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Arroyo, Magee, Murphey, Rodriguez, 2023 2nd Place Research

Submissions in the research category are open to research topics in any field: STEM, Social Sciences, Business, Humanities, etc. Submissions should use the documentation style appropriate to the discipline and should not exceed 20 pages. Carson Magee, Miguel Arroyo, Dylan Murphey, and Ricardo Rodriguez co-wrote the 2nd place submission in the Research category for the 2023 President’s Writing Awards.

About Carson

Carson Magee with his service dog Capo

Carson Magee grew up in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho and is rounding off his Second year at Boise State University. He is studying Computer Science with a Cybersecurity emphasis. Through first hand experience with Type 1 Diabetes, Carson has aspirations to better the lives of those living with chronic medical conditions through technology. Beyond the scope of his studies, Carson enjoys outdoor activities with his service dog, Capo. You may also find Carson volunteering at church, or playing instruments, or discovering a new hobby.

About Miguel

Miguel Arroyo

Hello, my name is Miguel Arroyo. I am currently majoring Computer Science at BSU. I’ve been living in the Boise Area for almost 2 years and have been loving it. I’ve always been interested in History and Astronomy. Lately, I’ve been fascinated by the prospect of Nuclear Power, so being able to write about it here was an absolute blast!

About Dylan

Dylan Murphey

Dylan Murphey is an undergraduate student at Boise State University and aspiring software engineer. While Computer Science is his passion, Dylan has always enjoyed any opportunity to research and communicate information.

About Ricardo

Ricard Rodriguez

I am a second year student at BSU majoring in Computer Science. I hope to graduate and enter into the field of software development. I’d like to work on video games, but any opportunity to solve a coding puzzle is welcome. I’m bilingual and fluent in both English and Spanish. While English is my first language, I was never really confident in my own writing skills. I have my professors to thank for encouraging me to enter this contest by assuring me that my writing was better than I thought. I guess they were right!

Winning Manuscript – Energy Recommendation Report

To: The Office of Mike Simpson, U.S. Representative for Idaho

From:  Student 1, Reactor Mechanics Researcher; Student 2, Historical Thorium Investigator; Student 3, Logistical Analyst; Student 4, Public Outreach Researcher

Subject: Thorium Energy as a Solution for Hydro-Electric Energy Loss

Date:  March 17, 2023


The purpose of this document is to report or findings on research related to Thorium based nuclear energy production to replace energy lost by the proposed plan to breach the lower four dams along the Snake river. Dams which provide a large portion of electrical energy for the North Western region of America. This recommendation is based on knowledge gained by thoroughly exploring the viability and sustainability of this energy source.

We felt inclined to weigh in on the matter of alternative energy solutions because we feel that with the current state of renewable energy sources, there are effective sources such as nuclear energy that have not yet been utilized due to various factors. These factors are explored in great detail within this report as through four main research paths: method of thorium reactor operations, use cases, waste management, and public objections.

Executive Summary

To determine whether or not Thorium based nuclear energy would make for an appropriate replacement for energy loss caused by the dam removals, our research group went to great efforts to locate knowledgeable and reputable sources of information in the field of nuclear study.

At the time of writing this report, Representative Mike Simpson has no formal plan or proposal for an alternative energy solution to the power deficit that we will be faced with if the dams were to be removed. One of the primary forces behind driving our group to create this report is the hope to find an effective solution to this dilemma.

To carry out this research, we completed the tasks originally described in our research proposal on October 31, 2022: We gathered essential knowledge to gain an understanding of the inner workings of nuclear reactors to make an informed recommendation, explored instances and locations where Thorium based reactors were used previously, evaluated the drawbacks of the nuclear waste generated, and examined the potential public response to a nuclear energy investment.

Over the course of our research, we have found Thorium-based nuclear reactors to be an ideal energy replacement for the removed dams given the considerations mentioned, which will be detailed in this document.

We recommend the pursuit of Thorium based nuclear energy as an viable alternative energy source, and would strongly recommend the consideration of replacing other current energy sources as well.


In October of 2022, we here at Boise State University were tasked with finding a subject for research that held our vested interest and to attempt to reach out to someone who would be willing to hear us out and help make a change that we think many people would benefit from. Shortly after beginning our project, we learned about Representative Mike Simpson’s proposal to breach the four dams along the Snake River. As a group of students local to Boise, Idaho, we are interested in sharing our research with their office to not only provide an elegant solution for the energy issue, but also to serve as a demonstration in favor of the use of nuclear energy, which has historically been shied away from due to a lack of information.

At the time of writing this report, Mike Simpson and his office do not have a plan for how the energy generated by the dams will be replaced. Therefore, we see our project as a natural fit for a solution to this problem. Our group’s dedication to providing alternative energy solutions serves as a testament to the level of care and detail that we put into providing a thorough and accurate recommendation report.

We have spent many hours working on the project that is outlined and detailed in this report. In order to complete the report, we performed five primary tasks:

  • Determine how thorium reactors work.
  • Discover the use cases and successfulness of thorium reactors.
  • Determine the waste production and waste disposal of thorium reactors.
  • Determine any additional barriers this energy source will face.
  • Analyze the research outcomes and prepare a recommendation report.

We recommend Thorium based nuclear energy as an viable alternative energy source, for the replacement of the current four dams as energy sources.

In the following sections, we provide additional details about the proposed tasks, schedule, as well as our credentials and references.

Research Methods

We began our research by looking for sources of information that would help our company gain a thorough understanding of nuclear energy sources, with a particular focus on thorium-based nuclear reactors. In order to ensure that we gathered a sufficient amount of information to create a well informed analysis, we split our research into a list of five tasks:

  • Determine how thorium reactors work
  • Discover where these reactors have been used and if there was success
  • Determine how much waste is produced
  • Determine any additional barriers for this energy source
  • Analyze our findings and prepare a recommendation report

In the following discussion of how we performed each task, we explain the reasoning that guided our research.

Task 1: Determine how thorium reactors work.

Thorium reactors are a variation of traditional Plutonium and Uranium fueled reactors, therefore much of our research revolved around the traditional designs and then learning the fundamental differences between those traditional reactors and Thorium based designs. There were several sources of information explaining the different core elements of a nuclear reactor, and once we gained an understanding of the common designs of nuclear reactors we then searched for sources that highlighted the primary differences between traditional nuclear energy processes and the use of Thorium based nuclear technology. Due to our inexperience with nuclear energy and its study, we relied quite heavily on published articles and online resources, such as video demonstrations and online articles published by experts in that field of nuclear power study, such as the World Nuclear Association. In the process of researching our subject, we discovered that there hasn’t been a large amount of activity involving the advancement of nuclear energy, Thorium based or otherwise. Some of our research was therefore drawn from older scientific articles. However, much of the older processes are still effective in regards to today’s energy demands.

Task 2: Discover where these reactors have been used and determine whether there was any success.

We first conducted our search by seeking out instances of Thorium reactors used in the United States. Through sheer luck, one of our professors at our university is the daughter of a former engineer from one of these reactors. I was able to use online resources to find another occasion of Thorium usage. We discovered that Thorium had been on the radar for the United States government for a very long time, however during the cold war it was discovered that since Thorium is fertile, meaning unable to start a reaction on its own, it was dismissed in favor of Uranium since Uranium can do the reactions on its own.  There were only two instances of past usage of Thorium in reactors, the Oak Ridge Laboratory Molten Salt Experiment, and the Shippingport Atomic Power station. Following this, we decided to research ongoing plans for Thorium reactors, in which we did discover that there are others out there who are also investigating using Thorium for the future.

Task 3: Determine how much waste do the reactors produce, if any and is the waste easy to dispose of?

In tackling the issue of nuclear waste, we researched the current state of affairs with waste in the United States. We documented the types of waste created, how it is currently managed, and the future of nuclear waste management in the United States. With classifying waste, the Nuclear Energy Institute, US Ecology, and the Environmental Protection Agency provided the bulk of our information. Cat Clifford’s breakdown of the Yucca Mountain project and the uncertain future that lies ahead for long-term radioactive waste management in the U.S. provided most of the information for historical background and future prospects. Katusa’s “The Thing About Thorium” provided much of the technical aspects that differentiate Thorium waste from Uranium.

Task 4: Determine what other barriers might this energy source face?

Our research began with the largest public concern of thorium reactors, weaponization. We began by looking for where nuclear reactors have been weaponized and why. Each of our findings resulted in non-thorium based reactors, which led our research towards why thorium reactors had not been weaponized to date. We found that thorium is incredibly difficult and inefficient to weaponize without the use of uranium.

Another public concern that we expected to arise is the water needed to run the nuclear reactor. We began by finding how water was used in the reactors. This directed us to four main uses of water:  Extracting and processing uranium fuel; producing electricity; controlling wastes and risks; and system cooling. Our next step was calculating the amount of water required for these four main uses. The difficulty we found in this, however, is the lack of information about thorium due to it being an unused material. Our team did come across a fact that thorium breeder reactors use 60% less water than Uranium based reactors, so we calculated 40% of water usage in uranium reactors, which gave us our estimated thorium reactor water usage.

Task 5: Analyze our findings and prepare a recommendation report.

During the creation of this report, our members conducted their own independent research focusing on their assigned task and then returning back to this report to report their findings. Meetings and conversations about where each member was at various points in the report allowed for better understanding about the content matter due being able to see how each aspect of the report fit together. It also helped to focus our research in order to avoid researching information that had already been uncovered by another member. This process of individual research and periodic progress updates made for an efficient and cohesive creation of this report.


In this section, we present the results of our research for each distributed task. Below is the most pertinent data from our findings.

Task 1: Determine how thorium reactors work.

When searching for details about the inner workings of a thorium nuclear reactor, it became apparent that in order to fully understand the technology it is important to first examine how traditional Plutonium and Uranium based reactors function.

While there are various designs for nuclear reactors, they all share some crucial elements including some form of steam generator, a heat exchange system, and a reactor core. The core itself is made up of several components including the fuel, a moderator (often in the form of control rods), and a pressure vessel. The chemical makeup of the fuel and control rods is determined by the chosen design of the reactor. The fuel can either be incorporated into the moderator liquid, or it can be included in the control rods themselves. The core concept of a nuclear reactor is to harness the power of fusion reactions. A fissile material can create a fusion reaction by absorbing neutrons and splitting into fusion material. This reaction generates a large amount of heat which can then be harnessed with the use of steam powered turbines (World Nuclear).

This is where the differences of Thorium based reactors become clear. A typical reactor design employs the use of water as both a coolant and a moderator to help control the fusion reactions, and that heated water is then passed through to the turbine, creating a high pressure system. In these designs, the rods contain the fuel. These designs are known as light water reactors, however there is a different design known as a molten salt reactor. Molten salt reactors use salt heated above its melting point to become a liquid to act as a coolant in place of water and these molten salt reactors allow for a broad range of fuel compositions, such as Thorium (Pacific Northwest). Again, the fuel can be incorporated into either the rods or the coolant. The molten salt can then transfer the heat to a separate water based turbine system. One key difference however, is the fact that Thorium itself is not a fissile material like its Uranium and Plutonium counterparts. This means that Thorium is not naturally reactive and needs the help of materials such as Uranium in order to initiate the reaction. However, this also means that Thorium cannot maintain a chain reaction. The trigger material can be added in small amounts to the rods (Wise International).

Another unique feature of a Thorium based molten salt reactor is a feature known as a freeze plug which can be triggered to dump the fuel mixture into separate tanks away from the rods containing the trigger materials in order to aid in the termination of a reaction in the case of an emergency. With the fuel mixture no longer being in contact with the reaction trigger material, the reaction cannot continue and thus a catastrophic chain reaction can be avoided. The use of molten salt also allows for higher operating temperatures at lower pressures (Pacific Northwest).

Task 2: Discover where these reactors have been used and determine whether there was any success.

Our research has found 2 major instances of thorium based nuclear projects in the United States.  The first was at the Oak Ridge Laboratory in Tennessee, which is also noted for being the first ever Molten Salt reactor. The experiment was run for a few years from 1964 to 1969, though it went critical once it was regarded as a great success. The reactor had an average output of 8 MW over the course of an 11,000 hour period. Though a majority of this energy was not harnessed for use. (ORNL)

The Second instance was the Shippingport Atomic Power station in Pennsylvania. The reactor was specifically designed to be the first plant to use nuclear power for solely peaceful means. This reactor did not use a molten salt design, but rather used the “seed and blanket” design. The reactor had different cores, the first and second of which did use mainly Uranium. In 1977 , The third core was made for experimental purposes, and used Uranium as the seed, while using Thorium as the blanket. According to research conducted at Stanford University, The 3rd core specifically was able to operate at 236 MegaWatts-Thermal (heat energy) which produced 60 MWe (electricity harnessed). Ultimately, the facility was shut down in 1982 following public fear of nuclear energy due in part to the Three Mile Island Incident. (TIME 1983).

In August 2022, the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics was given approval to begin testing a thorium based reactor that had finished construction in 2021 in Wuwei City. (World Nuclear News) The designs of the reactor were inspired heavily by the Oak Ridge reactor from the 1960’s. If proven successful, the Chinese plan to build a reactor with a capacity of 373 megawatts by 2030.

Since 2011, a new company called Thorcon has been designing Thorium reactors of their own. They too are basing their designs off of the Oak Ridge experiment, but with a key difference. Thorcon wishes to use shipyard technology to construct their reactors, as they plan to build the reactors at the shipyard, and then send them to their destination. Recently the company has sent a proposal to the Indonesian government to gain the clearance to construct their reactor designs. (NeuronBytes, 2020).

Task 3: Determine how much waste do the reactors produce, if any and is the waste easy to dispose of?

Waste is arguably the greatest point of contention among legislators and the public. Our research has found that, while the United States has a long way to go in developing long-term nuclear waste sites, nuclear waste is relatively safe with Thorium alleviating many of the concerns with current Uranium waste. Since Thorium is far less prevalent in current energy production, this section will primarily focus on how Uranium waste is currently managed.

For background, there are two general categories of radioactive waste created in nuclear facilities: low-level waste and high-level waste. Low-level nuclear waste describes “items like gloves, tools, or machine parts that have been exposed to radioactive materials” (Nuclear Energy Institute) and the United States has four locations where this waste is held until it is no longer hazardous. There are further categories of low-level waste, classes A, B, and C, all of which are currently being accepted from Idaho by the facility in Richland, Washington (US Ecology).

Additionally, 97% of nuclear waste is considered to be low-level, which is not radioactive for a long time until it can be disposed of through traditional means. The remaining 3% of waste, however, does consist of the used fuel which can remain dangerous for upwards of 1,000,000 years. The good news is that 90% of spent fuel can be recycled for further fuel or byproducts, as is done in France currently (NEI).

High-level radioactive waste is something that the United States as a whole has not yet found a long-term solution to. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “the United States does not reprocess spent nuclear fuel, nor does it have a disposal facility for high-level radioactive waste. Most high-level radioactive waste is stored at the facility in which it was produced” (Environmental Protection Agency, What is high-level radioactive waste?).

In our proposal, we mentioned the Yucca Mountain project in Nevada, a plan created as part of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982. Following the passage of the law, the Department of Energy investigated potential sites in Nevada, Washington, and Texas. Following recommendation, Congress specifically named Yucca Mountain as the location to install a permanent repository for the nation’s nuclear waste. In 2002, President George W. Bush signed a resolution officially moving forward with the site. In 2010, his successor Barack Obama would go on to cut funding for the project in the federal budget, cutting all momentum the project once had (Clifford).

Until a new permanent repository is found, or the political hangups involving Yucca Mountain are overcome, any newly-created nuclear energy site will be expected to manage their own waste. This may be less of an issue with a Thorium-driven reactor, however.

Thorium, the primary research subject we are investigating, has not only been shown to be radioactive for as little as 500 years, “there is 1,000 to 10,000 times less of it to start with” (Katusa). There are multiple factors that go into Thorium reactors creating less waste than its Uranium counterparts. As discussed earlier, the process of creating energy uses much more of the Thorium input than Uranium. Additionally, Thorium is capable of producing much more energy from each part Thorium.

Task 4: Determine what other barriers might this energy source face?

It’s no secret that thorium has had a negative connotation within the public eye, our research shows why. According to Thomas, a service provider for manufacturing businesses, “Some wonder if thorium can be used in nuclear weapons and are concerned about the possibility of a thorium bomb, thorium actually can’t be weaponized because it doesn’t produce enough recoverable plutonium, which is required for building nuclear weapons”(CAN thorium offer a safer nuclear future?). This eliminates the fallacy that thorium reactors will be weaponized. According to a publication from The Guardian, “There are 70,000 nuclear weapons in the world and none are based on thorium or its derivatives” (“Why thorium nuclear power shouldn’t be written off”, 2011). The outcome of this research is a foundational response to the expected public resistance. The laying out facts from the above research respectfully reassure the public that the weaponizing of thorium reactors is not a threat.

As mentioned in our proposal, a large concern is the diversion of river water needed to cool the nuclear plant. Our research directed us to Monarch Partnerships, a company devoted to energy management and renewable energy. They explained the need to redirect flow from a larger body of water in order to perform four tasks (Green, 2022). These tasks are extracting and processing uranium fuel, producing electricity, controlling wastes and risks, and system cooling (“How it works: Water for nuclear”, n.d.). In order to achieve each of these four tasks, we have calculated that roughly one million gallons of water would be required each day (“How it works: Water for nuclear”, n.d.)(Thorium, 2020). This brought to our attention a probable problem we had not considered, that is; Does the Snake River produce enough water to supply our thorium reactor? After deep research, to our surprise, we concluded that 35,709,745,597 gallons of water are produced each day (Lakes, Rivers & Reservoirs). This means that our required amount of water by a reactor would hardly dent the amount of water produced by the Snake River. Furthermore, if we opted for underground holding tanks, nearly all of the water could be recycled and cooled down before being distributed back into the river.

Some question the means of getting the water and if a dam would be required. If a dam were required, that would defeat the purpose of destroying the dams in the first place. However, because the used water would be recycled and fresh water from the river would not be required every day, the thorium reactor would only require an upfront cost of one million gallons which can easily be diverted in a stream off of the river, therefore, not affecting the wildlife.

Task 5: Analyze our findings and prepare a recommendation report.

With the collective knowledge gained by our team members, we have learned a great deal about the potential benefits and hurdles of Thorium based nuclear energy. We now have a sturdy foundational knowledge of how nuclear reactors work, as well as the key differences between traditional designs and designs employing Thorium enriched fuel. We’ve also discovered that the advantages of a Thorium based reactor design have yet to be fully realized due to limited exploration in the past, of which many projects were shut down mostly due to political influences. There are however signs of growing interest in the field such as the prototype design in Wuwei. We also discovered that although toxic waste is produced by these reactors, it is in a much lower quantity, and due to the relatively low volatility of Thorium, its period of radioactivity is much shorter than that of alternative nuclear materials, thousands of times shorter in most cases. Further research into waste disposal would need to be performed.


In this section, we present our conclusions based on our research related to the four questions we sought to answer.

How thorium reactors work

While the functionality of Thorium based reactors is quite similar to that of traditional reactors, there are clearly a number of advantages over the older designs. Due to the lower operating pressures of Thorium reactors, the chance of a pressure related catastrophic failure such as the incident with the Fukushima reactor. Although the operating pressures are lower, the use of molten salt allows for higher operating temperatures which allows for more efficient energy generation. Additionally, due to the non-fissile nature of Thorium, the chance of an uncontrollable nuclear chain reaction is extremely low due to the ability to immediately terminate any reactions in the event of an emergency. This would prevent disasters such as the Chernobyl reactor meltdown.

Thorium reactor’s previous use and success

As of now, Thorium is still considered a new technology since we haven’t devoted nearly as much time into testing as Uranium.  The two notable times that we did use thorium based reactors were only in operation for just a few short years before being shut down, but in those years the technology showed great potential.

Reactor’s waste and management

Waste is an uncertainty regarding any new nuclear project in the United States. There are no active plans for long-term waste management, meaning a nuclear site would be expected to manage their own waste for at least a couple of decades until long-term solutions are available. Additionally, Thorium has much less widespread adoption, which may introduce additional variables once long-term storage is available for Uranium waste. A major benefit from Thorium is that it will likely generate much less waste that remains radioactive for less time than Uranium waste by orders of magnitude.

Public concern and other barriers

On the basis of our research, we conclude that the major concerns of weaponization and water usage of thorium reactors do not pose concern for the public or local wildlife. Having the information to face public concern will eliminate any unnecessary anxiety caused by unknowns.


Our overall findings conclude that catastrophic failure and the chance of an uncontrollable nuclear chain reaction is extremely low. Past use of Thorium reactors have concluded to be successful in the short years they were used and an added bonus is that Thorium will generate much less waste than current reactors. Finally, the prior public concerns no longer pose concern for the public or local wildlife. Although public resistance may still be present in some capacity, those concerns will be alleviated once knowledge of the technology becomes more widely available, and the safety of these reactors becomes apparent.

Upon concluding our research, we’ve reached the verdict that Thorium based nuclear reactors would be a great substitution for the dams in terms of energy production.


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