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Can thorium become the shale fracking of atomic energy?

Takashi Kamei

The thorium story is well-known. Enthusiasts are convinced it could be the transforming technology needed to drive the industrial revolutions of Asia - and to avoid an almighty energy crunch as an extra two billion people climb the ladder to western lifestyles.

At the least, they say, it could do for nuclear power what shale fracking has done for natural gas - but on a bigger scale, for much longer, perhaps more cheaply, and with near zero CO2 emissions. Here, Takashi Kamei, the Japan representative of the International Thorium Energy Organisation based in Sweden and the chief strategic officer of a start-up called Quan Japan, talks about some of the issues.

How many years away are we from seeing thorium used commercially?

a It's based on which reactor we use. But quite simply speaking, if we use thorium fuel rods in light-water reactors, we can start today. It's not that difficult, although it should not be put in existing reactors. In China and Abu Dhabi they are building new reactors. These new light-water reactors can use thorium fuel if the wall of the reactor is just, for example, 50 centimetres, increase it to 1 metre.

How did people respond to your idea before Fukushima?

Before? Roughly speaking, from the industry side, they don't want to move to new technology, because their infrastructure such as factories or supply chains have been already established.

Are they more accepted now?

I think more accepted, because ordinary people do not want new nuclear power plants. But if the reactor is safe, if the reactor is resistant to earthquakes, ordinary people will think about it. So the industry will see, and there will be a possibility to make new, much safer reactors.

How much thorium is there?

We do not have the correct information about it because thorium is not used now, so nobody has investigated correctly. In the United States there is a huge amount. In June 2009 the USGS [United States Geological Survey] reported that they have 900,000 tonnes of thorium. At that time it was of course the world's largest reserves. And Brazil also has thorium reserves - 600,000 tonnes. And in Australia - I go there next week - they have 300,000 tonnes.