Home > Thorium: One Nuclear Alternative

Thorium: One Nuclear Alternative

from the October 20, 2014 eNews issue
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The quest for renewable energy has caused wind farms with their multitude of turbines to poke up across America like porcupine quills. Solar plants abound in Germany and the rest of the world is watching. One problem with solar and wind, however, is that they offer little consistency. The sun goes down. The wind stops blowing. The technology is improving and the costs are dropping, but wind and solar still do not produce enough efficient, consistent energy to begin to replace coal-fired or nuclear power plants.

Light-water nuclear reactors do operate cleanly and inexpensively, producing plenty of energy without also belching much-maligned CO2 emissions. Still, people get put off by the occasional meltdown that spews radiation into the air and water. Conventional nuclear power is also wasteful. The uranium-dioxide fuel rods must be changed out after only 0.5% of the uranium is used, forcing the disposal of highly radioactive material that will take multiple thousands of years to “cool.” The plutonium generated by light-water reactors also runs the risk of being swiped by disreputable groups for use in bombs destined for places like New York and Tel Aviv.

Thorium has become an attractive potential alternative to conventional nuclear fuel. It isn’t naturally radioactive and its power-plants would not be prone to meltdown. Nearly the entire fuel rod can be used in energy production without the serious national security and nuclear waste issues of using conventional uranium fuel. Plus, thorium is more abundant than uranium, and there are large thorium deposits in Georgia and Idaho.

India also has large thorium deposits on its soil and has been investing in thorium energy research. India depends predominantly on coal for providing electricity to its citizens, but in September 218 coal mining licenses were temporarily revoked, declared illegal by the Indian Supreme Court because they were issued by a corrupt process. India has a high-energy demand with its billion-plus population, and newly-elected Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government wants to put more eggs into the nuclear power basket. The plan is to increase the number of nuclear power plants in India from 20 to 250 over the next 35 years.

India has to import its uranium, though, and it’s been tough enough to obtain the uranium it needs for the 20 plants it currently has, let alone 250 in the future. India can mine its own thorium, however, offering the country a potentially inexpensive, clean, efficient and safe way to bring power to its people for generations to come.

Former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Hans Blix, has been a proponent of thorium energy research, promoting it as a safer nuclear alternative that doesn’t produce much radioactive waste or materials that can be used in bombs. He spoke at the Thorium Energy Conference in Geneva, Switzerland last November, where 32 countries were represented. Notable attendees also included CERN Director General Mr. Rolf-Dieter Heuer and Nobel Prize Laureate Carlo Rubbia.

Various groups are already on the job. Virginia-based nuclear technology company Lightbridge has been developing thorium-uranium oxide pelletized fuel rods that can be used in existing nuclear LWRs.

An international project, initiated by the US Department of Energy, led by Georgia Institute of Technology and Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), as part of the RCUK Energy Programme, a team at the University of Cambridge, is doing research they believe will make the promise of thorium energy a reality within the next decade. Generally, thorium reactors are expected to use Molten Salt Reactor (MSR) technology, with molten salt at their core. This project would develop thorium light water reactors that are much safer than conventional nuclear LWRs, giving the design its name, Integral Inherently Safe Light Water Reactor (I2S-LWR).

The Cold War

It was the Cold War that made uranium rather than thorium or other fuels the current power plant element of choice. Back in the 1950s, producing plutonium as a bi-product sounded like a good idea. Admiral Hyman Rickover wanted the U.S.S. Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear submarine, to get into the water as soon as possible, and the uranium LWR was the most convenient choice at the time. The Nautilus was launched in 1954, and the world followed down the uranium path.

It didn’t have to be thus; other fuel sources could have been used. A successful liquid-fluoride thorium reactor was developed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee between 1959 and 1973, until the Nixon Administration shut it down because the reactor didn’t produce plutonium. These days, plutonium is a huge risk factor as a material desired by terrorist groups.

Thorium as a Fuel

Thorium is abundant on the planet and contains vast amounts of energy. It’s as common as coal with exponentially greater energy potential—and without the pollution coal causes. It requires a kick-start because it won’t start reacting on its own, and stockpiles of existing waste can be used to do the kick-starting. Once it gets going, thorium decays through several steps into uranium–233, an excellent fuel source, without requiring the removal of partially used fuel rods.

The use of thorium as a liquid fuel avoids a number of the major problems that cause light-water nuclear reactors to be as dangerous as they are. Rather than the high-pressure toxic water that cools LWRs, thorium reactors are cooled with liquid fluoride salt under normal atmospheric pressure. The reactor isn’t at risk for meltdown because its normal state-of-being is molten salt at its core. If that salt leaked out, it would simply solidify. A thorium reactor would produce a minute fraction of the waste that uranium-fueled LWR reactors produce, and the waste breaks down in terms of hundreds of years rather than tens of thousands. There is some argument about whether the uranium–233 can be stolen for use in weapons, but proponents argue it would be highly difficult to do so.

Various forms of sticky tape promise to keep thorium reactors on the back burner in the United States, where conventional nuclear and the oil industry can put up a deep-pocketed fight. Outside the U.S., a variety of countries are already pursuing the thorium dream.

We have plenty of options for producing energy that doesn’t depend on finite oil resources in hostile foreign lands. We have options that don’t demand we pollute our watersheds or litter our horizons with windmills that depend on the inconsistent wind. The question is whether we’ll pursue the courses that will produce the most benefit, or whether we’ll get hung up in the bad politics of pushing solar panels on locations where the sun is absent half the year.

Notes