Is thorium the great hope for a clean, viable and safe nuclear-fuel alternative to uranium, or is it an impractical and overly expensive option that could never be adopted by the nuclear industry?
Nuclear energy has numerous advantages, but there are drawbacks as well: nuclear waste poses a significant environmental threat, meltdowns are a possibility and nuclear materials can be used to create weapons of mass destruction.
However, advocates of using thorium as a nuclear fuel instead of uranium point out that it solves many of these problems.
Can Thorium be Weaponized?
Although some wonder if thorium can be used in nuclear weapons and are concerned about the possibility of a thorium bomb, thorium actually can't be weaponized because it doesn't produce enough recoverable plutonium, which is required for building nuclear weapons.
Moreover, the waste from thorium reactions is dangerous for a few hundred years, instead of the 10,000 or so years for uranium waste — a thorium reactor could even consume much of the existing uranium waste.
Thorium reactors can't undergo a meltdown, according to SmartPlanet. Thorium is also far more abundant in the world than uranium, with supplies in places like Australia, India and Idaho. Additionally, it is far more efficient — dig thorium out of the ground and it's ready to be put in the reactor, whereas only 3-5% of mined uranium needs no further processing.
Original Development and History
If it's so great, why aren't we using it? When nuclear power was being developed in the 1950s, it was part of a broader Cold War strategy. Governments were paying for the research and it was in their interest to develop uranium as the primary nuclear fuel because it could also be used in weapons development.
However, critics of the thorium alternative point out that it's more expensive than uranium because it can't sustain a reaction by itself and must be bombarded with neutrons. Uranium can be left alone in a reaction, while thorium must be constantly prodded to keep reacting. Although this allows for safer reactions (if the power goes out it simply deactivates), it's a more expensive process.
Thorium is a popular academic alternative: in the lab it works well, but it hasn't been successfully — or profitably — used on a commercial scale yet.
Current Usage of Thorium
India is the market leader in trying to harness thorium for the energy grid. It has the largest proven thorium reserves and the world's only operating thorium reactor, Kakrapar-1, a converted conventional pressurized water reactor. China is working to develop the technology as well, while the United States, France and Britain are studying its viability.
Flibe Energy, which is based in Huntsville, Alabama, recently noted the company is looking to establish a liquid fluoride thorium reactor in the U.S. within the next decade, with Wyoming as a possible location.
Proponents of renewable energy concede that thorium is preferable to uranium, but argue that the millions in subsidies thorium will require to become commercially viable would be better spent on solar, wind and other alternative energy sources.
While nuclear advocates are more hospitable to thorium, they are hesitant to put all their eggs in one basket at this point. The element hasn't shown itself to be feasible as a profitable commercial energy source, whereas uranium has. Despite a history of reactor meltdowns and near-meltdowns, there's a renewed emphasis on nuclear power in the world today, and nuclear industry advocates don't see now as the time to try an unproven alternative.
The bottom line is that when it comes to thorium versus uranium, thorium is more abundant, as well as cleaner and safer, but given current capabilities, it produces more expensive energy than uranium and still leads to environmental waste issues.
Thorium could be part of the answer to the world's energy needs, but it currently lacks a track record of cost-effective energy generation. In the meantime, nations like China and India are taking the lead in developing thorium-based nuclear systems.
This article was originally written by David Sims.
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