So what do Australia’s new fighter jets and nuclear power have in common?
The current nature of US regulation does not favour reactor designs that deviate from conventional pressurised, water-cooled and moderated, once-through uranium fueled varieties, and even these are expensive in terms of licensing and compliance. This is obviously an impediment to the refinement and deployment of commercial thorium-fueled molten salt reactors, which were being pursued at Oak Ridge National Lab until the 1970s and the termination of funding. The Thorium Energy Alliance has been working for years to build political support to once again pursue this technology in the US.
It is not merely the abundance of thorium in the Earth’s crust and the relative simplicity of refining it into fluoride salt fuel that holds appeal, but the fact that the optimal reactor for extracting fission energy, e.g. Flibe Energy’s LFTR, is a breeder reactor which will utilise practically all of the thorium or other actinides it is loaded with. Yet, even this potential has failed to gain much political traction outside YouTube, social media and semi-regular technology columns in magazines. The Thorium Energy Alliance has instead focussed its effort on the rare earth elements – critical for modern electronics – that are invariably mixed up with thorium in minerals such as monazite. It is the radioactive, regulated thorium which complicates utilisation of indigenous rare earths in the US, to the extent that China now has complete market control. Accordingly, legislation was proposed to change this.
The whole presentaiton is very interesting but essentially the intention is to establish a governmentally chartered cooperative that would expand US rare earth element production and securely stockpile the separated thorium, while targeting chemical, industrial and energy-focused utilisation of the actinide in parallel. James Kennedy puts it best in this presentation to the IAEA last month.
The F35 Joint Strike Fighter and its Chinese-made components are just one example of a current suite of problems with rare earth elements. Political opposition to TEA’s elegant solution is at best baffling, when at stake is nothing less than a potential source of super-deployable, emissions-free electricity and industial heat, hand-in-hand with the feed-stock of our modern communications as well as most other technology.
Indeed, we are most certainly already locked into the Lanthinide* Age. Their responsible use should be expanded to connect the whole world, and the next generation of nuclear is the clean energy with which to power it.
There is hope, as one Senator has heeded the call and proposes to pass the National Rare Earth Refinery Act bill. We will know by December if sanity will prevail.
*Plus scandium and yttrium, of course.