Thorium: The safe, alternative nuclear energy
The mantra of pursuing an “all of the above” approach to solve our energy problem is often proclaimed by our politicians and citizens at large, and yet one of the most powerful, clean and effective energy solutions often isn’t even taken into consideration: nuclear energy.
Now the biggest problem with nuclear energy is the scary feeling that compelled that shudder some of you just got while reading the word “nuclear.” And even if the concept of nuclear energy doesn’t scare you, few Americans would be jumping at the chance for a new nuclear energy facility to open right next to their house.
The fear surrounding nuclear energy has only intensified after the 2011 disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, even though a Japanese parliamentary commission’s investigation concluded that human error was the cause of the accident, citing the Tokyo Electric Power Co. for a wide variety of technical errors that caused radiation to leak into the environment.
In response to the increasing unfounded hysteria about nuclear energy, climate scientist Pushker A. Kharecha and James E. Hansen at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies conducted and published research which found that using nuclear power in place of fossil-fuel energy sources has prevented an average of 1.84 million air pollution-related deaths and 64 gigatons of CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions.
The publication concludes that since nuclear power is an abundant, low-carbon source of base-load power, it is ideal to help the mitigation of global climate change and air pollution.
Does any of this information make you more likely to request a new nuclear plant next door, however? Probably not. The residual connotative fear is still too great.
But that is all about to change thanks to a renewed interest in element number 90 in the periodic table: thorium.
Named in 1828 after Thor, the Norse god of thunder, thorium was successfully tested as a source of nuclear energy from the 1950s to 1970s, but lost out on further research funding to uranium reactors because of its ability to produce weapons-grade plutonium capable of leveling a city as well as electricity –– an obvious choice at the height of the Cold War.
But what used to be thorium’s bane is now its boon, as this slightly radioactive silvery-white metal can be used to power nuclear reactors, but cannot be used by terrorists or rogue states to make atomic bombs.
Oh, and did I mention that thorium reactors can be designed to have no meltdown risk since thorium dissolves in hot liquid fluoride salts? So no risk of having a thorium-type Fukushima or Chernobyl.
Thorium is a fertile rather than fissile fuel, and actually produces more neutrons per collision than conventional nuclear energy and is capable of thermal breeding. This creates new fuel as the thorium breaks down in a self-sustaining chain reaction that could possibly last indefinitely.
So we’re talking about 100 percent safe nuclear reactors that can produce basically unlimited amounts of emissions free power.
Does this sound too good to be true? What if I also told you that the waste from thorium reactors is only radioactive for a few hundred years rather than tens of thousands, and thorium reactors can be used to burn up existing stockpiles of nuclear weapons?
While some are still hesitant to embrace this new nuclear power, Norway’s government-owned Halden reactor is teaming up with U.S.-based (but Japanese-owned) Westinghouse to begin a four year test to dispel remaining doubts about thorium. If successful, they’ll have provided the model to convert all existing nuclear power plants to thorium.
The plant will deploy a mix of solid thorium mixed with plutonium, known as “thorium MOX,” which can be used to create energy while safely addressing the problem of what to do with existing plutonium waste.
You’d think that an energy source like thorium that appears to be a godsend would be rather rare, however, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Thorium is actually three times more abundant than uranium, and is generally easy to mine — the reserves being located very near the surface — making the environmental effects of mining it rather minimal.
And America has tons of thorium — 440,900 tons according to a 2010 estimate by the U.S. Geological Survey. That’s 8 percent of the world’s reserves, enough deposits to power our energy needs for the next 1,000 years, Duncan Delano writes.
So when we’re talking about alternative energies and providing an “all of the above approach” to solving our energy crisis, don’t forget to include thorium-based nuclear power. Fearing nuclear power will only inhibit us from creating even safer and more efficient nuclear energy.
Thorium nuclear power may end up being more than just another option, it just might be the answer we’ve been looking for.
Content Managing Editor Kevin R. Jensen is a senior English major. His column appears Wednesdays in the Collegian. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kevinrjensen.