Why aren’t more people talking about thorium? • Daily Journal of Commerce
Thorium, element number 90 in the periodic table, was named after the Norse god of thunder, Thor. The name, bestowed in 1828, was perhaps prescient, foretelling of the energy this slightly radioactive metal is capable of producing. So, why have most people never heard of it?
Thorium was successfully tested as a source of nuclear energy in the US from the 1950s to the 1970s. But research dollars were shifted to develop uranium reactors instead, because they could produce both electricity and weapons-grade plutonium, an important consideration at the height of the Cold War.
What was thorium’s liability in 1972 has become a benefit in 2012. Unlike uranium, thorium has no value to terrorists or rogue states seeking nuclear weapons. It is safe both on a global scale, and a local one: Energy reactors can be designed to have no meltdown risk, because thorium dissolves in hot liquid fluoride salts.
A chain reaction that gets too hot and expands will be stopped quickly when the thorium comes in contact with the liquid fluoride salts. The risks of another Chernobyl or of a nuclear weapon falling in the wrong hands are not part of the thorium equation.
Thorium energy is also incredibly efficient. It produces more neutrons per collision than conventional nuclear energy, and it is capable of thermal breeding, creating new fuel as the thorium breaks down in a self-sustaining chain reaction that could last indefinitely.
Less fuel is consumed and less waste is produced. Indeed, the amount of waste produced by thorium energy is miniscule compared to conventional nuclear energy and lasts only a few hundred years rather than hundreds of thousands of years.
The high efficiency of thorium energy also means a smaller footprint for the reactor plant. A traditional nuclear energy plant requires 200,000 to 300,000 square feet plus a low-population-density buffer zone. A thorium plant requires only 2,000 or 3,000 square feet and no buffer zone.
Thorium is plentiful in nature and in the US in particular. Estimates show that the US has enough thorium deposits to power our energy needs for 1,000 years. The country’s largest thorium vein is in Idaho, so Oregon and the Pacific Northwest are ideal locations for thorium energy development.
Deposits are located close to the surface and easily accessible, reducing the environmental impact of mining. Thorium energy could feasibly supplement other renewables, creating secure, clean energy independence not tied to coal or to natural gas and fracking.
So, what’s the catch? Quite simply, it’s inertia. Traditional nuclear interests have had decades to become entrenched, build political allies and demonstrate economically proven technology. They will not be easy to displace.
And to be sure, thorium energy needs to overcome certain technological barriers. For example, because a thorium reaction can be self-sustaining, lasting perhaps indefinitely, the fuel requires especially corrosive-resistant containers; however, such materials have not been tested over a long period.
Nevertheless, thorium technology shows potential, and there are commercial-scale projects either in development or in operation around the world. China launched a massive research and development program last year in developing a thorium-breeding molten-salt reactor, claiming to have the largest national effort in that regard.
India has set a goal of obtaining 30 percent of its electricity needs from thorium by 2050, and has numerous plants under construction. England has formed a parliamentary group to explore thorium energy; France is building testing models.
Here in the US, thorium bills were introduced in Congress in 2008 and 2010. Both were sponsored by Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Harry Reid, D-Nevada, and both failed. But new thorium-related legislation is expected to be introduced soon.
With the potential for plentiful, clean and safe energy, the R and D required to get thorium energy off the ground is well worth it. Both existing and past administrations have shown a willingness to invest in nuclear energy in the form of loan guarantees, and conventional nuclear reactors can be retrofitted to accommodate thorium as a transition to commercial-scale thorium reactors.
We need to step up and give thorium the opportunity to succeed and be part of the energy discussion. So, let’s start talking about it. Instead of giving Thor the axe, let’s give him his hammer and let him get to work.
Duncan Delano is an attorney in the energy and the environmental and natural resources practice groups at Tonkon Torp LLP. Contact him at 503-802-5760 or at [email protected].