Thorium: Fuel of the Future?
• Because of the physics involved in using thorium, meltdowns and explosions are impossible
By Ronald L. Ray
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?
Following World War II, the effort to develop atomic energy for electricity needs followed two paths. One we all know of, which uses the radioactive elements uranium and plutonium, was pioneered by Enrico Fermi and has resulted in large quantities of dangerous nuclear waste. It also has provided us with meltdowns at the Fermi plant near Detroit, Mich., Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and the meltdown and explosions at Fukushima.
The other, nearly forgotten method was promoted fervently by Alvin Weinberg, a long-time head of Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), primarily because of its far greater safety. The technology uses thorium-232 to breed uranium-233, typically employing molten fluoride salts at ambient pressure as a coolant, rather than high-pressure water.
A prototype reactor ran safely for four years, from 1965 to 1969, so development costs would be minimal, and most of the few remaining safety and operational issues have since been overcome.
Liquid fluoride thorium reactors (LFTR) possess a number of significant advantages, too. Thorium is about four times more abundant than uranium and nearly as common as lead. It is not a radioactivity hazard in its natural form and the United States already has tons stored away as a byproduct of rare earth element mining.
Because of the physics involved in using thorium and LFTR technology, meltdowns and explosions are impossible.
Reactors are smaller, maintenance is simpler and safer and LFTRs are more than 80% self-supporting, generating almost as much fuel as they consume, needing additional fissile material only for start-up. Consequently, only one ton of hazardous radioactive waste is produced for every 35 from uranium technology. It can be isolated more easily and is dangerous for only 300 years, rather than 10,000. Moreover, the fission byproducts are unsuitable for building weapons; they can be converted only with great difficulty. Thus, proliferation of nuclear arms is not a hazard.
Nobel Prize in Physics winner Carlo Rubbia estimates that it would require 200 tons of uranium to produce the same amount of energy as one ton of thorium. It would take 3.5 million tons of coal to do likewise. So LFTR technology is a sustainable source of very inexpensive electricity, sufficient to last a millennium.
Why, then, do we not have dozens of thorium reactors?
The answer is found in three words: “mutual assured destruction.” Polish-born Jew, Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, was in charge of developing the U.S. nuclear Navy in the 1960s and 1970s. But he and several congressmen also wanted to build bombs to shower on the Soviets. Safety of U.S. citizens was not their concern.
Thorium was therefore of no use to the genocidal warhawks, who shut down the ORNL program in 1973 and told Weinberg to resign, after he had dedicated 18 years to safe atomic energy.
Lately, however, there has been a resurgence of world interest in thorium, with India and China leading the pack, along with Norway and Russia. The U.S. and Israel also have development programs but hypocritically refuse to suggest the thorium alternative to their perceived enemy, Iran.
Finally, the uranium industry in the U.S. continues to fight thorium possibilities, as it would lose a lucrative repeat-sales market. So it may require some foresighted venture capitalists to make safe nuclear power a reality.
Ronald L. Ray is a freelance author and an assistant editor of THE BARNES REVIEW. He is a descendant of several patriots of the American War for Independence.