Tuberville In the News: ENERGY CENTRAL: INL to Test Thorium Fuels in ATR

Senator Tuberville (R-Ala) Introduces the Thorium Energy Security Act

The Department of Energy has so far spent $657 millions to destroy the supply of U-233 under the Defense Environmental Cleanup Program. Senator  Tommy Tuberville is convinced this a waste of a key nuclear fuel. (press release)

He introduced legislation – S.4242. Under his new bill, known as the Thorium Energy Security Act, Tuberville hopes to see the U.S. save its U-233 and put it toward the development of new nuclear reactors. The bill would preserve the remaining inventory of U-233 for use in making medical isotopes and for development of fuels for thorium-powered nuclear reactors.

Tuberville notes that China has been hard at work refining its thorium technology. Beijing has produced its first reactor powered by U-233, and began testing it last September.

“Uranium-233 is too valuable and too useful to just be thrown in the trash, a fact that China understands but our Department of Energy clearly does not. While we are spending millions of dollars to destroy U-233, China is investing in it by preparing to build a new generation nuclear reactors powered by U-233.The United States needs to lead on advanced nuclear reactors and not leave the future of innovative clean energy technologies in the hands of China. Preserving this valuable national resource is the first step on that path.”

He claims that the country could soon introduce additional U-233-powered reactors as a part of its Belt and Road Initiative. So far, China has promoted for export its light water design, an 1100 MWe PWR called the Hualong One that burns conventional uranium fuel, building one in Pakistan. China is in talks with Argentina to build another one there. So far there have not been any reports of China having a thorium-fueled nuclear reactor available for export nor is one under development other than at the R&D stage.  

Tuberville said he is worried that China will be able to gain a significant advantage in its development of U-233 technology based on a program, long since canceled, in which the U.S. shared technical data about thorium reactors designs with Beijing.

Initiated in 2011 under the Obama administration, DOE entered a cooperative agreement with the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The program, which took place over several years, shared information on U-233 processing in an effort to promote China’s movement away from coal and toward clean energy solutions.

“China’s ahead of us because they got the technology, and they’re running with it, and we’re not running with it,” Tuberville told Newsweek. “There’s a will and a way here for us to make progress with energy.”

·    Why U-233 is Important to Thorium Reactors

Thorium cannot in itself power a reactor, Unlike natural uranium, it does not contain enough fissile material to initiate a nuclear chain reaction. As a result it must first be bombarded with neutrons to produce the highly radioactive isotope U-233 which makes thorium reactors very dependent on U-233 to operate.

Critics of the fuel have raised questions about nonproliferation risks in the thorium fuel cycle and overall whether it is safer than uranium fueled reactors in terms of the inputs needed to fabricate U-233, which is a man-made metal.

Also they note there are issues with the use of plutonium to make the fuel and the resulting waste form that contains PU-239, which can be used to make bombs. Various approaches to making U-233 have involved reprocessing spent nuclear fuel from light water reactors to harvest the plutonium needed to make U-233.

Jim Conca, a Ph.D., nuclear scientist, addressed these concerns in comments to Popular Mechanics Magazine in September 2020.

“The ANEEL fuel has a very high fuel burn-up rate[, which] means the fuel stays in the reactor longer and gets more energy out of the same amount of fuel. [It’s] prohibitively difficult to make into a weapon. [And] ANEEL fuel will reduce the waste by over 80% and end up with much less plutonium. Less spent fuel means less refueling, less cost, less fuel handling and less volume to dispose.”

A 2005 IAEA report “Thorium fuel cycle — Potential benefits and challenges” explains the thorium fuel cycle in great detail.   See Table 1 in this report for a list of thorium fueled reactors by nation.

India, China, and other countries have been experimenting with thorium reactors and fuels for decades, but without translating the R&D efforts into successful commercial designs. India’s interest in a thorium-fueled reactor was based on the fact that for decades it was locked out of accessing global uranium markets to get fuel for its civilian and military reactors due to its refusal to sign the nuclear nonproliferation treaty.