Thorium: the new nuclear?

Paul Raven @ 31-08-2010

Via NextBigFuture, the UK’s foremost conservative middle-class broadsheet hopes President Obama can leapfrog red tape and stop the momentum of the fossil fuel industry dead in its tracks (without any explosive dissipation of said momentum, one assumes) by rushing through research on thorium-based nuclear reactors:

There is no certain bet in nuclear physics but work by Nobel laureate Carlo Rubbia at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) on the use of thorium as a cheap, clean and safe alternative to uranium in reactors may be the magic bullet we have all been hoping for, though we have barely begun to crack the potential of solar power.

Dr Rubbia says a tonne of the silvery metal – named after the Norse god of thunder, who also gave us Thor’s day or Thursday – produces as much energy as 200 tonnes of uranium, or 3,500,000 tonnes of coal. A mere fistful would light London for a week.

“There are (obviously!) no magic bullets, but this might just be a magic bullet.” Riiiight. Nonetheless, onwards:

Thorium eats its own hazardous waste. It can even scavenge the plutonium left by uranium reactors, acting as an eco-cleaner. “It’s the Big One,” said Kirk Sorensen, a former NASA rocket engineer and now chief nuclear technologist at Teledyne Brown Engineering.

“Once you start looking more closely, it blows your mind away. You can run civilisation on thorium for hundreds of thousands of years, and it’s essentially free. You don’t have to deal with uranium cartels,” he said.

Thorium is so common that miners treat it as a nuisance, a radioactive by-product if they try to dig up rare earth metals. The US and Australia are full of the stuff. So are the granite rocks of Cornwall. You do not need much: all is potentially usable as fuel, compared to just 0.7pc for uranium.

OK, sounding reassuring so far. So why haven’t we been doing anything with this before?

You might have thought that thorium reactors were the answer to every dream but when CERN went to the European Commission for development funds in 1999-2000, they were rebuffed.

Brussels turned to its technical experts, who happened to be French because the French dominate the EU’s nuclear industry. “They didn’t want competition because they had made a huge investment in the old technology,” he said.

Those dastardly French! I might have known! Where’s Churchill now we need him most blahblahblahlingeringcryptoracismandEuropanic

And now, having revved up the patriotic emotions and ecological consumer-guilt of the reader, here’s the venture capital pitch:

The Norwegian group Aker Solutions has bought Dr Rubbia’s patent for the thorium fuel-cycle, and is working on his design for a proton accelerator at its UK operation.

Victoria Ashley, the project manager, said it could lead to a network of pint-sized 600MW reactors that are lodged underground, can supply small grids, and do not require a safety citadel. It will take £2bn to build the first one, and Aker needs £100mn for the next test phase.

Yeah, I know, I’m being snarky… reading The Telegraph just has that effect on me, I’m afraid. But beneath the coded writing is a story we’ve covered before: thorium really is (at least in theory) cheaper and safer than all the other nuclear fission options, and much less sci-fi-pie-sky than fusion. But as pointed out above, someone needs to invest big money (and/or big political backing) to get it working and viable.

So, The Telegraph gamely suggests Mr Obama kick-start a modern-day Manhattan Project to that end… forgetting, perhaps, that the impetus for the Manhattan Project was somewhat more pressing and politically expedient than the abstract and contentious doom du jour of Peak Hydrocarbon, that there weren’t massive entrenched business interests lobbying and obfuscating against it, and that America as a nation actually had a few cents to rub together at the time.

Though, to their credit, they do invite the US to team up with China to get the job done. The Telegraph staff and readership will doubtless cheer on from the sidelines; if that’s not enough to get things moving, well, I don’t know what is.

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4 Responses to “Thorium: the new nuclear?”

  1. docduke says:

    Let’s distinguish between plans and reality. In 2005 India had plans: http://www.rediff.com/news/2005/aug/25nuke.htm. Now, apparently, they have reality:
    http://nextbigfuture.com/2008/08/indias-thorium-nuclear-reactor-and.html. This is another group playing catch-up and begging for lots of money.

  2. Sander van Rossen says:

    I’m not sure why this anti European stance is taken in this article, considering a similar thing happened in the United States.
    From what I heard, scientists actually build a prototype thorium nuclear reactor in the US in the 50ties, but that path ultimately wasn’t taken because uranium was more interesting considering that you can make nuclear weapons out of the waste products.

    Ironically, nowadays we see that as a bad aspect of uranium based nuclear reactors!
    go figure.

  3. Paul Raven says:

    I’m not sure why this anti European stance is taken in this article…

    That’s just The Telegraph, Sander; its target demographic could be well summed up as “people who deeply resent the fact that the British Empire doesn’t exist any more”.

  4. Julie K. says:

    Well, Thorium isn’t really a new discovery. I’m concern about its profitability; certainly there is no doubt about it. It is really very true that it needs huge political support; (who else has the money, right?). Because of contemporary progression I assume to discover the pluses of Thorium again is just a matter of time…