Former UN weapons inspector Hans Blix said “in my opinion we should be trying our best to develop the use of thorium. I realise there are many obstacles to be overcome but the benefits would be great.”
"Thorium will be safer in reactors” Blix told a CERN conference “and it is almost impossible to make a bomb out of thorium. These are very major factors as the world looks for future energy supplies."
Thorium is being touted as something of a wonder fuel that could solve the world’s energy crisis and decrease carbon emissions to prevent further global warming. It has “absolute pre-eminence” says Carlo Rubbia, former director of the CERN laboratory and joint winner of the 1984 Nobel Prize in Physics. “In order to be vigorously continued, nuclear power must be profoundly modified.”
A private organisation called Thor Energy is performing thorium tests at the Halden Research Reactor in Norway. The test will help to further research the use of thorium in traditional nuclear power plants.
Norway, it should be pointed out, has particular interests in this area. Norway doesn’t need the extra energy, (it’s the world’s third largest exporter of natural gas) but it is sitting on an estimated four per cent of the world’s thorium reserves.
Thorium is far from a rare substance though. It’s a naturally occurring radioactive element discovered by Jöns Jacob Berzelius a Swedish chemist in 1828 and named after Thor, the Norse god of Thunder. It is found in widespread locations all over the world and is considered to be around four times as abundant as the uranium scientists hope it will replace.
"There is lots of thorium in the world” says Oystein Asphjell, Thor Energy’s chief executive it is “very well distributed all over the globe. In operations, in a reactor, it has some chemical and physical properties that make it really superior to uranium as well. On the waste side, we don’t generate long lived waste."
“Weinberg called it burning the rocks” says Gordon McDowell, a filmmaker working on a documentary called Thorium Remix. “You can literally mine rock just for its energy content. Thorium is so common in the earth's crust that an average American's energy demand, including industry and transportation, could be met by a half barrel of everyday rock. Dirt, anywhere in the world - worth many multiples of crude oil. The key is to very efficiently convert thorium into energy.”
There is so much Thorium around that America has started to dispose of it’s unused supplies. “Go out to Nevada, and dig down about 12 feet “ says McDowel “and in nice tractor-trailer containers … there is barrel after barrel of thorium nitrate, about 3,200 tons, which would provide about two-thirds of the planet's energy needs for a year. Thorium would never need to be mined. Ever.”
The key advantage of Thorium over other nuclear fuel isn’t how profligate the fuel source is, but how much of the fuel is burnt up during the process. In traditional nuclear energy production only one per cent of uranium is used, the rest is turned into leftover materials like plutonium, that are either weaponised or disposed of. In a thorium reactor almost all of the thorium is used up.
It’s also safer to produce. “It's not prone to runaway chain reactions that can lead to nuclear disasters” says Duncan Clark, Visiting researcher at UCL Energy Institute “[thorium’s] waste products remains dangerous for a much shorter period, and its byproducts aren't useful for making nuclear weapons
Traditional nuclear reactors “leave behind two classes of materials.” explains McDowell, “one is the actual fission products… then there is what's called the transuranics.” The fission products aren’t really a problem “they decay rather quickly. They don't really have long-term radioactivity.” But “the real challenge with spent fuel management is the presence of those transuranics: plutonium, americium, curium. When you're looking at a Yucca Mountain [Nuclear Waste Repository] or a disposal site you say, ‘What are we going to do with that?’"
Thorium power has, itself some powerful backers. In a famous TED speech on global warming Bill Gates said “the equation on CO2 is actually a very straightforward one… [it] leads to a temperature increase, and that temperature increase leads to some very negative effects… and so you get ecosystem collapses.
“So this is a wish.’ says Gates “It's a very concrete wish that we invent this technology. If you gave me only one wish for the next 50 years - I could pick who's president, I could pick a vaccine, which is something I love, or I could pick that this thing that's half the cost with no CO2 gets invented - this is the wish I would pick. This is the one with the greatest impact.”
By Mark Hattersley (MSN)
The home of Thor Energy research
In an effort to reduce the number of coal-fired plants, the Chinese government has brought forward by 15 years the deadline to develop a thorium power plant.
A team of researchers in Shanghai has now been told it has 10 instead of 25 years to develop the world's first such plant.
The researchers on the project said they had come under considerable pressure from the government for it to be successful. Li said nuclear power was the "only solution" to replace coal, and thorium "carries much hope".
China plans to have almost 60 gigawatts of nuclear energy by 2020 and up to 150gw by 2030
For more information about thorium, see the International Thorium Energy’s web site