New paradigm for nuclear energy

Los Angeles

Regarding the Jan. 3 front-page article “Fukushima meltdowns set nuclear energy debate on its ear“: Nuclear power isn’t the problem. The problem is with the reactors we’ve been using to produce it. If the reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant had been liquid fluoride thorium reactors (LFTRs), Tokyo Electric Power Co. would not have had a disaster on its hands.

Liquid-fuel reactor technology was successfully developed at Oak Ridge National Labs, Tennessee, in the 1960s. Although the test reactor worked flawlessly, the project was shelved, a victim of Cold War strategy. But LFTRs have been gathering a lot of attention lately, particularly since the events in Japan.

An LFTR is a completely different type of reactor. For one thing, it’s physically impossible for it to melt down. And since it is air-cooled, it doesn’t have to be located near the shore. It can even be placed in an underground vault. A tsunami would roll right over it, like a truck over a manhole cover.

Imagine a kettle of lava that never boils. A LFTR uses liquid-fuel nuclear material dissolved in molten fluoride salt. By contrast, conventional reactors are atomic pressure cookers, using solid fuel rods to super-heat water. And that means the constant possibility of high-pressure ruptures and steam leaks.

LFTRs don’t even use water. Instead, they heat a common gas like carbon dioxide to spin a turbine for generating power. So if a LFTR leaks, it’s not a catastrophe. The molten salt will “pool and cool” just like lava, for easy containment, recovery and reuse.

LFTRs burn thorium, a mildly radioactive material as common as tin and found all over the world. We’ve already mined enough raw thorium to power the country for 400 years. It’s the waste at our rare earth mines. LFTRs consume fuel so efficiently that they can even use the spent fuel from other reactors, while producing a minuscule amount of waste themselves. In fact, the waste from a LFTR is virtually harmless in just 300 years. Storing spent fuel is obsolete. So are uranium reactors. LFTR technology has been sitting on the shelf at Oak Ridge for over 40 years.

Now, a dedicated group of nuclear industry outsiders is ready to build another test reactor and give it a go. If it works — and there is every reason to believe it will — the LFTR will launch a new paradigm of clean, cheap, safe and abundant energy.

The opinions expressed in this letter to the editor are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of The Japan Times.

michael conley