|In the 1960s at Tennessee's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, scientists built a nuclear reactor powered by thorium. With no fuel rods or pressurized water for coolant, It was unlike any other power reactor yet devised. To start it, a mixture of salts was melted, then thorium was dissolved into this "soup" with a small amount of uranium to initiate a nuclear reaction. The heat produced from the reaction kept the salts in a liquid state; they were pumped to a radiator outside the reactor to stabilize its temperature.The volume of the fuel in this small reactor was 20 cubic feet - about three and a half bathtubs - but it was capable of generating 10 million watts of power. Thats enough to supply 14,600 homes, or power 24,000 electric cars, preventing 235 tons of CO2 being released into the atmosphere every day.
What was most unique about the reactor was its safety. If the salt/fuel mixture got too hot, it melted a plug in the bottom of the reactor and drained into separate tanks, shutting down the nuclear reaction. With this passive safety feature there was no need for expensive backup systems. The reactor operated at ambient (outside) pressure, so the strain put on components was far less than pressurized-water reactors, which are prone to leaks. It generated 100 times less nuclear waste than other designs, and could actually "burn" fuel from nuclear weapons - leaving materials which were proliferation-proof.
The Molten-Salt Reactor Experiment (MSRE) at Oak Ridge had performed successfully for 4 years when it was discontinued in 1969. Oak Ridge's Paul N. Haubenreich:
"The MSRE has shown that salt handling in a nuclear reactor is quite practical. The salt chemistry is well behaved, there is practically no corrosion, the nuclear characteristics are very close to predictions, and the system is dynamically stable...The successful operation of the MSRE is an achievement that should strengthen confidence in the practicality of the molten-salt reactor concept."
Why was such a great idea scrapped? Theories abound; some suggest political motives, others believe engineers were simply overconfident in the safety of existing reactor designs. Now, in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, many feel they're unacceptably dangerous - and with climate change threatening the future of our planet, it's clear we can't simply abandon them for fossil fuels. Safe, dependable, carbon-free sources of energy must be found. Although renewable sources such as wind and solar can help, they can't do enough, soon enough.
It's time to revisit a concept which fell by the wayside before its true advantages were appreciated. LFTR (Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor) technology needs your support! Sign the petition to President Obama and Energy Secretary Steven Chu to provide specific funding for LFTR research.