Thorium – the next step for nuclear power?

Since the Fukushima incident which followed Japan’s massive earthquake and consequent tsunami in Marcj of this year, the issue of nuclear energy has been at the forefront of current affairs across the globe. Germany made headlines when its coalition government declared it was to terminate its nuclear energy programme by the year 2022. There had been widespread mass-protest against nuclear energy in Germany in the wake of Fukushima and the decision has made Germany the largest industrial power to commit to giving up on nuclear power.

The news had a hugely positive effect on share prices for renewable energy companies with German solar manufacturer, Solarworld, up 7.6% whilst Danish wind turbine maker Vestas gained more than 3% within a day of the German government’s announcement.

Nonetheless, there is still speculation from sceptics who say that, in order for Germany to make up for the amount of nuclear energy it will be disposing of (currently 11% 0f total energy consumed), the country will have to burn more fossil fuels, thus doing more harm than good to the environment. They believe that, although the German economy can survive without nuclear power, such a quick phase-out is negligent. A stable power supply is taken for granted in Germany – and any suggestion that this was no longer 100 per cent guaranteed might deter investors. According to Dorothea Slems of German paper Die Welt, “A look back at the oil price shocks in the 1970s shows how sensitive the question of energy is.”

This leads me to what could be the greatest energy technology breakthrough of this century, and could potentially change the global energy landscape forever. Thorium is a radioactive chemical element which is around four times more abundant than Uranium and far less hazardous. Some countries, most notable India and China, are now investing heavily in research to build thorium-based nuclear reactors. India has also made thorium based nuclear reactors a priority with its focus on developing ‘fast breeder’ technology (nuclear reactors that create more fissile material in fuel than they consume).

Some of the benefits of Thorium, when compared with Uranium are:

  • Weapons-grade fissionable material (233U) is harder to retrieve safely and clandestinely from a thorium reactor;
  • Thorium produces 10 to 10,000 times less long-lived radioactive waste;
  • Thorium comes out of the ground as a 100% pure, usable isotope, which does not require enrichment, whereas natural uranium contains only 0.7% fissionable U-235;
  • Thorium cannot sustain a nuclear chain reactor without priming, so fission stops by default.
Norway appears set on running its post-oil economy on Thorium-based nuclear energy. The technology’s supporters say it will be the saving grace of a world hurtling towards a massive energy crisis based on Asia’s ever-expanding economies and the West’s evermore entrenched commitment to guzzling fuel.
Germany’s decision to end all nuclear energy within its borders may have been rushed and may not have been entirely environmentally sound. But it has sent out a loud and clear message to the rest of the world: It’s time to re-think the way we produce the energy we rely on. If such economic behemoths as India and China are listening, that can only be a good thing.
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1 Comment

Filed under Current Affairs, Energy, Europe, Politics

One response to “Thorium – the next step for nuclear power?

  1. The real benefit of thorium occurs when it is used in a liquid state. The liquid fluoride thorium reactor can make energy cheaper than from coal — the only realistic way to convince all nations to stop burning fossil fuels for electric power.

    If you’re Irish, you should be interested in a new film about thorium reactors by some Irish lads, http://www.thoriumdocumentary.com/about-the-good-reactor/

    There is an introduction to the technology and social benefits at
    http://rethinkingnuclearpower.googlepages.com/aimhigh,

    and more technical presentations at
    http://thoriumenergyalliance.org and
    http://energyfromthorium.com

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