Can a little-known element, named for the mythological Norse god, Thor, provide safe nuclear power and a path to long-term energy independence for all? Several scientists are shouting, “Yes!”
But if that is so, why is the possibility of using thorium to generate electricity unknown even to many nuclear physicists, and what is blocking implementation of technology which has been available since the 1950s?
Panel of experts at The Engineer answer questions on the use of thorium in nuclear reactors.
Thorium is increasingly being promoted as an alternative fuel to uranium in civil nuclear fission reactors. Proponents argue it’s safer, more abundant and much harder to weaponise. But the most significant development of thorium-fuelled reactors at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the US was cancelled in the 1970s and the technology would need large amounts of investment to continue readying it for commercial use.
Scientists in Shanghai are attempting a breakthrough in nuclear energy: reactors powered by thorium, an alternative to uranium.
The project is run by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a government body with close military ties that coordinates the country's science-and-technology strategy. The academy has designated thorium as a priority for China's top laboratories. The program has a budget of $350 million. And it's being spearheaded by the influential son of a former Chinese president.
Paris, Dec. 20 2013 – Solvay and AREVA have signed an agreement to develop new applications for the use of thorium, an element that is abundantly present in the earth’s crust and part of rare earth elements or uranium.
The agreement aims to define the conditions that ensure the responsible management of thorium. It includes the deployment of an R&D program to study, among others, the use of thorium as a potential fuel in nuclear plants, as a complement to fuels using uranium and plutonium.
Two of the nation’s fastest supercomputers will aid a research team, led by a University of Alabama computational chemist, in guiding both the development of new nuclear fuels and clean-up efforts from past nuclear fuel and weapon production.
The U.S. Department of Energy awarded the team, led by Dr. David Dixon, UA professor and Robert Ramsay Chair of Chemistry, 250 million processor hours on supercomputers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Argonne National Laboratory.
Two state legislators are on board with an effort to convince federal officials that reactors using thorium as a fuel have the potential to provide ample supplies of low-cost energy without many of the challenges of traditional nuclear power.
Reps. Terry Boose, R-Norwalk, and Andy Thompson, R-Marietta, said they plan to introduce a House Concurrent Resolution to promote research and development of energy from thorium reactors. They see it as a possible long-term solution to Ohio’s energy needs and an opportunity for manufacturers to supply components for the reactors.
Could thorium be the faltering nuclear industry’s salvation -- or is it a mirage? Is the U.S. missing an immense energy opportunity?
“We should be trying our best to develop the use of thorium,” former UN weapons inspector Hans Blix recently told BBC News. “I am told that thorium will be safer in reactors - and it is almost impossible to make a bomb out of thorium.”