Are thorium reactors the magic bullet?

When the dumbest person and the smartest person in the world agree on something, you would think that there’s an element of truth involved.

“And Lord, we are especially thankful for nuclear power, the cleanest, safest energy source there is . . . . except for solar, which is just a pipe dream.” — Homer Simpson

“The discovery of nuclear reactions need not bring about the destruction of mankind any more than the discovery of matches.” — Albert Einstein

When the dumbest person and the smartest person in the world agree on something, you would think that there’s an element of truth involved.

Whatever the truth, however, an honest discussion about nuclear energy in Alberta is in order.

Bruce Power is actively trying to start up a reactor in Peace River.

And in the long term, there will likely be attempts to get reactors set up at the Athabasca tar sands (the heat they would generate would obviate the need for using expensive natural gas to process the tar).

But we really need to step back and look at the history of nuclear reactors.

There are, in fact, four generations of reactors.

Generation I refers to the early prototypes. Generation II refers to the large nuclear plants which were built prior to the late 1990’s, such as Canada’s CANDU reactors. Generation III refers to more recent reactor designs that have improved safety and efficiency measures built into them.

The ACR (Advanced CANDU Reactor), which Bruce Power would likely try to build in Alberta, is actually known as a Generation III+ reactor.

Things get really interesting, however, when we talk about Generation IV reactors.

This type of reactor attempts to address the four main problems with nuclear energy: potential accidents, theft of fuel for making bombs, long lived radioactive waste, and the looming shortage of easily available uranium.

An example of a Generation IV reactor would be the thorium reactor, a prototype of which was built in the 1960’s by the U.S. military.

A commercial version of this type of reactor is still some time in the future, but it is purported to be able to use the waste from other reactor types as its fuel.

This is the 70,000 tons of waste that we all know and fear, and which needs to be safely buried for about a million years. A thorium reactor could use some of that waste to generate electricity. And what of the thorium reactor’s own waste? Compared to a Generation II or III reactor, which converts about 95 per cent of its incoming fuel into deadly waste, the thorium reactor converts less than one per cent of its fuel into waste.

And this waste would only need to be isolated for a few hundred years, not a million years.

So if a prototype of this reactor was built in the 1960’s, why isn’t there one in every large city today?

The answer is easy. It didn’t produce lots of nice plutonium to make big bombs with.

At the time, we were in a cold war with the Russians, so deadly isotopes that could be collided with other deadly isotopes in order to blow people into smithereens was the cool thing to have.

And the conventional nuclear reactor gave us those isotopes in abundance.

So the thorium reactor was a military wimp. But is it an economic wimp?

That’s what we need to figure out. How expensive would it be to scale it up to commercial viability? And with regard to the four problems mentioned above, exactly how safe is it?

Energy conservation (eg, more insulation in the attic and better bike paths) is still our best bet for sustainability.

Renewable energy (eg, wind turbines and solar panels) is a strong second.

But if there is some sort of magic bullet waiting in the wings (eg. thorium reactors), we need to be honest enough to give it a fair appraisal.

Evan Bedford is a local environmentalist. Direct comments, questions and suggestions to