What is a Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor? A type of Molten Salt Reactor, completely different reactor than we have been using (Light Water Reactor, LWR), with molten fuel cooled by stable salts. A LFTR can use inexpensive Thorium (would become uranium inside the reactor) or, like all MSR it can consume nuclear waste from solid fueled reactors as fuel. MSRs make no long-term nuclear waste, and we know they work since we built and operated one — decades ago!
- LFTRs have no high pressure to contain (no water coolant), generate no combustible or explosive materials;
- Freeze Plug melts in emergency, fuel drains to passive cooling tanks where fission is impossible;
- Reactor materials won’t melt under normal or emergency conditions, radioactive materials stay contained (bomb or projectile breaking reactor vessel makes a spill that cools to solid, doesn’t interact with air or water, with most fission products chemically bonded to the salt);
- LFTRs can passively cool even without electricity (never uses water);
- Salt coolant can’t boil away, so loss of coolant accidents are physically impossible.
Much More Economical
- Ambient-pressure operation makes LFTRs easier and cost less to build (no pressure containment dome, no high-pressure pipes);
- Operating cost is less since inherent safety means less complex systems;
- Fuel cost is lower since thorium is a cheap, plentiful fuel; or eliminate LWR waste as fuel;
- No expensive enrichment or fuel rod fabrication is required;
- Total to develop LFTR technology and factory less than the $10-12 Billion cost of a Single new LWR; then 100MW LFTR costs about $200 Million.
Much Less Nuclear Waste
A LFTR’s waste is safe within 350 years. To produce 1 gigawatt electricity for a year, takes 800kg to 1000kg of thorium or uranium/plutonium waste. 83% of the fission byproducts are safe in 10 years, 17% (135 kg, 300 lbs) within 350 years, no uranium or plutonium left as waste. After that, radiation is below background radiation levels. (Compare to 250,000kg uranium to make 35,000kg enriched uranium for a solid-fueled reactor, all needing storage for 100,000+ years.) No uranium, plutonium, or other long-term elements in LFTR waste, since they are simply left in the reactor until they either fission or decay to short-term waste. (Standard industrial processing inefficiency of 0.1% leaves 1kg uranium; we can do better than that, but still less per gigawatt-year than the uranium left from a coal plant!)
Most of the fission products are valuable for industrial use. Unlike LWR, the fission products are easily separated from the fuel, even while the reactor is operating. After a few years, radioactive decay brings them below background radiation, ready for use.
Can Consume Nuclear Waste
Instead of thorium, a LFTR can use uranium or plutonium waste, from LWR and other reactors. 800kg of nuclear waste would work in the same reactor instead of 800kg thorium, with about the same fission byproducts, same electrical output. Convert 800kg to be stored for 100,000+ years, to 135kg for 350 years and 665kg for 10 years. No “reprocessing” needed, simply extract the uranium (including fission products) from the fuel rod and put it in a MSR. (In a MSR designed to use a different salt than LFTR, the zirconium cladding of a fuel rod could even be used to make the salt coolant.)
Since no MSR uses water for cooling, there is no storage of water containing radioactive materials, and no concern of stored radioactive water leaking. (MSR can transfer heat to existing equipment such as steam generators, for example replacing the boiler at a coal plant, but doesn’t use water anywhere in the reactor.)
Without needing a huge steam containment building (since there is no high pressure and no steam), LFTRs use a much smaller site. A LFTR containment building would protect the reactor from outside impacts, and have extra radiation shielding, but would be much smaller and less expensive than a LWR containment building. LFTRs can be safely built close to where there is electrical need (10MW to 2GW or more), avoiding transmission line power loss. No water source required. LFTRs could even be deployed for military field use or disaster relief.
Can Desalinate Water and Produce Vehicle Fuel
In addition to delivering carbon-free electricity, LFTRs high temperature output can desalinate water (which we need in some areas even more than electricity, and will need more as the world population grows).
LFTRs also can generate carbon-neutral vehicle fuels, from water and carbon dioxide (from the atmosphere or ocean or large CO2 sources such as coal plants). The high heat of a LFTR (over twice what a LWR can generate) can split CO2 and split water, so making gasoline will be affordable.
Carbon dioxide in the air enters the oceans, making acid. The acid is already killing plankton and other ocean life: the carbonic acid dissolves their “shells”. Researchers are exploring methods of using MSR heat to extract CO2 from solid materials containing a lot of CO2, store the carbon and release or use the oxygen, and then we could put those CO2-absorbing materials into the ocean to remove CO2 from the water. (Storing CO2 in a solid would work; storing compressed CO2 underground has a huge risk of leaks that would suffocate life on the surface.)
LFTRs are less expensive and more environmentally friendly than other sources of base-load power or grid power storage, needed to supplement wind and/or solar power.
The total cost of developing LFTR technology and building assembly line production (like assembly line production of aircraft, with better safety standards than is achievable with on-site construction, at much lower cost) will be much less than the $10-$12 Billion for a single new solid-fueled water-cooled reactor or single nuclear waste disposal plant. With sufficient R&D funding (around $1 billion), five years to commercialization is entirely realistic (including construction of factories, <$5 Billion), and another five years for a national roll-out is feasible. (Unfortunately, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission says they will start writing licensing and regulations in 30 years.)
Completely Different Reactor
There is very little LFTRs have in common with the solid fueled, water cooled reactors in use today. (Even using thorium in a solid fueled, water cooled reactor, such as India is doing, does not give the safety and waste-reducing benefits of a molten fueled, salt cooled reactor.)
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