Sunday, January 3, 2021

Thorium: "Indonesia’s Nuclear Dream, Revived?"

 The promise of thorium has been a siren song for the last couple decades, back in 2008 I dropped this comment at the WSJ's Environmental Capital blog:

    • C’mon guys, get with it!
      Global warming is so last year.
      Everybody, from Al Gore to the blogs you link to are reinventing themselves and talking energy.
      Energy production
      Energy cost.
      Energy security.
      It’s all about framing and re-framing.
      Low impact man’s time has come and gone. The eco-soirée has moved on to erudite discussions of thorium between nibbles at the canapés.
      By this winter the only references to carbon among the salon crowd might be Carbonic acid (H2CO3).
      You watch.

Okay, so I was early.

From The Diplomat, December 31:

Does the Joko Widodo government have nuclear aspirations?

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Diplomat Risk Intelligence, The Diplomat’s consulting and analysis division. Learn more here

Is Indonesia looking to go nuclear under the Joko Widodo government? In February 2020, Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, the coordinating minister of maritime affairs and former chief of staff to President Widodo, publicly complained that powerful countries like the United States do not consider Indonesia a serious international player because of its lack of nuclear weapons, seizing some local news headlines. The political heavyweight, a retired four-star army general, is behind a recent bout of interest in cutting-edge nuclear reactor technologies to capitalize on the country’s abundant mineral resources. 

In June 2020, Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto held meetings with the governor of the Banka Belitung Islands and it is known that they discussed setting up a ministerial regional office there. Just off the east coast of Sumatra, the islands are estimated to hold 95 percent of Indonesia’s thorium. Thorium itself cannot be used in traditional thermal neutron reactors but upon absorbing a neutron will transmute to uranium-233, an excellent fissile fuel material especially for (advanced) molten salt reactors. In July 2020, a meeting between Luhut and Prabowo was reported for their discussions on the use of tin and rare earth elements. 

The sensitivity lies in that thorium and uranium can be extracted from unconventional sources, particularly monazite, which is often co-located with Indonesia’s abundant tin mineral resources. The Defense Ministry appears interested in building a thorium molten salt reactor of a small size – with an electricity generation capacity of 50 megawatts – by 2025 for particular national security purposes like power generation for marine vehicles. Nuclear propulsion will make such vessels capable of longer missions without the need of frequent fuel recharging, compared to conventional diesel-powered ones. 

It is uncertain whether concrete steps beyond leadership rhetoric are being taken, and there are questions about how these ministries will be able to mobilize nuclear expertise and industrial capabilities locally. There has long been skepticism about the feasibility of thorium molten salt reactor technologies among nuclear scientists at Indonesia’s National Nuclear Energy Agency, or BATAN, its acronym in the Indonesian language (Badan Tenaga Nuklir Nasional). BATAN scientists have said a commercial thorium molten salt reactor may be made operational only after 2040 despite its advantage in being a highly safe system and its relatively easy and cheap construction....


As noted last week Denmark's Seaborg Technologies just raised $24 million to pursue their version of  molten salt reactors with a more ambitious timeline: 

"Floating 'Mini-Nukes' Could Power Countries by 2025"