Life-cycle impacts from novel thorium–uranium-fuelled nuclear energy systems

Ashley, S. F.; Fenner, R. A.; Nuttall, W. J. and Parks, G. T. (2015). Life-cycle impacts from novel thorium–uranium-fuelled nuclear energy systems. Energy Conversion and Management, 101 pp. 136–150.



Electricity generated from nuclear power plants is generally associated with low emissions per kWh generated, an aspect that feeds into the wider debate surrounding nuclear power. This paper seeks to investigate how life-cycle emissions would be affected by including thorium in the nuclear fuel cycle, and in particular its inclusion in technologies that could prospectively operate open Th–U-based nuclear fuel cycles. Three potential Th–U-based systems operating with open nuclear fuel cycles are considered: AREVA’s European Pressurised Reactor; India’s Advanced Heavy Water Reactor; and General Atomics’ Gas-Turbine Modular Helium Reactor. These technologies are compared to a reference U-fuelled European Pressurised Reactor. A life-cycle analysis is performed that considers the construction, operation, and decommissioning of each of the reactor technologies and all of the other associated facilities in the open nuclear fuel cycle. This includes the development of life-cycle analysis models to describe the extraction of thorium from monazitic beach sands and for the production of heavy water. The results of the life-cycle impact analysis highlight that the reference U-fuelled system has the lowest overall emissions per kWh generated, predominantly due to having the second-lowest uranium ore requirement per kWh generated. The results highlight that the requirement for mined or recovered uranium (and thorium) ore is the greatest overall contributor to emissions, with the possible exception of nuclear energy systems that require heavy water. In terms of like-for-like comparison of mining and recovery techniques, thorium from monazitic beach sands has lower overall emissions than uranium that is either conventionally mined or recovered from in-situ leaching. Although monazitic beach sands (and equivalent placer deposits) only form 30% of the overall known thorium ore deposits, it is expected that such deposits would generally be utilised first if thorium becomes a viable nuclear fuel. Overall, for these four nuclear energy technologies, the range of CO2(eq) emissions per kWh generated (6.60–13.2 gCO2(eq)/kWh) appears to be low in comparison to the majority of electricity-generating technologies.

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