Are Thorium Reactors the Future of Nuclear Energy?
Thorium reactors show promise as an alternative to uranium in the nuclear energy sector, but are they really a viable option?
Global energy needs are expected to skyrocket due to population growth and higher demand from developing countries, making thorium reactors increasingly attractive.
Nuclear energy is viewed by some as green energy because, unlike fossil fuels which contribute to air and water pollution, it does not produce direct carbon dioxide emissions.
Over the past decade, more and more countries around the world have turned to nuclear power as a source of energy and integrated nuclear power into their energy grids, specifically to generate electricity.
While large numbers of nuclear power reactors are being built around the world, these reactors are not without their drawbacks. Meltdowns remain a concern, and uranium has negative connotations due to its association with weapons and the radioactive material that remains in nuclear waste. There are also claims that uranium’s low price makes it an unsustainable option despite predictions of a rally.
Thorium, on the other hand, is viewed by some as a less dangerous and more environmentally friendly route. How does thorium fuel play in the future of global energy?
What is Thorium
Thorium was discovered in 1828 by a Swedish chemist who named the element after Thor, the Norse god of thunder. Thorium is a slightly radioactive element that occurs naturally in the earth’s crust. It is more abundant in nature than uranium and is more fertile than fissile, meaning that radiation can convert it into fissile material. It is said to be used alongside fissile materials that can undergo nuclear fission, such as recycled plutonium and uranium.
Despite its advantages, the use of thorium as a primary source of nuclear energy is challenging. The World Nuclear Association notes that latent energy is still difficult to obtain inexpensively and that refining technology research is required if thorium is to become a viable source.
It is worth noting, however, that the question of whether thorium reactors work for power generation was answered in 2013 when the Norwegian private company Thor Energy started using thorium for power generation in its Halden test reactor in Norway. “This is the fundamental first step in thorium development,” Oystein Asphjell, CEO of Thor Energy, told Reuters.
How Thorium Works
Thorium cannot split to start a nuclear chain reaction like uranium. In scientific terms, it is not divisible. However, when it is bombarded by neutrons from a fissile energy fuel like uranium-235 or plutonium-239, it is converted to uranium-233. The process generates energy and is self-supporting once it starts. The fission of uranium-233 converts more of the nearby thorium into the same nuclear fuel.
There are much more complex processes, but this relationship between thorium and fissile materials serves as the basis for the technology in thorium reactors.
Thorium versus uranium
It is important to understand the differences between uranium and thorium when looking at developments in nuclear energy. Here are some key differences.
Cost and efficiency
One reason thorium is an interesting alternative to uranium is that it is cheaper and more common. Thorium is also used more efficiently in the reaction process – thorium inputs are almost completely consumed during a nuclear reaction, which means that spent fuel or radioactive waste is reduced to a minimum. This is particularly important given the longevity of radioactive nuclear waste in the environment.
Guns and Security
In 1939, the Manhattan Project showed the potential destruction from atomic energy if enriched uranium is used in weapons manufacture.
More recently, the hazards posed by uranium fuel rods, radioactive waste, and the decay of reactors, which became widespread after the Fukushima disaster in 2011, are a major reason why experts are seriously considering thorium reactors. Since thorium is not fissile by itself, reactions can be stopped in an emergency. There is also a concern that the isotopically dense heavy water used to cool the fuel rods could leak into the water and the surrounding area.
Thorium is seen as a strong choice for nuclear non-proliferation, but it’s also important to note that there have been occasions in history when thorium-based nuclear weapons have been detonated. While this poses a risk, the nature of these weapons makes them difficult to use and easy to identify.
As a result, the use of thorium reactors could allow countries like Iran and North Korea to benefit from nuclear energy by minimizing concerns that they are secretly developing nuclear weapons.
Thorium can also be used to grow uranium for use in a grower reactor. These nuclear reactors are unique in that they produce more fissile material than they consume, which makes them very efficient.
It is worth noting that thorium and uranium have an interesting relationship as they are both complements and competitors to each other. Put simply, thorium can be used in conjunction with conventional uranium-based nuclear power generation, which means that a thriving thorium industry would not necessarily make uranium obsolete.
Thorium is found in small amounts in soils and rocks everywhere and is estimated to be four times as abundant as uranium. India has the largest natural reserves of thorium in the world, although the reserves are also significant in China, Australia, the United States, Turkey, and Norway, according to Reuters. The metal can be found in epigenetic vein deposits, low-grade deposits, and deposits of black sand.
While it is abundant, few companies are currently looking for thorium. Research and development of thorium-related rare earth projects began in 2014 in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Greenland, India, Russia, South Africa, the United States and Vietnam. Skyharbour Resources (TSXV: SYH, OTCQB: SYHBF) is a company currently searching for thorium. The Falcon Point uranium and thorium project is located in the Athabasca Basin in Saskatchewan.
Thorium reactors in progress
As mentioned earlier, Thor Energy was the first to start using thorium to produce energy. Today, however, it faces competition from nuclear companies around the world.
For example, according to the US Geological Survey, India has been interested in thorium-based nuclear energy for decades. The country’s nuclear developers have developed an advanced heavy water reactor specifically aimed at using thorium as a fuel.
China is also a major player in the development of thorium reactors. The country has pledged to spend $ 3.3 billion on two molten salt-thorium nuclear reactors in the Gobi Desert. China hopes to have these reactors operational in the next few years.
In Indonesia, ThorCon and the country’s government are working on commissioning a thorium molten salt reactor, which is expected to be operational by 2025.
Thorium Power Canada worked with DBI to develop thorium reactor designs, including a proposed 10 megawatt reactor in Chile. Thorium Power Canada estimates that the reactor will provide enough power to produce 20 million liters per day in the desalination plant, the equivalent of powering 3,500 households.
As can be seen, thorium has been an excellent alternative to nuclear power for decades. It’s hard to believe that the safety and efficiency benefits haven’t made thorium reactors more popular in use – but there are reasons for that.
Simply put, thorium-based reactors are, for the most part, still not economically viable. Uranium benefited from decades of research, development and infrastructure during the Cold War, thanks to its dual uses in weapons and energy. This research has allowed countries to put in place protocols, infrastructures, and knowledge bases that make uranium-based energy an easier option.
The result is that thorium reactors are unlikely to get the better of uranium oxide reactors, at least for the time being. It is possible that thorium reactors will become more dominant in the future, but a lot of work still needs to be done to get to that point.
What do you think of thorium? Will it be the future of nuclear energy?
This is an updated version of an article originally published by the Investing News Network in 2015.
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Securities Disclosure: I, Melissa Pistilli, are not directly involved in any of the companies mentioned in this article.