Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor - Background

Background

By 1946, eight years after the discovery of nuclear fission, three fissile isotopes had been publicly identified for use as nuclear fuel:

  • Uranium-235, which is already fissile, and occurs as 0.72% of natural uranium
  • Plutonium-239, which can be bred from non-fissile uranium-238 (>99% of natural uranium)
  • Uranium-233, which can be bred from non-fissile thorium-232 (~100% of natural thorium; which has about four times greater abundance in the earth's crust than uranium)

Th-232, U-235 and U-238 are primordial nuclides, having existed in their current form for over 4.5 billion years, predating the formation of the Earth; they were forged in the cores of dying stars through the r-process and scattered across the galaxy by supernovas. Their radioactive decay produces about half of the earth's internal heat.

For technical and historical reasons, the three are each associated with different reactor types. U-235 is the world's primary nuclear fuel and is usually used in light water reactors. U-238/Pu-239 has found the most use in liquid sodium fast breeder reactors and CANDU Reactors. Th-232/U-233 is best suited to molten salt reactors (MSR).

Alvin M. Weinberg pioneered the use of the MSR at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. At ORNL, two prototype molten salt reactors were successfully designed, constructed and operated. These were the Aircraft Reactor Experiment in 1954 and Molten-Salt Reactor Experiment from 1965 to 1969. Both test reactors used liquid fluoride fuel salts. The MSRE notably demonstrated fueling with U-233 and U-235 during separate test runs. Weinberg was removed from his post and the MSR program closed down in the early 1970s, after which research stagnated in the United States. Today, the ARE and the MSRE remain the only molten salt reactors ever operated.

Read more about this topic:  Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor

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