Thorium May Edge Uranium as Future 'Go-To' Nuclear Fuel

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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.

–Stuart Burns

Comments (4)

  1. This comment is from a Dr. Max Ward. An Australian Scientist retired from the Electrical Power industry. Quote..
    There are several practical ‘drawbacks’ to Thorium Reactors..
    1. No private institution can make large amounts of money from developing thorium reactors because the LFTR technology is too old and the major patents on these reactors have expired decades ago. Every major nation has had scientists walk thru the Thorium reactor at Oak Ridge. It is now share-ware.
    Anyone investing millions of dollars in these reactors will simply have their improvements photo-copied by China.
    China (Feb 2011) has vowed to dominate the LFTR export market and out-compete all other nations. Private capital will never try to compete with China.
    2. Government Funding? Many Senators in the USA have died of old age while trying to lobby for Thorium funding. Thirty years ago they protested that the Sandia patents would soon expire – and nothing happened!
    The problem in congress of course is the insanely powerful Lobby groups. Any senator defying their interests will risk their career! The Uranium, Coal and Oil industries will all be seriously disadvantaged by Thorium! The big sources of ‘bribery’ money (sorry – campaign funds) will be compromised!
    A good article is.. “zero-carbon-electricity” at www

  2. stuart says:

    Thanks for the comments Brian, I would not dispute your argument, there are many vested interests working against Thorium. It is interesting the only real progress being made is by emerging markets like India and China, not in the west – at least outside of research labs. Let’s hope the EM’s can succeed where the west has failed.

  3. Bob Budd says:

    Given the reluctance of Labor & the Greens to consider nuclear power, in view of its possible danger while operating and from the disposal of spent fuel and the hypocrisy of continuing to sell uranium overseas (albeit to countries that promise not to make nuclear weapons), isn’t thorium an alternative energy source that could provide nearly all our future energy needs while reducing our carbon footprint.

  4. Winger says:

    Firstly, don’t worry about “carbon footprint” pushed by leftist greens and green-capitalists ready to charge more for oil/gas/coal as they create a “needed” industry to store CO2 underground at your cost.

    Earth’s surface temp is not driven/changed by manmade CO2. Water vapor is the #1 “greenhouse gas.” (I tried to warm my greenhouse by pumping in CO2 and got no higher temp inside! But veggies grow better since they love to absorbe CO2, which is what happens when air CO2 increses – see luxurious Carboniferous forests, now coal!) Earth surface temp is driven by REFLECTION OF SUN’S LIGHT/HEAT! Clouds reflect more than other surfaces (except snow or mirrors.) Clouds get precipitated by cosmic particles, but normal inflow gets blown out by solar flares that extend sun’s far atmosphere to shroud Earth. Making less clouds, thus more heating. See “Great Global Warming Swindle” on youtube (with my MIT Prof Richard Lindzen and others; he’s a climate specialist unlike me. I was in nucelar course then switched to geology end of our energy/resource needs.)

    Thorium is a great fuel, since it is virtually all convertible to fissionable U-233. With a sub-critical mass of that you can pump in neutrons (or what causes liberated neutrons such as some photons) and much energy from all the mass, not just 0.7%. Less toxic waste too. Usable in small power units for a few homes, train, freight truck; even a car? (not yet). And with enough U-233 one can make nuclear bombs. We need to remove some problem areas and regimes, etc. So I favor free ownership of Th & U-233. (Tell the gun controlers there is a whole new deal!)

    Lots of Thorium is now being quietly “buried” from Rare Earth mining, as the Th market is almost zero; US govt dumbly dispersed its hoard in its desert site years ago! Yet price now for rare Th users is very high! (About $5000/kg?) I’m thinking a real price with many more users or buyers for future use, would allow untapped Th to be marketed maybe in the $20-100/kg range once mining/refining is up and running big time in our places (not China!). Right now it’s far higher.

    So here is a plan:

    You heard Obama talk of minting a $1 Trillion platinum coin? Using it to pay Fed Res. Thus govt can borrow $1 T (from Fed Res) without new taxes or raising debt ceiling. Clever? Well it will ignite hyper-inflation!

    Instead, let his federal regime suffer economic meltdown. (It is FAR too invasive many ways!) Let state groups circulate Thorium certificates, with “minimum dollar” face value and time limit, just “temporary.” (They need time to actually acquire thorium. Some states can mine it!
    I think you could nominally value Thorium at $5000 per kilogram, its current tiny market price.) With the feds broke, let STATES and PRIVATE entities take over their Consititutional functions! – now largely funded and controled by feds! (Note that the presidential “state of emergency” was temporary, allowing him to make “executive orders” – renewed periodically since 1933!) At end of one period you turn in your state throium certificate and get a new certificate (for a bit more)… or get your Thorium, which is POWER (two ways!)

    As for China thinking it will domoinate Rare Earths and Thorium powered reactors, we must shut them down. Build our own! USA and other places like Australia (lots or Thorium & REE!) , UK, Norway (with much Th) Germany, Brazil (lots of Th and REE!) need to force our own domination and shut down Chinese Th reactor development – far more important than what nuclear stuff Iran builds. We also need to cut out their technology exports and REQUIRE all our high tech is made by our folks in our countries, not China! We cannot depend on them for our technology stuff and be a strong white country! (By the way, China now builds an offshore superport to export its goodies. That is a vulnerable target to ones who oppose Chinese empowerment over us.)

    PS: We urgenty need new better ways to generare huge neutron flux in an area, without using a nuclear reactor or mass of enriched uranium or plotonium etc. We also need to get away from reliance on electric grid! Get your own local power source! Magnets can exert force on mass and move it a distance. We need to harness this energy! (Highest magnets use Nedodymium, a major rare earth element). I don’t care where that energy “comes from” -probably a vacuum is not as empty as we assume and magnets can draw energy via quantum leap to all of universe, so our notion of a “closed” system” needs revisions! Websearch “free energy” but notice this science concept may not be cheapest energy! I have an example of “free energy” but it is not cheap or large power!)

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