Uranium supplies will not limit the expansion of nuclear power in the US or around the world for the foreseeable futurer . . .This should quiet the anti-nuclear power camp on that particular issue, but it won/t. Critics of nuclear power have a tin ear when it comes to evidence. Any evidence that discredits their position simply does not exist, in their minds, and thus they will discount the MiT Report, and continue to tell us that we are running out of uranium.
If we are not running out of uranium is their any justification for the LFTR, a reactor that operates on an alternative - Thorium - fuel cycle? The answer is that there are several good reasons for adopting LFTR technology, even though there may be a large supply of accessible uranium.
One major reason for choosing the LFTR is that it invites far lower fuel cycle related capital investments. If the future reactor fleet is to be entirely uranium fueled, very large capital investments will have to go into uranium mines, processing facilities, enrichment facilities, and spent fuel management. in addition all of these facilities have significant operation costs attached.
Now consider fuel related the capital costs associated with a fluoride salt thorium reactor deployment compared to that of a massive deployment of uranium fueled molten salt reactors. First thorium is a bye product of rare earth mining, and with increasing rare earth use in the economy, more and more thorium will be coming out of the ground anyway. Thus, unlike uranium which is often mined in costly uranium only mines, thorium basically comes out of the earth at no added cost, from mines that would exist whether or not we wanted to recover thorium.
Secondly, while the milling expenses for thorium and uranium would probably be similar, 200 times more uranium would have to be milled, because uranium reactors operate on a once through fuel cycle reactors, which consumes less than 0.5% of the milled uranium, while nearly 100% of the milled thorium will be consumed in closed fuel cycle LFTR.
Secondly, the uranium must be enriched, and this involves another costly, energy intense process. With thorium the enrichment process can be skipped. Following enrichment uranium oxide must be prepared fabricated into reactor fuel pellets. in contrast thorium would be prepared for reactor use by fluoridation, a simple, inexpensive and well understood chemical process. At that point the thorium would be inserted into a reactor blanket where it would be bombarded with neutrons. After thorium absorbs a neutron it is transformed into protactinium 233, which will be separated from the blanket salts by fluoride chemical processes, that will be performed by processing equipment that is directly attached to the reactor. Then the p
rotactinium is stored for a few months, while it undergoes nuclear transformation to fissionable U-233. Once that occurs, the U-233 is automatically inserted into the reactor core by another reactor mechanism. All of these processes are low cost.
The advantage of the Thorium Fuel cycle LFTR is that it requires a fuel infrastructure that is 200 times smaller than a fleet of once through uranium cycle reactors would require. The added cost of the uranium infrastructure is not the primary problem. Rather it is the enormous task of building the infrastructure. The LFTR will require a large infra structure as well, but the infrastructure that will be required to keep LFTRs fueled will be tiny compared to that of a once through uranium fueled reactor fleet.
If we draw the comparison between LFTRs and LWRs, even more U-235 has to be prepared per GWh of power delivered. LWRs waste about 17% of the U-235 that goes into the core, as well as an even larger percentage of the plutonium created in the core. These inefficiencies mean that more U-235 has to be produced relative to the fuel requirements of LFTRs.
LFTRs produce little or no nuclear waste, and indeed can be significant consumers of actinides, which are the most troubling components of LWR nuclear waste. LFTR waste products reach benign levels of radioactivity after 300 years, but many useful and valuable fission products become safe after a few years, and can be mined from the fission product stream for use in industry. Long half life fission products have uses in medicine, and industry. Thus the fission products from LFTRs can be viewed as material resources rather than nuclear waste.
Although Fast Breeder Reactors share many of the advantages of the LFTR, they are likely to be considerably more expensive to build and deploy in large numbers. In addition, FBRs require 10 times the fissile inventory of LFTRs or even more, thus limiting the size of the initial deployment of FBRs. FBR advocates argue that the higher breeding ratio of the FBR will make up for the disadvantage. But it will take time to breed up to the size of an initial LFTR deployment. Supplementing the FBR start up stock with freshly separated U-235 would require the same sort of uranium mining, processing and seperating facilities that would be required by a uranium fueled reactor deployment. Using the nuclear fuel inventory in existing LWR waste stockpiles, more than enough LFTRs could be started to provide 100% of American electricity. If the LFTRs simply replaced the fuel they consumed through nuclear breeding, no further reactors would only be required except to meet added electrical demand.
The LFTR offers both lower cost and significant deployment advantages over the FBR.
Thus the LFTR offers economic and deployment advantages over any of its competitors including Light Water Reactors, Uranium fueled Molten Salt Reactors, and fast breeder reactors. It would be far cheaper to invest in LFTR development and deployment than to build the new uranium mines, mills, isotope separation and fuel fabrications facilities that would be needed to support a uranium fueled reactor deployment. Clearly then even given adequate uranium supplies, the LFTR continues to offer significant advantages for a large scale nuclear deployment.