The Future of Nuclear Power and The Long View

Below is a comment from Future of NuclearChair Henry Vehovec on his opening remarks and in response to post-event press coverage:

“The day after Wednesday’s Future of Nuclear 2013 Conference in Toronto the Premier Kathleen Wynne and the Province of Ontario announced that new build nuclear reactors would not be pursued at this time. Articles in the press cited pricing pressure from cheap shale gas, a decline in energy demand, and increased resistance to nuclear power in the post-Fukushima world as reasons for the decision. Although there has been a recent decline in nuclear power in the global energy mix it would be premature to dismiss nuclear in the longer term.

Henry Vehovec, Chair, Future of Nuclear

Henry Vehovec, Chair, Future of Nuclear

The global mix of major energy sources evolves over decades and plays out in time frames of a century or more. The first oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania in 1859, however, it wasn’t until the development of the Model-T Ford fifty years later that oil truly took off as a major global energy source. Similarly, civilian nuclear energy started about fifty years ago and the industry now needs game changing innovation if it is to compete with shale gas and address concerns of radioactive waste, safety and proliferation.

Are there any such game changing innovations on the horizon? At the Future of Nuclear Conference we heard about several nuclear technologies that hold the paradigm shifting potential to compete with shale gas.  New nuclear technologies that are on the drawing board can burn spent fuel, are incapable of meltdown, and do not produce fissile material. We heard about fusion from General Fusion, thorium and molten salt reactors (MSR) from Terrestrial Energy, small modular reactors (SMR) from Babcock and Wilcox, portable reactors, travelling reactors, floating reactors and more. These technologies have attracted investors such as Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates as well as some of the wealthiest sovereign funds. The only problem with most of these technologies is that they require at least a decade to develop and would cost several billion dollars to produce their first prototype let alone a commercially available product. In this era of short term pressures for quarterly results in business and governments that rarely think beyond the horizon of a 4-year election term it is difficult to find jurisdictions that plan decades into the future as is required when considering energy infrastructure.

China, India, Russia and UAE are examples of countries that are taking an appropriate long view to energy planning. Not coincidentally, these are also among the countries that are proceeding aggressively with their plans to build nuclear power capabilities. China alone has 29 reactors currently under construction. Although some jurisdictions in the west do not have local demand to support new reactors it would certainly make sense to stay engaged with the industry and act as a supplier to international markets where possible. As a commodity, shale gas will not be cheap and plentiful forever.”

First test of thorium fuel commences at Norway’s Halden research reactor

This week at Norway’s Halden research reactor, Norwegian company Thor Energy began testing a promising fuel that could dramatically change the way nuclear power is generated.

Thor Energy and other companies are in the process of developing thorium as the nuclear fuel of the future.  It is much more plentiful in nature than uranium making it cheaper. [1]  It is also highly versatile and can be used in many existing reactor types including heavy water reactors, high-temperature gas cooled reactors, boiling (light) water reactors, pressurized (light) water reactors, and fast neutron reactors. [1] It is also a candidate fuel for new types of reactors including molten salt reactors and accelerator driven reactors. [1]

However, the wide-ranging benefits of thorium will have to wait a while yet.  The test is scheduled to run for five years before the fuel will be studied to determine its performance and safety. [2] This test may be the first of many.  Companies around the world are working on thorium fuel including  Candu of Canada and China National Nuclear Corporation who are leading a research program to use thorium mixed with recycled uranium as a fuel in a modified Candu reactor. [2]

While it is still years away, the industry will be keeping a close eye on Thor Energy and others as they work to make thorium fuel commercially available.


1. Thorium, World Nuclear Association Information Library,

2. Thorium test begins, World Nuclear News,