The thorium solution to climate change

By Tim Worstall , written on March 21, 2014

From The News Desk

We would all like to have more power, especially power that doesn't involve those carbon emissions that threaten the future so. Despite the problems at Fukushima showing quite how safe conventional nuclear fission is, this isn't an argument that's going to sway a populace thoroughly misinformed about the risks of radiation. No one's really quite sure what to make of the nuclear fusion research in the Skunk Works at Lockheed Martin and all other routes to fusion seem to be 50 years off just as they have been for 50 years. Which, if nuclear is to aid us in our quest means that we've really got to be looking to thorium.

And on that front there's some good news:

China is developing a new design of nuclear power plant in an attempt to reduce its reliance on coal and to cut air pollution.

In an effort to reduce the number of coal-fired plants, the Chinese government has brought forward by 15 years the deadline to develop a nuclear power plant using the radioactive element thorium instead of uranium.

A team of researchers in Shanghai has now been told it has 10 instead of 25 years to develop the world's first such plant. They're working with molten salt technology which has the advantage that it is walk away safe. It's only stable as a cold or dead system, meaning that if in operation something goes wrong then it reverts to that stable state of going cold.

It's not actually possible for there to be a runaway anything, most certainly not hydrogen explosions as we saw at Fukushima nor an uncovered fire in the core as we had at Chernobyl. We also know that it's possible to build a reactor using this fuel for it was done back in the early days of the nuclear industry. But since there wasn't that useful byproduct of either highly enriched uranium or plutonium to make bombs out of other technologies were chosen to be rolled out.

So given that we know that we can do it and also that it's safe, why aren't we doing it? Climate change is, after all, something of a concern these days. This is a useful illustration of the problem:

Last week I argued about these issues with Caroline Lucas. Caroline is one of my heroes, and the best thing to have happened to Parliament since time immemorial. But this doesn’t mean that she can’t be wildly illogical when she chooses. When I raised the issue of the feed-in tariff, she pointed out that the difference between subsidising nuclear power and subsidising solar power is that nuclear is a mature technology and solar is not. In that case, I asked, would she support research into thorium reactors, which could provide a much safer and cheaper means of producing nuclear power? No, she told me, because thorium reactors are not a proven technology. Words fail me.
At heart here is the idea that nuclear is bad in some manner. Whatever the details of the actual design or engineering, it's bad. And that has led to a regulatory climate where it would be almost impossible to get planning approval for an entirely new class of reactor. And that's where China comes in: they're not as constrained by the democratic niceties as we are. 99.9% of the time this is a serious failing of that society but in this particular case it does mean that a new reactor technology can be tested and then deployed without having the most almighty catfight about whether this should be permitted or not.

There's also, wondrously, no shortage of fuel around for such thorium based reactors. For there's already thorium in many minerals that we mine for other metals. That tantalum that makes the capacitors for your smartphone will most certainly have originally been contaminated with thorium. There's also rather large amounts of it in the fly ash left over from burning coal: it would be rather amusing to power the next generation of reactors off the wastes left from the now rotting fossil fuel industry.

And I've one little nugget from my work in this industry of weird metals (no, not thorium, but with materials that are contaminated with it. I am, for example, peripherally involved in cleaning up a Superfund site). An Australian mining company, Lynas, has opened a new rare earth refining factory in Malaysia. Their ore is, as with all rare earth ores, contaminated with thorium. And they've let slip that they've had offers to purchase this from them. Which is odd: thorium, generally, has a negative value, not a positive one. There are very, very, limited uses these days because of the radioactivity. And there's an awful lot of it rolling around, either in the contamination of those mineral streams or even left from the past: I know of one warehouse with hundreds of tonnes in it, all worth less than nothing given the costs of guarding or disposing of it. But if someone's willing to actually purchase, for a positive price, newly extracted thorium then someone must have a plan about what to do with it. And that can only be a thorium based reactor system. So the price system is also telling us that someone, somewhere, is working on such a system.

Which is good right, because we really would like to solve this climate change thing, yes?

[Image credit: W. Oelen (Creative Commons)]