The Department of Energy has an Office of Nuclear Energy (DOE-NE). They have five overall strategic goals:
1. Extend life, improve performance, and sustain health and safety of the current fleet of nuclear power plants
2. Enable new plant builds and improve the affordability of nuclear energy
3. Enable the transition away from fossil fuels in the transportation and industrial sectors
4. Enable sustainable fuel cycles
5. Assure that proliferation risk is not an impediment to nuclear power deployment
The liquid-fluoride thorium reactor, in concert with other molten-salt reactors like the chloride fast reactor, can achieve all of these goals.
The chloride fast reactor can improve the performance and extend the life of existing nuclear power plants (light-water reactors) by providing a sink for their long-lived transuranic waste (plutonium, americium, curium) that would otherwise have to be disposed geologically in a place like Yucca Mountain. Chloride fast reactors can take this “waste” and destroy it through fission, utilizing the neutrons released during fission to produce uranium-233, which in turn will help achieve goals 4 and 5.
For a similar reason, the chloride fast reactor can enable new plant builds by removing the “waste disposal” roadblock from the argument that is so effectively employed by anti-nuclear groups opposed to realization of clean nuclear energy.
The LFTR, and perhaps even the chloride reactor, can achieve goal #3 through the high-temperature nature of their operation. Unlike light-water reactors that have rather low operating temperatures, the fluoride fuel of the LFTR is stable at high temperatures, which enables it to be used to crack hydrogen from water, refine petroleum, crack oil shales or oil sands, and many other high-temperature applications. Previously, if DOE-NE wanted high-temp applications, it had to use gas-cooled reactors which are notoriously bad for reprocessing and closing a fuel cycle, or it could use sodium-cooled fast reactors, which don’t have the high temperatures to achieve these goals. With LFTR you can have both and better: a better fuel cycle, easier to process, easier to close, and the high-temperature applications that we want to achieve. Getting to high-temperatures is the key to using nuclear energy to replace fossil fueled energy in the transportation and industrial sectors.
Goal #4 is a sustainable fuel cycle. By utilizing thorium, a resource three times more abundant than uranium, by being able to fully utilize thorium, and by having a reprocessing system so simple that it is not only co-located with the reactor but likely located inside the primary containment, LFTR can achieve this coal. By using chloride reactors to destroy existing nuclear “waste” we can generate the uranium-233 needed to jump-start this exciting and sustainable future–powered by thorium via the liquid-fluoride thorium reactor.
Goal #5–that of reducing proliferation concerns, can also be achieved through this approach. LFTR can be used to productively consume highly-enriched uranium (HEU), converting it (effectively) to uranium-233 in its blanket. Rather than downblending the HEU and burning it once, LFTR can burn up the HEU and convert it to U-233, which thereafter will fuel the reactor essentially forever through the power of thorium. Chloride reactors can also be used to completely destroy–not merely degrade–both weapons-grade and reactor-grade plutonium. Thorium is worthless in nuclear weapons and no nation or program has ever chosen U-233 as a weapons material because it is inevitably contaminated with the strong gamma emitter U-232, which is impossible to separate. There are thousands of nuclear weapons in the world and none of them use U-233. Furthermore, U-233 in fluid form can be immediately “denatured” by mixing it with abundant U-238 in just a few moments, preventing it from being used even by a suicidal terrorist group. Plutonium can’t be denatured.
In conclusion, by choosing molten-salt reactor technology as the central focus of their nuclear development efforts, the DOE-NE can achieve all of their strategic goals far more quickly and effectively than any other approach. I urge them to turn their attention to this technology and push it forward vigorously.