SYDNEY: Safer, cleaner nuclear power is a step closer to reality after Norway’s state-owned energy company, Statkraft, this week announced plans to investigate building a thorium-fuelled nuclear reactor.
Statkraft (which translates to “state power”) announced an alliance with regional power providers Vattenfall in Sweden, and Fortum in Finland, along with Norwegian energy investment company, Scatec AS, in a bid to produce the thorium-fuelled plant.
Thorium (Th-232), has been hailed as a ‘greener’ alternative to traditional nuclear fuels, such as uranium and plutonium, because thorium is incapable of producing the runaway chain reaction which in a uranium-fuelled reactor can cause a catastrophic meltdown. Thorium reactors also produce only a tiny fraction of the hazardous waste created by uranium-fuelled reactors (see ‘New age nuclear’, Cosmos, issue 8).
Statkraft, which is already Europe’s second largest producer of renewable energy – mainly thanks to Norway’s abundant hydroelectric resources – has recently made thorium-fuelled nuclear power a point of serious consideration. “It would be a sin of omission not to consider it,” said Bård Mikkelsen, CEO of Statkraft, in an interview with the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet.
To date, thorium has seen only limited application, such as by U.S. company, Thorium Power, which produces mixed uranium-thorium fuel for use in conventional nuclear reactors. However a reactor fuelled entirely by thorium would have significant advantages over conventional uranium or mixed-fuel reactors.
Besides their inability to go critical and their low generation of waste, thorium-fuelled reactors don’t suffer from the same proliferation risks as uranium reactors. This is because the thorium by-products cannot be re-processed into weapons-grade material.
Thorium also doesn’t require enrichment before use as a nuclear fuel, and thorium is an abundant natural resource, with vast deposits in Australia, the United States, India and Norway.
Another advantage of thorium-powered reactors is they can be used to ‘burn’ highly radioactive waste by-products from conventional uranium-fuelled power plants.
Over the past eight months, there has been a substantial rise in public support for thorium reactors in Norway. In June 2006, polls showed 80 per cent of the population were completely opposed to any form of nuclear technology. Then in February 2007, the same percentage were in favour of investigating thorium reactors as a potential energy source.
“It is an absolutely incredible surprise that it has been possible to turn around the population in a country, just by quietly campaigning and explaining the benefits of the technology,” said Egil Lillestøl, a nuclear physicist at the University of Bergen, Norway.
Lillestøl is a keen supporter of the ADS (Accelerated Driven System) technology used in thorium-fuelled reactors. Because thorium is incapable of achieving a self-sustaining chain reaction – unlike uranium or plutonium – it needs energy to be injected into the reactor to keep it running. This energy comes in the form of neutrons from a particle accelerator. For this reason, a thorium-fuelled reactor is also sometimes called a sub-critical reactor.
Statkraft is the third Norwegian company to express interest in thorium reactors this year; Thor Energi and Bergen Energi, have both applied for government licenses to build plants.
The announcement by Statkraft coincides with the first meeting of the Thorium Report Committee – an initiative commissioned by Norway’s Ministry of Petroleum and Energy, in association with the Norwegian Research Council, to investigate the benefits and risks of thorium reactors.
The committee will submit its report at the end of 2007. Norwegian legislation currently bans the use of nuclear power, so the report is critical for gaining Government consent to build thorium plants in Norway.
“Norway has taken the lead on this. We are an energy nation; we have large supplies of thorium – not as much as Australia of course – but we have a very advanced energy industry, and we have a responsibility to the world,” said Lillestøl. “Without nuclear energy we will destroy the world, we will spend all the coal, oil and gas, and we will be left with an energy desert.”
Reza Hashemi-Nezad, a nuclear scientist at the University of Sydney in Australia agrees that thorium is a promising alternative energy source. However, while the European Union, India, the US, Japan and Russia are all working on thorium technologies, Australia is lagging behind.
“Australian industry is very interested in investing in this type of clean, safe and cheap nuclear energy,” says Hashemi-Nezhad. “But I am afraid that if Australian scientists and industry do not get adequate support from the government and research institutes in Australia, they may move offshore.”