On May 10, 2011, TransPower signed a Teaming Agreement with the Regents of the University of Michigan (“UM”) to collaborate in the development of hybrid nuclear reactor technologies and applications. A hybrid thorium reactor (“HTR”) is a unique device that combines the use of nuclear fusion and nuclear fission to produce energy. Research performed by the UM and others suggests that practical HTR power generation plants could be built within the next decade, offering a virtually limitless supply of inexpensive clean energy.
HTR Advantages as an Energy Source
Fuels are Abundant – The fuel required for the fusion stage of the HTR reaction – deuterium – is more plentiful, and safer to handle, than the enriched uranium or plutonium used in all commercial nuclear reactors today. Deuterium is an isotope of hydrogen, the most plentiful element in the Universe, and can be inexpensively extracted in vast quantities from common seawater. The fuel used in the fission stage of the HTR reaction is thorium, a naturally-occurring element that exists in sufficient quantities to meet world energy needs for the next ten thousand years.
Risk of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation is Eliminated – Thorium cannot be used in the manufacture of nuclear weapons, because, unlike uranium or plutonium, it can’t support a chain reaction. We refer to the thorium reactions as “sub-critical.” This eliminates the risk of rogue nations or terrorist groups obtaining fuel for nuclear weapons – a major concern that elevates the costs as well as the risks of maintaining today’s nuclear power plants.
Hazardous Nuclear Wastes are Nearly Eliminated – HTR produces less than 1% of the hazardous nuclear wastes produced by a conventional nuclear power plant. In fact, HTR can burn existing nuclear wastes as fuel, eliminating the need for costly and controversial underground storage facilities.
Risk of a Catastrophic Nuclear Meltdown is Eliminated – Another advantage of using sub-critical fuels is that HTR virtually eliminates the risk of a catastrophic nuclear “meltdown.” The types of accidents seen at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and more recently in Fukushima, Japan occurred because the uranium and plutonium used in conventional nuclear reactors produces a self-sustaining chain reaction that can go out of control, resulting in meltdown and radioactive contamination. An uncontrolled chain reaction cannot occur in a HTR power plant. Instead, the fusion and fission reactions are sustained by a microwave generator. If the microwave device is turned off or the plant loses power, the fusion and fission reactions quickly come to a halt.
Plants will be Easier to Build and Will Cost Less – Since HTR reactions are not self-sustaining, HTR plants will not require control rods and many of the other expensive devices required in today’s nuclear power plants to assure safe operation. Since its fuels are not weapons-grade, elaborate precautions to prevent the spread of such fuels will also be unnecessary. Once the technology is perfected, it will be possible to build HTR plants, large and small, almost anywhere, and for a fraction of the cost of today’s nuclear plants.
HTR is more Technologically Feasible than Nuclear Fusion - While nuclear fusion by itself would offer most of the advantages of HTR’s combined fusion-fission reaction, scientists have struggled to make nuclear fusion commercially viable for many years. Thus far, this has proven impossible because fusion must produce ten times more energy than the energy needed to heat the deuterium plasma, and we are nowhere near achieving this. However, in the HTR reaction, the fusion stage of the reaction is used only to produce neutrons, in quantities sufficient to sustain the fission stage of the reaction. To achieve this, the fusion reaction has to achieve at most about one-tenth of energy break-even – a level that will be much easier to achieve with today’s technologies.
In summary, HTR is far safer than conventional nuclear fission and far more achievable than commercial nuclear fusion. It generates zero carbon, produces little nuclear waste, eliminates weapons proliferation concerns, and is less susceptible to a meltdown.