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Thorium: The Next Nuclear Fuel

Brian Hicks

Written By Brian Hicks

Posted December 30, 2013

The issue of thorium becoming a viable uranium alternative is great news for an industry already dealing with blowback from the Fukushima disaster. According to a recent forecast, uranium prices are expected to rise to $70 as the nuclear scare dies down, but thorium has the potential to shake the nuclear energy field to its core.

apr 2011 nuclear plantNamed after Thor, the Norse thunder god, it was first discovered in 1828 by a Swedish scientist in Norway. It is a somewhat radioactive metal that doesn’t split atoms to usher in a chain reaction. And since thorium cannot fissile, forging a nuclear bomb from it will be virtually impossible.

In a nuclear reaction powered by thorium, most of the thorium is consumed during power generation, resulting in less waste. And of the waste that is left, a great portion will be rendered non-hazardous in 30 years, with only 17 percent of the total waste needing to be stored for the next 30 years, Reuters reports. This is a monumental leap from the most dangerous nuclear waste, which needs to be stored for 10,000 years.

There is something also to be said for its efficiency, since one metric ton of thorium equates to 250 metric tons in a water reactor.

Thorium is four times more available than uranium, about as common as lead, and would be sufficient to replace all nuclear fuel sources annually.

China, Norway, and the United States are some countries that have thorium-rich areas, and scientists from these nations have invested time and energy into converting it into a legitimate power source. It is already being used in certain nuclear reactors in the U.S., and China believes it will be a catalyst for future nuclear power generation.

India lacks uranium resources, but Indians are sitting on some of the richest thorium reserves in the world next to Australia. India is looking to increase its nuclear presence as the government continues to deal with the harmful effects of coal generation and growing domestic energy demand.

And uranium investors need not worry, since thorium can be used in unison with conventional nuclear generation.  

When combined with a fissile from nuclear generation, thorium can be converted into uranium 233 – a top-notch form of uranium that would benefit power plants. This uranium 233 would be enclosed by liquid thorium in a reactor for power output. Thorium supporters believe a molten salt core is the best way of generating maximum energy.  

But as great as thorium may sound, there are some issues.

Thorium Problems

Supporters of thorium believe it will be a clean-burning fuel source, but those concerned about the environment are not as convinced. Thorium supporters may have a hard time making an argument about thorium’s use as a clean fuel when renewable energy is making headway around the world.

On a practical level, despite thorium’s use in certain reactors, mass production of this new metal is another story. Scientists have pointed out the cost burden in producing thorium on a wide scale, and other analysts have noted that maximum generation of thorium would require technology that is years ahead of today’s advancements. Billions of dollars have already been geared towards thorium generation, with little to show regarding mass energy output.

And although it shows potential, thorium-based energy is very much in its theoretical stage. Even though thorium can be used with uranium, there may be some pushback from uranium investors and companies in trying to minimize its presence.

But this hasn’t stopped certain companies around the world.

Thorium Investment

A new company based out of Massachusetts by the name of Transatomic Power of Cambridge has plans to build molten salt reactors to burn off nuclear waste by tons. According to Reuters, there is 270,000 metric tons of nuclear waste worldwide.

Thorium’s use in molten reactors would certainly be a great addition in eliminating more nuclear refuse, and it would spawn the growing use of molten salt cores as opposed to traditional water reactors.

Thor Energy out of Norway specializes in harvesting power for thorium from its test reactor in Halden. And there is more effort in Congress when it comes to allowing the private sector to get more involved in thorium production.

Representatives Andy Thompson (R-Norwalk) and Terry Boose (R-Marietta) of Ohio plan to introduce a bill that would call on the Department of Energy and Nuclear Regulatory Commission to license and regulate liquid thorium reactors by private companies. Certain House members see thorium as a means of not only generating efficient power, but as a way of fostering job creation in their states and all around the country. 

There is a groundswell of support for thorium in the nuclear community, and it is something worth watching out for as R&D progresses. Whether or not you’re a fan of thorium, it is guaranteed to have an impact in the nuclear world on some level in the future.


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