By the Potencia correspondent
For some time Chile has been studying nuclear power as an option to generate clean and abundant electricity to help mitigate the environment impact of its traditional resources like coal and oil, as well as diversify its generation mix. A small modular reactor design fuelled by thorium may hold the key.
International companies like Areva, General Electric and Westinghouse have expressed interest in setting up and promoting this technology in the South American country.
However, there is another company, called DBI, which is probably less well-known that may well establish the first nuclear reactor in the country.
The goal for DBI, which is based in the US, is to install a small-scale modular reactor with the capability of initially generating 25 MW of electricity.
According to Chilean press reports, this would require an investment of $40m with $6m, or 15 per cent coming from the private investment sector.
Contrary to many other companies in the sector, DBI’s reactor technology uses a thorium-based fuel rather than uranium.
Thorium is a naturally-occurring, slightly radioactive metal. Furthermore, it is more abundant than uranium, with resources existing in northern Chile. Another advantage of this material is that it is potentially less harmful to the environment, which makes the proposal attractive says DBI.
To-date uranium has been the primary fuel used in conventional nuclear power technology. In an article published in Electricity Chile, however, experts explained that the uranium-based process was not sustainable because of the build-up of isotopes, such as samarium and xenon, eventually stopping the reaction, which led to the replacement of the fuel rods.
"At that point only approximately 4 per cent of the fuel has been used, and the high amount of remaining fissile material present a risk of radiation for countless generations," Hector D'Auvergne, founder of the company, told Electricity Chile.
D'Auvergne has recently attracted the attention of the Chilean press with his idea of bringing this reactor to the country.
He was born in Chile of French origin and emigrated to the USA in the 1960, studying studied electrical engineering at University of California, Berkeley.
The main driver behind the DBI reactor design is the minimization of radioactive waste. "Using a series of breed-and-burn, where the unused fuel remains in the reactor, reduces the volume and toxicity of waste by over 90 per cent," he said in an interview.
According to various studies, thorium can be found in higher concentration in the minerals such as monazite (between 2 per cent and 10 per cent by weight) compared to uranium (0.1-1 per cent by weight). This makes the extraction of thorium less damaging to the environment than both uranium and coal mining.
According to the United States Geological Survey Mineral Commodity Summaries January 2008, globally economically extractable thorium reserves could exceed 1.2 billion tonnes, with 60 per cent of its reserves found in Australia, India and Norway.
It is expected that if the modular nuclear reactor was installed in Chile is could be used to power desalinization plants located in the north of the country. These plants require approximately 10 MW of electricity, according to Francisco Aguirre, a partner and advisor to DBI Electroconsultores Chile, DBI’s Chilean subsidiary which it established late last year.
The two candidate desalination plants tor are one belonging to the Luksic Group in Antofagasta and another in the city of Copiapo that is planned to being operating in 2015.
With the current events unfolding at the crippled Fukushima-Diiachi nuclear power complex in Japan, which uses both uranium and plutonium as its fuel source, we may well see other countries exploring the potential of thorium.