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Are thorium-based nuclear power plants the best replacement for coal-based power plants?
This is a hypothetical question. In 2019, coal only produced 23.5% of U.S. electricity. That would require about twice as many nuclear plants as we have today, and the only nuclear plant under construction in the U.S. today is so badly out of control in terms of cost that it will end the nuclear era, unless something which is distinctly NOT on the horizon comes along. The cost of putting all the new nuclear plants in the desert would be increased by the need for transmission from the deserts to the places where we use electricity. Very long, very large capacity transmission lines can be built, but t cost billions of dollars. The goal that most of us consider is the cost of wind and solar to replace all fossil fuels. All fossil fuels generated 61.87% of total U.S. electricity in 2019. The cost of the new wind and solar facilities is so low today, that we can do this replacement and lower the cost of electricity for everyone in the U.S. The same is happening on a global basis. These price relationships are new. A few years ago, wind and solar were not cheaper than fossil or nuclear power except in certain situations. Wind and solar also require transmission, but the amount of transmission is very small compared to your idea of locating all the generation in deserts. 30% of the U.S. and the world is considered desert, and we need about 3% of it to have wind and solar in order to supply almost twice as much electricity as we have today, which is what we need to end fossil fuel use with wind and solar. The more efficiency programs we run the less it costs and the faster we get there. All that land can be dual use. Wind only occupies about 5% of the land it requires. Solar farms tend to be densely filled with panels, but this is not necessary. Rooftop solar is of course a good example of solar dual use, but rooftop solar is more expensive than utility scale solar, so it is not the resource that is putting all others to rest. Same with offshore wind. It will be built, but it is more expensive than onshore wind in utility scale farms. Nuclear power continues to have problems. When a nuclear plant has run for a few decades it must be decommissioned. The current approach is to leave it in place for a generation or two, and let your grandchildren figure out how to deal with it. Wind and solar components could be collected and recycled, but most of them will be re-used as the panels and turbines are replaced with newer models and the mounts and towers will remain for a long time. T can, of course be completely removed with no long term impact. If nuclear power had anything to do with addressing climate change I would grudgingly support it. But today there is simply no need. We need to eliminate fossil generation as fast as possible, and today that is in about 20 years. New nuclear plants are impossible to site and build that fast. We’d only have a few of them built before we eliminated the need for them with wind and solar. It is very common for people to butt heads on these issues. But the economics dictate what will happen. Today, new wind and solar generation can provide 100% of the electricity we need for about one tenth of the cost of attempting to do this with nuclear power. But the nuclear attempt would grind to a halt because it would require an increase in electric rates that the economy simply won’t tolerate. If you want to see how this works in real life pay attention to the Vogtle nuclear project in Georgia. At $28 billion, this plant will produce electricity which costs five times as much as local Georgia residents can produce it on their roofs, and ten times as much as the utility could, if it were to build new solar farms that provide power directly to the grid. There are going to be decades of legal battles to settle what happens with this plant. In the mean time, everyone else is going to see lower rates from wind and solar generation, and the smart ones will save even more money with efficiency.
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It’s a lovely, peaceful way to produce energy, it doesn't emit radioactivity, and it isn't polluting the earth. But it isn't without its challenges. The thorium is expensive and a lot of the fuel rods must be stored on site in a high-pressure container. There is a lot of thorium mining, too. I have to admit, I like thorium. I like using thorium, I like the simplicity of its construction and I especially like how we could mine all the thorium we could need. A large thorium reactor is one in which the primary fuel is thorium. And how does thorium fare against the big boys? Well, it would be difficult to beat the nuclear breeder reactors in a straight up fight. All the above reactors generate electricity in some form and there is a fair amount of research going on to develop molten salt reactors. The most promising ones right now are.