Japanese utility mulls thorium reactor for safe nuclear

Mark Halper's thorium trail winds to Chicago, where he discovers a power company from Japan investigating the alternative to uranium that could help revive the country's nuclear scene.
Written by Mark Halper, Contributor

Thorium could help provide power to Nagoya, one of Japan's largest cities, and in Chubu Electric's area.

CHICAGO - Advocates of alternative forms of nuclear power say that the meltdowns at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power station last year underscore the need to move away from conventional designs and onto other nuclear technologies.

The researcher, Takashi Kamei, told a thorium conference in Chicago last week that Chubu Electric Power Co. has launched a research program aimed at improving the safety of nuclear power plants, and that, “This research center includes the use of thorium as a future fuel.”

Speaking at the Thorium Energy Alliance Conference, Kamei showed a May 31 video news clip from Japanese television that, according to his translation, cited the thorium program at Chubu.

Uranium today. Thorium tomorrow? Chubu's Hamaoka nuclear power station in central Japan.

Chubu has 3 conventional reactors at its Hamaoka nuclear power station that have a combined capacity of 3.6 gigawatts (it also has another two reactors there undergoing decommissioning).

The plant is currently shut down – as are all of Japan’s nuclear reactors following Fukushima. Chubu serves about 16 million people in central Japan. Nuclear, when operating, represents 15 percent of its power portfolio. The company says on its website that it is currently spending $1.2 billion on earthquake and tsunami protection measures for its existing reactors, set for completion by the end of this year.

Kamei said the utility is also specifically looking into an alternative reactor design that would use liquid thorium fuel in a reactor cooled by molten salt – a radically different approach from the solid uranium, water cooled reactors such as the ones that melted down at Fukushima.

Proponents of liquid thorium reactors say that the design eliminates the proliferation threat from nuclear waste (some critics dispute that claim), and that compared to uranium reactors, it leaves benign waste that has a short lifetime.

Some supporters like Flibe Energy in Huntsville, Ala., say that liquid thorium also runs far more efficiently than solid fuels – uranium or thorium – and that the liquid approach includes a failsafe plug that allows reactive material to drain into a holding tank in the event of an emergency.

Flibe wants to build a liquid thorium reactor based on 1960s designs from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, when thorium was part of the developing mix of U.S. nuclear power technologies. Under President Nixon, the country settled on uranium over thorium in part because uranium yielded weapons-oriented waste that was useful during the Cold War arms build-up.

Other thorium reactor developers include Ottawa Valley Research, Ottawa, and San Francisco-based Thorenco. China is also developing thorium reactors, as is India.

Images: Nagoya from Chris 73 via Wikimedia. Chubu Electric nuclear plant and map from Chubu website video.

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