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Thorium: The Future Of Nuclear Power

Nuclear Waste

One of the main objections to nuclear energy stems from the waste that it generates. To run today’s typical 1 gigawatt light water reactor for one year requires 250 tonnes of uranium and you are left with 35 tonnes of fission products and 0.3 tonnes of plutonium which must be stored for thousands of years. By contrast the LFTR only uses 1 tonne of thorium and leaves you with 1 tonne of spent fission products (which only need to be stored for 300 years) and around 100 grams of plutonium. It is also able to burn up the spent nuclear fuel from our existing reactor fleet – of which we have around 60,000 tonnes.

Fuel Supply

Our supplies of coal, oil and natural gas are predicted to run out within the next few hundred years, however we have thousands of years worth of accessible thorium. An average cubic metre of the earth’s crust contains around 12 grams of thorium, enough to power the typical western lifestyle for 10-15 years. This makes it three or four times more common than uranium.

Although relatively little exploration has been carried out, it’s estimated that global reserves of thorium are around 1.6 million tonnes and although India has by far the biggest reserves, almost all countries have some supplies. Even Britain has seams in Wales and in the granite cliffs of Cornwall.

Projects Under Development

China is at the forefront of thorium development and earlier this year announced financing for a programme to develop a thorium fuelled molten salt reactor similar in design to the LFTR. A demonstration plant is expected to be up and running by 2016.

India and Norway are also developing thorium reactors and are predicted to bring plants online within the next five years or so. As yet the UK has no plans to fund development into thorium.

Given the success of team at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory 50 years ago it seems likely that the US will also pursue thorium power though it may be down to the private sector to pick up the baton. Indeed President Obama stated as much in his recent State of the Union speech: “We’re telling America’s scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams of the best minds in their fields, and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we’ll fund the Apollo projects of our time”. He went on to say “Some folks want wind and solar. Others want nuclear, clean coal and natural gas. To meet this goal, we will need them all”.

Investment Opportunities

Since thorium is not a traded commodity it’s not possible to buy a thorium ETF. In fact there remain very few companies that provide investors with direct exposure to its potential.

Perhaps the best play on the metal itself is US based Thorium Energy Inc. which, according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), has one of the largest high-grade thorium properties in the world located in Idaho and Montana. As yet however the company has no plans to go public.

Another private company to keep an eye on is Flibe Energy, a new company founded by nuclear technologist and former NASA engineer, Kirk Sorensen. The company is dedicated to the development of small modular reactors based on Liquid-Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) technology. The company plans to form strategic partnerships with nuclear equipment manufacturers to hasten the development and construction of small mobile LFTRs that can be used in remote installations.

Although it’s not working on LTFR technology, Lightbridge Corporation [NASDAQ: LTBR] still presents an interesting investment opportunity. Lightbridge is developing technologies to convert existing reactors to its ‘seed-and-blanket’ design which uses a mix of uranium and thorium solid fuel rods – a transition that requires no major reactor modifications. The resulting fission reaction not only lasts longer, it is also safer and produces less waste and as with the LTFR the small amount it does leave is unsuitable for use in weapons.

Using thorium in a conventional reactor only gives you some of the benefits. However CEO of Lightbridge, Seth Grae, thinks it’s better to convert existing reactors than to build new ones. He gives the analogy of replacing leaded fuel with unleaded saying “You don’t have to replace engines or build new gas stations”. The company has multimillion-dollar contracts to advise the United Arab Emirates on its plans for nuclear power and is also working with the French firm Areva to investigate alternative nuclear fuel assemblies.

The Coming Thorium Age

Human history has been shaped by the discovery of different materials and sources of energy. Thorium may be the material that helps us meet the challenge of producing safe, clean and cost efficient energy for centuries to come.