Nuclear power – uranium vs. thorium

After the recent nuclear emergency in Fukushima, Japan, increasing numbers of Americans are having a change of heart about nuclear energy and wanting to see more cash diverted from subsidizing nuclear into renewable energy options such as solar power instead.

I’ve outlined some of the many environmental issues regarding nuclear power in the past, however as I’ve been reading more on the subject of nuclear energy, a supposedly safer and more environmentally friendly alternative to uranium called thorium keeps popping up.

What is thorium and what are the advantages?

Thorium is an abundant radioactive element; far more plentiful than uranium. 

Thorium is considered a superior nuclear fuel – according to Nobel laureate Carlo Rubbia, it can produce 200 times the amount of energy as an equal weight of uranium, or a staggering 3.5 million times that of the same weight of of coal.

Additional benefits include that it’s difficult to weaponize and far less nuclear waste is involved – as much as 50% less. 

It seems a thorium based reactor can also utilise uranium-based fuel waste; waste that is currently being stored in numerous facilities around the world. The very frightening thing about this waste is that it’s a liability for thousands of years. 

A thorium reactor can even be fed weapons grade nuclear materials – an interesting and productive way to dispose of nuclear weapons stockpiles.

Using thorium as a fuel can also cut down the costs of constructing nuclear reactors and make them safer.

Why aren’t we using thorium today?

This is where it gets interesting and it’s an all too common story. 

According to a report on ABC (Australia), the inventor of the most common base reactor design in the world today, Dr. Alvin Weinberg, warned about the potential dangers of trying to shut down a reactor if there was a loss of power; such as what has occurred in Fukushima, Japan. 

He sounded this warning in the 1960’s. 

He also proposed a much safer alternative to uranium – a Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) – for the reasons mentioned above and more. A test reactor was run from the mid to late 1960’s and operated well. Dr. Weinberg believed thorium would solve the world’s energy problems.

It’s reported Dr. Weinberg then came under intense pressure from certain political and industry sectors to abandon his work and advocacy due to the fact the uranium industry was already well established – the thorium alternative posed a threat to the status quo. 

Dr. Weinberg quit his position and within a couple of years, the Atomic Energy Committee shut down the entire research program.

Since the Fukushima reactor crisis, the viability of thorium is again being given serious consideration.


Should we use thorium based reactors?

The point that disturbs me is that while thorium seems a much better deal than uranium, how much safer is it than renewable energy sources such as solar power? One of the many solar power myths is that it is far more expensive than nuclear power. That solar can’t provide baseload power is another myth – it can and is already doing so. Renewables isn’t just about solar energy either; there’s wind power, wave, geothermal and other greener, cleaner sources. Of course, the greenest watt is the one that doesn’t have to be generated, so energy efficiency also has a huge role to play. Renewables + energy efficiency = all the power we need.

While thorium can cut nuclear waste by 50%, it’s still too much in my opinion, bearing in mind the responsibility for the waste will be a burden for generations to come.

Still, I’m certainly not well-read on the topic, so I look forward to learning more. After all, I’m not totally opposed to nuclear energy. I’m sitting here looking at my own nuclear power plant of sorts – a solar panel. I just feel far more comfortable with the nuclear energy source being 93 million miles away.