Thorium: Energy Savior or Red Herring?


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Thorium: Energy Savior or Red Herring?

By Andrew Topf | Wed, 18 June 2014 22:03 | 8

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Have you ever heard of Admiral Rickover? Fans of “The Hunt for Red October,” the 1990 thriller starring Sean Connery as a rogue Russian submarine captain, may know that Rickover is the U.S. admiral responsible for creating the world’s first nuclear-powered sub.

Considered “The Father of the Nuclear Navy,” Hyman G. Rickover moved up the ranks during the World War II, and then afterwards was tasked with developing a system of naval nuclear propulsion while working for the Atomic Energy Commission – an agency whose role, ironically, was to work out how atomic energy could be used for civilian purposes rather than military ones.

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After the war, the United States was experimenting with different fuels for generating a nuclear reaction, and the leading contenders were uranium — the metallic element “U” on the periodic table of the elements — and thorium — represented on the table as the symbol “Th.” Uranium’s chief advantage over thorium was that it could be used to produce both atomic weapons and nuclear power, while thorium, unlike uranium, is not “fissile” – meaning it cannot be split to make a nuclear chain reaction – and could only be applied to nuclear power.

With the United States in the early stages of an arms race against the former Soviet Union to develop a nuclear arsenal, it was easy to see which element would win out. While thorium was used in a later version of America’s first civilian nuclear power plant — also headed up by Admiral Rickover — it would take a back seat to uranium as the primary fuel for nuclear reactors.

Less Radioactive Waste

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Recently, thorium has generated a fair amount of excitement for its potential as so-called “green nuclear” power, especially in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant meltdown that occurred after the 2011 Japanese tsunami. Fukushima may have soured the world on nuclear, with many people calling it too dangerous and calling for its end, but nuclear power plants remain a cheap, reliable and relatively clean source of electricity compared to their fossil-fuel cousins, coal and natural gas.

What’s green about thorium? First, thorium reactors are more efficient than uranium reactors, because they waste less fuel and produce far more energy. Most nuclear power plants are currently only able to extract between 3 and 5 percent of the energy in uranium fuel rods. In molten salt-cooled reactors, favored by many thorium proponents, nearly all the fuel is consumed. According to a pro-thorium group of British lawmakers, one metric tonne of thorium delivers the same amount of energy as 250 tonnes of uranium.

Second, and perhaps most important from a “green” perspective, thorium yields little waste and is less radioactive. According to its proponents, residue from the thorium reaction will become inert within 30 years, compared to 10,000 years for radioactive waste currently generated from uranium reactors.

A further advantage thorium has over uranium is its relative abundance in the Earth’s crust. The silvery-black metal is estimated to be three to four times more plentiful than uranium, with large reserves existing in China, Australia, the United States, Turkey, India and Norway. Tons of it are known to be buried in the U.S., since thorium is a by-product of rare earth mining.

China Aims For First

So, if thorium is such a wonder-metal, why hasn’t it been accelerated? (Pardon the pun.) There is currently a race on to develop a functioning thorium reactor, with the number one and two positions held by China and Norway. Last year, Thor Energy, a private Norwegian company, started producing power from thorium at its Halden test reactor, with help from nuclear giant Westinghouse. Uranium-poor India and France are among other countries developing thorium research programs.

All of them, however, will be chasing China, which according to a recent Telegraph article, is “going for broke” to build the first thorium reactor within the next 10 years. The project reportedly started with a budget of $350 million and the recruitment of 140 scientists at the Shanghai Institute of Nuclear and Applied Physics. It plans to have 750 employees by 2015.

So should the nuclear industry herald the death of uranium and make way for this new thorium darling? Not so fast, skeptics say.

Long Road Ahead

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One large hole that can be punched in the argument for thorium involves the economics of thorium reactors. Experts say compared to uranium, the thorium fuel cycle is more costly and would require extensive taxpayer subsidies.

Another issue is time. With a viable thorium reactor at least a decade away if not more, the cost of renewable alternatives like solar and wind may come down to a point where thorium reactors won’t be economical. Critics also point out that the nuclear industry has invested too much in uranium reactors – along with government buy-in and a set of regulations around them – to be supplanted by thorium.

As for the “green nuclear” argument, thorium’s detractors say that isn’t necessarily the case. While thorium reactors produce less waste, they also produce other radioactive by-products that will need safe disposal, including U-232, which has a half-life of 160,000 years.

“It will create a whole new volume of radioactive waste from previously radio-inert thorium, on top of the waste from uranium reactors. Looked at in these terms, it’s a way of multiplying the volume of radioactive waste humanity can create several times over,” said Oliver Tickell, author of Kyoto2, speaking to The Guardian.

Will thorium be a fool’s errand or the fuel that heralds the dawn of a new age of nuclear power? It is certainly too early to say, but one thing is for sure: thorium has great potential and with the right backers, could become a viable adjunct to uranium, if not a serious competitor.

By Andrew Topf

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