With such a worldwide focus on energy that is NOT based on fossil fuels, it’s no surprise that breakthroughs in solar, wind, tidal, geothermal, hamster, and on and on seem to dominate the energy news. Most recently another source of energy seems to be having a resurgence, namely using thorium as a fuel source in nuclear reactors instead of uranium.
They’re calling it the nuclear fuel that will last for millenia, produce little waste, and can’t be proliferated into bombs.
“Once you start looking more closely, it blows your mind away. You can run civilization on thorium for hundreds of thousands of years, and it’s essentially free. You don’t have to deal with uranium cartels,”
So what’s the deal here?
Thorium, named after one of the coolest gods, Thor, is found on the periodic table near plutonium and Uranium but it’s only slightly radioactive, you could even carry in your pocket without much worry.
The main idea that many scientists are supporting including Nobel laureate Carlo Rubbia of CERN is the creation of reactors that use a thorium fuel cycle instead of a uranium based one.
In a nutshell, both these types of fuel can be used to create sustained nuclear reactions that reactors need to ultimately make electricity to charge all our iphones
What the difference then? What are the advantages of using thorium-based reactors
For one, thorium is much more abundant in earth’s crust than uranium. Estimates put 3 to 4 times more thorium than uranium in the world. Miners actually consider it a nuisance. Since one ton of Thorium produces as much energy as 200 tons of uranium, it could be quite a long time before we run out.
Conversion of thorium into a fissile material is more efficient as well. It has a better Neutron Economy which means that less neutrons are created uselessly (the term also refers to the overall efficiency of the reactor design)
Thorium also simply has better chemical and physical properties compared to uranium. Examples include a higher melting point, less thermal expansion, and overall greater stability. All of these characteristics improve reactor performance, lower their cost and make them simpler.
One of the biggest advantages is that some Thorium reactors are naturally resistant to proliferation. In other words it would not be easy to extract uranium or plutonium from this process to make weapons.
Some science writers seem to oversell this point. For example, Takahashi from the Huffington Post on Jan 5 wrote:
“There is no terrorism potential for the thorium cycle.”
I was skeptical of this primarily because…well it was on the HuffPo site.
There’s lots of conflicting talk about this specific advantage from sources all over the map.
My take is that if you’re using a thorium reactor designed to be proliferation resistant like a liquid fluoride thorium reactor, or LFTR then it would be very hard to make bombs although it’s probably not impossible.
If however this specific design was changed then you could more than likely still have a thorium reactor but it could also fairly easily produce byproducts for weapons.
There seems to be little question that proliferation would be reduced worldwide if all reactors were LFTRs but a nation determined to make plutonium is going to do it one way or the other. There are many pathways to making fissile material and LFTRs are no panacea.
It may sound like Thorium based fuel is a new idea but it was shown to work in tests more than 60 years ago. It seems that one of the deciding factors against it was the fact that the United States needed an easy way to make plutonium to make bombs to keep up with the Russians. Another pivotal time in history occurred during the oil embargo of the 70s. Desperate for an alternative source of energy, the US fast-tracked the approval of a plethora of uranium reactors, essentially killing any thorium reactor research that was still going on. Uranium-fueled reactors never looked back. Thorium reactors became a footnote in the history of nuclear energy.
That footnote is now getting de-footnoted it appears.
The appeal is obvious, right?
More than ever, we desperately need carbon-free electricity and nuclear energy is entering another renaissance now because of that fact….This new thorium design appears to make nuclear reactors even more compelling.
So compelling that nuclear industries around the world are taking a very serious look at this stuff. France which gets 75 percent of its electricy from nuclear power is trying to make existing thorium designs more efficient. India and China are probably the biggest players with obvious interests in this technology.
My bottom line on this is that it deserves more attention for many reasons like cost, size, complexity, efficiency etc but it is not a panacea for the spread of nukes like many are advocating.
P.S. Just found this cool looking thorium-fuel base concept car.
Designer Loren Kulesus apparently claims that this car can go a century without engine maintenance or refueling.
I am of course skeptical.