05/30/2013 - 16:18

Thorium: Not a near-term commercial nuclear fuel

Andrew T. Nelson

Dr. Andrew T. Nelson is a research scientist in the Materials Science and Technology Division at Los Alamos National Laboratory. He received his B.S. in Engineering Mechanics followed by his M.S....

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In the wake of the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, opinion makers and policy makers, alike, have worked internationally to pique interest in thorium as a possible alternative fuel for commercial nuclear reactors. The key question posed has been: Could a thorium-based fuel provide advantages if deployed in current reactors? A full thorium-driven cycle used to produce and use uranium-233 for power generation has been understood to possess a range of benefits for many decades. To fully assess the practical utility of thorium use in existing light water reactors, it is necessary to critically dissect the promoted benefits of the thorium fuel cycle. The potential advantages of thorium are relatively small, the author writes, when viewed through the lens of current infrastructure and economic and political realities.