Thorium: Reinventing Nuclear Power

Uranium

Abundance (parts per million)

12

4

% of mined material that can be used as fuel

100

11

Known reserves (years)

Thousands

80

Amount to generate 1 GW for 1 year (tonnes)

1

250

% of neutron absorption (measure of efficiency)

66

90

Cost of raw fuel for a year

10,000

55 million

Radioactivity of by-products (years)

500

More than 250,000

Thorium

Source: Eureka magazine, The Times, November 2011

These statistics hopefully illustrate the many advantages of thorium. Of special note is the relative shortness of the radioactivity of thorium’s by-products at approximately 500 years. As well as its abundance it’s important to note that thorium is widely distributed across the world, eliminating (or more likely just reducing) the geo-politics of supplying it as a fuel. Furthermore, thorium has a much lower risk of meltdown, making it a safer fuel.

Why Hasn’t Thorium Worked in the Past and What’s Happening Now?

Another positive detail about thorium is probably the reason why the research into it often dried up in the past: it’s very difficult to turn into nuclear weapons. This factor has meant that when push comes to shove military budgets have favoured uranium research. While the principle has been proven, it still remains for thorium to be made commercially viable. However, India and China have both recently announced major programs of research into thorium reactors.

There are many avenues currently being investigated in order to maximise the energy output from thorium. India’s research is in using solid thorium in a similar way to which uranium is currently used in nuclear power plants. In China and America liquid-flouride thorium reactors (LFTRs) are seen as the way forward. This method has been proven in America in the 1960s (before being inexplicably shutdown, perhaps due to the reason raised above). As well as being proven, it extracts much more energy than the solid thorium route. A third and even more experimental method is the use of accelerators, but this is still very much a yet to be proven pipe dream.

So Problem Solved Then?

Well, no. While there are many positive steps being taken towards adopting this greener form of nuclear power there is still much more research and testing to be done, and this takes a lot of time. In thorium’s case we’re probably talking about twenty years before something commercially viable appears.

Of course, this leaves the problem of now. It’s currently not possible to generate all of our power from renewables. So, as I have laid out in my previous article on renewable energy, all focus must be toward reducing carbon dioxide emissions to slow climate change. While this is our focus nuclear power, even in its current form, isn’t just desirable but necessary.

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