Thorium Discussion in the House of Lords

The question was asked by Baroness Angela Smith of Basildon, and the government’s response was given by Lord Marland of Odstock, who is Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Energy and Climate Change.

Here is a transcript of the discussion:

Nuclear Reactors
11.22 am

Asked by Baroness Smith of Basildon

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what research they have undertaken into, and what assessment they have made of, the use of thorium in nuclear reactors.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Lord Marland): My Lords, the Government are in the process of assessing the benefits of next-generation reactor technologies, including thorium, for the longer term, and the Secretary of State has asked the National Nuclear Laboratory to prepare a report. A previous NNL assessment of a number of claims made by proponents of thorium fuel concluded that while the theoretical science is reasonably sound, the risks and resources involved in achieving commercial deployment are significant.

Baroness Smith of Basildon: I am grateful to the noble Lord for his response. It is helpful, and I certainly welcome the fact that the Government are taking this more seriously. He will understand that despite greater acceptance of nuclear power there remain concerns about nuclear waste, both because of its potential military or terrorist use and because of the costs and difficulties of long-term storage—as he and I have discussed on many occasions—as it cannot be disposed of. Liquid fluoride thorium reactors generate no high-level waste material, and can reduce existing stockpiles of waste. Given that, while I welcome the Government’s assessment and the expected report, is there more that the Government can do to test the technology? Also, on a wider basis, have the Minister and his department given any thought to whether this is a technology for nuclear power that could be safely developed in all parts of the world?

Lord Marland: I am grateful for the noble Baroness’s question. The reality is that we have waste, so it will not improve the situation with regard to nuclear waste. This Government are very concentrated at the moment on recovering from 25 years of no nuclear activity with what we have. We have to concentrate on the reactors that are available, which we have had approval for, in order to get our next-generation nuclear power off the ground. We know fully that thorium reactors will take 10 to 15 years to develop. There is a high cost in that development and, at the moment, I would not put it as a priority unless the research report that comes out at the end of this summer advises us otherwise.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, please forgive my ignorance, but what is thorium?

Lord Marland: If only my O-level science teacher could see me now. I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for that question because I have learnt a lot about thorium recently. For those who wish to know, it is named after the Norse god Thor. It comes out of monazite sands, which are largely found in India and Norway, and is generated by a sifting process. The noble Baroness will be pleased to know that it is dimorphic, which I am happy to explain means that it changes from face-centred to body-centred. However, other noble Lords are far more qualified than me to inform us about thorium. All I would say is that it requires two neutrons to process it rather than one. The noble Baroness can find all sorts of other facts in Wikipedia, as, indeed, did I.

Baroness Worthington: My Lords, does the Minister agree with me that this is a serious topic? We have just seen a disaster in Japan that has reminded us that existing nuclear technology has inherent problems. Thorium is much safer. As my noble friend said, it does not generate waste and cannot lead to the proliferation of weapons and to terrorism. It is a very abundant and available source of fuel, unlike uranium. Given those advantages, does the Minister agree that we should have a programme to develop proof of concept of this technology?

Lord Marland: I am very aware of the noble Baroness’s views and read about them in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago. By the way, that was an excellent and most thoughtful article on this subject. However, the reality is that the nuclear accident in Japan to which she referred did not cause loss of life and we have reacted calmly to it. We are committed to the course that I have just amplified. Government funds are not available at the moment to explore new technologies. However, as I said earlier, if the National Nuclear Laboratory comes up with other suggestions at the end of the summer, we will be very happy to listen to those and explore them further.

Lord Taverne: My Lords, while some very interesting work has been done in India and interesting developments have occurred on the thorium-based reactor systems, is it not true that even those who feel that the research is very useful admit that it will remain very much a second string for a long time? Is it not vital that the Government should not be diverted from the fastest possible programme for building nuclear power stations? Should it not be noted by the anti-nuclear lobbies that the German decision to close down nuclear power will make Germany much more dependent on fossil fuels and will greatly increase carbon emissions from Germany?

Lord Marland: My noble friend makes a valuable point. He is referring to the Kakrapar plant in India, which the Indians are trying to develop. Clearly, we must press on with our nuclear programme. We are disappointed that Germany has taken a different attitude. I pay tribute to all those involved in the nuclear industry and in this debate, particularly in this House, who have kept a steady nerve while all around us things are going pear shaped. As a result, we will come out with a very careful and committed process for new nuclear generation.

Lord Broers: Does the Minister agree with me that we must fully fund R&D in nuclear, including thorium, so that we develop a mature understanding of this, but, almost more importantly, that we should focus our R&D in such a way that we enable our industry to bid effectively for the contracts that will be put out to build our nuclear plants, as, indeed, the Germans have done in the supply of train carriages?

Lord Marland: I think the noble Lord was referring particularly to training. We have to show a very clear pathway, as we have done recently. Last week, we announced six new sites for nuclear reactors. Clearly, we have to develop a training programme for the 60,000 jobs that will be required in the nuclear industry. The Government remain very committed to it.

Lord Willis of Knaresborough: My Lords—

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Lord Strathclyde): My Lords, we must move on to the next Question.

I think my favorite part of the entire proceeding was when Baroness Trumpington asked:

“My Lords, please forgive my ignorance, but what is thorium?”

21 thoughts on “Thorium Discussion in the House of Lords

  1. Kirk – thanks for the post, and the transcript is a great help. I'm glad that the politicians are at least trying to show that they know what they're talking about – even when they remember the irrelevant.

    @rod young – I don't think the Lords will find the National Nuclear Laboratory particularly helpful. Charles Barton at Nuclear Green discusses a paper titled The Thorium Fuel Cycle from the NNL and finds it wanting. Seriously flawed, in fact; it doesn't reference anything except the NNL's internal experience with thorium. The paper doesn't seem to be available on the NNL site. If you're in the UK you might want to direct the Lords's attention to Charles's critique. Especially Baroness Worthington; she seems pretty sharp.

  2. I just did a YouTube re-posting as well. Shoot, I was still working on mine when you posted yours. Anywhere here it is…

    …it has a correct transcript, and 16:9 aspect ratio. And it has the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY), which we should probably try do for stuff like this, as it makes the next person's job easier if they try re-use the content in a LFTR remix.

  3. Couldn't you just weep at the ineptitude of politicians to grasp the staggering significance of LFTRs to curing or significantly mitigating the worst problems facing humankind.

    The biggest hole in their knowledge is the massive reduction in costs that can be achieved by using LFTRs over any other technology. And, more importantly, what else could be done with the money we (it's our taxes) save.

  4. Gergee, I've embedded Gordon's video edit in the post now so you should be able to view it without Silverlight.

  5. Is there a definite date to the National Nuclear Laboratory report? When does "end of summer" mean?

    Will this be a one solely devoted to Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor?

  6. ==> The Baroness Worthington really needs to hammer on the differences between solid vs. liquid thorium fuel. All the folks in the video clip are talking past one another. Those in favor of thorium have in mind TFMSR and LFTR. Those objecting to thorium constantly refer to India, Dr. Rubbia, and solid fuel research. It just drives me nuts. Please, everyone, get on the same page, and get the basic definitions ("What is thorium?")ready on a list for quick reference. Be prepared for really deep ignorance.

  7. "I think my favorite part of the entire proceeding was when Baroness Trumpington asked:
    “My Lords, please forgive my ignorance, but what is thorium?”

    Comrades forgive my ignorance, but what is a Baroness Trumpington? Anything to do with a children's television series?

  8. I have noticed several misconceptions being thrown about by various fans of LFTR and Energy from Thorium that we need to start correcting or we will be viewed as a bunch of flakes and/or conmen.

    (1) "A LFTR (or thorim MSRE) does not use any uranium."

    [I don't know how many times I have seen some idiot jump on one of the computer forums I frequent (DailyTech, etc) and proclaim that a LFTR does not use ANY uranium, only thorium. The correct response is that a LFTR utilizes uranium efficiently and can create new fuel from the additional thorium.

    (2) "A LFTR will not generate waste"

    Any fission based reactor will generate high-level waste from the fission process. No fission, no heat.
    No heat, no electricity.

    The correct answer is that it does not generate the long lived actinides, which lead to the long waste isolation times. Fission products will decay away in a few centuries, rather than tens of thousands of years required for actinides.

    Whenever you see some one make these comments you should immediately correct them.

    Promoting LFTR is hard enough. We sure don't need to buying ammo and loading the gun for our opponents.

  9. My, my- alwasy interesting to watch the UK House of Lords conduct business;-) Very different from here in the US. But, they have the same problems- lack of understanding about LFTR, and lack of funds to commit to a new technology like this. Well- perhaps that is not entirely true- LFTR as a priority is just not making the cut for the limited funds available. At least, not yet;-)

  10. While I agree with "trueblue" that there is a danger of overselling by making inaccurate statements that give ammunition to our opponents, there is also a danger of underselling.

    For example, this statement:
    "Lord Marland: I am grateful for the noble Baroness’s question. The reality is that we have waste, so it will not improve the situation with regard to nuclear waste"

    The civil servants who briefed Lord Marland already have drafts of the NNL report and yet they are unaware of the LFTR's ability to consume "Nuclear Waste" from Gen I & II reactors that would otherwise require "Geologic Storage".

    You can't deal with a problem like that by waiting for the NNL report to be published. We need pre-emptive action to correct this error before the report comes out.

  11. If you are wondering what will be in the NNL report take a look at this: http://www.nnl.co.uk/assets/_files/documents/jan_

    These are the door keepers for the nuclear establishment in the UK so unless you can get them to change their position (not very likely) LFTRs are dead in the UK until the people who wrote this report die. You can't beat City Hall!

  12. I believe the names LFTR, thorium reactor, liquid fluoride reactor etc. are misleading. Nobody cares so much about thorium, fluorides, zirconium or heavy water, the main innovation is "liquid fuel", this must be stressed at all time. It is not that we want to use liquid salt to cool the reactor, we want the very fuel to be liquid! And main advantage of the "liquid fuel reactor" is that we can dump to it everything radioactive (warheads, uranium, plutonium, radioactive waste, thorium, CAT scanners:-) ) and burn 95% of it in contrast to 0.5%. This is the dream, not just to utilise thorium because it is 4 times more abundant.

  13. An interesting article here on the BBC website, which includes quotes from Alvin Weinberg doubting the safety of larger PWRs:

    However, it is disappointing to see that the article, though otherwise well-researched, has absolutely no mention of the MSR/LFTR which Weinberg promoted as the better technology!

    The footnote mentions that a programme providing a history of Atomic power will be broadcast on the BBC World Service later this week. It will be interesting to see if there is any mention of molten salts there. Unfortunately, I'm guessing there won't.

  14. I wanted to thank Brayan and Gordon for links and Kirk Sorensen for embedding it.
    By the way, I just watched the LeBlanc 2009 video, where I learnt so many new things. Very interesting seemed those one fluid designs with no need for chemical reprocessing on site. I was little depressed from the Sorensen's lectures, where it seemed there is only a 35 year old LFTR and no new R&D whatsoever.

  15. UK citizens can write to specific Lords here:

    I'd like to add my agreement to Georgee about stressing "liquid fuel" and the waste disposal potential.

    Kirk, thank you for all your work. Could you write an article quantifying how fast the various problematic wastes can be burnt down? I think this aspect could really promote liquid fueled reactors with the environmental lobby. And besides, I'd like to know myself!

    Finally, didn't there used to be a discussion forum on this site? I read that there had been bandwidth problems, but even just the ability to view old discussions would be good.

  16. From everything I read, the NNL has no clue what an LFTR is. It is completely off their radar. They should be specifically instructed to include LFTRs in their report as defined by flibe-energy.com.

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