Utah may pump $10M into research for a different kind of nuclear power

Utah lawmakers are considering a $10 million appropriation to develop a nuclear research lab that local leaders say could put the state at the forefront of a clean energy revolution and generate hundreds of new jobs in rural communities in desperate need of them.

The money would equip an empty warehouse Emery County has acquired near Orangeville in hopes of establishing a thorium-based energy industry.

For several months, the Legislature has been fielding pitches from Brigham Young University chemical engineer Matthew Memmott about the virtues of thorium, which has been proved to yield energy much more safely than solid uranium and without the dangerous waste.

Additionally, valuable medical isotopes, used for diagnosing and treating cancer, can be extracted from the reaction process as needed, according to research Memmott pursues at BYU.

A single 7-gram pellet of thorium packs as much energy as nearly a ton of coal but would release it free of emissions using “molten salt” technology, Memmott has told lawmakers on multiple trips to the Capitol.

A silvery heavy metal sitting two doors up on the periodic table from uranium, thorium can fire reactors that use liquid salts, rather than water, to convey heat.

Big unknowns surround licensing such a reactor and the technology’s commercial viability. A research lab could help establish a regulatory framework and determine just how 50-year-old thorium technology can be done economically in today’s marketplace, according to Memmott.

“We don’t know enough about this coolant to get past current licensing processes. We have to know everything about this salt, how it behaves, how this reactor will operate,” he told a legislative subcommittee last month. “Having a lab will help facilitate both the development of medical isotopes and this technology concurrently, creating jobs as well as new opportunities for making Utah the source for isotopes not currently produced in the United States.”

Memmott’s remarks came in support of the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition’s request for $10 million to establish the “Thorium Center of Excellence.”

Other scientists wonder what Utah could accomplish with this investment since four national energy labs are equipped to explore thorium energy and corporate money supports plenty of university research into molten salts.

“Should we be supporting this research? Yes, but I’m not sure this is the way to do it,” said Michael Simpson, who heads the University of Utah’s metallurgical engineering department and consults for companies hoping to develop thorium-based power.

“Utah does not need to spend $10 million on a research center in Orangeville in order to ensure this research occurs in the state. The University of Utah has previously secured funding from Flibe Energy, Kairos Power, and Elysium Industries — three of the most notable companies working on MSRs [molten salt reactors],” he added. “Significant research capabilities already exist.”

Memmott and others told Utah lawmakers that Idaho National Laboratory and other federal labs require molten-salt researchers to wait in line and must retool sites in between studies. A lab exclusively set up for molten salt reactions would streamline the research pipeline.

“If we want to be a leader, we need to be in the forefront,” said Mike McKee, the former Uintah County commissioner who now heads the consortium of energy-centric eastern Utah counties. About a dozen U.S. firms are looking to commercialize thorium energy; four have expressed interest in participating in the Utah project, according to McKee.

“Utah is poised to be at the very front of world opportunities,” he told lawmakers to justify the $10 million request. “That is a lot of money. The upside is so tremendous, it is worthy of some strong consideration.”

The lab itself would employ six to 12 people, according to McKee. His hope is that such a project would position eastern Utah to become a hotbed for a new thorium-energy industry, creating 4,000 to 8,000 jobs to offset anticipated job losses in the coal sector. Emery is home to the state’s most productive coal mines and two major coal-fired power plants expected to retire in the next 15 years.

McKee’s coalition has explored developing a 30-megawatt molten-salt reactor in partnership with Memmott’s firm, Alpha Tech Research Corp., but officials stress that a reactor is not part of the proposed research center. The appropriation would equip a lab that would be housed in a former Rocky Mountain Power warehouse outside Orangeville, according to Emery County Commissioner Lynn Sitterud. He noted, however, that the county is eager to host a power-generating thorium reactor.

“With the state’s help, we hope this can come to fruition. We’ve yet to meet with anyone that didn’t say they would do what they can to help us,” Sitterud told lawmakers during an interim session. “We have water and property that have been offered [not far] from the Hunter Power Plant. … When the power is being generated, they would be able to go just across the road to connect with the grid. Water, power, gas, land — everything they need has been promised right there in that area.”

Memmott’s many legislative presentations helped make believers of key lawmakers, including Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, and Sen. David Hinkins, the Orangeville Republican sponsoring the appropriation.

“It would be a great project for rural Utah, particularly in Emery County, so I support it 100 percent,” said Albrecht, a retired utility executive. The Natural Resources appropriations subcommittee pegged Hinkins’ request in the fifth position on its priority list, indicating it has a good chance of approval.

The medical isotopes associated with thorium are currently available from only the Netherlands, and Congress has mandated that a domestic source be developed in the coming years. Memmott, whose research interest focuses on extracting molybdenum-99 and other isotopes, will help decide how to renovate the building and equip the thorium lab, according to Sitterud.

But his firm will not run it or get preferential access.

“We aren’t sure who would manage it. We don’t want Alpha Tech to be in control of it solely, because it will be offered equally to any company or university that wants to use it,” Sitterud said. “We are making sure no one has a priority or a first claim.”