Race to thorium? Dynamics worldwide reported


 April 27, 2015 7:11 p.m. ET    

The ghosts of Lenin and Mao might well be smirking. Communist and authoritarian nations are moving to take global leadership in, and profit from, the commercial use of nuclear power, a technology made possible by the market-driven economies of the West. New research and development could enable abundant, affordable, low-carbon energy as well as further beneficial products for industry and medicine. 

Yet outdated and burdensome regulations and restrictions have stifled nuclear innovation in the U.S. and other Western nations, and are pushing these opportunities to China and Russia.

China is joining Russia to build five new reactors in Iran—regardless of what becomes of the current negotiations over Tehran’s nuclear program. Beijing and Moscow are also marketing nuclear technology and infrastructure to other Mideast and Asian nations. China and Russia have a clear commercial and strategic purpose in advancing nuclear technology abroad, technology that the West seems loath to exploit.

If the world is serious about shifting to low-carbon energy, nuclear energy is the most direct path. Nuclear power is the densest (in watts per square meter of land) and safest (in deaths per joule) form of energy known to man. Yet the expansion of nuclear power and other commercial applications of nuclear reactions have stalled in the West since the 1980s.

This is partly due to fears of unseen radiation and memories of accidents like the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, at a facility originally designed to produce weapons, in the now defunct Soviet Union. Mainly, though, what holds back nuclear power is its high cost, which is almost entirely due to government regulations and restrictions that have kept the industry confined to minor yet expensive improvements to existing reactor designs. Out-of-the-box thinking on new reactor concepts that could be far cheaper and safer is systemically discouraged. The most common retort to any new idea in the nuclear industry is along the lines of “that will never be approved in my lifetime.”

President Dwight Eisenhower’s Cold War “Atoms for Peace” campaign notwithstanding, there has never been any real attempt to allow competitive, innovative, private-sector exploitation of nuclear reactions. Potential applications that might be co-developed with new reactor system concepts go well beyond producing simply heat for baseload electricity. They include medical and industrial isotope co-production, large-scale radiation-induced chemical synthesis, water treatment, food preservation and other applications that creative thinkers will certainly invent.

The hot steam produced for nuclear power is, in fact, the least potentially valuable output of a nuclear reaction; the radiations and isotopes are unique, and if available in large quantities at a low price, innovators will find new and beneficial ways of using them. 

A nuclear reactor might well be the center of an advanced-materials production facility with the electrical power the least valuable of its many products.

There was a brief period between 1970 and the late 1980s when high fossil-fuel prices and the widespread belief that oil was running out caused nuclear power to expand rapidly. Under these conditions, even expensive government-mandated nuclear technology seemed to be temporarily competitive. But governments piled additional regulations and constraints on nuclear power in the wake of the Three-Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania in 1979 and Chernobyl.

Governments are right, of course, to monitor and tightly control the application of nuclear energy, as they do chemical and biological weapons. But the well-intentioned systems, agencies, regulations, legislation, safeguards and bureaucratic mass that have been applied to every aspect of nuclear technology since its inception have tended to prevent us from realizing its full potential. 

Japan’s 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster occurred because of the use of outdated technology as much as it was the preceding earthquake and tsunami. Molten-salt and molten-metal reactors, for example, have inherent design and safety features that could vastly reduce cost and increase safety. These reactors cannot melt down or cause steam explosions, the prevention of which is the purpose of massively expensive containment vessels. 

Early innovators in nuclear-reactor technology introduced large numbers of such concepts and some were tested only to be put on the shelf. Now a few struggling small companies have begun to look again in these areas but are hampered by costly, time-consuming regulations. Unlicensed, nontraditional fuels and new processes not approved by Western regulators could radically reduce waste problems, further driving down costs. For example, in several molten-salt reactor designs, the “waste,” which includes valuable isotopes and other materials, is continuously reprocessed during reactor operation.

Today’s light-water nuclear reactors are constrained by government regulations and agencies appropriate for the 1950s to look much like those built for the production of isotopes for weapons—not because these are the lowest-cost power-reactor designs or the best and safest fuel cycles, rather because these are what we have built a gargantuan regulatory framework to accommodate. 

Chemical industries safely produce billions of tons of potentially toxic substances safely, but the nuclear industry has not had the technological freedom to create the cheapest and safest reactor designs to compete with fossil-fuel technology. We have never set our best and brightest young technologists to the task of designing entirely new, safe, modern power stations based on nuclear reactions that can be operated over their entire life-cycle to produce low-cost electricity and make an attractive profit.

Globalization is real. Preventing the innovators in Western democracies from creating new cost-effective technologies using nuclear reactions won’t prevent it from being done. It’s ironic, but given America’s ever-burdensome nuclear regulations, it will likely be engineers from nondemocratic, authoritarian regimes like those in China and Russia who will be free to design the safe and cost-effective commercial nuclear technologies of the future. 


Mr. McFarland is a professor and director of the Dow Centre for Sustainable Engineering Innovation at the University of Queensland, Australia.