There is Something About Thorium

Just about a year ago, I wrote an entry on the HuffPost entitled "Renewable Electricity is Our Only Viable Option". In it, I panned both nuclear and coal fuels for a variety of reasons.

I need to make a mid-course correction about nuclear power.

There are two types of nuclear energy:
  • Fission, like that embodied by the Atomic Bomb, where a special isotope of uranium and/or plutonium is used as the fuel, and
  • Fusion, like that embodied by the Hydrogen Bomb, where isotopes of hydrogen are combined to produce energy.

The light and heat from our sun and all stars result from the fusion of hydrogen. Thus, of course, solar energy is also nuclear energy.

The first type of nuclear energy, fission, results in radioactive wastes that have the potential to remain dangerous for many hundreds of thousands of years. The second, fusion, similarly has to be stored, but only for several tens of years.

Uranium/plutonium fission materials have the potential to be exploited by terrorists for dirty bombs. Further, depending on who you ask, there is such a thing as Peak Uranium. France, for example, now only imports its nuclear fuel. The price of uranium is also fickle, which for decades dawdled at $20/pound, only to zoom up close to $140/pound in 2007 before settling more recently at $45/pound.

Remembering Hiroshima/Nagasaki and Chernobyl/Three Mile Island, in context of nuclear terrorism combined with the sticky problem of where to store nuclear waste, I have long been an opponent of embracing fission. I still take pride in helping kill the Clinch River Breeder Reactor when I once worked as a staffer for the U.S. Senate.

However, a special form of "clean" fission seems to be making a comeback. Cosmos 2006 and the latest issue of Wired both cover thorium as an option for nuclear electricity. Named after the Norse God Thor, the element shows exciting potential as fuel for a "greener" next-generation fission reactor.

Earlier this year I was disappointed to learn that Abu Dhabi, the creator of the sustainable Masdar City, with all that natural sun, was jumping into nuclear power. But I now better understand that Masdar will be carbon-low, and nuclear is certainly one pathway. Further, I was pleased to read that Thorium Power gained a small contract to advise the country.

You can click on the above links to gain a more in-depth knowledge on the subject, but let me give you my top ten reasons (not in any particular order, and a few are counterintuitive, if not shocking) for advocating thorium, at least to promote a thorough public discussion:

1 There is up to six times more accessible thorium than uranium, with the U.S. being second to Australia. Others say India has one-third the resource and there is thorium to supply all our needs for a thousand years, but that's the ever changing nature of a newly developing concept.

2 The very first commercial nuclear powerplant, Shippingport, was powered by thorium during the final five years of operation, ending in 1982, so we know the concept works. However, America had earlier because of the Cold War turned to uranium/plutonium because our "war" advisors wanted this fuel for nuclear weapons. Just this decision pushed the world to the brink of nuclear winter and now provides the ingredients for a dirty bomb.

3 On an annual basis, for a typical 1000 MW uranium powerplant, you start with 250 tons of uranium ore. A 1000 MW thorium system uses one ton of thorium, and the typical ash produced in a 1000 MW coal facility results in 13 tons of thorium.

4 The fuel cost for a conventional nuclear powerplant is $50-$60 million, while the equivalent thorium reactor will only use $10,000 of thorium.

5 Uranium/plutonium wastes need to be safely stored for hundreds of thousands of years, while thorium is not fissile, and the reactor wastes would require, perhaps, caring "only" for several hundred years.

6 There is no terrorism potential for the thorium cycle. There can be no nuclear meltdown for a thorium reactor.

7 Uranium fission, thorium fission and fusion produce very little carbon dioxide (and not from the process itself, but from the materials and during construction).

8 Regarding the size of land required, a 1000 MW nuclear power site needs about a quarter million square feet, surrounded by a huge buffer zone. A thorium 1000 MW facility would only need 2500 square feet, with no buffer zone. I'm just reporting from the Wired article above. You might not be able to legally build a house on a lot this small.

9 Both Canada assisting China and India are rapidly advancing thorium fission.

10 Senators Orrin Hatch and Harry Reid have introduced legislation for the thorium cycle.

My book well covers nuclear power and I worked at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory on laser fusion. I don't previously remember the thorium option being even discussed. Yes, it's not perfect because you still need to mingle thorium with some rare uranium and there are assorted warts, but if global warming is accepted as real, we immediately will need viable options to replace coal, and the thorium fission reactor should as soon as possible undergo comprehensive due diligence, with step two being to replace pure uranium in a few existing nuclear power facilities (yes, the retrofitting option is another bonus) with the thorium mix.

Several environmental groups have embraced nuclear power in light of global warming. Could thorium be that magic bullet to bridge humanity over the next century or more to provide cleaner electricity?