Thorium is a naturally-occurring, radioactive, and amazingly abundant metal that was discovered in 1828 by Swedish chemist, Jons Jakob Berzelius. The mineral, named after the Norse god of thunder, has languished in relative obscurity for many years as opposed to its much more recognized cousin, uranium. However, conversations have been popping up about thorium in recent years and how it can be a game-changer in the energy industry. Thorium has incredible potential as an ultra-safe, clean, and cheap nuclear energy source which can power the world for millennia.
Thorium is found naturally in rocks in the form of thorium-232, and has a half-life of about 14 billion years. Estimates by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) show it is about three times more common in the Earth’s crust than uranium. It can be obtained through various methods, most commonly through the extraction from monazite sands.
Known reserves of thorium are not well-known due to lack of exploratory research. The US Geological Service estimates that the USA, Australia, and India hold the largest reserves. India is believed to have the lion’s share of thorium deposits. In the United States, Idaho contains a large vein deposit. The world has an estimated total of 4.4 million tons
A newly created organization known as the Weinberg Foundation has taken up the cause of promoting thorium energy. The foundation was named after Dr. Alvin Weinberg, a nuclear energy researcher in the 1960s who laid out the vision of safe and abundant thorium power. He pioneered the Molten Salt Reactor using thorium in its liquid fuel form at the US Oak Ridge National Laboratory. This reactor had an inherently safer design and dramatically reduced the amount of atomic waste in comparison to typical nuclear reactors. Unfortunately, the thorium reactor program was not fully pursued due to political and military reasons.
The Weinberg Foundation has been pressing thorium nuclear energy into mainstream political discussion. As concerns over energy security and climate change rise, thorium is being promoted as the antidote. Its benefits include the following:
- Thorium reactors offer absolutely zero possibility of a meltdown because it cannot sustain a nuclear chain reaction without priming; fission would stop by default.
- Thorium reactions do not create weapons-grade by-products.
- Waste from a thorium reactive stays radioactive for only a few hundred years rather than tens of thousands of years.
- Pure thorium from the ground does not require enrichment, as opposed to uranium.
There are many benefits to thorium, it is a wonder that it is not already being widely used as a nuclear fuel. However, there are projects underway in the United States, China, India, and elsewhere. Germany and India already have existing commercial power stations powered by thorium. India has a goal of meeting 30 percent of its energy needs from thorium by the year 2050. In the US, a reactor project is ongoing in Odessa Texas and should be operational by 2015.
Time will tell whether or not thorium is truly adopted as a major energy source. It is out there, the technology is out there. All that is required is the political will and economic investment to help this potential energy panacea by realized.
Article by David A. Gabel, appearing courtesy Environmental News Network.