Thorium as a Nuclear Fuel

Apparently, China is constructing a molten salt nuclear reactor to be powered by thorium, and it should be undergoing trials about now. Being the first of its kind, it is, naturally, a small reactor that will produce 2 megawatt of thermal energy. This is not much, but it is important when scaling up technology not to make too great of leaps because if something in the engineering has to be corrected it is a lot easier if the unit is smaller. Further, while smaller is cheaper, it is also more likely to create fluctuations, especially with temperature, and when smaller they are far easier to control. The problem with a very large reactor is if something is going wrong it takes a long time to find out, but then it also becomes increasingly difficult to do anything about it.

Thorium is a weakly radioactive metal that has little current use. It occurs naturally as thorium-232 and that cannot undergo fission. However, in a reactor it absorbs neutrons and forms thorium-233, which has a half-life of 22 minutes and β-decays to protactinium-233. That has a half-life of 27 days, and then β-decays to uranium-233, which can undergo fission. Uranium-233 has a half-life of 160,000 years so weapons could be made and stored.  

Unfortunately, 1.6 tonne of thorium exposed to neutrons and if appropriate chemical processing were available, is sufficient to make 8 kg of uranium-233, and that is enough to produce a weapon. So thorium itself is not necessarily a form of fuel that is free of weapons production. However, to separate Uranium-233 in a form to make a bomb, major chemical plant is needed, and the separation needs to be done remotely because apparently contamination with Uranium-232 is possible, and its decay products include a powerful gamma emitter. However, to make bomb material, the process has to be aimed directly at that. The reason is, the first step is to separate the protactinium-233 from the thorium, and because of the short half-life, only a small amount of the thorium gets converted. Because a power station will be operating more or less continuously, it should not be practical to use it to make fissile material for bombs.

The idea of a molten salt reactor is that the fissile material is dissolved in a liquid salt in the reactor core. The liquid salt also takes away the heat which, when the salt is cycles through heat exchangers, converts water to steam, and electricity is obtained in the same way as any other thermal station. Indeed, China says it intends to continue using its coal-fired generators by taking away the furnaces and replacing them with a molten salt reactor. Much of the infrastructure would remain. Further, compared with the usual nuclear power stations, the molten salt reactors operate at a higher temperature, which means electricity can be generated more efficiently.

One advantage of a molten salt reactor is it operates at lower pressures, which greatly reduces the potential for explosions. Further, because the fuel is dissolved in the salt you cannot get a meltdown. That does not mean there cannot be problems, but they should be much easier to manage. The great advantage of the molten salt reactor is it burns its reaction products, and an advantage of a thorium reactor is that most of the fission products have shorter half-lives, and since each fission produces about 2.5 neutrons, a molten salt reactor further burns larger isotopes that might be a problem, such as those of neptunium or plutonium formed from further neutron capture. Accordingly, the waste products do not comprise such a potential problem.

The reason we don’t directly engage and make lots of such reactors is there is a lot of development work required. A typical molten salt mix might include lithium fluoride, beryllium fluoride, the thorium tetrafluoride and some uranium tetrafluoride to act as a starter. Now, suppose the thorium or uranium splits and produces, say, a strontium atom and a xenon atom. At this point there are two fluorine atoms as surplus, and fluorine is an extraordinarily corrosive gas. As it happens, xenon is not totally unreactive and it will react with fluorine, but so will the interior of the reactor. Whatever happens in there, it is critical that pumps, etc keep working. Such problems can be solved, but it does take operating time to be sure such problems are solved. Let’s hope they are successful.

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