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Thorium and LFTR Top 10 Attributes

Manufacturing Group | February 15, 2013

The abundance of the element thorium throughout the Earth’s crust promises widespread energy independence through Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) technology.

Thorium and LFTR Top 10 Attributes

The abundance of the element thorium throughout the Earth’s crust promises widespread energy independence through Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) technology. A mere 6,600 tonnes of thorium could provide the energy equivalent of the combined global consumption of 5 billion tonnes of coal, 31 billion barrels of oil, 3 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, and 65,000 tonnes of uranium. With LFTR, a handful of thorium can supply an individual's lifetime energy needs; a grain silo full could power North America for a year; and known thorium reserves could power advanced society for many thousands of years.

LFTR is based on demonstrated technology with sound operational fundamentals proven by 20,000 hours of reactor operation at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the late 1960's. Despite recognized, compelling advantages, LFTR development stalled when political and financial capital were concentrated instead on fast-spectrum plutonium breeding reactors.

LFTR operates at low pressure, is chemically and operationally stable, and passively shuts down without human intervention. Low pressures eliminate the need for massive and costly pressure containment vessels and alleviate safety concerns about high-pressure releases to the atmosphere. LFTR offers significant gains in safety, cost and efficiency with greatly reduced environmental impact relative to existing light-water reactors (LWRs).

LFTR is more efficient, using 99% of the thorium-derived fuel and extracting significantly more energy from abundant, inexpensive thorium than other reactors can from more scarce and costly uranium. LWRs burn scarce fissile reserves as a one-time consumable; LFTR consumes fertile thorium, using fissile reserves only to start the thorium fuel-cycle.

LFTR can use a range of nuclear starter fuels and can consume plutonium and other actinides from legacy spent nuclear fuel stockpiles. Molten salt reactors were started on all three fuel options and once operational, LFTR can continue operation with just thorium.

LFTR produces safe, sustainable, carbon-free electricity and a range of radioisotopes useful for medical imaging, cancer therapy, industrial applications and space exploration. LFTR waste heat can be used to desalinate sea water and high primary heat can drive ammonia production for agriculture and fuels or synthesis of liquid hydrocarbon fuels.

Most LFTR byproducts stabilize within a decade and have commercial value; the minor remainder has a half-life of less than 30 years, stabilizing within hundreds rather than tens of thousands of years. LFTR waste is primarily fission products and does not include unspent fuel, fuel cladding, or long-lived transuranics typical of legacy spent nuclear fuel.

LFTRs can be mass-produced in a factory and delivered and reclaimed from utility sites as modular units. Modular LFTR production offers reduced capital costs and shorter build times. Modular installation near the point of need also eliminates long transmission lines. Higher temperatures and turbine efficiencies enable air-cooling away from water bodies.

LFTR and thorium are proliferation resistant. Thorium and its derivative fuel, uranium-233, are impractical and undesirable for weaponization efforts relative to well-known uranium enrichment and plutonium breeding pathways. Thus, despite 60 years of thorium research, none of the world's tens-of-thousands of warheads are based on the thorium fuel-cycle.

Liquid salt fuels cannot fail or meltdown. The liquid salt fuels have a 1,000° liquid range, eliminating the possibility of fuel failure scenarios from overheating or meltdown like at Fukushima. The liquid fuel form is a key differentiator from conventional solid-fueled LWRs with LFTR’s liquid salts serving as both a fuel carrier and coolant. The salts are not reactive with water or the atmosphere like some existing fuels and coolants. Fuel can be added to the salts and byproducts removed while the reactor remains online.

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