge is not yet consistently profitable, they are capitalized to approx 20m$ of which 10m$ is in cash or easily convertible securities, and operating losses are steadily being reduced.

[Experience and a realistic business approach go hand in hand in this company. They have set themselves the task of running a profitable nuclear company and not changing the world or developing a major new technology. In that limited objective I am sure they will succeed and yet it’s a pity that they don’t have bigger ambitions, beyond servicing and retrofitting the existing nuclear industry, because they are, at present, probably the best equipped private company to develop LFTR technology.]

Flibe Energy – Kirk Sorensen - President 
Kirk Sorensen has been at the forefront of promoting the use of thorium powered liquid fluoride reactors for several years and he's a great ambassador for the subject. It was when he worked for NASA, and was asked to consider power sources suitable for use on the moon, that he came across the possibility of using thorium as a fuel and quickly realised the potential applications for terrestrial power production.

In 2010 he set up a company called Flibe Energy which has the objective of building an LFTR to achieve criticality by June 2015.

[Whilst their objective could have been achieved at Oak Ridge National Laboratory under Alvin Weinberg in the late sixties/early seventies (and very nearly was in the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment see below), it’s a very ambitious timescale in the current climate. Flibe Energy will need to recruit many expert staff, and they have only just started to search for funding. Building a demonstration plant will need not just careful engineering, but they’ll also have to take the safety regulators with them. In their inspiring presentations they don’t mention the difficulties of obtaining approval for buying, handling and generating fissile materials, let alone passing the detailed technical reviews that will be imposed on their designs by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. I admire their enthusiasm, and I sincerely hope that they are able to achieve their objective, but it'll be an uphill struggle. I think that they’ll need heavyweight political support and, as well as demonstrating their technical competence, they’ll need great political skill and judgement, to succeed.  Maybe once they have obtained a few patents they should be talking to the Chinese.]

Transatomic Power
Another U.S. company Transatomic Power has just been formed and they are promoting LFTR's.  The company has a high degree of intellectual capital on the board.  Four of the five board members are people from the MIT Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, including the Head of Department.  The fifth is a Senior Nuclear R and D Manager at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Information on their website is still sketchy.

Back to the Future - the Oak Ridge Molten Salt Reactor Experiment
The U.S. was the first to operate a graphite moderated molten salt reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and it ran successfully from 1965 to 1969 reaching temperatures up to 650 deg C. It was fuelled by a mixture of fluorides LiF-BeF2-ZrF4-UF4 (in the proportions 65-30-5-0.1).  As a result of the Oak Ridge work on Molten Salt Reactors a US patent no 3743577 for a single fluid molten salt nuclear breeder reactor was granted to ES Bettis in 1973. It's also graphite moderated design.

Charles Barton uses documents produced at the time to comment on the costs of this experimental work and scales them up to present day in this interesting piece

It’s not a priority for the Chinese to communicate their policies concerning energy to the outside world, and the information available in English on this subject is very limited. Recent official announcements, relayed via the specialist press, show that they are committed to the use of Thorium in Liquid Fuelled Thorium Reactors.

This, difficult to read, Google translation  of the Chinese Academy of Science announcement indicates that, unlike their distant western colleagues in government and the nuclear industry, the Chinese government has been listening to the western supporters of this technology. All of the familiar advantages and potential benefits are repeated and put into the context of an extremely rapidly growing need for energy in China.

As a fast growing economy, which is currently highly reliant on very polluting coal fired power stations, they need to secure a cleaner, safer option to provide for their enormous energy needs through to the end of the 21st century. Xu Hongie of the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics estimates that China’s energy output from nuclear sources will increase by a factor of 20 over the next forty years during which time he considers that Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors will become mainstream technology.

More details, including a comment on the high level of political support behind this project, are given in an article by IThEO.org the International Thorium Energy Organisation.

 [China has huge reserves of thorium and is not constrained by an entrenched nuclear industry, based on the uranium/plutonium fuel cycle, or an anti-nuclear environmental movement. They have a real need to rapidly develop new energy sources. If there truly is full political support behind this project, then the Chinese government will sweep away any financial or regulatory objections.]

Europe backed fusion power in a big way in 2001 and is currently funding work to the extent of billions of dollars. So far they have given a grant of 1m euros to the Grenoble Reactor Research Group for work on LFTR’s.

Europe is Losing Out
In this comprehensive policy brief  for the Centre for European Policy Reform Stephen Tindale, who was until 2005 the UK’s Executive Director of Greenpeace, makes a persuasive case for Europe to pursue the thorium option as a bridge technology between carbon based power and 100% renewables. On the way he dismisses fusion power!

Tokamak Magnetic Confinement Device
“In order to use nuclear as a bridge technology, the EU need not spend more money on unproven technological approaches such as nuclear fusion, which remains at least 30 years away. Advocates of fusion argue that this technology in theory provides limitless and sustainable energy. So it does – theoretically. The downside is best summarised in the quip that “nuclear fusion is 30 years in the future – and always will be”. The budget for the international nuclear fusion project, (ITER) in France, has almost tripled since 2001. It is now $16 billion, although major construction has yet to start. The EU will have to pay $6.6 billion of this. The Commission awarded ITER $1.4 billion, from unspent parts of the EU budget and the research programme, in 2010.2 Even if fusion works eventually (which is far from certain), it will not provide electricity soon enough to help Europe with its transition to a low-carbon economy. ITER itself accepts that the plant will not feed electricity into the grid before 2040.”

[For environmentalists energy generation from 100% renewable sources, in spite of their disadvantages, is the Holy Grail. I don’t think it’s advisable to commit to this objective since, ignoring issues of cost, there seems to be no way of securing the 24 hour base load requirements using renewable sources. Solar energy only works during the day, wind energy only works when it’s windy, hydroelectric power is mostly already fully developed in Western countries, wave power needs a coastline with waves and bio-energy projects require enormous land areas, which means taking agricultural land out of use.  Whilst there is a place for all of these technologies in the energy supply mix, I don't believe that they have sufficiently high energy densities to supply all of the power required by industrialised countries. Having said that, it’s nice to see Stephen Tindale, a former executive director of Greenpeace, supporting LFTR’s, which he does after the quotation above.]

A Swedish company called 232Thorwards SAS is promoting Thorium LFTR’s  but there's little information concerning their achievements or objectives.

Aker Solutions bought Professor Rubbia’s patent rights for an accelerator driven sub critical thorium reactor.  They have subsequently signed an agreement with the Chinese for its development.

After the tsunami on 11th March 2011 caused the Fukushima nuclear plant to release radioactivity Germany announced, on 30th May, that it was going to shut down all its nuclear power plants by 2022.  As far as I know Germany has no plans to develop LFTR’s or any other nuclear technology.

United Kingdom
The UK National Nuclear Laboratory’s (NNL) 2010 position paper only considered using thorium as a replacement fuel in existing reactors and concluded that there were insufficient advantages to make it worth pursuing this path.

Earlier this year Baroness Angela Smith asked a question concerning thorium power in the House of Lords and the government response was that a new report has been recently commissioned from the NNL. I am still trying to find out what the terms of reference are.

[The UK was one of the first countries to pursue civilian nuclear power and many of its ageing power stations are due for renewal; but I would be very surprised if money can be found to replace what is currently perceived as an environmentally dangerous technology with a different and safer type of nuclear reactor. Decision makers are also under the influence of the existing UK nuclear industry which, like France, is committed to the Pressurised Water Reactor. As a UK citizen, I am very doubtful that the UK is still capable of piloting such a significant new innovation, but I appreciate the efforts that are being made by Baroness Smith, Worthington and others to raise awareness of this issue.]

France generates about 80% of its electricity from nuclear power and the French company AREVA is one of the world’s leading companies for the building of nuclear power plants. This is, however, not necessarily an advantage since commercial organisations will always tend to promote their own proven products rather than unproven technology and they are very aware of the difficulties presented by the regulatory context.

[This exchange on the AREVA North American blog demonstrates the state of mind and appears to indicate that AREVA is not keen to pursue the development of new technology until it has been proven elsewhere.]

by Gilles Clement, Vice-President of Recycling Technologies, and Dr. Alan Hanson, Executive Vice President of Technology and Used-Fuel Management

Randal Leavitt asked recently:
Recycling fission fuel is better than not recycling, but there are other approaches that are better still. My preferred technology is the liquid fluoride thorium reactor. How do we shift the nuclear industry over to this technology?

We definitely agree that recycling used fuel is much better than “throwing it away” (i.e: direct disposal). The ability to shift the nuclear industry to a new technology is really something that is determined by the success of three conditions:

1. It must be proven and demonstrated at large industrial scale
2. It must be economically justified as compared to other alternatives
3. It must be licensed by the appropriate nuclear regulatory authorities

Large scale deployment of new technology requires – as soon as the principles are reasonably well stabilized and enough data from R and D is available – the preparation of a thorough and credible business case to justify the large investments needed to develop it.

To demonstrate that a new technology is fully proven and obtain the final license, one has to go through a lengthy piloting process. This involves designing, building and operating a series of “pilot models” of progressively increasing scale. A first model is developed to evaluate and understand the basic performance of the new technology, and it takes several years to test it rigorously. This first step is followed by incremental increases in the scale and the capacity of the models, (generally two further steps) to reach full commercial production size. The final model is considered as pre-industrial and is used to demonstrate the full range of safety, security and reliability requirements. Today nuclear reactors fuelled with thorium have not yet been shown to meet the three conditions.

Nevertheless, the Grenoble Reactor Research Group recently received a 1 million euro EU grant to carry out design studies, build small scale simulation plants and select materials. The presentation by Michel Allibert at the 2010 Thorium Energy Conference in London sets out their current progress and proposes a timescale to build a demonstration reactor in 15 years, a prototype 15 years later and a commercial reactor in 2040-50. In the presentation they emphasize the need for approval by safety authorities and the training of independent safety experts.

[This cautious attitude, which shows a keen awareness of the political and regulatory background, is almost certainly justified in the French/European context!]

Russia is interested in plutonium disposal by burning it in LFTR’s and the Kurchatov Institute is working on conceptual designs for molten salt reactors but it’s difficult to assess their progress.

In 2007 Red Star ("Krasnaya Zvezda" in Russian), a Russian government-owned entity and one of the premier nuclear design bureaus in the world, announced an agreement on the terms of a contract whereby Thorium Power's seed and blanket fuel designs will undergo irradiation testing with the goal of moving toward deployment within full-sized commercial reactors.

In 2007 the Kurchatov Institute signed an agreement with Lightbridge to carry out tests on thorium fuel elements and share the data. 

 [In spite of having lots of experience of nuclear energy, as well as very capable technologists and prestigious research establishments, it’s difficult to see where political support would come from for developing LFTR’s in Russia. It’s political outlook is short term, nationalistic, largely autocratic and corruption is rife. Whilst they may replace the fuel rods in some of their legacy uranium/plutonium reactors with thorium, I think it’s unlikely that their politicians will see the need to pioneer new power generation technologies for several decades.

Russia has enormous oil and gas reserves and it is committed to exporting it to Western Europe. Why would you want to develop a better goose when you already have plenty of golden eggs? ]

The Kakrapar Nuclear Power Station Complex
India already has a 220MW reactor running on thorium. The Kakrapar 1 reactor uses solid fuel rods in a retrofitted reactor chamber. The neutrons to initiate fission are supplied by a plutonium core.

When India was developing a nuclear weapon capability it was forbidden by the international community from importing uranium for their existing reactors in an attempt to reduce proliferation. This experience concentrated the minds of policy makers and using the thorium fuel cycle became a very important priority for India. (India has large reserves of thorium).  Ever since then, they have been developing civilian applications for power generation from thorium but, at present, only in their existing solid fuelled  reactors.

India has not so far announced any interest in LFTR or MSR technologies. This comment on the Nuclear Green blog run by Charles Barton could help to explain why.

David asked...
So, why are the Indians not pursuing LFTR technology? If our numbers are right and the development is somewhat "open-source" already why is this technology not being pursued yet metal fuelled Thorium reactors or Fast breeders are being pursued?

This seeming avoidance of a technology makes me wonder if there are aspects to LFTR we have overlooked? If a handful of engineers in the 1960's could assembly one, what would stop India? They have some really good engineers and scientists there.

Charles Barton replied ...
David, 'the Indians are following a plan that was created almost 2 generations ago, before the LFTR became a possibility. There is a significant question as to why that complex and expensive plan is still being followed by the Indians, in light of the thorium breeding potential of the LFTR. The Indian failure to embrace the LFTR cannot be attributed to some great difficulty that was unique to the LFTR and exceeded the challenges of the three stage program. Perhaps the most likely explanation is that since the Indians had until very recently access to a very limited amount of uranium, they needed the significantly greater breeding capacity of fast reactors, in order to obtain enough fissionable uranium to start a large number of thorium based reactors.

Before the Fukushima accident Japan had 47, 348 MW of installed nuclear power capacity and generated 28.9% of its electricity needs from nuclear sources.  Japan has 127 million people on densely populated islands, which are subjected to frequent earthquakes and tsunamis.  As Fukushima has shown power plants using solid fuel and pressurised water are not inherently safe in the event of power failures.

The reaction of the Japanese public to the contamination of a large zone around the plant has been understandably negative.  Problems in stabilizing the Fukushima nuclear plant have hardened attitudes to nuclear power.  As of June 2011, "more than 80 percent of Japanese now say they are anti-nuclear and distrust government information on radiation".  Post-Fukushima polls suggest that somewhere "between 41 and 54 percent of Japanese support scrapping, or reducing the numbers of, nuclear power plants.

Before Fukushima, on 5th Oct 2010 the Keidranen industry group announced that IThEMS (International Thorium Energy Molten-Salt Technology Inc.) , which needs a start up funding of 300m$, is targeting 2016 to build a 10MW miniFuji LFTR. This would then be followed up by a 200MW design called Fuji which has a Japanese Patent (No 3326759) and a Russian Federation Patent (No 2137222).

Conceptual design and research appears to be well under way and several technical papers were published at the 2010 Thorium Energy Conference.

Charles Barton, on his blog Nuclear Green, reports on 8th November 2010 that he has been in contact with Dr Kazuo Furakawa of IThEMS and he comments on their business plan here 

[Japan has a very capable nuclear industry and all the necessary research and industrial infrastructure to succeed in developing new nuclear technology.  In normal circumstances it would be a strong candidate and an early adopter.  The Fukushima accident has, however, changed public opinion and the lack of trust in government is, for some time to come, likely to be fatal to new developments in nuclear power systems. I am trying to get an update on IThEMS progress but realistically, I fear that nothing will have been acheived in their attempt to obtain funding.]

[Apart from lack of money, those wishing to develop new nuclear technology in Western nations are trapped in a four pronged attack: from conservative regulators, from a lack of political will, from opposition by vested interests like the existing nuclear companies, and from a powerful anti-nuclear protest movement.

My money is on China being the first nation to successfully deploy LFTR reactors. They have a great need for the development of new energy resources and a political system, which we may not like, but which will enable rapid technological change. I wish them every success, because the world needs someone to take this technology from the theoretical to the mainstream. I think that within 20 years the West can look forward to buying mass produced Chinese LFTR power stations at low prices.

Or if I was being even more cynical about Europe than usual, we will probably buy one, pick apart the design, re-engineer it completely, incorporating lots of unnecessary concrete, safety features and exotic materials and then build a few LFTR's at ten times the cost of the Chinese product. That way the European nuclear industry can justify their earlier lack of interest in Liquid Fuelled Thorium Breeder Reactors by saying that they always knew that there were no true economic advantages over uranium/plutonium solid fuelled, water cooled reactors!]

Other posts about nuclear power in this blog


  1. This is a very nice overview of LFTR activities. How many readers see this? Curiosity can be satisfied (or peaked) by visiting

    http://rethinkingnuclearpower.googlepages.com/aimhigh for s summary of the technology and social benefits.

    http://energyfromthorium.com for a blog and a technical forum where engineers and other professionals exchange design ideas.

    http://thoriumenergyalliance.org for Powerpoints and videos of the May 2011 meeting in Washington DC.

  2. If Flibe has to deal with the NRC their timescale is not just ambitious - it's impossible. They have a different plan, though. IIUC, they plan to operate under the regulatory authority of the US military and site their prototype reactors inside military bases. The US military would also be the first client for a small transportable reactor.

  3. @Owen T
    Thanks Owen for this clarifcation. I knew they were too smart not to have a plan for dealing with this!

  4. @Robert Hargraves
    Not many Robert because my blog is generalist and not specialist. I just write about what interests me at any particular moment. The subject of thorium fuelled nuclear power is, however, so important that I felt it was worth some time spent on researching it further.

  5. John,

    Great Article, thank you.

    I host what I think might be the only UK LFTR Blog "LFTRs to Power the Planet" and have also started a campaign on 38Degrees: UK Manufacture of LFTRs - we're at about 70th now, so would you please consider voting for it? - and any of your readers who support LFTRs.

    I've been fishing around for ages to get up to date info on China's progress with LFTRs and you've beaten me to it - professional V amateur - no competition. Since I'll be hoping to update regularly on any pronouncements from China, have you any tips that would help me keep tabs?

  6. @LFTRs to Power the Planet
    I've voted you up! Good luck with your UK campaign but, as you can see from this piece, I'm very doubtful that the UK can promote a major technical advance in this field. It's too locked in to the existing Uranium/Plutonium fuel cycle and the professionals in the field, from the regulators, to the contractors,to the operators, to the waste processors would be very reluctant to move away from what they know.
    Concerning China, I agree that it's not easy to find out what they are doing! There are occasional announcements, which get reported in papers like China Daily, but little is published in english. Perhaps the best way to make progress would be to find a Chinese speaking LFTR enthusiast who also speaks English.
    By the way, as I read more, I'm even more convinced that the conditions in China will ensure that they will be the first to build an LFTR in the 21st century.