Kirk Sorensen: An Update On The Thorium Story

Two years ago, we interviewed Kirk Sorensen about the potential for thorium to offer humanity a safe, cheap and abundant source of energy.

He is an active advocate for developing liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR) technology, the details of which were covered in our earlier podcast: A Detailed Exploration of Thorium's Potential As An Energy Source. That interview concluded with Kirk's observation that the West could have a fully-operational LFTR reactor up and running at commercial scale within a decade, but it won't, because it is simply choosing not to prioritize exploring its potential.

But that doesn't mean other countries are ignoring thorium's promise.

Kirk returns this week to relay what has happened in the thorium space since our last conversation. The East, most notably China, is now fully-mobilized around getting its first reactor operational by as soon as 2020. If indeed thorium reactors are as successful as hoped, the US will find itself playing catch up against countries who suddenly hold a tremendous technology advantage:

I can give you a great update because I was at a conference in Nashville just two weeks ago and one of the representatives from the Chinese Academy of Sciences was there. He gave a presentation, showed us where they were at, what was going on. It was really clear to me that they are making tremendous progress. I saw pictures of test loops. I saw pictures of lithium separation cascades. I saw pumps and heat exchangers and fuels and all manner of things under development.  It was clear to me what I was looking at was hundreds and hundreds of researchers at work building stuff. Things are really happening; things are really going forward.

It was pretty sobering. Here were several of us Americans in the room talking about what we would like to do, what we would think about doing. And I have to admit I was kind of upset that here we were chatting and yapping and there they were doing. So it is very much going forward and making impressive progress. Their latest schedule that I heard at this meeting was a small two megawatt thermal reactor by 2020. It would not have a power conversion system, but it would still be the first molten salt reactor somebody has turned on since 1969.

It turns out the Chinese actually had a molten salt reactor program in the early seventies. And they were unable to develop the proper nickel alloys to contain the molten salt. And so they shut the program down around 1976 not long after we did. We, on the other hand, had developed that nickel alloy and successfully demonstrated it at Oak Ridge during that molten salt reactor experiment. Now of course they have kind of come in from the cold as far as technology exchange. They know what we did and they showed a number of samples of various nickel alloys they are developing for this program. So that is not a problem for them anymore. They have gotten past that challenge.

And they see the advantages of using thorium in the molten salt reactor to be able to produce high temperature, high quality heat not just for electricity generation but also for industrial processes or hydrocarbon generation, desalinization, a lot of different things. They are excited about it. They are going forward essentially on all fronts with nuclear. They want light water reactors, fast breeder reactors, gas cooled reactors, molten salt reactors. There is almost nothing that they are not doing in the nuclear space and putting serious resources on it. And again, I just cannot help but contrast what we are not doing in the United States to what they are doing. It is pretty humbling.

They made a decision that they are going to treat this like a priority. They're going to go make it happen. And we in the US have not, do not.

Not only are they moving out aggressively with nuclear but they are moving out aggressively trying to lay hands on fossil fuel resources all over the world. I mean, the Chinese are not messing around with energy. I think they have internalized the message: Energy is the master commodity. Everything else depends on energy. And if you do not have an energy supply that is reliable and sustainable, you are putting your entire nation at risk. We in the United States—sometimes I think we are cursed by abundance and options. We have so many things we could do that it makes it hard for us to decide what we will do. And we are just sleepwalking through this problem.

Click the play button below to listen to Chris' interview with Kirk Sorensen (42m:55s):


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Interesting topic, I never really understood much about the thorium reactors. It’s not our saviour though since all it produces is electricity when what we really need is liquid hydrocarbons. There is apparently lots of coal left which is one reason why electricity is so cheap – I believe cheaper than it has ever been on a true inflation adjusted basis. This is what nuclear will have to overcome, the cheap electricity brought on by coal. Maybe if a lot of the existing nuke plants get mothballed then we may see electricity rates rise. But nuclear will always have to deal with the EROEI issue like anything else. If it’s hovering below 10 I just don’t see how it’s going to be able to stand on its own. Add in all the fossil fuels that are needed to build the plants, not to mention the electrical infrastructure to feed it into the aging grid, and the fact that fossil fuels are going to be getting more expensive, it doesn’t help out nuclear’s prospects.
And running these plants requires a somewhat cohesive society with educated people. I’m not sure that will be lasting much longer in the US, once the dollar dies and things fall apart. It would be like trying to build and run a nuclear reactor in Liberia. That’s the problem with big centralized energy providers – the rest of society has to be cooperative and in line with it, or it won’t work. In that sense the smaller scale backyard energy provided by solar may be more effective. But I welcome thorium as another potential energy source along with wind and solar. We should be doing everything we can to promote it since we have no other choice at this point.

We in the United States—sometimes I think we are cursed by abundance and options. We have so many things we could do that it makes it hard for us to decide what we will do. And we are just sleepwalking through this problem.
Aldous Huxley is patting himself on the back.

Anyway, great interview. Thanks. Let's hope China is successful quickly.

Good topic. Starting to hear more about thorium but from a handful of people. 
I was surprising to hear that thorium is 3x more abundant than uranium.  (Seems pretty high up on the periodic table to be that abundant.)    Having said this, 3x uranium doesn't seem like a huge supply given that we've chewing through uranium quickly.   I suppose the huge differential in efficiency between thorium and uranium will make thorium punch far above uranium's weight (232.04 vs  238.02  cheeky)

The question is whether a working prototype will ever see the light of day.

Also surprised at Kirk's strong downplay of Fukishima debacle.  Wouldn't want to swim, fish, visit the area for a few eons…


A couple of things occur to me:

  • As Mark_BC points out, the viability of thorium (or any other energy source) is fundamentally limited by EROEI, which is being all but ignored in evaluating many technologies.  This is crucial these days, since the ROI numbers of our old reliable fossil fuels are low and declining, and I haven't seen any reports of a new energy source much above 10:1.
  • I think, if it turned out that thorium is really a cheap, reliable, long-term energy source, it would be a long-term disaster.  Remember the 3d "E": environment?  We are still fouling our environment in multiple ways (climate change is just one); an energy source that would underwrite a continuation of BAU for several more decades would make the ultimate peak and decline massively worse than it will be otherwise (that is, severe collapse).  Our children's and grandchildren's best hope is that we'll soon be forced to move to an energy-decline-appropriate economy, lifestyle, and society (since there seems to be no chance that we'll do it voluntarily). It'll still be a rough ride, but they'll have a better chance if we start earlier rather than later.

Oliver Tickell* says - But the key point here is that neither thorium, nor the LFTR, nor the uranium it produces, are intrinsically resistant to facilitating the proliferation of nuclear weapons. If LFTR designs are ultimately proven and become widespread, the selection of LFTRs as a means of producing fissile material would be an entirely rational choice for states either wishing to acquire nuclear weapons capabilities, or to increase their stock of nuclear weapons at much lower cost, and with much lower risk of detection, than using conventional technologies. As such, the technology itself would not prevent nuclear proliferation. That would only be possible with a frequent and rigorous inspection regime.

*Oliver Tickell is an author, journalist, and campaigner specializing in environment, energy, and health issues. He is based in Oxford, England.


Do you agree Kirk - I ask as someone seeking a ban of nuclear weapons and, nuclear power because of the link to weapons and the irreducible toxic waste. Like your site by the way.