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The new wave of nuclear power

Dan Reitz | Saturday, September 29, 2012

In the United States there are 65 running nuclear power plants.  There have been no new facilities built since construction of the final reactor began in 1977.   That means the youngest of these facilities is approaching its 30th birthday.  Sounds like it’s time for an upgrade. 
Only recently have plans for new nuclear facilities been drawn up, but these projects are still only in the preliminary stages of planning.  Nuclear power provides about 20 percent of our nation’s electrical energy, and it is my firm opinion our goal should be to increase this number. I’m sure many of you are sitting over lunch shaking your head in disagreement. You may be thinking of the disasters at Fukushima or Chernobyl as proof nuclear energy is not safe, when in fact the meltdown of these facilities can be attributed to poor design. Just look online and you will find plenty of reliable sources outlining the causes of these meltdowns. However, I’m not here to change your mind about nuclear energy. Instead, I am here to introduce you to the up and coming nuclear reactor: The thorium-powered molten-salt reactor (MSR).
In an MSR, liquid thorium, a radioactive element, replaces uranium as the main fuel source of the reactor.  The benefits of this are immeasurable.  Thorium is four times more abundant than uranium, and the mining of this fuel is minimized by the large stockpiles.  In fact, Thorium is plentiful enough to satisfy the energy demands of the U.S. for thousands of years. One pound of thorium can produce as much power as 300 pounds of uranium or nearly 3.5 million pounds of coal.  This means less waste than current nuclear facilities, and since this waste is less radioactive it will only remain hazardous for a few hundred years compared to the tens of thousands of years uranium waste remains radioactive. For those of you concerned with nuclear weapons, you can breathe easy.  Thorium is even harder to weaponize than uranium, which is pretty difficult to do in the first place. 
Thorium plants can be much smaller than current nuclear facilities in both size and power production.  Currently, nuclear facilities are generally built further away from large cities to minimize the potential damage of a worst case scenario meltdown.  Since thorium is already in a molten state, the chance of a meltdown occurring is slim to none.  Because of this, smaller facilities can be built closer to cities, eliminating a large portion of the energy lost due to transmission and bringing us cleaner, more affordable energy.
With the combination of safety features, new designs and the physical properties of thorium, nuclear power plants of the future will become even safer. If this quells the fear of reactor failure, widespread use of these plants could usher in a new era of energy production. With no greenhouse gas emissions, safe production and disposal methods and cheap, reliable power, there can be a significant reduction in the amount of coal-burning plants and other less-clean forms of energy production, thus helping the environment.
If you’re thinking, ‘Yeah, that’s great, but this is all theoretical,’ then think again my friend. In the 1960s, a thorium-powered MSR was built in Tennessee and ran for a total of 22,000 hours. We’re talking about a live reactor built and run by engineers.  That’s some promising evidence MSRs could be the next best thing.
Now that I’ve got you anticipating the arrival of the first commercial MSR, I have some bad news: These facilities probably won’t be around in the near future. The amount of funding and planning for such a nuclear facility is at a minimum. Don’t expect to see one of these plants until after 2030. That being said, there is only room for improvement.  Thorium MSRs may be the (theoretical) energy of the future today, but the sky is still the limit for energy production possibilities.
Dan Reitz is a junior mechanical engineering major. He can be reached at dreitz@nd.edu
    The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.