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Could medical isotopes and molten salt reactor be Emery County's new coal?

By Amy Joi O'Donoghue, KSL | Posted - Feb. 12, 2019 at 9:33 a.m.

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SALT LAKE CITY — Coal-producing Emery County could become the global epicenter for research involving molten salt nuclear reactors and medical isotopes used in cutting-edge cancer treatment.

The nuclear reactors that use thorium, which is widely occurring in the Earth, and concurrently produce electricity and medical isotopes had a brief run the 1960s at a U.S. Department of Energy laboratory. And more recently in the Netherlands in 2017.

According to Mike McKee, executive director of the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, a Utah startup company is developing a thorium reactor as part of a coalition project.

McKee, in a presentation Monday to members of the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environmental Quality Appropriations Subcommittee, said Utah has a chance to host a "premier research facility" to transform molten salt nuclear reactors into a reality, serving thousands of university students and creating thousands of jobs.

"The first phase is putting in this research center," he said.

Molten salt reactors do not use solid fuel, do not operate under high pressure and the waste is converted to products. In an addition, any leftover radioactive waste cannot be used to make weapons.

Sen. Dave Hinkins, R-Orangeville, is requesting $10 million in one-time money to make upgrades to an existing building and to get the project started.

The hope is to establish a 30-megawatt thorium reactor near the Hunter Power Plant, or at least foster Utah-based research in the field of thorium reactors in a project that has support from multiple universities and the U.S. Department of Energy.

Brigham Young University's Matthew J. Memmott told the committee the federal agency has extreme interest in the commercial development of a viable molten salt reactor, and has "billion-dollar grants" available to make the technology happen. The global race to be first also includes China and India.

"There are 13 companies trying to make molten salt reactors a reality," Memmott said, because of the promise of emissions-free nuclear energy technology that also comes with greatly reduced risk compared to traditional nuclear power plants.

The committee will sift through the funding requests and prioritize them.

Amy Joi O'Donoghue

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