Table of contents:
- Thorium as an alternative to uranium
- We need to develop our own production
- How much does new fuel cost
- Some thorium deposits in Russia:
- Thorium for the Arctic and beyond
- Where is the headquarters of analysts and specialists?
- Pros of using thorium:
- Three disadvantages of using thorium:
- Where else is thorium used?
- Why do you need a director?
- It's a question of time
Video: Thorium energy in Russia and the future of supertechnology
2023 Author: Seth Attwood | [email protected]. Last modified: 2023-11-26 22:42
Valery Konstantinovich Larin, one of the world's leading experts in thorium energy, a member of the expert council of the Rare Lands magazine, Doctor of Technical Sciences, ex-CEO of several of the largest enterprises of Sredmash, on the code of confidence, new opportunities in the development of the Arctic, evolution and the bright future of nuclear power, which cannot be imagined without the use of a unique element - thorium.
What is thorium? What are its pros and cons? Why is thorium already chosen in other countries? final calls before the big show, to which we may not receive an invitation if today we miss our chance to create thorium supertechnology for a new technological era.
Thorium as an alternative to uranium
Thorium is several times more abundant in the earth's crust than natural uranium. Thorium and one of the isotopes present in it, uranium-232, can be a fairly effective source in nuclear power instead of the widely used fuel based on the 235th isotope of uranium. Thorium energy has a number of colossal advantages. Which ones? First, safety: there is no excess reactivity in a reactor using thorium as a battery. This is a guarantee of non-repetition of such terrible disasters as Three Mile Island in America, like Chernobyl, like Fokushima. Even academician Lev Feoktistov wrote that any nuclear reactor operating in today's configuration and technology has a crazy excess activity. In fact, there are several dozen or even hundreds of bombs in one reactor, which forces us to take very serious measures for protection: traps, special designs, and so on, which, of course, greatly increases the cost of production and maintenance. The second advantage of thorium energy is that there are no problems with waste disposal. We are forced to reload fuel in current VVER reactors every one and a half years. This is 66 tons of active substance, which must be loaded once. Moreover, the degree of burnout is not that high, there is a lot of waste left, which is fraught with a number of difficulties. I mean the secondary disposal of active elements, plutonium is produced in large volumes. Thorium energy does not have all of this. Why? Thorium has a much longer half-life - in practice, ten years or more. This provides more efficient use, lower costs for unloading and unloading, increased capacity factor, and so on. Yes, it must be admitted that due to the different half-life of thorium, other actinides, more active, are formed, but at the present stage this problem is quite solvable. But there are also big pluses. Agree, there is a difference: one and a half years and ten years?
The main mineral containing thorium is monazite, which contains rare earths. Therefore, when we talk about thorium as a fuel for future energy, as the next stage in the development of nuclear energy, we will naturally talk about the complex processing of monazite raw materials and the separation of rare earths - this essentially makes the use of thorium commercially more economical and attractive. There is a very serious potential for the development of energy, the economy, and the mining industry. Thorium is found in Russia in the form of monazite sands. This technology must be industrially developed, tested and, most importantly, cost-effective. Everything can be done in the laboratory.
The problem of finding thorium deposits is similar to the problem of finding deposits of rare earth metals - its ability to concentrate is weak, and thorium is very reluctant to collect in any significant deposits, being a very scattered element of the earth's crust. Thorium is present in small amounts in granite, soil and soil. Thorium is usually not mined separately; it is recovered as a by-product during the mining of rare earth elements or uranium. In many minerals, including monazite, thorium easily replaces the rare earth element, which explains the affinity of thorium with rare earths.
Thorium(Thorium), Th is a chemical element of the III group of the Periodic system, the first member of the actinide group. In 1828, analyzing a rare mineral found in Sweden, Jens Jakob Berzelius discovered an oxide of a new element in it. This element was named thorium in honor of the almighty Scandinavian deity Thor (Thor is a colleague of Mars and Jupiter, the god of war, thunder and lightning). Berzelius failed to obtain pure metallic thorium. A pure preparation of thorium was obtained only in 1882 by another Swedish chemist, the discoverer of scandium, Lars Nilsson. The radioactivity of thorium was discovered in 1898 independently of each other simultaneously by Maria Sklodowska-Curie and Herbert Schmidt.
We need to develop our own production
At one time, reports were written to Efim Pavlovich Slavsky and Igor Vasilyevich Kurchatov that it was necessary to switch to the thorium cycle. And thorium power engineering was experimentally performed: reactors were operating at Mayak and in Germany. But at the same time, it was necessary to develop a military direction related to energy, and, accordingly, work on plutonium, and the thorium program was frozen. Therefore, the decision, which was made by our President, that it is necessary to start work in this direction, strengthen and, perhaps, even speed up, is very correct and timely. Today, no one will give us a second chance. China, India and the Scandinavian countries have a very serious thorium program. Soon everyone will go so far that we will not catch up with anyone. China has gone so far in the development of the rare earth industry with its own ore base that we will not frighten China with this today. We could catch up with China and had to do everything so that China from us, at least one step, two was kept in the background in nuclear engineering, in nuclear technologies. But, unfortunately, we are giving way here too. China is eager to enter the market with its nuclear reactors, with its own technology. And I can assure you that given the position that we have now, we will lose this fight.
They already offer low-power reactors and, sadly enough to admit it, they will industrialize the floating reactor plants faster than us - our ministerial comrades are very interested in these reactors, instead of developing their own production. We need to develop. For example, gas reactors, high-temperature gas-cooled reactors are, in fact, a very promising direction. But for some reason we also do this very slowly, timidly, inertly.
Unfortunately, throughout the 1990s, we were dominated by the ideology that it is easier and cheaper to buy rare earths, for example, in China, than to make our own product.
How much does new fuel cost
Producers are conservatives. And their conservatism is justified. The philosophy of the production worker is clear: I have a well-functioning production, I work, I am responsible for the plan, for the production, for the people who work. Any innovation brings me risks. Risks of something new, which must be experienced, and at the same time, some malfunctions, overlays, and so on are always possible. Do I need it? I'd rather live in peace. Therefore, the conflict of such interests: development, promotion of the new and the point of view of a conservative production worker, it has always been, is and will be. Another thing is that it is necessary to overcome it rationally.
Today, there are varieties of uranium fuel: nitride, ceramic, fuel with the addition of rare earths. A very large number of options. And is this done without any cost, without any money? Absolutely not. To obtain a new fuel based on thorium, it is necessary to develop a technology for the manufacture of these materials. And before saying that thorium energy is much more expensive than uranium, we need to do a simple thing - a comparative economic analysis. For example, if a melt of thorium fluoride is used as fuel for a reactor, it seems to me that it is not so expensive to obtain thorium fluorides. If we receive fuel in the form of spherical elements - this is the second option, ceramics - the third option. Moreover, we are talking here, first of all, about raw materials, about monazite, and the question of price will be determined taking into account the complex use. That is, the extraction of the entire amount of rare earths, uranium and zirconium from monazite - all this will seriously reduce the cost of producing fuel based on thorium.
A little about fast reactors. It does not matter by what technology, on what reactor, in what design version to use fast neutrons, ignite a natural material - in one or another amount, waste will still be generated. And the waste must be recycled. If we talk about the purity of methodology and concepts, as such there is no closed cycle and cannot be. But in the option of thorium energy there will be less active waste that needs to be recycled.
I am convinced that in any case we will gradually switch to thorium energy, especially since the latest research and calculations by physicists of the Tomsk Polytechnic University, theoretical calculation of the core, show that an evolutionary transition to thorium energy is possible in relation to light-water reactors. That is, not immediately a revolution, but a gradual transfer of the core of existing light-water reactors with a partial replacement of the core from uranium fuel to thorium.
Before hanging stamps that this is bad, and this is good, you need to seriously tackle the real business. Let's say we make a couple of fuel rods and run it all on test benches. Remove all nuclear physics characteristics. A lot of research needs to be done, and long-term. And the further we delay, arguing that it is difficult and difficult, the more we will lag behind in development. You need to do everything on time. At one time, Sredmash was engaged in this, received metallic thorium at our enterprises, and these technologies were available. It is necessary to raise the old experience, old reports, they are probably all preserved in the archives, and experts will find it. Taking into account what has been done and new opportunities, it is necessary to continue this whole thing.
Some thorium deposits in Russia:
• Tugan and Georgievskoe (Tomsk region)
• Ordynskoe (Novosibirsk region)
• Lovozerskoe and Khibinskoe (Murmansk region)
• Ulug-Tanzekskoe (Republic of Tyva)
• Kiyskoe (Krasnoyarsk Territory)
• Tarskoe (Omsk region)
• Tomtorskoe (Yakutia)
Thorium for the Arctic and beyond
There is a huge need for serial mobile and stationary power plants of ultra-low and low power (from 1 to 20 MW), which can be used as sources of energy and heat in the development of northern territories, the development of new deposits there, as well as in providing electricity to remote military garrisons. and large naval bases in the Northern and Pacific fleets. These installations should have as long a period of operation as possible without reloading nuclear fuel, during their operation should not accumulate plutonium, they should be easy to maintain. They cannot operate in the uranium-plutonium cycle, because plutonium accumulates during its use. In this case, a promising alternative to uranium is the use of thorium.
The energy problem in the Arctic is the number one problem. And this must be dealt with absolutely clearly. Right now, in Zhodino, our dear Belarusian friends have made the world's largest BelAZ, with a carrying capacity of 450 tons. In order for this "BelAZ" to work normally, all its wheelsets are driven separately, there is a separate engine for each wheel. But in order to get electricity, there are two huge diesels that drive electric generators, they distribute everything to these electric motors. Let's make a small thorium reactor, and it doesn't have to be installed directly on this BelAZ. You can make different options. For example, it would be very efficient to use low-power thorium reactors for hydrogen production. And transfer all engines to hydrogen. In this regard, we theoretically get a brilliant picture, because when we burn hydrogen, we get water. Absolutely "green" energy that everyone dreams of. Or we will make nuclear power plants based on low-power reactors. With the further development and exploration of the Arctic, mobile local reactors, reactor installations of low power will give, from my point of view, a crazy national economic effect. Just crazy. They should be exactly mobile, local, mobile. And I think that it is not so difficult to make reactors of low power on thorium with a refueling period of ten years or more in the Arctic. Yes, it is possible to make low-power reactors using existing technologies: let's take the reactors that we have in the navy, on submarines, and nuclear-powered ships. Let's put them on. Let's start exploiting. All this can be done. But difficulties in operation and decommissioning, loading, unloading and removal in the harsh conditions of northern latitudes will greatly complicate the use of this type of installation.
Another illustrative example. In the huge Yakut quarries of Alrosa, at the mining subdivisions of Lebedinsky GOK, when extracting iron ore, we use heavy-duty BelAZs or Caterpillers, and there is a big problem of airing the quarries from exhaust emissions and after massive explosions to break the ore. What is applied? Up to aircraft helicopter engines, but they also run on fossil fuel, kerosene, etc., in turn, secondary pollution of the quarry occurs. When switching to vehicles with thorium-based reactors, there is no need to ventilate open pits, fuel and lubricants warehouses are not needed, etc.
It is a shock for me when Russia, the legal successor of the Soviet Union, is unable to provide its nuclear industry with a natural component, uranium raw materials. I don’t understand this, but I was brought up in an old school and didn’t work anywhere except Sredmash. It's no joke, some time ago, judging by the official sources of Rosatom, we were forced to buy raw materials in Australia.
Russian enterprises, they say, are unprofitable, but in this case, why are similar enterprises in Ukraine, where also underground mining and the content of metal in ore similar to ours, are profitable? Probably, the need has come, the state need to have state reserves of strategic materials for the development of nuclear energy, as well as for the industry in general. Taking into account such tricks that are taking place (sanctions, etc.), at any moment we can be put in a very, very uncomfortable, dependent position.
Where it is about matters of principle, about the security of the state, not only from the point of view of defense capability, state security is a capacious and huge concept, and it is not only about weapons. These are food and other strategic things.
Where is the headquarters of analysts and specialists?
It seems to me that under any ministry there should be a kind of headquarters of analysts, advisers, gray cardinals, if you like, call them whatever you like, who should analyze a huge amount of information and separate the wheat from the chaff, defining the development strategy. Unfortunately, especially today, decisions are often made without proper analysis. The leadership of the industry should be engaged in analytics and strategic planning, clearly understand in which direction the industry will develop further. And this should be based on the right analytics.
The bad news is that we really forgot about the concept of "critical metals", about what is needed for the development of the nuclear industry, for its uninterrupted operation. In my understanding, yttrium, beryllium, lithium are badly needed, a medium heavy group is badly needed - these are neodymium, praseodymium, dysprosium. These elements are really needed for the next 5-10-15 years. Yes, we have determined that we need these elements. I’ll ask a simple question: gentlemen bosses, gentlemen technologists, we received these elements. What are we going to do with them? Do we have a secondary industry ready to make products from these elements? Who will do if there are these businesses? First, they can tell us that yes, we made prototypes. The question is different. Have you done something that is competitive? This product is Russian and will it be a product that is better in its characteristics than German, and so on? It's like a TV. For you, as a consumer, we will put a Russian TV set and a Japanese TV set. I am sure you will buy Japanese. That is the question - is the industry ready to use rare earths correctly and in the right direction. Are we ready to make a competitive product out of them or have we produced rare earths to sell on the market? China with our rare earths will not let us into the market. There is a complex of problems that we must solve in a comprehensive manner, but we are only declaring.
But much worse is the aging of the personnel, the potential in the ministry, in the state corporation. And this, unfortunately, is especially evident in the raw materials division. And the raw materials division is the backbone. If you do not have the raw materials, then there will be nothing to make something from. Iron can be built, but how can the iron be fed? We are not saying in vain that we need to think and consider the variety of sources of raw materials, including thorium. Along with this, one should not forget about uranium, one should not forget about the accumulated reserves (natural component 238 in various forms). All this should be used in a narrowly focused, competent, normal, grounded segment, in different versions. You can't send a Harvard graduate to a mine, or a lawyer to a metallurgical workshop. They will not go there. And who trains such specialists now? In the Urals, there was a whole industry directly related to the Ministry of Medium Machine Building, chemical engineering. The most powerful chemical engineering plants in the Urals.
Pros of using thorium:
+ Profitability. Thorium needs about half as much as uranium to produce the same amount of energy.
+ Safety. Thorium-fueled nuclear reactors are safer than uranium-fueled reactors because thorium reactors have no reactivity margin. Therefore, no damage to the reactor equipment is capable of causing an uncontrolled chain reaction.
+ Convenience. On the basis of thorium, it is possible to create a reactor that does not require refueling.
Three disadvantages of using thorium:
- Thorium is a scattered element that does not form its own ores and deposits, its extraction is more expensive than uranium.
- Opening monazite (a mineral that contains thorium) is a much more complex process than opening most uranium ores.
- There is no well-established technology.
It is a paradoxical thing - today no university in Russia trains specialists in chemical engineering. And how will the devices be designed in general without specialists? The old people will leave. Bring a sample to VNIIKhT now, there is no one to cut it. If I'm wrong, write that Valery Konstantinovich is mistaken. This will be correct and correct. Here we inform you that such and such a university prepares. I will only be glad that I was mistaken, sincerely glad. I say this from personal experience. I was recently in the Urals and met with people who work in this industry, these are their words. They told me: "In five years, you can forget that there was such an industry as chemical engineering in Russia."These are people who have experience in the design and creation of devices for chemical engineering: special dryers, special ovens, units for decomposition, for chemical decomposition. This is a special branch of technology that involves working with acids, under thermal conditions, on pressure vessels.
Where else is thorium used?
1 Thorium oxide is used for the production of refractory ceramics.
2 Metallic thorium is used for alloying light alloys, which are especially widely used in aviation and rocket technology.
3 Multicomponent magnesium-based alloys containing thorium are used for parts of jet engines, guided projectiles, electronic and radar equipment.
4 Thorium is used as a catalyst in organic synthesis, oil cracking, synthesis of liquid fuel from coal, and hydrogenation of hydrocarbons.
5 Thorium is used as an electrode material for some types of vacuum tubes.
Why do you need a director?
I was the general director of the three largest enterprises of Sredmash. I am proud of this and I know how the relationship was built between me, as the director of the enterprise, the head of the central board and the minister. I made decisions within the framework of funding and competence that I had. And I was responsible for this. We made decisions, we ran tests. Justified? Yes. But we did it. Then, on the basis of all this, we justified and proved the need for such decisions. We need to do this, we need to implement it, it is in the logic of the industry's development, it is necessary, and so on. Now everyone is waiting for the team from Moscow, what should we do?
Any system of relationships, any system in the industry, in the national economy and anywhere else - this is a system of trust. If you put the director, then a) it means that you trust him, b) if you trust him, you give him a certain framework for free floating. But the director, the commander, who is responsible for production, for people, for safety measures, for the fulfillment of the plan, for a million of all functions, cannot constantly call from Moscow and reprimand: “don't do that, don't look here, don't go there”. If something happens in production, the director will be responsible, and not the one who pulls him from Moscow. Now the director of the enterprise, excuse me, cannot buy a bar of soap. Everything goes through Moscow, through tenders. But if so, why do you need a director? Remove him and command from Moscow what needs to be done.
It's a question of time
Scientists who are seriously involved in fast reactors are quite clear that the actual start-up is scheduled for 2030. Before, no one plans anything. There are a lot of problems. Molten lead is a corrosive liquid. The flow of lead in the cooling tubes is a question of questions: what happens at the interface, what are the features of the boundary layers, how mass transfer and heat transfer change, questions, questions, questions. The fact is that the boundary layers have completely different physicochemical properties, there are completely different coefficients of mass transfer, heat transfer, etc. Lead must be of a certain quality, with the required oxygen content. There are many questions. Are there answers to these questions? Do not know. We need numbers, calculations.
As for thorium, it all depends on how we organize it, how we arrange it constructively, what kind of logistics and who will manage the project. If we are able to do this competently, we will select specialists who are passionate about the idea of thorium energy, we will allocate funding, a special research reactor only for these purposes, with fuel production, I think we will meet the practical result in a fairly short time, as it was in the forties and fifties … The laboratories have already done a significant part of the work on the physics of the core, on the processing of monazite with the selective release of thorium and the production of rare earths. Everything that has been done before must be accumulated, analyzed, and brought together within the framework of the working group on the development of thorium energy. And work.
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