Thorium seen as new
source of atomic energy
A NEW SOURCE of fuel for atomic energy reactors is under development in several countries and researchers report encouraging results.
Thorium is said to be more plentiful and much safer than Uranium – the traditional fuel in use since the dawn of the atomic age – and reportedly does not create indestructible, highly radioactive waste by-products.
It is being investigated in Britain, Norway, India and China, but the Norwegian company Thor Energy seems to be the leader.
Just this week it reported successful tests of the new fuel.
THE MOST RECENT report was presented Thursday on BBC News. A version of it can be found at Thorium could be Norway’s answer to nuclear dilemma.
The program notes explain:
“Experiments in a Norwegian underground plant could lead to the radioactive element Thorium being developed as a safer alternative in the production of nuclear power.
The online notes for the BBC report about Thorium. Click image to enlarge.
“The chief executive of Thor Energy, Oystein Asphjell who runs the project at Halden, in Norway told the BBC’s environment analyst Roger Harrabin that so far the results of the work have been encouraging.”
In the broadcast, Harrabin is seen first outside then inside the testing plant.
“Deep inside this mountain behind that garage door is something most improbable: a nuclear test site where they’re testing a new type of nuclear fuel: Thorium,” Harrabin says.
“Down there is where the Thorium has been tested and the firm says so far the experiments are going well.
“Similar tests are being carried out in India, China and Japan as several nations test the potential of Thorium.”
Then we see Asphjell, in the obligatory hard hat, who explains:
“There’s lots of Thorium in the world, very well distributed all over the globe.
“In our reactor, in our operations, it has some chemical and physical properties that make it really superior to uranium. On the waste side, we don’t generate new long-lived wastes.”
A further explanation can be found at the web site of Thor Energy.
“Thorium is a naturally occurring, slightly radioactive element. It is found in widespread locations all over the world, and is estimated to be about four times as abundant as uranium in the Earth’s crust.
“It is frequently found together with rare earth elements and is produced as a by-product when these are mined.”
The Wired magazine story about Thorium published in 2011. Click image to enlarge.
More than two years ago, however, a story in Wired magazine’s U.K edition explains more about the new nuclear fuel.
In Thorium: the element that could power our future Katie Scott wrote on Sept. 16, 2011:
“Technology honed two decades ago, along with a fuel that was used in the early days of civil nuclear power, could provide safe and clean power for the UK by 2025.”
According to the report, the claim was made by two organizations “boasting the membership of scientists from around the world.”
According to the Wired story, Thorium was used in more than a dozen reactors in the early 60s, “including at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the US where experiments delving into the potential of liquid-fuelled thorium energy were led by nuclear physicist Alvin Martin Weinberg.”
One of the organizations promoting the new fuel is the Thorium Energy Association.
On its web site, ThorEA describes itself as “a not-for-profit association for the dissemination of information about the use of Thorium fuel in nuclear power systems.”
The group organizes meetings and workshops “to bring together researchers and professionals in academia and industry, to allow them to discuss and develop ideas and practice in pursuit of using thorium reactors.”
The web site of Thor Energy, the Norwegian firm researching the use of the substance in a reactor. Click image to enlarge.
A MUCH MORE detailed examination of the new fuel was broadcast almost a year ago as part of a BBC series on fossil fuel alternatives.
An online release about the show BBC World News Horizons explores the potential of cleaner alternatives to fossil fuels explains that reporter Adam Shaw visited the Daresbury Laboratory in Cheshire, where “scientists are looking at replacing the material they use at the heart of the nuclear process with something that is more plentiful and creates less harmful by-products. The element is called thorium.”
It sounds very promising.
“Unlike uranium, which has been used for decades in power stations, thorium will not undergo a nuclear reaction by itself. It’s so safe you could put it in your pocket and must be bombarded with particles from an accelerator to start the chain reaction that produces energy,” the report explains.
I’m not sure I would want to put it in my pocket until the science is a little more advanced. It is a radioactive substance, and the carcinogenic effects of radiation are well established.
An accelerator is being developed at the Daresbury laboratory and is called EMMA – the Electron Model of Many Applications, the report adds.
The Britain-based Thorium Energy Association web site. Click image to enlarge.
In another section, we are told about research in India, which has some of the world’s largest reserves of thorium.
“By developing a nuclear industry based on this mineral, it could mean independence from imports. The so called Advanced Heavy Water Reactor is being developed [in India] to accommodate thorium as its core fuel. A prototype reactor is being constructed at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre or BARC, in Mumbai.”
However, Indian scientists are facing the same problems as those in Britain. Thorium cannot be used directly as a fuel in reactors. It has to be converted to uranium. To do this, either an accelerator or low-enriched uranium is needed to trigger the nuclear reaction. In India they are testing low-enriched uranium as the trigger.
The latest report this week does not explain how the Norwegian group has overcome this problem.
However, these developments must be seen in the wider context of the debate over nuclear power that has followed the disastrous meltdown in March 2011 of the Fukushima reactor in Japan.
That country has all but abandoned nuclear power as a source of energy. Of its 50 reactors, 48 remain closed, and a vigorous debate is underway over whether to reopen them.
Germany is the largest producer of solar power in the world, by far. It is planning to shut down all its nuclear reactors in a few years and replace them with renewables.
Does the source of a new, supposedly safer and more easily disposable fuel change the equation?
The jury is still out on the answer, but the debate has been engaged.
FEEDBACK: Contact site admin directly