The first nuclear power plant built in more than three decades began splitting atoms a few weeks ago, but only after significant delays and cost overruns. These plants represent a trend of the construction of nuclear power plants running over time and over budget. ThorCon is a nuclear power plant development company that is looking to leverage shipyards to drive down costs and scale up nuclear power in a timely fashion.
In late 2022, ThorCon partnered with a French-based company, Bureau Veritas, who will provide technical qualifications and support during the development of ThorCon’s first nuclear power plant in Indonesia. ThorCon’s model relies on the mass production of nuclear power plants in shipyards based in Indonesia, which have experience in assembling large-scale projects and delivering them on schedule.
The plants will be built by combining different modules, which will be assembled on site. Each module can be extracted from the power plant and replaced – either on a scheduled basis or whenever a new piece needs repair.
The Technology Behind a ThorCon Reactor
ThorCon reactors use molten fuelsalt to power fission. The fuelsalt is a mixture of sodium, beryllium, uranium and thorium fluorides that remains a low-pressurized liquid throughout fission. This is critical to ThorCon’s passive safety features.
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During nuclear fission, an atom splits into two smaller atoms, releasing energy. A fission event also results in free neutrons that can collide with other atoms and create a chain reaction of fission events. When this occurs, nuclear power plants generate heat, some of which is captured to generate electricity.
The benefit of using a liquid fuel is that the reactor will generate fewer fission events as the reactor heats up. The molten fuelsalt expands, which pushes uranium atoms further apart. The result is a passively cooling nuclear reactor. This is known as a negative temperature coefficient: increased reactor temperatures resulting in a decrease of output power.
ThorCon has another passive feature: in the event that temperatures continue to rise, the heated fuelsalt will melt a freeze valve, causing the fuel to drain to a secondary drain tank.
According to ThorCon: “There is no need for any operator intervention. Not in 3 days, not in 300 days, not in 3000 days. Nor are there any valves that must be realigned by either system or operator control as in some so called passive systems. In fact there is nothing the operators can do to prevent the shutdown, drain, and cooling.”
One of ThorCon’s primary missions is to use reliable, carbon-free nuclear power to address energy poverty in the developing world. As C3 has previously written, access to reliable electricity is one of the most impactful ways for communities and societies to rise up the economic ladder. While 96% of Indonesia’s population has access to electricity, grid reliability is strained in many of the country’s rural areas.
The company’s cost estimates show that it can produce electricity at a cheaper rate than coal. The fuel is cheaper, and – if mass production of nuclear modules in shipyards is successful – then the cost of development will be more affordable as well.
These, of course, are just estimates. ThorCon is still in the process of producing a pre-fission test facility to ensure that the products of their shipyard development are ready for use. The company will then construct a 500 MW plant to test its model.
Nonetheless, the future of ThorCon and nuclear energy at large appears bright. Chris Anderson, who runs TED, is convinced that ThorCon can provide cost-effective, clean energy.
ThorCon’s innovative thinking is yet another example of the incredible work of the private sector in addressing energy affordability and energy poverty issues around the globe.
Luke Brennan is a writer and software developer originally from Pittsburgh.