So following the near meltdown of several reactors at Fukushima Nuclear Power, it’s dead is it? Well, to follow one FT article, you could be mistaken for thinking that will be the likely outcome. As the article reports, impact on the industry has been dramatic, from miners like Cameco, a major Canadian uranium producer, whose share price has fallen 20 percent since March 10th, to major deals like Russian ARMZ’s acquisition of Mantra Resources for A$1.2 billion that has been called off after the buyer’s (an ARMZ subsidiary Uranium One) share price fell 34 percent. Apparently by the end of last week, the (admittedly thinly traded) spot uranium price had fallen 27 percent since Friday to $50/lb.
More importantly for nuclear power, it is not the markets that have been spooked but public opinion and the governments that react to that opinion at least in democracies. Germany has announced ten of their aging reactors will not be given leave to extend their operating life by 12 years as previously expected and countries as far apart both politically and geographically as the US and China have said they are reviewing safety procedures and future projects. Undoubtedly the cost of construction has gone up as a result of Fukushima and public opinion has been hardened, but as we saw with Chernobyl, time does allow fears to subside and the reality is nuclear power will continue to provide a significant percentage of power supply in many countries even if it may not take longer and cost more than we had expected a month ago.
But not all forms of nuclear power are equal; certainly not all forms carry the same inherent risks of meltdown. China is investing considerable sums in developing a technology using radioactive thorium that was first conceived back in the 1960s by US physicists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory but, supporters say, lacked funding because it didn’t have the benefit of creating weapons-grade fissile material as a by-product. In those Cold War days, weapons production was as important as energy production. There are potentially two thorium nuclear energy production technologies; the approach to be developed by China will be a thorium-based molten salt reactor. The fail-safe requires no external power or intervention. If the reaction begins to overheat, a plug in the base of the containment vessel melts and the contents simply drain under gravity into a pan. As a Telegraph article quotes former NASA engineer Kirk Sorensen saying, the reactor saves itself.
Many consider the MSR the best long term option, but there is a second thorium-based reactor process more closely aligned to existing technologies; this requires an external “accelerator source of neutrons to maintain the reaction, and without the existing accelerator the reaction stops. Some, such as Nobel laureate Carlo Rubbia at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) proposed using a photon beam while others use a plutonium core such as that under development by India. According to sources quoted in Wikipedia, India’s Kakrapar-1 reactor is the world’s first reactor that uses thorium with a plutonium accelerator in the reactor core. India, which has about 25 percent of the world’s thorium reserves, is developing a 300 MW prototype of a thorium-based Advanced Heavy Water Reactor. The prototype is expected to be fully operational by 2011, after which five more reactors will be constructed. India currently foresees meeting 30 percent of its electricity demand through thorium-based reactors by 2050.
Thorium, while not without its issues, has much to commend it over uranium. It is widely available in the earth’s crust; the US, for example, has vast reserves as a result of old rare-earth mining waste and Norway has so much it is contemplating research as a second renaissance once oil and gas runs out. The technology can also consume old weapons-grade nuclear fuel and uranium power plant waste, helping resolve a growing storage problem with conventional technology. According to wiki sources, thorium produces 10 to 10,000 times less long-lived radioactive waste. The metal comes out of the ground as a 100% pure, usable isotope, which does not require enrichment, whereas natural uranium contains only 0.7 percent fissionable U-235.
Maybe most pertinent to the current debate, thorium cannot sustain a nuclear chain reaction without priming, so fission stops by default.
To quote the IAEA in the article, the world currently has 442 nuclear reactors. They generate 372 gigawatts of power, providing 14 percent of global electricity. Some suggest nuclear output must double over twenty years just to keep pace with the rise of the China and India, or we will have to build massive numbers of coal-fired power stations. Solar, wind, wave and so on are good local options but are not scalable to fill the gap. If a commercially viable alternative to uranium-based reactors could be developed without the risks inherent in uranium power production, an almost “too good to be true outcome could await. Buy those thorium shares now? Not just yet, but certainly keep your eye on this space.