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Thorium and Nuclear Power

Thorium is a weakly radioactive metalic element widely occuring in the earths crust.  However at around 6 parts per million it is spread thin.  To make up for this it is ubiquitous. Although thorium is 4 times more abundant in the crust than uranium, uranium is more abundant than thorium in the oceans.  There are no specific thorium mines, any mine that digs up material also digs up thorium.  If the mine refines the ore to produce precious metals or rare earths, then it can obtain thorium as a by product.  Normally it just goes back in the ground as spoil.  The small amount of thorium that is produced costs around $165 an ounce in the current no demand situation.  If a demand arose then costs could come down dramatically.  Cobalt is about $1 per ounce, so is just slightly cheaper than uranium and the second half of the chart fits under the first.

It is a heavy element with an atomic number of 90 (c.f. uranium=92, lead=82).  A freshly exposed surface is silvery, but it tarnishes in air to black which is thorium dioxide.  All known isotopes of thorium are unstable, but some have very long half lives.  232Th has a half life of around 14 billion years (about the age of the universe), and eventually decays to lead.

It was discovered in 1829 and applications for it, such as an alloy component, were developed in the late 19th centuary.  When its radioactive nature was discovered and more was learnt about radioactivity ln the 20th century it was phased out and replaced by other other materials.  It was used to produce the incandesence in gas mantles.  It has the potential to replace uranium as a nuclear fuel in atomic reactors.

The first nuclear reactors were powered with thorium as well as uranium.  Thorium reactors can't melt down, but were not so suitable for developing weapons, though the waste was much easier to deal with, (300 years as opposed to 10,000 years).  In other words, it is nuclear power with less problems.  So how come we switched to uranium?  (The arms race and building up a nuclear stock pile? Reds under the bed?).

You can see from the price of metals at the beginning of this page that uranium is about 100 times cheaper than thorium (but with a demand for thorium this would no longer be true).  The raw cost of the fuel however is a minor cosideration in the overall cost, many other factors affect the decision on which fuel to use.  Politics and lobying played a large part in the decision too.  But now many other nations are starting their own nuclear programs there may be a desire to move back to thorium which does not involve plutonium in the process.  America had the lead in Thorium reactors, but Nixon killed it off to get jobs in to California.  China picked up on the orignal research for free as America were not interested, and they now have the lead in thorium reactors.

Coal and gas are far more harmful than nuclear power.  Natural gas burning emits less fatal pollution and GHGs (Green House Gases) than coal burning, but it is far deadlier than nuclear power, causing about 40 times more deaths per unit electric energy produced.

The Tsunami in Japan killed 15,893 people whereas the related nuclear accident killed one.  Even the long-term death toll from the nuclear incident is likely to be around 2,000 assuming the upper estimate.  The nuclear accident will continue on in communal memory as "the dangers of nuclear power" long after the tsunami has been fogotten.

Despite the evidence we still fear nuclear power and close our minds to other dangers which are worse.  Government secrecy and cover-up may have something to do with it.  Did they think that changing the name from Windscale to Sellafield would make us think it didn't happen?  It may be that we fear radio-activty because it is unseen and has such deadly affects.

Chernobyl was the one nuclear accident that would justify the feeling against nuclear power (apart from Hiroshima and Nagasaki).  However, resent and fear existed prior to the event and has maybe not got much worse since.  Chernobyl was a matter of gross (criminal?) negligence on the part of the soviet authorities, coupled with incompetance and lack of knowledge by some of the staff involved, exacerbated by undue pressure from management.  We will not know the final death toll for many years.

We have a growng need for electrical power.  If we are going to meet our emmission targets we need to make a large switch from fossil fuels to clean (in terms of emmisions) alternatives.  If we switch transport to electric (battery or fuel cell) that will cause a spike in demand for electricity that renewables (wind, wave and solar) will be hard pressed to meet.  We need nuclear power, and thorium looks safer than uranium but thanks to our governments, both ours and US, we have no current capability; we will have to buy from China.  Why is there no debate on this?  Why are they still messing around with Brexit?

The following short video by Thomas Jam Pedersen gives a good introduction to the use of thorium as a nuclear fuel.  His accent makes unfamiliar words hard to pick up, but these are usually just names and so do not affect the meaning.  Making Safe Nuclear Power from Thorium 20 minutes, MOSART reactor a European initiative.

The black ball is thorium, not soil

MOSART stands for Molten Salt Actinide Recycler and Transmuter

Links to further information, follow at your leisure

Are We Getting Closer to Thorium Nuclear Fuel? Youtube 5 minutes

Is Thorium Our Energy Future? Youtube 15 minutes

Thorium and the Future of Nuclear Energy Youtube 18 minutes

LFTRs in 5 minutes - Liquid Flouride Thorium Reactors Youtube 5 minutes

Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors (LFTR): Energy for the Future? Youtube 3 minutes

Thorium - The Future of Energy? Youtube 8 minutes

The Thorium Molten-Salt Reactor: Why Didn't This Happen (and why is now the right time?) - Kirk Sorensen.  The history of why we went the wrong way.  Youtube 36 minutes

Thorium can give humanity clean, pollution free energy - Kirk Sorensen  The story of the discovery of nuclear energy.  Youtube 16 minutes

Thorium - World Nuclear Association Information and statistics about the element.  Webpage

Myths and Misconceptions about Thorium nuclear fuel (skip over the blurb at the beginning (webpage).

9th December 2019

Copyright © 2004 - JG Weston, all rights reserved.

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