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International Institute for Accelerator Applications

Thorium Power

Short Summary

Researchers at the University of Huddersfield lead the UK in the development of thorium power through their research on the behaviour of thorium in reactors. They founded the ThorEA organisation, the leading scientific group in the UK investigating the possibilities of thorium power, and they have contributed to many articles in the press and programmes on radio and TV. Through this research they have shown that thorium can provide an alternative form of nuclear energy which has to be taken seriously.

As a result of their work the public, both in the UK and abroad, is now aware that thorium is a realistic alternative to uranium as a fuel for nuclear fission. It is more abundant, safer, has a much smaller problem with legacy radioactive waste, and is proliferation resistant. 

Underpinning Research

Nuclear power currently provides 20% of our electricity, yet within 15 years most of the UK's nuclear power stations will have closed.  Although the support for nuclear power has been gradually increasing in the UK over the last 10 years, there are still concerns over safety and of toxic waste storage.  In order to address these issues Professor Bob Cywinski and Dr Adriana Bungau (who have been at Huddersfield since September 2008), and Professor Roger Barlow (who arrived at Huddersfield in Feb 2011) have been researching into the potential of an innovatively designed Accelerator Driven Subcritical Reactor based on thorium.  Such a system has the potential to fill the gap of carbon-free nuclear power stations with a safer, cheaper, more sustainable form of nuclear power, for the benefit of the consumer and the environment.

Their research has focussed upon simulating the behaviour of various reactor configurations using the MCNPX program, which simulates nuclear reactions using a Monte Carlo technique. In order to confirm the accuracy of the results from one simulation program it is important to model the system with more than one simulation program, and therefore the GEANT4 program has also been utilised.  This is a modern and very general program originally developed for particle physics but now finding many applications as it is much more adaptable than MCNPX, particularly to complex geometries.  Several new classes were added to the GEANT4 simulation code by the researchers at Huddersfield, which allows the code to be used for the first time for nuclear reactor criticality calculations.

A variety of simulations have been carried out to study the physical stability of thorium fuel in a reactor. Simulations of thorium/uranium oxide in various concentrations have been made to study the thermal conductivity, the expansion, and the diffusion. These exploited the computing power of the National Grid Service to achieve precise results, and confirm the stability of thorium oxide, and its ability to survive for long period in fuel rods in a reactor. The research also included a study of the accelerator that an Accelerator Driven Subcritical Reactor (ADSR) thorium reactor would require, and an investigation into how to achieve the high current and reliability requirements through a Fixed Field Alternating Gradient (FFAG) accelerator.

As a result this research has shown that the vision of an environmentally acceptable UK nuclear industry could be delivered by adopting and refining the concept of the ADSR, fuelled entirely by thorium, an abundant and robust fuel which produces low levels of waste and virtually no plutonium, and driven by advanced, UK-designed and manufactured particle accelerators.  It has shown that the UK has a unique opportunity to create, build and sustain a multibillion pound industry based upon alternative, safe, inexhaustible, low waste and proliferation-resistant nuclear power generation. This innovative nuclear technology will give the UK the opportunity to compete forcefully in existing nuclear markets as well as opening up entirely new international nuclear markets that at present are closed to all current and planned uranium-and plutonium-based nuclear technologies.  It will also have a direct impact other high-technology industries, including medicine and will enable the UK, and other nations, to meet carbon reduction targets without increasing nuclear waste streams.

References and Grants

Bungau, Christian, Barlow, Roger, Bungau, Adriana and Cywinski, R. (2011) GEANT4 Studies of the Thorium Fuel Cycle. In: PAC 2011 Particle Accelerator Conference Proceedings. PAC'11 OC / IEEE, New York, USA, pp. 2178-2180.

Bungau, Christian, Tygier, Sam, Barlow, Roger and Cywinski, R. (2008) Accelerator Driven Systems for Energy Production and Waste Transmutation. In: EPAC '08 11th European Particle Accelerator Conference, June 23-27 2008, Genoa, Italy.

C. Bungau, R.J. Barlow, R. Cywinski, Study on Neutronics Design of an Accelerator Driven Subcritical Reactor, http://accelconf.web.cern.ch/AccelConf/IPAC10/papers/mopea040.pdf

R.J. Barlow, A.M. Toader, S.C. Tygier, High Current Proton FFAG Accelerators http://accelconf.web.cern.ch/AccelConf/IPAC10/papers/mopec047.pdf

C. Bungau, R.J. Barlow, A. Bungau, R. Cywinski, Neutron Spallation Studies for an Accelerator Driven Subcritical Reactor ,  http://accelconf.web.cern.ch/AccelConf/PAC2009/papers/tu6pfp029.pdf

R J Barlow, ADSR Activity in the UK, in: Proc. Workshop on Applications of High Intensity Proton Accelerators, 19-21 Oct 2009  (Ed R Raja and S Mishra), pp 240-243, World Scientific (2010)

Barlow and Cywinski;   EPSRC grant EP/F028121/1;   Innovative Accelerator Technology for Accelerator Driven Subcritical Reactors;   1.10.07 to 31.3.09;   £142, 341,

Barlow and Cywinski;   STFC PNPAS award;   Using Thorium as Fuel in Conventional Reactors;   1.7.09 to 30.6.11;   £424,447

The contribution, impact or benefit

Although the real impact of this project is likely to be 10-15 years away there are already several examples of interim impacts with a patent [1], and impact in the areas of public engagement, policy development and outreach.

Impact on Government bodies

In May 2009 the UK Science Minister, Lord Drayson, was informed of progress in the research and development of innovative particle accelerators for thorium-fuelled Accelerator Driven Subcritical Reactor (ADSR) systems for energy generation. Subsequently a request was made for a report defining the financial investment necessary for the UK to develop, refine and deliver the enabling technologies for the construction of a thorium-fuelled ADSR, whilst additionally appraising the commercial opportunities likely to arise for the UK from such investment.  The report, [2] prepared by the Thorium Energy Amplifier Association (ThorEA) with support from STFC, was delivered to the Minister in October 2009.  Although there have not been any changes in policy as a result of the report it has prompted several questions in Parliament regarding thorium as a potential nuclear fuel (as reported in Hansard).

Alexander Stanculescu from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), also offered support for this work  -  “ IAEA warmly welcomes the proposed accelerator driver development programme embodied in the ThorEA project as a positive contribution to the international effort to secure the eventual global deployment of sustainable thorium-fuelled ADSR power generation systems”.  (Vienna, September 2009)

Science and technology

As a result of the interest generated by the research work into the use of thorium as a potential fuel the Thorium Energy Amplifier Association (ThorEA) was formed in early 2008.  ThorEA is an affiliation of academic institutions, research laboratories, industrial companies (eg Aker/Jacobs and Thor Energy), and individual scientists, engineers, technologists and policy specialists who share a common interest in developing thorium as a nuclear fuel in accelerator-driven systems such as the energy amplifier.  The overriding purpose of ThorEA is to provide a platform for discussion and a focus for action in thorium fuel and energy amplifier technology and related topics including transmutation.

Press, TV and Radio

The work was picked up by the press in October 2009 in The Times scientific supplement “Eureka”, in which Bob Cywinski was featured as one of the 15 men/women researching into the technologies of tomorrow and  “.....promising to change the way we live for the better......”.  The article focussed upon Thorium and the use of ADSRs as a novel route to producing cleaner, safer power.

This interest continued throughout 2010 and 2011 when there was substantial and on-going coverage of the work in the press and at public scientific events.  For example:

  • In the UK national press, (eg The Times, The Telegraph, Mail on Sunday, The Financial Times), with the on-line articles frequently attracting tens and sometimes hundreds of comments from members of the public. 
  • In the worldwide press, eg The Australian,
  • As part of the BBC Radio 4 series “Material World”,

Outreach Activities

There has been continued interest from local schools and the general public on the use of thorium as a fuel in the future.  Examples of the events attended include:

  • British Science Festival September 2011– talk by Bob Cywinski, “Towards and alternative nuclear future” followed in the evening by a public debate alongside Jim Al-Khalili.   (NEED TO GET FEEDBACK FROM ORGANISERS RE SURVEY)
  • University of Huddersfield Public Lecture by Bob Cywinski on the future of nuclear power based on thorium (Feb 2009)
  • University of Huddersfield Researchers Night.  Huddersfield was one of only four UK institutions to have received Researchers Night funding.  The event was research extravaganza on 23 September 2011, when the University showcased its research and opened its doors to thousands of local people and school children. The event included a talk by Bob Cywinski entitled “Towards an Alternative Nuclear Future”
  • Bob Cywinski has been invited to talk at local secondary Schools regularly since 2008
  • Bob Cywinski was an invited speaker at the German-British Forum, “Energy for the Future: Governments, Cities and Technologies for the New Age” meeting in London in October 2009.
  • Roger Barlow has given talks on ADSRs and thorium to Institute of Physics branches in Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield

References

[1] http://www.sumobrain.com/patents/wipo/Charged-particle-generator/WO2011077082.html

[2] Towards an Alternative Nuclear Future, (2009) ed Cywinski, http://www.thorea.org/publications/ThoreaReportFinal.pdf

[3] www.thorea.org

[4] The Times Eureka magazine – Issue 1 October 2009    “Science.Life.The Planet

[5]  http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/business/energy_and_environment/article793912.ece

[6] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/comment/ambroseevans_pritchard/8393984/Safe-nuclear-does-exist-and-China-is-leading-the-way-with-thorium.html

[7] http://www.thoriumdocumentary.com/2011/10/financial-times-article/

[8] http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b014gdxv

[9]  http://www.theaustralian.com.au/business/news/thorium-unlocking-an-alternate-nuclear-future/story-fn8ex0p1-1226081494111

[10]  http://www.hud.ac.uk/researchersnight/programme/

Last updated Friday 24 February 2012
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