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Is thorium the magic bullet that will solve our energy crisis?

Daniel Martins
Digital Reporter

Wednesday, February 12, 2014, 1:43 PM -

You might have heard the word 'Thorium' crop up here and there over the last couple of years.

It’s not the technical marketing term for the box office success of a certain Norse-demigod superhero movie franchise – it’s a radioactive element that, if we develop it right, could give us cheaper, more abundant and way less dangerous nuclear power.

We can already hear a few hackles raising at the mention of that phrase, 'nuclear power'. That’s fair. Uranium reactors pack quite the punch, energy-wise, into a relatively small amount of fuel, but when that fuel is spent, it’s a millennia-long wait for the radioactive contamination to dissipate.

Then there’s the meltdowns. Nuclear power’s potential for an incredible environmental catastrophe has been ingrained in the public mind ever since Chernobyl, but it was only reinforced by the meltdown at Fukushima in the wake of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan.

There was such a huge backlash against nuclear power in the wake of Fukushima that the global price of uranium actually plummeted. But it won’t stay down for long. The demand for clean energy is too high, and the climate change effects of fossil-fuel-based power sources are just too dire, for us to ignore nuclear power.

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That’s where thorium comes in.

This radioactive element (named, yes, after the Norse thunder god) has been known for almost two centuries, but it wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century that it was first explored as a potential power source.

Got a complaint about nuclear power? This stuff has an answer for almost every one - at least according to its proponents (see below for a video put together by a physics student using comments from Kirk Sorensen, a former NASA engineer who is one of the technology's staunchest advocates):

Worried about meltdowns? Thorium itself can’t actually spark a fission reaction on its own, without using a uranium catalyst, and the way the procedure works, meltdowns are way less likely.

Worried about nuclear waste? Thorium produces hardly any, and what it does produce becomes inert in decades rather than millennia. And remember that catalyst we mentioned? Existing uranium nuclear byproduct works just fine, so we can actually use it to recycle radioactive waste.

Worried about nuclear proliferation? Thorium and its byproducts are almost impossible to weaponize. 

Apparently you can even use it in cars. One company is working on a prototype that can run for 100 years on just eight grams of the stuff (it also looks like a slicker version of the Batmobile, which we feel is an understated benefit).

There’s also a ridiculous amount of it worldwide, apparently, around three times as much as uranium.

Canada is only around ninth on the list of thorium-abundant nations, but our estimated 172,000 tonnes of the stuff is more than both China and Russia, two countries with way higher energy needs than our own.

In Canada, some proponents of the technology claim thorium-burning reactors can produce power in the range of 4-7 cent per KWh, and some modular forms of the reactor can be linked into a 100-MW network. That is an awful lot of cheap power.

As to whether it works, Norwegian firm Thor Energy quietly began operating a reactor in late 2013, and according to Uranium Investing News, it’s a runaway success. India, which has the largest thorium stocks in the world, has been tinkering with the technology for decades.

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So it seems to work, according to many sources, so why not use it?

The trouble is that, even though the technology has been around for ages, technical hurdles have prevented its widespread commercialization. Although China and other countries are making high-profile attempts to get the thorium party started, anti-nuclear activists say they’ll hit the same wall as the Indians – who’ve been running a thorium reactor for years, but still haven’t figured out how to make it work on a nation-wide scale.

As for all the benefits of thorium over uranium, those, say anti-nuclear activists, have all been overplayed. It produces less waste, sure, but nuclear waste is still waste, and skeptics say the nuclear lobby is downplaying the risk from the byproducts.

The UK recommended against the technology. And although the United States Geological Survey has been giving it a good, hard look, it’s so under the radar that the Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t even list “nuclear power” as a use for the material.

Besides, David Suzuki, who’s become just the latest to weigh in on the supposed renewable energy savior, says even aside from all the drawbacks and benefits, there’s one factor that’s been overlooked: Time.

Fossil fuel sources are accelerating man-made climate change, and Suzuki says, but replacing them all with enough thorium reactors to make a difference could take up to 50 years.

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“Given the urgent challenge of global warming, we don’t have that much time,” Suzuki writes at EcoWatch.com. “Many argue that if renewables received the same level of government subsidies as the nuclear industry, we’d be ahead at lower costs.”

He doesn’t seem to be against the idea in theory, but he firmly prefers making a big push on renewable energy.

Whichever approach wins out, it’s still early days for thorium. Despite recent breakthroughs, it’ll be a good long while before we find out if thorium is the saviour its lobbyists say it is.

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