When we hear most people talk about thorium (Th), it is usually with rolled eyes at the implications of its use as a next generation power source. Most comments we hear are “it will never happen” or “not in my lifetime”. But ahead of next month’s Thorium Energy Conference 2012 in China (ThEC in Shanghai), the question beckons, have we been looking at thorium all wrong? Can thorium be more than a power generating source?
Thorium is an abundant “fertile” rather than fissile material on the planet (in rare earth backyards, especially China and India) but there is a mystery that surrounds it since it use is still largely unproven outside of the documents left behind the Oak Ridge Laboratories from the 1950’s. While most observers view thorium for the potential it may “some day” hold for power generation, the by-product generation may be what drives revenues for thorium. Maybe even in this decade.
Of course my skepticism for thorium is really founded on the fact there isn’t yet a domestic prototype thorium reactor in the marketplace that can accurately guide us to ascertain cost savings building a molten salt reactor would actually be compared to any other reactor (i.e. Light water, Pressurized Water, Traveling Wave, etc.). The fact that radio toxicity of thorium is expected to be similar to that of conventional reactor designs, means economic superiority must be proven for wide-scale adoption commercialization (something that is decades away with funding hard to get in any market, never mind an uncertain one like today).
At present, my excitement for thorium is more like a mirage in the desert—meaning I can see there are possibilities, I’m drawn to it, yet when I go punch the numbers, my calculator has no guidance from my fingertips since I really can’t correlate the thorium benefits enough to quantitatively say our government needs to abandon its current nuclear ship and embrace thorium. Keep in mind there are waste concerns since thorium needs a uranium-233 catalyst and then there is still the same security needs surrounding thorium as any other reactor on the market.
So despite harping on what we know, could thorium find its way to investors hearts if molten salt reactors could create a revenue stream entirely separate from power generation? The answer is maybe.
Currently we know of no domestic reactor design that can generate power and also produce byproducts simultaneously. In fact, we know Babcox and Wilcox designed one type of reactor to accomplish each of these tasks independently. Based on our research, only Flibe Energy is working toward a design that would be able to tackle both power and byproducts. We spoke with Kirk Sorensen, Flibe’s President and Chief Technologist, who appears to be the prophet for thorium with numerous speeches at Thorium Energy Alliance Conferences, TEDx presentations and lectures plastered all over YouTube on the subject. Mr. Sorensen believes his company’s liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR) could avoid corrosion concerns by using Hastelloy alloy piping and uniquely generating significant revenues from waste, particularly Molybdenum 99 (Mo-99). Molybdenum 99 is a $5 billion global market ($2 billion US market) with limited players and an even smaller half-life (roughly 6-days). The US government is trying to crack down on the production of Molybdenum 99 without highly enriched uranium (HEU) since the reliable supply of medical isotopes is a huge priority. This gives Flibe an extra life-line in my view.
At the end of the day, we hear the passion in Sorensen’s words and truly want to believe in thorium. Without completed conceptual designs, the jury is still out though on the use of thorium. With that said, we do expect the byproduct market implications for thorium to gain more traction, especially from the US military. The military simply want/need low-cost power and would be happy to let someone else profit from the Molybedenum. That is what Flibe and Mr. Sorensen are really banking on. Falling under a Generation IV nuclear reactor classification (see our chart below), thorium may need a legitimate secondary market for byproducts or the technology won’t make strides for at least two decades. If at all!
Related: To view our thoughts on who may be the front-runner for the upcoming Department of Energy small modular reactor license awards, please see our comments from early May.
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