Nuclear Power Doesn't Need To Be Scary


Quick – can someone tell me what potential source of energy could single-handedly provide all of the energy requirements of the US for the next 1000 years? And at the same time, foster independence in rare earth materials that are mainly sourced from China? And would not generate carbon dioxide as it is consumed?


No, it’s not coal. Coal can provide a significant portion of energy needs, and coal ash is a prospective source of rare earth metals that may be harvested, but it creates a huge amount of CO2 and has other detrimental effects, like the mountain top removal that is a blight in my home state of West Virginia. (Point of personal perspective – over 40 years ago, I had a part-time job as a chemist for a concrete company. There was a new coal fired power plant coming on line in Nebraska, and the concrete company was considering using coal ash as an extender for cement in making concrete. I performed wet chemical analysis of fly ash, going through most of the metals by reacting with reagents, then precipitating out various compounds and evaporating them to dryness in platinum crucibles. The reaction stream went all the way to sodium, which had to be precipitated with some uranium salt. I had fun doing that work, but the one thing I remember is that if you hit a fly with a stream of acetone used to dry dishware, you would cause the fly to drop out of the air instantly, and a dehydrated fly husk would be all that was left behind.)


Give up on the original question? It’s thorium, the radioactive material that has a 14 billion year half life. Thorium, along with uranium, was looked at by the US government when nuclear power and nuclear weaponry were uppermost in the minds of the government. But one factor weighing against thorium, turns out to be now a very beneficial factor. See, it is nigh unto impossible to obtain any nuclear weapon grade material out of the thorium fission reaction process. Uranium reactors will create plutonium as one of the natural byproducts of fission. If U238 (the most common uranium isotope in reactor fuel) absorbs a neutron, it becomes an extremely unstable isotope U239, which eventually transmutes into a plutonium isotope. Since U238 is the primary isotope in a pressurized water reactor, the spent fuel rods from a reactor will always contain plutonium. That is one reason why fuel rod security is required, since plutonium can be chemically separated from the toxic mix of radioactive stew found in a fuel rod.


Thorium, though, does not create plutonium. It does create the uranium isotope U233  which is the active fuel for a thorium reactor.  It also creates small quantities of another uranium isotope U232 which acts as a poison against creating a fission bomb out of U233 . So the issues of nuclear weapon proliferation by segregating out fissile material from thorium fuel are not of concern.


(Paragraph of translation. If you understand the concepts of isotopes, please skip over this paragraph.  Now, the last paragraph used a bit of physics jargon that is necessary to understand this post. I mentioned Uranium 232 (U232)  and Uranium 233 (U233).   Both of those refer to the element uranium, which has 92 protons. Where they differ is in the number of neutrons. Uranium 233 has one more neutron than does uranium 233. An element may have many different numbers of neutrons, and that is especially true in the heaviest (by atomic number) elements. These different isotopes have remarkably different characteristics, especially when dealing with nuclear reactions. This is important in the discussion below.)


In order to appreciate the difference between a thorium reactor, and the current pressurized water reactors (PWR) using uranium, it is necessary to discuss PWR’s. The current nuclear power industry takes fuel rods and inserts them into the core of the reactor. A reactor contains control rods of neutron-absorbing materials. These control rods are raised and lowered in order to moderate the nuclear fission occurring in the fuel rods. If the control rods were raised totally out of the core, the fuel rods would not be able to hold the runaway nuclear reaction that would ensue. The zirconium cladding of the fuel rods would melt, and the contents of the fuel rods would pool at the bottom of the reactor. This event would not be good, putting it mildly.


When a PWR works properly, it heats water which is kept pressurized in the primary coolant loop. The water is circulated into a steam generator, where the steam is created which runs the electrical generators. Fuel rods in a PWR have a limited lifespan, and once they are no longer useful to generate electricity, these rods must be pulled out and stored in water to handle the immediate heat generated from nuclear reactions still continuing in the fuel rods. In some cases, the rods are held in water pools for 10-20 years. Then the rods must be kept secure and eventually stored somewhere where they will be able to stay segregated from the environment for geologically significant periods of time (hundreds of thousands of years). It is only after that much time has gone by before the spent fuel rods no longer pose a threat to health.


So, with uranium as the source fuel, you can generate enormous amounts of energy without CO2 generation, but with huge potential issues. You have extremely complex systems operating at incredible pressures and temperatures that must keep operating in order to prevent a runaway reaction. Then, if all works right, you have to take the fuel rods out after only a few percent of the potential energy is released, since the fission byproducts work to poison the reaction long before all of the uranium has fissioned.  And then you must isolate the fuel rods for hundreds of thousands of years, or else there is a risk of radioactive contamination of the environment. No wonder nuclear power is viewed with disfavor.


Thorium would be significantly different, though. Thorium reactors can use a molten salt as the liquid that would carry the thorium, the U233, and all fission products coming from the nuclear reactions. This means that the operating pressures of the system are far lower than in a PWR, reducing the potential for leakage or cracking of the containment system. And if the liquid salt does leak out, what would happen? It would freeze in place. Indeed, the possibility of a reactor core meltdown disappears with a thorium-fueled reactor.


It is essential to separate out the fission products and radioactive isotopes generated in this type of reactor. This can be done by taking a small side stream of the circulating salt solution, and using standard chemical separation techniques to return the unburned U233 to the salt solution. Other radioactive isotopes can be removed using this method. Because the fuel can be recycled indefinitely until it is burned, the remaining daughter fission products (the lighter elements remaining from a uranium nucleus that has fissioned) have a much shorter half life. Instead of hundreds of thousands of years for spent fuel rods to become harmless, it will only take a couple of hundred years for the fission byproducts from thorium to decay to a harmless state.


One thing that thorium has going for it is 4 times more plentiful in the earth’s crust than uranium. And it’s primary ore is one that includes rare earth metals and phosphate. So a commercial mining operation aimed at recovering thorium will also produce rare earth metals, and phosphate for fertilizer. All of these materials are essential for our modern economy.


Granted, any process involving radioactive materials has risks, and even though a thorium-fueled liquid salt reactor is simpler than a PWR, there are many challenges concerning the commercialization of this technology. But if we as a society are concerned with trying to develop energy sources that do not produce CO2 , and can serve as baseload power generators, certainly thorium reactors are a technology that should actively be researched. To think, we may have had the answer to our energy dilemmas in hand over 60 years ago, only to throw it away since thorium doesn’t lend itself to making good bombs (an oxymoron of the first degree).  Let’s try to rectify humanity’s mistake and work to investigate and commercialize this amazing resource we have been given from our earth.


Submitted from my blog,


Even A Broken Clock, aka Jeff Swing


Leroy Added Jun 29, 2017 - 8:10am
Thanks for the informative article.  I hope that mankind can overcome its irrational fears and pursue this and similar technologies.  It is truly the best hope for mankind today.  Perhaps if we embrace nuclear, we can eventually achieve the holy grail of fusion.
Dino Manalis Added Jun 29, 2017 - 8:24am
Nuclear fusion would be more powerful and less wasteful than fission, that's why we have to research and develop all energy sources to protect the environment; save/create jobs; and keep energy costs down.
Athena Carson Added Jun 29, 2017 - 8:28am
Nuclear is definitely the way to go; it's by far the cleanest and most efficient way to generate power.  Even in our current regulatory climate, if it were allowable to reprocess fuel rods (because they're not spent after being processed once), it would be even more efficient than it is.
P.S. I have a nuclear engineer in the family, so I always pick his brain whenever I have questions about nuclear power or the energy industry in general.
Jeff Jackson Added Jun 29, 2017 - 9:21am
I don't object to nuclear power, and the option you suggest sounds very good. The nuclear industry is rife with disasters such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, the Japanese reactors  that were swamped by the tsunami, and others too lengthy to document here. In terms of PR, they haven't presented a favorable picture, and too many accidents have caused the public to fear it, and rightfully so. We're still trying to get a place to deposit our nuclear waste that will be dangerous for some thousands of years. I understand that the government has somewhat hindered the nuclear industry, but I also see the problems that it has created for itself by making poor decisions that created big and very expensive problems. Thanks for explaining the thorium idea. Next will be cold fusion, yes?
Ian Thorpe Added Jun 29, 2017 - 9:43am
You're correct, the fear factor with nuclear energy is hugely overhyped. If health professionals are really that frightened of radiation they should advise people not to eat bananas. The Banana Equivalent Dose is a tongue in cheek measurement, based on the consumption of a banana a day for 50 years, which would equate to about 3500 Bq (Bequerels - physicists love to have measurements named after them) of radiation. A person living ten miles from the Three Mile Island reactor at the time of the accident would have received less than a thousand Bq. The fatal dose for a human is tens of millions of Bq.
Radiation from weapons grade fissile material is on a different scale. 
But I guess there will be no new development in nuclear until we reach the point where there's no more oil deposits to be discovered. It's just to profitable.

I can't stand bananas but as most people regard them as healthy food, perhaps the authorities should adopt the friendly, funny sounding Banana Equivalent Dose to dilute the fear factor nuclear power generates.
Even A Broken Clock Added Jun 29, 2017 - 9:50am
There's a lot more I could have gone into with this post, but normally I try to limit my blog posts to about 1,000 words and this one has gone well above that. You get that when you try to convey scientifically complex information.
Way back when I was in college, the Babcock and Wilcox company gave a present to engineering students. It was a book called Steam, its generation and use. B&W builds the steam generators for power plants, and this book covered everything from coal (types and ash contents and BTU values) to waste organic stream incinerators, to every other type of mechanism to create steam.
They had a section that covered nuclear power and went into great detail about the nuclear reaction chains and things like barns and other physical details of nuclear power. I learned a good bit about PWR's from that book. Never used it in my working career, but came in handy as background for the post.
John G. - loved the thought. Don't think my retirement savings will allow me to play angel capitalist for the few billion it would take to build a full-scale commercial application.
Leroy Added Jun 29, 2017 - 12:30pm
" In terms of PR, they haven't presented a favorable picture, and too many accidents have caused the public to fear it, and rightfully so."
My biggest fear is that we don't invest in nuclear technology and we continue to operate these unsafe reactors beyond their lifetime.
I understand the fear.  Which fear is greater, thermal overload of the planet due to CO2 or a catastrophic nuclear accident.? There is no evidence that either is likely.
Hopefully, security has improved over the years.  My first project was for a nuclear plant, one that was just about to come on line.  The technology of this plant was ancient.  I understand this is because the components have to be tried and true.  That was the reason I was there to supplement this ancient technology.  The people who worked there were so silly.  Throughout the day, someone would grab the PA mike and say something stupid.  If caught, you were immediately terminated.  Despite the penalty, it went on all day long.  It didn't fill me with confidence that these people could safely operate the plant.  They couldn't even figure out how to limit access.
Stone-Eater Added Jun 29, 2017 - 5:29pm
I love it as I love Fukushima, the sea there must be a lasting experience. Already on the US West coast, and it will spread. Humans aren't perfect, so aren't their technologies.
Renewables are the stuff we need. Sun, Water. But only when we get off useless comfort shit like air conditioners in places where they're not needed. Only pussies need stuff like that in their home LOL
Might as well move further north, when you can't support the heat.
Stone-Eater Added Jun 29, 2017 - 5:36pm
BTW: We have 4 nuclear reactors in Switzerland on a surface of 41'000 km2. Kind of Delaware, or so. When ONE blows up, we're fucked. And they're 40 years old.
The French next to us have 52. Remember Tchernobyl 1986 ? Or is that only anti-Atom propaganda ?
I guess NOT.
Stone-Eater Added Jun 29, 2017 - 5:39pm
The problem is that one does not SEE radiation. One can come up and say hey, in the Swiss Alps radiation is a lot higher and nobody has problems. Ok.
But nobody lives there. We can absorb only so much as our body has been used to in millions of years by natural radiation.
One BicMac a week is ok. Five a day will kill you eventually.
Tamara Wilhite Added Jun 29, 2017 - 8:55pm
Nuclear is a carbon neutral energy source we need more of. Especially given that newer reactor designs are much safer than 3 mile island.
Jeff Michka Added Jun 29, 2017 - 9:03pm
Tamara Wilbwhite sez: newer reactor designs are much safer than 3 mile island. - We should be so reassured. Ah, the late 70s and TMI.  We put a "production company" together to do some music shows and called it Three Mile Island Light and Sound. And remember the clean-up: A bucket, mop and bottle of Mop n' Glo...
Even A Broken Clock Added Jun 30, 2017 - 11:50am
SEF - I agree with you that there is inherent danger in the pressurized water reactor design, and that has manifested itself in multiple incidents. That is why the radically different design of a thorium reactor eliminates the large scale risks associated with a nuclear power. It literally cannot melt down and cause a catastrophic release.
Having said that, you are still dealing with radioactive isotopes, and you would need to have extensive chemical processing operations in removing the daughter products, and reintroducing the fissile material back into the reactor stream. The processing for the uranium 233 involves converting it into uranium hexafluoride, which then has to be reintroduced into the reactor. Lots of potential for leaks, but these are low volume leaks, and instead of a catastrophic incident that contaminates large land volumes, you have more of an occupational health issue for the workers within an installation.
Stone-Eater Added Jun 30, 2017 - 12:14pm
Thanks. I see you know more than I on that (I know very little, admitted, I just see the results), and I'll check your input about thorium reactors.
Nicholas Schroeder Added Jun 30, 2017 - 12:28pm
So pull out that calculator and tell me how many reactors, steam turbines, cooling systems will have to be built, how fast and by whom and at what cost.
Where will the raw materials come from? The copper is already in short supply.
Put down the dope and check out reality.
BTW all to solve a non-existent problem.
Is space cold or hot? There are no molecules in space so our common definitions of hot and cold don't apply. 
The temperatures of objects in space, e.g. the earth, moon, space station, mars, venus, etc. are determined by the radiation flowing past them. In the case of the earth, the solar irradiance of 1,368 W/m^2 has a Stefan Boltzmann black body equivalent temperature of 394 K. That's hot. 
But an object's albedo reflects away that heat and reduces that temperature. 
The earth's albedo reflects away 30% of the sun's 1,368 W/m^2 energy leaving 70% or 958 W/m^2 to "warm" the earth and at a S-B BB equivalent temperature of 361 K, 33 C colder than the earth with no atmosphere or albedo. 
The earth's albedo/atmosphere doesn't keep the earth warm, it keeps the earth cool.
Ian Thorpe Added Jun 30, 2017 - 4:09pm
SEF: "One BicMac a week is ok. Five a day will kill you eventually."

So will five bananas a day if you keep up the habit long enough, did you not read my comment? ;-)
Here's a more detailed look at radio active bananas
Rusty Smith Added Jun 30, 2017 - 8:41pm
There is nothing wrong with Gen 3 reactors and they are inherently safe, especially with regard to massive contamination problems because they are too massive to melt down.
Every modern nuclear reactor meltdown occurred when the operators were doing something other than simply trying to produce power.  Stop doing stupid things and they are lots lots safer than our current track record.
It's true that the fuel is hot for a long time after it's used in a reactor, but it's also true that it's not as bad as most  people think.  It's hot when it's discovered and mined, and it gets a whole lot hotter as it's refined for use in a reactor, but 100 years after it's used it's colder than it was if we'd never taken it out of the ground.  If it's put back in the same mines as it was removed from, it won't be any more dangerous than it was if we'd never mined it in the first place.
Rusty Smith Added Jul 1, 2017 - 11:05am
John G  hmm... you have a point there.  Their disaster wasn't operational it was they didn't have enough back up power after their primary power was disrupted.  Certainly easy to remedy in future designs, and not even an issue with Gen 3 reactors.  Fukushima had many very severe ramifications and lessons, but I don't recall anyone dying from radiation, not even emergency response workers, and it wasn't a Gen 3 reactor.
All the others I can think of they were doing experiments or tests with the reactor which prompted them to shut off the safeties, or intentionally push the reactors way beyond their normal operating parameters.
Tubularsock Added Jul 6, 2017 - 5:26pm
Clean Energy??? Rather a misnomer if you asked Tubularsock.
Anything that produces a waste product that has a 1/2 life of 10 gagjllion years just doesn’t seem “clean” no matter how you slice it.
It is much like saying, “Yes, this pill will prevent heart attacks with just a little side affect issue. The medicine over time dissolves the heart!”
Tubularsock goes for the sun. If we had put as much subsidies and research into solar power as we have nuclear we would have been way ahead of the curve. Tubularsock feels the only thing that slowed that down was that to date we haven’t been able to blow people up with it!
Surely you scientists can come up with a way to kill people with solar power and then LOOK OUT! Freedom at last!