Our nation’s nuclear reactors are doubling as weapons grade uranium manufacturers. These remnants of the cold war were once designed to not only give our nation energy, but to also produce enough weapons grade uranium to strike fear across the steel curtain.
To make things worse, the very common Light Water Reactor (LWR) is inefficient, dangerous, and expensive.
The LWRs operate at high pressures that make them incredibly susceptible to ruptures. And so, intensely energy-wasting efforts have to be made to prevent a loss of water coolant which can lead to a reactor overload much like the incident in Fukishima. When this hot, high pressure water does breach the containment, it flashes to steam and the resulting pressure can be catastrophic.
In fact, the reason that these LWR nuclear reactors are built in such large domes is so that when there is a breach, the resulting steam overflow will be contained inside.
After all this effort, the Light Water Reactor utilizes less than 1% of the energy potential of Uranium. This system screams inefficiency.
The Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) instead uses 98% of the energy of thorium, and while uranium is a extremely rare element, thorium is so prevalent that it is often thrown away as waste at mines across the globe.
Worried about a nuclear meltdown? The LFTR reactor uses melted fluoride salts with mixed in thorium as the nuclear fuel so not only is it already melted but it also is easily moved into emergency tanks through passive safety features that prevent any sort of breach without any human interaction necessary. To make the LFTR even more safe, it is run at low pressure so that it is not susceptible to breaches; making it take up less space and require less costly safety measures.
Furthermore, the LFTR can use its excess heat to desalinate water, its spent fuel can be recycled into fuel for modified generators, the reaction automatically shuts down in the absence of priming, and the nuclear fuel cannot easily be converted into weapons grade material.
So why hasn’t the United States begun to develop this type of reactor?
One obvious reason is the politics behind it. The United States begun their funding to nuclear power with hopes of generating large amounts of weapons grade materials and perhaps that is still some interest. But also, the nuclear arms war lead to a great understanding of uranium and that knowledge was then translated into a nuclear fuel infrastructure that is completely based on the LWR reactor. It would not be cost efficient in the short term to build completely different systems that required a entirely new infrastructure than the prevalent nuclear energy landscape.
So thorium and LFTRs are fighting a uphill battle against politics and economics to gain some ground in a biased nuclear power community. Kirk Sorensen is the frontrunner of the LFTR campaign and his energy company, Flibe Energy, is attempting to gain funding for a reactor to be built. However, the advancement of this technology has been very slow.
And while they fight and we wait, the Chinese along with a small contingency of other countries have begun to develop this technology in order to usher in a new age of power. This new technology will be realized, but it seems not by the United States.