The United States possesses a natural resource, U-233 (thorium), which could provide clean energy, break down nuclear waste, and support the treatment of a variety of cancers.
But the Department of Energy (DOE) will have spent more than $657 million as of August 2022 to destroy the supply of U-233 it has on-hand under a “Defense Environmental Cleanup” program, and has committed more than $281 million more to finish the job by December 2025 — a total of nearly $1 billion.
Republican Senator and former Auburn University football Coach Tommy Tuberville of Alabama has a better idea: Don’t destroy U-233, power America with it.
Tuberville is leading the charge to integrate U-233 into America’s clean-energy arsenal. Under his new bill, known as the Thorium Energy Security Act, Tuberville hopes to see the U.S. save its U-233 and put it toward the development of new nuclear reactors.
Tuberville worries that if the U.S. does not act now, it could fall behind China and Russia in the race to provide sustainable power.
“We want to be greener, but we want to be efficient,” Tuberville told Newsweek. “We want to keep energy costs down, and this could be a huge advantage for everybody across the globe to be able to do this now.”
Experts say the energy potential of thorium is virtually unlimited.
“There is enough thorium in the United States alone to power the country at its current energy level for over 1,000 years,” the Thorium Energy Alliance estimates.
Uranium-233, an isotope derived from a silvery metal called thorium, was first used in experiments in the post-World War II era for nuclear activities. While scientists learned that it could serve as an energy source, they also discovered it could not be used to make nuclear weapons, and it soon fell out of favor.
But those early experiments resulted in the U.S. amassing the world’s largest known stockpile of separated U-233. Yet, with the isotopes occupying precious storage space and being put to little use, the George W. Bush administration ordered DOE to purge its stocks.
While the United States currently stands as the world leader in total number of domestic nuclear reactors, with 93 on hand and two under construction, China and Russia are on its heels. China, which already boasts 51 reactors, has 26 under construction — more than any other country in the world. Russia has 37 total reactors and plans to add nine more, according to a March 2022 report by the American Nuclear Society.
“China is gonna be sending crews into all these countries and building these things,” Tuberville said. “It’s gonna boost their economy, and we need to give an alternative.”
Nuclear power provides roughly 52% of America’s clean energy and is considered the country’s most reliable energy source, the DOE reported in March of 2021. Given its reliability, many European countries, including Britain and France, as well as emerging powers like India and South Korea, are beginning to see it as a critical part of the clean energy landscape.
Charles Forsberg, a nuclear engineering professor with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who previously served as a corporate fellow at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where much of the U-233 stock is stored, warns that the U.S. could fall behind China in nuclear energy production if current construction levels remain on pace.
“If you look at China, whether you’re talking about nuclear reactors, or [solar], or wind, or you go name the energy system, the fact that they make more of it for their own internal use means that they learn more about how to do it, and that’s what makes them so good at it,” Forsberg told Newsweek. “The reality of engineering is you learn by doing.”
The U.S. Energy Information Administration reported in April that the average age of America’s nuclear reactors is “about 40 years old.” The newest U.S. reactor entered service in 2016, the first to come online since 1996.
As Forsberg notes, the lack of movement in this arena may put the industry out of practice at a time when China’s nuclear engineers are continuously working on their production capabilities. And while the U.S. is ridding itself of U-233, China is working to make it a key part of their energy arsenal.
Tuberville notes that China has been hard at work refining its thorium technology. Beijing has produced its first reactor powered by U-233, and began testing it last September. He says that the country could soon use U-233 to power its aircraft carriers, and may also soon introduce additional U-233-powered reactors as a part of its Belt and Road Initiative, an infrastructure and commerce effort that encompasses more than 30% of world trade and more than 60% of the world population, according to the World Bank.
Tuberville is particularly concerned that China was able to gain a significant advantage in its development of U-233 technology after the U.S. shared intelligence with Beijing.
Initiated in 2011 under the Obama administration, DOE entered a cooperative agreement with the Chinese Academy of Sciences in which it began sharing information on U-233 processing in an effort to promote China’s movement away from coal and toward clean energy solutions.
“China’s ahead of us because they got the technology, and they’re running with it, and we’re not running with it,” Tuberville told Newsweek. “There’s a will and a way here for us to make progress with energy.”
As Tuberville noted during a May 19 Senate Armed Services Committee, Alvin Weinberg, who was the administrator at Oak Ridge National Laboratory during and after the Manhattan Project, once referred to breeder nuclear reactors as “only a little less important than the discovery of fission,” the process by which energy is generated within nuclear power plants.
The breeder reactor is different from other reactors in that it produces more fissile material (the substance used in nuclear reactors and weapons) than it consumes. During Weinberg’s tenure at Oak Ridge, scientists developed a molten-salt breeder reactor that became the first of its kind to run on U-233. While it is not the only type of reactor that can use U-233, it has gained considerable traction recently.
Those who favor this reactor type, including Tuberville, note its unique versatility, as it can also be used to dispose of other nuclear waste while providing medical isotopes for cancer treatments. The International Atomic Energy Agency, an organization that promotes the peaceful use of nuclear energy, writes that because these reactors operate at very high temperatures, they are more efficient in generating electricity. Additionally, they operate at lower pressures, which the Agency says results in enhanced safety.
Another advantage of thorium is its abundance. There is roughly three times more thorium than uranium in the Earth’s crust. Switching to thorium could prove to be prudent for the U.S. as it finds itself in a new era of great-power conflict with Russia and China.
The Energy Information Administration reports that as of 2020 about 79% of uranium used by U.S. nuclear power plants is imported from foreign countries, including Russia, which provides 16% of the supply.
“We don’t want to be using Russia’s uranium. We’ve got to get off their uranium,” Tuberville told Newsweek. “We don’t have to go to Russia to buy [thorium]. Just think about the national security for this, we’re producing our own and we don’t have to go to other places to buy [it].”
During the May Senate Armed Services hearing, Tuberville drew attention to the topic of thorium while questioning DOE Secretary Jennifer Granholm about a 2008 report by the DOE’s Inspector General, which called U-233 an “irreplaceable” resource and urged the Department to “explore alternatives to ensuring a stable domestic supply.”
Tuberville noted during this exchange that the funding appropriations bill for 2021 called on DOE to submit a report to Congress “identifying any and all options for providing nuclear material containing isotopes … such as uranium-233.” This report was supposed to be submitted 180 days following the enactment of the bill, yet it has still not been provided to Congress.
Newsweek submitted a query to DOE asking how close the report was to being completed and whether the Department still stood by the 2008 findings. This query was made in conjunction with a request to the Department of Defense (DOD) regarding national security concerns surrounding the issue.
DOE did not provide an answer addressing either question, and instead allowed the Pentagon to provide a joint statement addressing the defense issues that may be raised by U-233 technology being proliferated in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), particularly in regard to their development of thorium-powered aircraft carriers. A spokesperson said neither agency had any additional comments on this subject beyond the statement provided:
“The Office of the Secretary of Defense defers to the Department of Energy/National Nuclear Security Administration’s Office of Naval Reactors regarding nuclear propulsion matters, and to the Department of Energy regarding management and the U.S. inventory and potential applications of U-233, along with civil nuclear technology development,” the joint statement read.
“The PRC’s development of nuclear energy technology, in part, runs parallel to its economic development and commensurate growth in energy demand and production,” the joint statement added. “Nevertheless, the Administration remains concerned about the PRC’s potential for fissile material production. We call on the PRC to join the other Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Nuclear Weapon States, including the United States, in maintaining a moratorium on fissile material production for use in nuclear weapons.”
While the statement touches on the concern of China’s nuclear advancement in the broad sense, it stops short of raising the issue of what China’s continued expansion in the realm of nuclear reactor production may mean for America’s geopolitical standing in the longer term.
Matthew Bunn, a professor of energy, national security, and foreign Policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, told Newsweek that reactors can serve as a tool in building long-term alliances. And while this could be a greater area of concern with China in the future, Russia is already engaging in this practice.
“When you buy a reactor from Russia, if you need them to, they’ll pay for the whole thing,” Bunn said. “If you’re a poor, developing country, the notion of ‘you don’t have to pay a thing’ is really attractive.”
In addition to building the reactors, Bunn said Russia offers contracts to maintain them. Once this process is initiated, the recipient country will likely find itself working with Russia for a decade while the reactor is built, another 60 years while its being operated, and 10 to 20 more years when the reactor reaches the end of its lifespan and needs to be decommissioned.
Russia makes money while doing this through years of electricity sales, Bunn said, adding that China may soon begin to offer similar deals.
“It’s really building a century-long strategic partnership with the country you’re selling it to,” Bunn told Newsweek. “We used to think about it that way in the ’60s and ’70s, but now for years have sort of been pretending that it’s a commercial business like any other.”
Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy corporation Rosatom says that it leads the world in the number of simultaneous nuclear reactor construction projects. According to its 2020 annual report, its 10-year portfolio of overseas orders totaled over $138 billion. Bunn said that at the time of the report, no U.S. company had orders worth one-tenth of that amount.
Bunn warns that American nuclear energy companies face an uphill battle when it comes to competing with the offers that Rosatom can provide. As a state-owned enterprise backed by a dictatorship, Rosatom and firms like it are able to act swiftly and have billions of dollars at their disposal, giving them a huge advantage in the global marketplace.
“The United States used to be the dominant reactor supplier in the world, and it’s barely a factor in reactor sale markets now,” Bunn told Newsweek. “[U.S. reactors today] will have to be so attractive that people will be willing to pay a bit more and have a less attractive deal than the Russians are offering.”
Given that the nuclear energy sector primarily uses other fissile materials, Bunn is not sold on the idea of U-233 being the type of silver bullet that the American industry needs to solve its problems. However, he agreed that it does need to be innovative in order to compete with powers like Russia and China. This is where Tuberville argues the U.S. may be able to find solutions in the supply of U-233 sitting at Oak Ridge.
As gas prices continue to rise and oil becomes an object to be manipulated for political gains, Tuberville says countries will be looking for clean energy solutions. By advancing its use of thorium, Tuberville argues the U.S. may be able to combat these potential concerns and better both itself and its allies.
“To me, this is kind of like the space race,” Tuberville told Newsweek. “We’ve got to look out for the next 10 or 15 years because we can’t be paying five, six, seven dollars a gallon for gas. We’ve got to find some other way to make energy, to make electricity.”
“[U-233] is something that I think could really change what we’re doing in energy and give us an opportunity to make a statement,” Tuberville added. “We want to be greener, but we want to be efficient. We want to keep energy costs down. This could be a huge advantage for everybody across the globe.”