If a Teton County resident has his way, Afton may become home to the country’s first privately funded thorium-fired nuclear reactor.
Matt Gawronski, who established Jackson-based Thorium Manufactured Reactors in 2012, hopes to secure permits for a test facility as soon as August.
An unnamed African country would host the demonstration reactor, as the American regulatory regime will not allow private construction of the as-yet-unapproved design.
After Thorium Manufactured Reactors tests its first reactor in Africa, it plans build a second one 70 miles south of Jackson, Gawronski said.
“We actually have the place planned where we’re going to put it,” he said.
Gawronski aims much higher than to simply build a nuclear reactor in Star Valley.
“We’re basically revolutionizing power production in the world,” he said of his company’s ambitions. “I see it as the only solution available right now that’s viable and practical.”
The reactor Gawronski foresees would split atoms from a molten thorium salt.
Cost is foremost among the many advantages of that method over conventional power production, he said. Teton County residents pay about 4 cents per kilowatt-hour, Gawronski said. The plant he wants to build would generate power that costs 0.85 cents per kilowatt-hour, he said.
Such a reactor would lack many of the expensive features required on plants powered by uranium, Gawronski said, such as high-pressure containment vessels and cooling ponds for radioactive waste.
Without these components a thorium reactor is easy to build. It’s also smaller, he said.
“You could build a reactor in a place two times this size,” Gawronski said recently, seated in a booth at Bubba’s Bar-B-Que Restaurant and pointing at his surroundings.
Since the waste products are continuously burned through the life of the reactor, he said, a thorium-fired plant wouldn’t incur the costs associated with nuclear waste disposal.
“Because it burns everything, the only nuclear waste is about this much,” he said, holding a cupped hand over the booth’s table.
The reactor would rely on a fuel that is far more abundant than uranium isotopes.
“We’ve got more thorium than we know what to do with,” Gawronski said.
A naturally occurring radioactive element named after the Norse god Thor, thorium is found in relative abundance in the Earth’s crust — about 10 parts per million, Gawronski said.
The metal is extracted as a by-product of rare-earth mining. A 2005 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency estimates thorium reserves of around 160,000 tons in the United States alone.
That amount could fulfill the country’s current energy needs for the next 6,400 years, according to Gawronski’s calculations.
As a result, thorium could offer far cheaper energy than the coal and natural gas that, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration, provided two-thirds of the country’s energy in 2013.
“You want to use coal or natural gas, go ahead,” Gawronski said. “You can’t touch our price.”
Thorium molten-salt reactors also pose far fewer risks than uranium reactors, Gawronski said. Thorium has low enough radioactivity, “you can hold it in your hand,” he said.
Reactors using thorium molten salt also can’t suffer from core melts, as happened at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima, Gawronski said.
Unlike the reactors involved in those incidents, thorium molten-salt reactors don’t generate the amount of heat that can melt reactor cores if they suddenly cease functioning.
“If you shut down the reactor, you end up with a block of salt,” he said. “If you have an earthquake, a 747 hits it and terrorists try to steal it, it doesn’t matter. If you get a runaway reaction, [a uranium core] melts down; we’re already melted.”
Terrorists who might steal solidified thorium salts would do so in vain, Gawronski said, because neither thorium nor its fissile products can be used in a nuclear bomb.
Although the U.S. government built a successful thorium molten-salt reactor in the 1960s, the technology was abandoned in favor of those using uranium isotopes 235 and 238.
Thorium’s unsuitability for bombs remains one of the principal reasons the government to this day does not fund research into using it as a power source, he said. Lacking modern examples of functioning thorium molten-salt reactors, the government has imposed prohibitively expensive regulations on their production, Gawronski said, but this will change.
“Once we get the first one running ... they can’t give us all these rules about why it won’t work,” he said. “Once we get that done, we’ll start mass production.”
The reactor planned for Africa — whose precise location Gawronski wouldn’t reveal for fear of competitors — is expected to generate about 50 megawatts, he said.
Because they require so little supporting infrastructure, Gawronski envisions thorium reactors as small as 20 megawatts powering individual towns. The design can be scaled up to plants putting out 250 megawatts and more, he said.
Gawronski wants to build the first American plant in Afton not solely because of Wyoming’s permissive regulatory environment, he said.
“We’re going to do it in Wyoming because that’s where all the engineers are,” he said.
Because no new nuclear plants in the United States have been built since the 1970s, graduating nuclear engineers gravitate toward companies that extract the plants’ fuel, Gawronski said. As the state producing more uranium than any other, Wyoming also holds the largest concentration of nuclear engineers, he said.
Gawronski estimated the African plant will cost just $30 million. By comparison, a planned 3,000 Mw plant to be sited in Green River, Utah, will cost more than $9 billion, he said.
Around 70 venture capital firms have expressed interest in funding Gawronski’s project, he said. First, they want to see him obtain permits to build it, he said.
From the time permits are secured, which Gawronski hopes to have done by August or September, construction will take around two years, he said. Along the way, Thorium Manufactured Reactors will hire about 50 new employees, from nuclear engineers to administrative workers.
Not long after Gawronski hopes to go public, selling 10 million shares at $4 apiece.
Schooled as a chemical engineer and software programmer, Gawronski today works as a night auditor at Snake River Lodge and Spa.
Like the reactors he hopes to build, Gawronski’s company to date remains fairly low-risk, he said.
With neither a wife nor children, he said, “if it goes belly-up, eh, I’ve got my retirement.”