Last night, I happened to have found the time and opportunity to listen this podcast, featuring Kirk Sorensen. I was looking for recent news on thorium molten salt reactors and this one came up.
There were a few topics in that podcast that caught my attention that I wanted to bring to yours. First, China is investing hundreds of millions every year into research in this technology. Compare that to American interest: one or two government committees and a handful of private companies actively researching it. You almost certainly won't hear of any news of debate over this topic because there are entrenched carbon fuel interests who don't want us to consider it yet. They'd rather wait for peak oil, peak gas or peak coal to hit for maximum profits.
Fortunately, there is building American interest in molten salt reactors (MSRs). Just a couple of months ago, Forbes ran this article about the growing interest and investment in thorium MSRs and provided some great history on the topic, too. Like Mr. Sorensen, the article expressed concern that we will be left behind as other lead the charge to build a commercial MSR for civilian power production. A young startup from MIT has just scored $2 million in seed money and that is encouraging.
China wants to have an operational MSR by 2017. India claims to have one in operation in 5 years. The Czech Republic and Russia are also working on MSRs. We had two running, one in the 1950s and one built by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory that ran for 4 years with no problems. We started it, but other countries are taking the lead.
Another concern raised by Mr. Sorensen is that there are 23 power plants in the US that are built on the same design as the one that blew in Fukishima. GE, the company that designed the plant says that since then, the plants have been modified based on experience from Fukishima and from decades of experience worldwide. But the bottom line is that all nuclear power plants today use a highly pressurized containment vessel, up to 160 atmospheres of pressure, to contain the water that keeps the core of the reactor cool. This is what we're really worried about, a rupture of that containment vessel.
Thorium MSRs don't have that problem because the fuel is already a liquid. There is no worry about a meltdown and even if there were an accident, the fuel can be safely drained away into a holding tank to stop the reaction. It all runs at one atmosphere of pressure, too. So there is nothing to explode in an accident.
It's good to see that some American companies and investors are taking notice and building the power plant of the future. There are numerous benefits to thorium MSRs which are discussed in the Forbes article. Hopefully, someone in Congress is noticing that for a long time, we've been using a very inefficient nuclear power plant and that we're ready for a change.
But given the composition of the next Congress, we might have to wait until 2016 to see people in Congress who are not funded by carbon fuel interests and are willing to make more rational decisions about energy policy.