Category Archives: Nuclear

The Thorium Reactor Energy Option

The Thorium reactor energy option

The Thorium Reactor Energy Option
a thorium proton accelerator

Nothing summarizes the nuclear power debacle better than the old adage, “…as we begin, so shall we go.” For half a century, the electrical power industry has been trying to make success of failure, safety of danger, and efficiency of wastefulness because it chose the wrong nuclear fuel to produce electricity from reactors. Instead of using thorium, it used uranium, and the economic, political and environmental costs of this mistake have been incalculable.

But “mistake” is technically not the correct word. The decision to use uranium rather than thorium was more a tragic misjudgment, a foolish choice based on the worst of reasons. At the end of World War II, the United States was flush with political and military power — and the atom bomb.

Uranium was the element that released the explosive power of this bomb, and it was the element favoured by the military because it produced the fissile plutonium needed for escalating the nuclear arms race that came to be called the Cold War. Prototypes of thorium reactors had been operated successfully and their safe production of electricity had already been demonstrated. This was the reactor favoured for commercial use by physicists like Alvin Weinberg, a thorium proponent (Superfuel: Thorium, the Green Energy Source of the Future, by Richard Martin). But a proliferation of thorium reactors was opposed by military minds such as Hyman Rickover, an admiral in the US navy, who wanted to preserve the dominance of uranium reactors because its byproducts could be easily weaponized — not one of thorium’s qualities. When the upper echelons of the military migrated to the corporations building nuclear reactors, they brought with them their preference for uranium, even though it was a far more unstable and dangerous fuel than thorium.

History has demonstrated this danger. The arms race effectively contaminated the energy equation so that we now have the worst of both possibilities. We have a planet loaded with nuclear bombs, massive amounts of persistent radioactive wastes, reactors capable of catastrophic meltdowns, unmanageable radioactive contamination, expensive power, terrorist threats, and weaponized political brinkmanship. We also have a continuing dependence on fossil fuels, the filthy and polluting energy that creates a host of its own messy problems.

Although most of the world’s 400-plus uranium-powered nuclear power stations have produced electricity safely, the exceptions of Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima Daiichi have been sufficiently traumatic to make the public wary of all nuclear power. The storage and disposal of radioactive wastes, far more plentiful and enduring than from thorium reactors, continue to be an unsolved problem.

Thorium reactors, their proponents argue, are far safer than uranium reactors, are incapable of melt-downs, are much cheaper to build (most of the construction costs of uranium-based reactors are in safety features), can be scaled down to fit the energy needs of small communities, need almost no maintenance, consume all their thorium fuel, would produce only 10 percent of uranium’s radioactive wastes, and are even capable of utilizing existing uranium wastes as a supplemental fuel. Furthermore, thorium is about four times more plentiful than uranium and can be found almost anywhere (NewScientist, May 26/12).

The secret to thorium’s safety is its reluctance to become fissile — nuclear science deems it “fertile” rather than “fissile”. Unlike uranium-235, which is neutron rich and unstable, thorium’s emission of neutrons during radiation breakdown is termed “sub-critical”, not sufficiently plentiful to cause a chain reaction and an uncontrolled meltdown. To make thorium fissile enough to generate energy, neutrons must be forcibly added to it, so a simple safety feature that removes the neutron source causes a thorium reaction to die down. By using neutrons from the hundreds of thousands of tonnes of dangerous nuclear wastes created by the world’s uranium-based reactors, thorium reactors could be designed to convert most of this waste to useful energy.

Given the present threat of global climate change from the excessive burning of fossil fuels for energy, thorium appears to be a tempting option in the world’s energy equation. Thorium’s radioactive wastes would be dangerous for a mere 200 years rather than the tens of thousands of years for uranium’s wastes, and its byproducts would provide almost no fissile material for making bombs. China and India are now building models of thorium reactors with the intention of testing their promising capabilities.

The current candidate presented to the Department of Energy in the US is a so-called SSTAR thorium reactor, an acronym for “small, sealed, transportable, autonomous reactor”. It is a large cylinder about 3 metres in diameter by 15 metres long, weighing about 500 tonnes. The price for this 100 megawatt reactor could eventually be reduced to about $220 million, one-fifth the cost of a conventional uranium reactor. It would be moveable by truck, rail or ship, does not need containing walls, could be used safely within ordinary industrial buildings, or even be buried for 20-year periods without maintenance. Its size could be scaled down for specific uses — a 5 tonne thorium reactor of 1 megawatt output could provide power to a small town and cost as little as $250,000.

Thorium reactors may not be the perfect energy source. But, if we cannot find sufficient renewable power to fill the needs of our energy-hungry civilization, thorium reactors would be a far better alternative than uranium reactors, and preferable to unleashing the catastrophic environmental effects of burning fossil fuels.


Geology 101: Why Nuclear Problem Can’t be Buried


Twenty-five years ago, after consensus on the reality and impacts of manmade climate change led to the formation of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, western governments had two choices. They could either stop subsidising fossil fuel industries and invest the savings in promoting energy efficiency and renewable energy (e.g. putting solar panels on all public buildings to bring the price down for homeowners) or they could make long, lingering love to Fido.

They chose the latter and now, a quarter of a century later, we are being told by these same governments that our best hope of averting the worst consequences of climate change is to embrace nuclear power.

“Look,” they say, “no carbon dioxide emissions! Isn’t that great?” Well, no, it isn’t. It’s a bit like being told your only two choices are being beaten to a pulp tomorrow or being beaten to a pulp in ten years.

Assume for a moment that it is possible to guarantee there will never be another Chernobyl or Fukushima (and that’s a very large and problematic assumption), you can never produce nuclear energy without producing nuclear waste. This waste – leftover plutonium and uranium, as well as various isotopes – can remain  lethally radioactive for an unimaginably long time.

The speed with which radioactivity decreases is measured by its half-life (the time it takes for half the radioactivity to decay). Picking just a few of the isotopes in nuclear waste, the half-life of Strontium-90 is 28 years and the half-life of Plutonium-239 is 24,000 years, while the half-life for Caesium-135 is 2.3 million years and for Iondine-129 is 15.7 million years.

Half a century after realizing quite how dangerous nuclear waste is, there is still no safe way to dispose of it – nor is there ever likely to be.

That’s not to say there haven’t been some ill-conceived suggestions, including dumping it in the oceans and blasting it into space. (In the aftermath of the Challenger space shuttle disaster, my father-in-law – a renowned nuclear physicist – commented that the tragedy should at least serve as a warning against the latter proposal. Unfortunately, he was wrong. Apparently it might be a good idea to put nuclear waste in orbit around Venus– in case we ever want to retrieve it. I kid you not.)

The waste problem is very bad news for the nuclear energy industry and, like many other industries in the past, it has decided the best thing to do with bad news is to bury it.

As Anna Tilman reports in the current issue of Watershed Sentinel, proponents of nuclear power (both industry and government) have decided that Deep Geological Repositories (DGRs) are the “final solution” to the problem of nuclear waste.

The theory behind DGRs is that nuclear waste can be safely stored “forever” deep underground in geologically stable areas.

The reality, as Tilman points out, is that “nothing is immutable, not even rocks. Containers will eventually corrode. Cracks and fissures will develop. Groundwater will seep in. Water and gas contaminated with radionuclides will penetrate the barriers. Chemical and microbial processes and interactions will occur, with unpredictable results. Climate change, glaciations and earthquakes could severely destabilise the repository.”

Ignoring Geology 101, governments (including Canada’s) have been pushing hard for many years to establish DGRs. So far, none have succeeded, although one is currently under construction in Finland. (A documentary about this project, Into Eternity, eloquently makes the case for why this is a bad idea. It should be required viewing for all government leaders.)

Finding an “informed and willing host community” is, not surprisingly, a challenge for Canada’s Nuclear Waste Management Organization (a federal agency established in 2002 and run by the nuclear industry), despite the fundamentally flawed consultation process Tilman describes in her article.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) estimates that the volume of radioactive waste on the planet already exceeds 345,000 tonnes – 50,000 tonnes in Canada alone.

We’ve created this disaster and, of course, we have to deal with it. (Personally, I would establish secure, monitored, above ground storage facilities paid for by and located in the backyards of every nuclear power industry executive and government supporter.)

What we absolutely, positively do not have to do is add to the problem.

Every year, each of the more than 400 nuclear reactors currently operating in 31 countries adds an average of 30 tonnes to the total volume of nuclear waste.

This is the sign the IAEA thinks will protect thousands of future generations from the dangers of nuclear waste:








This is the sign I think will best protect them:








Read Anna Tilman’s article “Nuclear Fuel Waste in Canada” here.

The badly damaged reactor 4 building, with its exposed spent fuel ponds, at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant

Fukushima Reactor 4: The most important story nobody’s talking about


“It is no exaggeration to say that the fate of Japan and the whole world depends on No. 4 reactor.”
-Former Japanese Ambassador to Switzerland Mitsuhei Murata to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

It’s the most important story nobody’s talking about: the continued dire situation at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, ravaged by a massive earthquake and Tsunami last March.

Judging by the official position of the Japanese Government – which maintains the worst of the catastrophe has passed, declaring the plant now “stable” – and drying up of mainstream media coverage, it’s easy to see how most of the world has been lulled into a false sense of security about Fukushima.

But in recent months, increasingly troubling reports from high-ranking Japanese and American politicians, diplomats and nuclear experts have been trickling into the blogosphere and alternate media like the irradiated water still seeping from the plant into the Pacific Ocean. They suggest, in a nutshell, that were another decent-sized earthquake to hit the stricken plant before thousands of highly radioactive spent fuel rods are properly secured, we could see the explosion and diffusion into the North Pacific’s winds and ocean currents of 10 times the radioactive material emitted by the Chernobyl disaster – rendering much of Asia, North America and many other corners of the globe uninhabitable for centuries.

No wonder no one wants to talk about this stuff! 

The force of such warnings has been muted by the fact that most of these alarms are being sounded by relatively fringe politicos and individuals associated with the anti-nuclear movement – albeit highly respected in their respective fields – and carried largely by alternate media sites.

But that has begun to change. This past week, one of Canada’s largest media outlets, CTV News, carried a story titled, “Fukushima Reactor 4 Poses Massive Global Risk”, which echoed many of the concerns being raised through other channels. If you read one depressing thing this week, make it this story.

Here’s how CTV describes the situation, citing renowned nuclear expert and activist Arnie Gundersen:

Reactor 4 – and to a lesser extent Reactor 3 – still hold large quantities of cooling waters surrounding spent nuclear fuel, all bound by a fragile concrete pool located 30 metres above the ground, and exposed to the elements. A magnitude 7 or 7.5 earthquake would likely fracture that pool, and disaster would ensue, says Arnie Gundersen, a nuclear engineer with Fairewinds Energy Education who has visited the site.

The 1,535 spent fuel rods would become exposed to the air and would likely catch fire, with the most-recently added fuel rods igniting first.

The incredible heat generated from that blaze, Gundersen said, could then ignite the older fuel in the cooling pool, causing a massive oxygen-eating radiological fire that could not be extinguished with water.

“So the fear is the newest fuel could begin to burn and then we’d have a conflagration of the whole pool because it would become hotter and hotter. The health consequences of that are beyond where science has ever gone before,” Gundersen told in an interview from his home in Vermont…

…Highly radioactive cesium and strontium isotopes would likely go airborne and “volatilize” — turning into a vapour that could move with the wind, potentially travelling thousands of kilometres from the source.

The size of those particles would determine whether they remained in Japan, or made their way to the rest of Asia and other continents.

“And here’s where there’s no science because no one’s ever dared to attempt the experiment,” Gundersen said. “If it flies far enough it goes around the world, if the particles stay a little bigger, they settle in Japan. Either is awful.”

Essentially, he said, Japan is sitting on a ticking time bomb.

Gundersen is far from the only nuclear expert or public figure who has been raising these concerns. A veteran US Senator from Oregon, Ron Wyden – who recently visited Fukushima – and a couple of Japanese diplomats have also been raising alarm bells.

Reuters reported last month on Wyden’s Fukushima tour:

Japan, with assistance from the U.S. government, needs to do more to move spent fuel rods out of harm’s way at the tsunami-stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, said U.S. Senator Ron Wyden on Monday.

Wyden, a senior Democratic senator on the Senate Energy committee, toured the ruined Fukushima plant on April 6, and said the damage was far worse than he expected.

“Seeing the extent of the disaster first-hand during my visit conveyed the magnitude of this tragedy and the continuing risks and challenges in a way that news accounts cannot,” said Wyden in a letter to Ichiro Fujisaki, Japan’s ambassador to the United States…

…Wyden said he was most worried about spent fuel rods stored in damaged pools adjacent to the ocean, and urged the Japanese government to accept international help to prevent further release of the radioactive material if another earthquake should happen.

The senator expressed concern on his website that all that was standing between the spent fuel ponds and another Tsunami was “a small, makeshift sea wall erected out of bags of rock.” Wyden called for the spent fuel rods to be moved to safe storage sooner than the 10-year time frame laid out by the Japanese Government under its Fukushima remediation plan.

Dr. Robert Alvarez, a former top advisor at the US Department of Energy, confirmed the fears of Wyden and Gundersen when asked by Japanese diplomat Akio Matsumura to review the situation at Fukushima. Alvarez responded:

The No. 4 pool is about 100 feet above ground, is structurally damaged and is exposed to the open elements. If an earthquake or other event were to cause this pool to drain this could result in a catastrophic radiological fire involving nearly 10 times the amount of Cesium-137 released by the Chernobyl accident. (emphasis added)

Another Japanese diplomat, former Ambassador to Switzerland and Senegal Mitsuhei Murata has also joined the chorus of concern over reactor 4, writing in a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, “It is no exaggeration to say that the fate of Japan and the whole world depends on No. 4 reactor.” (emphasis added)

Experts in communicating environmental themes to the broader public tend to stress the importance of providing people with hope and tangible actions they can take to help resolve the issue at hand. Perhaps that’s one reason I’ve resisted covering this story up until now. I confess, every time I read about the dire situation at Fukushima, I can’t help but feel depressed and powerless to affect a situation that threatens to destroy everything I hold dear: my wild salmon and marine ecosystems, my coastal home, the health and welfare of my family and community, my whole country and the very planet as I know it. If we take to heart the warnings of people like Senator Wyden, Dr. Alvarez, Ambassador Mistuhei – or even if at minimum we apply the Precautionary Principle to the situation, which seems well-warranted – then we have to acknowledge the very real possibility that nothing short of the fate of human civilization and the natural world hang on the teetering frame of Reactor 4.

Is that melodramatic? So what if these fears prove overblown in the end? This is one situation where I don’t mind being labelled a Chicken Little, for the chance that the danger was real and my actions helped in some way to mitigate it.

By all accounts, solving the problem is an extraordinary undertaking requiring enormous funding, highly specialized equipment and incomprehensible danger for the brave Japanese workers required to carry out the job. Which is why the International Community – and Ron Wyden’s own government, who have yet to act on his concerns – must heed these calls to get off their butts and start pitching in. Of course, that requires Japan’s acknowledgement of the problem and receptiveness to outside help, yet its leaders remain in full denial mode.

The combination of the scale of this looming disaster – which is beyond anything contemplated by humanity since the Cuban Missile crisis – the relative lack of profile and perceived collective credibility of the small number of messengers bearing these unwelcome tidings to date (though these are some highly credible people), and the lack of coverage by the mainstream media have all contributed to the paralysis currently afflicting the powers that be vis-a-vis Fukushima.

Yet, just today, the Wall Street Journal too chimed in on the emerging story. While the brief article, titled, “Fukushima Daiichi’s Unit 4 Spent-Fuel Pool: Safe or Not?”, presents the official line parroted by Japanese vice-minister for reconstruction, Ikko Nakatsuka – namely, that recent efforts to fortify reactor 4 have rendered it relatively safe – the paper retained some healthy skepticism, concluding: “But just how big an earthquake could Unit 4 withstand before it collapses? That’s one of many questions from reporters that Mr. Nakatsuka and the head of the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency’s seismic safety unit evaded or wouldn’t answer.”

Thanks to the efforts of the above politicians and nuclear experts, the story is beginning to break through in the mainstream media, forcing the Japanese at least to appear to step up their efforts. What is required now is for this issue to gain enough prominence in the mainstream media and, consequently, the public consciousness, to compel a unified political effort to move those bloody fuel rods to safety before another earthquake topples them and takes us all with them.

It is my hope, in talking about this thing no one wants to contemplate, that I’m doing my small part in inching the world closer to the action necessary to avert a crisis of unthinkable proportions. And perhaps if you take a moment to share this story and others you come across with your social media network, friends, colleagues and family – and write your political representatives and media – we can help build the movement required to keep our air and water clean, our children’s future preserved.

I’m all for prayer in these situations…but action’s preferable.

Nuclear Thorium

Thorium: Nuclear Power’s Last Hope…Maybe


Awhile back I did a piece on nuclear energy and you would have thought I was in favour of hanging petty thieves (that theory belongs to the Harper Conservatives). I said nothing in favour of nuclear but only made the point that before anything is rejected, it (the modern version) should be studied so we can understand our options. At that point we had had Chernobyl and Three Mile Island but not, of course, Fukushima.

In the Globe and Mail for May 23 last, on the op-ed page is an article by Neil Reynolds, headlined “With Thorium We Could Have Safe Nuclear Power”.

Here is the opening paragraph to set the stage:

[quote]In the beginning, nuclear scientists identified two fuel sources for the atomic age: uranium and thorium. They went with uranium. Why? It wasn’t because uranium was the better fuel. Thorium is more abundant. It is simpler. It is safer. (Although slightly radioactive, it can’t sustain a chain reaction in a nuclear reactor and, hence, can’t “melt down.”)[/quote]

Incidentally, why did we end up taking what was so obviously the wrong path? In short, because you can’t make Plutonium from Thorium – while you can from Uranium. And Plutonium was essential to building nuclear warheads. As Reynolds explains, “In the Cold War, the science goal was synonymous with the military goal:
nuclear weapons. Plutonium delivered the deadliest mushroom cloud.” Nuclear power from Uranium was a two-for-one proposition: energy and weapons.

Now, Dear Friends, did old Uncle Rafe come out in favour of nuclear power? Is it time we all set our hairpieces on fire? Does he want to have reactors like they have (had, I suppose) in Japan?

No, I want no such thing! Nuclear power as we know it has been thoroughly discredited as dangerous and expensive – and we still haven’t found a safe way to get rid of the waste.

Nor am I ready to accept a column in the Toronto Globe and Mail as definitive of the matter. Mr. Reynolds is an experienced and able columnist but he is not the scientific community. His proposition requires a hell of a lot more information from not only science but regurgitated from a thorough public debate.

If there is to be a debate it must be about Thorium, not Uranium, and free of the sort of cant by which debates are too often destroyed.

If Thorium is what Reynolds says it is, there would be an end to the destruction of our rivers and Site “C” would be abandoned (which it should be regardless).

Which brings on the other side of the debate:
What if our energy customers decide to abandon us in favour of Thorium? In the island mentality that is the hallmark of our American cousins, they will always opt for their own supply of whatever is critically needed – so long as they have that option.

Ironically, it was the US cancelling of our Uranium which had got us into big time trouble in the late 70s. So sure were we of American customers that Atomic Energy of Canada, Ltd. stockpiled a huge quantity which it was now stuck with. That led the way for Canada, under then Deputy Energy Minister and later Senator Jack Austin, to form a worldwide cartel of uranium producers.

My own history was as BC Minister of Environment, banning exploration for and mining of Uranium in 1979.

But, let’s get back to the theme – we are not talking about Uranium but Thorium and for all the reasons above and more it makes abundant good sense to find out what it does and judge its use based on the Precautionary Principle – meaning that proponents must demonstrate its safeness.

Now, once again, dear friends, as loudly as possible, and in unison, shout: “Rafe Mair is not in favour of nuclear power – only of examining an alternative which is alleged to be a safe, and efficient alternative!”