7 Utah counties exploring experimental nuclear power from ‘molten salt’

Rural Utah counties looking to partner with firm proposing to produce medical isotopes, other valuable materials

(Courtesy) Rural Utah counties are partnering to bring a experimental thorium nuclear reactor to the state.

Imagine generating nuclear power that can’t be turned into weapons, doesn’t pose a risk of meltdown or radiation release nor produce high-level radioactive waste that could contaminate the environment for millennia. And to sweeten the deal, medical isotopes could be harvested from a process.

Such technology, using thorium instead of uranium as a core fuel, is proven to some extent and Utah is well-positioned to lead the nation in developing what could be a world-changing energy source, according to experts and entrepreneurs who testified recently before the Utah Legislature.

Now a Utah startup is developing a thorium reactor, perhaps the first in the U.S. in half a century, and a consortium of eastern Utah counties is exploring whether to participate in the project. The Seven County Infrastructure Coalition (SCIC) last month issued a request for qualifications (RFQ) seeking a “project analyst” to evaluate “a thorium energy facility for producing electricity, etc. as proposed by Alpha Tech Research Corp.”

Alpha Tech incorporated last year with Salt Lake City data entrepreneur Nick Baguley and Brigham Young University professor Matthew Memmott at the helm. The firm is looking to site a 30-megawatt test reactor in Utah to produce medical isotopes and other valuable materials. On Friday, Baguley declined to identify the other materials, citing proprietary concerns.

“We are a young company working on a technology that is not only cutting edge, but could have significant impact on the world,” Baguley said.

Utah is rich in two of the three elements — beryllium and lithium — needed to create a form of liquid salt best suited for conveying heat energy in thorium reactors, Memmott, an assistant professor chemical engineering, told the SCIC board last month.

Utah’s salt flats hold a lot of lithium, while 85 percent of the world’s beryllium comes from a mine near Delta, Memmott said.  The state also has a host of rural sites ideal for locating such a test reactor while maintaining proximity to an airport for rapid shipping of medical isotopes to customers worldwide, he said.

“A Utah thorium reactor,” Memmott said, ”is a perfect fit.” 

However, the coalition’s involvement has raised concerns about the use of limited county resources in such a speculative venture. Nor is it clear how the thorium proposal squares with the coalition’s legal mission, which is to “build essential regional infrastructure elements,” such as pipelines, roads, transmission and rail needed to deliver extracted minerals and power to markets.

“It’s very early on, but the thing that’s exciting has to do with medical isotopes from the byproducts,” said Mike McKee, who recently left his seat on the Uintah County Commission to head the county coalition. The other counties involved are Duchesne, Daggett, Carbon, Emery, Sevier and San Juan. The group has set aside $25,000 to evaluate Alpha Tech‘s proposal and explore whether it wants to participate.

The coalition’s initial request for qualifications drew no adequate responses by its Aug. 1 deadline, so the board extended its request by another month, according to McKee.

“The whole idea of the RFQ is for projects we take on, we want to make sure they are solid,” he said. “This may or may not be a project we pursue.”

The coalition’s financing and procurement practices have recently come under intense scrutiny by Utah Treasurer David Damschen, who believes the group could be flouting accountability standards.

As a new member of the state Community Impact Board (CIB), which gives out federal mineral royalties to rural counties, Damschen has raised numerous concerns about the coalition’s management of CIB grants— its sole source of revenue. At recent meetings, the state treasurer has openly wondered whether the coalition steers contracts to insiders instead of the best qualified people and spends public money in ways that provide minimal public benefit.

“We are being unfairly beat up,” McKee said of the criticism.  As to the thorium reactor project, he said the coalition has not made any commitments, beyond exploring the idea.

“We are tying to do everything we can to enhance the economy of rural Utah,” he said. “We want to do everything right. When you are talking potentially 7,000 to 10,000 of jobs for rural Utah, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t check this out.”

But thorium technology has years of costly research and development ahead before it’s ready to produce power and isotopes, according to Mike Simpson, a University of Utah metallurgical engineering professor.

“It‘s not accurate to say it’s proven to work. Aspects of it have been proven, but everything that has to be tied together hasn’t happened,” said Simpson, adding he would provide advice to the coalition for free. ”They still need another 10 years to perfect this, and it would be great. There’s lots of thorium. You could get thousands of years of energy out of it.“

But many technical hurdles remain and these rural counties are not positioned to help address these challenges other than siting assistance for a reactor, Simpson added.

Thorium is an abundant silvery metallic element listed at No. 90 on the periodic table of elements, two doors up from uranium. It was discovered in 1829 and named for Thor, the Norse god of thunder. The nation’s richest deposits are at Lemhi Pass on the Idaho-Montana border. But currently thorium has little value and is considered a waste byproduct of rare-earth mining.

Thorium was the subject of nuclear research in the late 1960s at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, but the lab’s thorium reactor was shuttered in 1973 as the Cold War era tilted the U.S. toward light-water uranium reactors with their ability to produce fissile material used in nuclear weapons.

Consequently. the U.S. has to import its medical isotopes, even though they are used in 20 million health care procedures a year. Congress has mandated that the nation develop a domestic source by 2025.

“We could produce the first medical isotope industry in the U.S. here in Utah,” Memmott said.