Can Thorium Offer a Safer Nuclear Future?

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Is thorium the great hope for a clean, viable, and safe nuclear fuel alternative to uranium, or is it an impractical and overly expensive option that the nuclear industry could never adopt?

Nuclear energy has numerous advantages, but also disadvantages: nuclear waste poses a significant environmental threat, core meltdowns are possible, and nuclear material can be used to manufacture weapons of mass destruction.

However, proponents of using thorium as a nuclear fuel instead of uranium suggest that it solves many of these problems.

Can thorium be armed?

While some have wondered whether thorium can be used in nuclear weapons and are concerned about the possibility of a thorium bomb, in fact thorium cannot be armed because it does not produce enough recoverable plutonium to make nuclear weapons.

In addition, the waste from thorium reactions is dangerous for a few hundred years instead of about 10,000 years for uranium waste – a thorium reactor could even use up much of the existing uranium waste.

According to SmartPlanet, thorium reactors cannot collapse. Thorium is also far more abundant in the world than uranium, with supplies in places like Australia, India, and Idaho. Plus, it’s far more efficient – dig thorium out of the ground and it can be put into the reactor while only 3-5% of the uranium mined does not need to be further processed.

Original development and history

If it’s so great, why don’t we use it? When nuclear power was developed in the 1950s, it was part of a broader Cold War strategy. Governments paid for the research and it was in their interest to develop uranium as a primary nuclear fuel as it could also be used for weapons development.

However, critics of the thorium alternative point out that it is more expensive than uranium because it cannot sustain a reaction on its own and has to be bombarded with neutrons. Uranium can be left alone in a reaction, while thorium has to be constantly pushed in order to react further. While this allows for safer responses (if the power fails, it is simply turned off), it is a more expensive process.

Thorium is a popular academic alternative: it works well in the laboratory, but has not yet been used successfully – or profitably – on a commercial scale.

Current uses of thorium

India is the market leader in attempting to use thorium for the power grid. It has the largest proven thorium reserves and the world’s only operating thorium reactor, Kakrapar-1, a converted conventional pressurized water reactor. China is also working to develop the technology while the US, France and UK are studying its viability.

Flibe Energy, headquartered in Huntsville, Alabama, recently announced that it intends to build a liquid fluoride thorium reactor in the United States within the next decade, with Wyoming as a potential site.

Renewable energy proponents acknowledge that thorium is preferable to uranium, but argue that the millions in subsidies thorium needs to be economically viable would be better spent on solar, wind, and other alternative energy sources.

While nuclear advocates are more hospitable to thorium, they are reluctant to put all your eggs in one basket at this point. The element has not proven viable as a viable commercial source of energy, while uranium has. Despite a history of reactor meltdowns and near-breakdowns, nuclear energy is once again the focus of the world today, and nuclear industry advocates do not see the time now to seek an unproven alternative.

The bottom line is that when it comes to thorium, thorium is more abundant, cleaner, and safer than uranium. However, given current possibilities, it produces more expensive energy than uranium and is still a waste of the environment.

Thorium might be part of the answer to global energy needs, but there is currently a lack of a track record of inexpensive energy generation. Meanwhile, nations like China and India are taking the lead in developing thorium-based nuclear systems.

This article was originally written by David Sims.

Photo credit: GrAl / Shutterstock.com

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