Thorium could refuel the future of nuclear energy

Despite being named after the Norse god of thunder, thorium does not come from the sky; rather, it is naturally occurring in the Earth’s crust. Discovered in 1828, thorium is a slightly radioactive metal that is a promising nuclear fuel alternative to uranium. However, the use of thorium as a primary energy source remains challenging, as it would require investments and research that many countries are not willing to funnel into nuclear energy.

While nuclear energy has lower carbon emissions than fossil fuels, it carries a stigma. Nuclear disasters such as Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Three Mile Island have left many feeling unsure about the safety of nuclear energy. 

“The use of nuclear energy is an entirely political and sociological issue,” Dominic Ryan, a professor in McGill’s Department of Physics, said in an interview with The McGill Tribune. “It can be done, but society has to accept it. Getting this to happen is much more difficult and is not a technical issue.” 

The airline industry used to have similar safety concerns, but has since evolved to mitigate such issues. According to Ryan, nuclear energy is not keeping up with the public’s need for higher safety precautions.

“Nuclear energy got kind of stuck,” Ryan said. “Most reactors were built in the ‘60s or the ‘70s. Would you get on an Air Canada flight from 1965? No, because a lot has happened since then. You have to build things to figure out how to build better.” 

Still, it is possible for nuclear energy to evolve. The industry’s next step could involve using thorium in nuclear reactors instead of uranium. For one, thorium is about three times more abundant than uranium, although this is only an estimate.

“One of the issues with using thorium is [that] we do not know the quantity of its availability on Earth, [and] we also do not know the quality of the reserve,” Ryan said. 

This issue derives from a lack of research into nuclear energy and thorium in particular. The Cold War and the race to develop nuclear weapons fuelled uranium research, and decades later, investment into thorium research has remained comparatively low. A lack of research funding, however, cannot hide the fact that thorium is both safer and more efficient than uranium, according to experts like Charles Gale, a professor in McGill’s Department of Physics.

“Thorium reactors are indeed designed to be much safer than [those] based on uranium,” Gale said. “The original designs of uranium reactors were not done to optimize energy production.” 

In addition, thorium reactors produce less waste, and this waste is less radioactive. Unlike uranium, thorium produces little to no plutonium, an element used to make nuclear weapons. Further, thorium atoms do not split on their own, so thorium reactions can be stopped if necessary, while uranium reactions cannot.

“You cannot use thorium directly,” Ryan said. “It is not [as] efficient on its own. So, you need to take thorium and […] mix it [to produce neutrons]. The point with thorium is you have a different fuel cycle, and [one runs] it through a reactor to mix it.” 

Overall, Ryan is a proponent of nuclear power, especially using thorium. 

“It is clean, and there is lots of it available, so it can provide a stable source of power,” Ryan said. “Whether or not to deploy it on a large scale is a political issue.” 

While thorium reactors could change the energy game, the public stigma around nuclear energy remains. Without public support and industry dollars, nuclear energy will likely remain stuck in the past.

7 Comments

  1. Roger Blomquist, Captain, US Navy, Retired

    Professor Gale compares newly developed thorium reactor designs with original uranium reactors that were not designed for producing power. Of course the thorium designs look safer, when compared to a straw man design! He is comparing apples to armadillos IChernobyl-type reactors) — he should be comparing competing new reactor designs of various types. There are new (and old) reactor designs that have been proven safe by experiment. As Professor Ryan points out, no one would assume the safety of new commercial aircraft designs is identical to, say the DC-3. The same ought to be true for discussions of nuclear reactors.

  2. abraham weitzberg

    Thorium does not produce plutonium. It produces uranium-233, which then fissions. The difference between a breeding uranium cycle and a breeding thorium cycle is not really significant, and thorium-uranium reactors would be essentially the same as uranium-plutonium reactors from the perspectives of cost and safety.

  3. More info at the book THORIUM: energy cheaper than coal.

    See ThorConPower.com for a power plant that uses both thorium and uranium.

  4. While way better the uranium for industrial heat (energy generation) Brillouin Energy technology could get to market in about 24 months with U$D50MM. They have a detailed use of funds for that money to take the 4 working reactors they currently have to OEM ready technology. The 4 existing systems already have interchangeable parts indicating the design is somewhat machure.

  5. Edward R. Knuckles

    The arguments posited by the professor that “nuclear energy got kind of stuck” and implying that it didn’t evolve like the airline industry as the basis for the public’s skeptical perception of nuclear power is false. The reader if not the professor and the author are left with the misguided idea that countries are still operating the same nuclear facilities that were built in the 1960s and 70s. This idea is completely false because the nuclear industry just like the airlines’ industry, has learned from their operating experience and both have significantly improved their operating and safety records over the years.

    The record of improvements at nuclear power facilities through the use of developments in technology, materials, and regulations is publicly documented but ignored by the author and her source. The author should have done some independent research of readily available material rather than depend on the limited knowledge of one individual resource though versed in nuclear physics does not translate into knowledge in nuclear engineering.

    Although it is acknowledged that the public’s perception between the two industries is different, the sources for this difference lie elsewhere than that alleged in this article.

  6. Richard Lingensjo

    Affirms President Eisenhower’s haunting caution regarding the “military industrial complex”.

    Rare Earth (chemical elements) mining in the USA has been reopened according to Peter Navarro (Trump econ advisor) on Lou Dobbs / Fox TV, Fri 22 May. This is monumental news in our continuing WAR (me 1968) with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Navarro mentioned the reopening was accomplished through the DoD, which I have suspected was happening for two years, emanating from clues on the web.

    The market for Rare Earths has been, as an example, monopolized by the CCP as their “One Belt One Road” (1999) public policy to strip the US of manufacturing, stagnating the US economy and accomplishing their hegemonic ambitions. US big business has participated with Wall Street, as secretly as possibly, to undermine the US economy for their profits. That CCP plan has reduced wage incomes for a third of US workers.

    Anti-Patriot / globalists Plutocrat (purchase politicians) activity has been overturned by Trump, bypassing agency regulations, using “national security” through the DoD to reopen rare earth mining. Hitech military electronics are manufactured using rare earth elements. Trump has self-restrained his remarks (hard to imagine), in spite of media baiting he says, we must continue the virus investigation. Trump has used the word “war” to describe the pandemic.

    [next five paragraphs July update] Reports (Undecided with Matt Ferrell) claim Trump has interrupted Bill Gates cooperation with China in their development of nuclear reactor electrical power generation. Amazon / Bezos, making billions selling China’s slave labor produced products, some of his US workers are on food stamps at taxpayer expense.

    As Soros and other sinister globalists are exposed they now have bigger fish to fry, after blocking me on the internet 2013. The risk for criticizing, ask Sharyl Attkisson, has been accelerated by the BLM (Marxist founder Patrisse Collors) which expanded by rioters, funded (Judicial Watch) by Soros and others, into the “cancel culture” to advance their exploits. Western Civilization (EU ?), led by the United States of America, enemies have consolidated in a futile attempt to “transform” the Constitutional USA.

    The primary rationale for the existence of a legitimate government is to physically protect the citizens, and their property interests. Reference: “National Security and Double Government” author, Michael Glenton. Denigrating the “rule of law”; releasing rioters, with criminal evidence and witnesses without consequences is sedition. Likewise, blocking development of LFTR, energy production phenomenon, for twenty years was sedition. Finally, after decades the DoJ is investigating CCP violations of numerous USA laws which supposedly protect the Citizens.

    Corruption only works for thugs, on a global or small city scale, as they impose a double standard. The threat of physical violence is understood by all, emphasis to those not included within the PC (propaganda) group. Good example is the Clinton’s history, Bill taking campaign contributions from a Chinese stooge, Hilliary facilitating the sale of US uranium to Putin and numerous acquaintances mysteriously perished.

    Not a PC member of the totalitarian club, Michael Thomas Flynn is a retired United States Army Lieutenant General who was the 24th National Security Advisor for the first 22 days of the Trump administration until his forced resignation because he was FRAMED by the Obama administration. He had threatened to overhaul the US intelligence apparatus, which at the time was spying on President elect Trump’s team. Flynn’s fraudulent charges were identified and withdrawn by the DoJ, exonerating him completely.

    My Nephew, William found a terrific one hour 40 minute free video “Planet of the humans (dot) com”, a must see that overturned the green “renewable energy” movement. Reviving rare earth mining, and simultaneously updating DoE regulations, in the US will open the door for “Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor” (LFTR thermal spectrum breeder not fast) building.

    “Energy independence” and “renewable energy” are both a ruse, perpetrated by the plutocrats, to protect their investment and profits from the current gas, oil and coal burning power generator industry. Think about it, who profits from (supposedly) green, solar, wind and biomass, you? LFTR releases no CO2 to the environment. Mass battery cost, production, and disposal are an environmental disaster; however, necessary for “green” power.

    LFTR technology, transferred to the CCP through US citizen complicit espionage, is not merely an enhancement to traditional “light water” nuclear reactors. LFTR is an entirely NEW design. The plutocrat 20 years blocked LFTR, not improvement totally new, electric power generating technology advantages are as follows:

    #1 “Walk away safe” meaning: left unattended, action is not necessary to turn-off the reactor.

    #2 Similarly, a Molten Salt Reactor (MSRE) operated 5 years at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

    #3 LFTR operation does not release CO2 which STOPS gas and coal global warming.

    #4 Proliferation using LFTR is exceeding more difficult than refining natural uranium.

    #5 LFTR will burn “waste products” from traditional nuclear plants problematic stock-piles.

    #6 Waste from LFTRs is 2% the amount and has shorter hazard life than current reactors.

    #7 LFTR will be refueled without reactor shut-down, unlike current reactors.

    #8 Low pressure / high temperature LFTR 50% more efficient than traditional nuclear reactors.

    #9 Regardless of any potential accident, a LFTR melt-down is literally impossible.

    #10 Historic rare earth (above) mining has stock-piled years of Thorium for power inventory.

    #11 Uniform assembly-line fabricated modules delivered by truck to project site.

    #12 Desalination of ocean water (not necessary) accomplished building LFTR at sea coast.

    #13 Uniquely harvested LFTR created isotopes will be used in medical treatments.

    #14 Cheap Thorium fuel makes LFTR economics superior over 40+ year facility life.

    #15 Do not allow ignorant zealots trigger you with the word radioactive, which is ubiquitous.

    #16 According to “global warming” doctrine, no price is too high to reduce CO2.

    #17 Please don’t bother me with possible fusion power – just build one.

    #18 LFTRs’ are heat-up and cool-down inherently stable, human action unnecessary.

    #19 Redirect US gas & oil production to international export sales for profit.

    #20 Golf ball size quantity of Thorium will produce your entire life-time energy use.

    Any disagreement email: [email protected]

    My contention (no proof) is Roger Robinson’s talk, on YouTube video, at Hillsdale College on 26 September 2019 caused the CCP to proceed with their biological (inevitable) attack on the US and the World. He exposed the $480 Million CalPers (public employee retirement fund) investment in the CCP economy. RWR Corporation Principal Mr. Robinson explained that the CCP in the future will “checkmate” the collective US Stock Exchange investor. I add, placing that US citizen under extortion.

    Progressives (not liberal) in Orwellian fashion falsely named, and cowardly Republicans acquiesced, WWIII (3) the “Cold War”, Cold meaning no active military engagement; for PC propaganda reasons, ignoring both the Koreian and Vietnam Wars. President Ronald Reagan established the FACTS and momentum for the US and Allies in 1991 to prevail over the USSR in that conflict. Shortly, brutal musical chairs in the Kremlin continued Russia’s totalitarian activity.

    WWIV (4) morphed, due to active participation by progressives in the US and Europe, from remnants of previous conflicts. Plutocrats allied with progressives have surreptitiously targeted their traitorous activity to dramatically expand their business profits with the CCP.

    Globalists’ subterfuge, instigated by US President Nixon as he withdrew from the Vietnam (China supported) War, claimed opening relations with China would evolve them to resemble the US. As the Plutocrats must have known, to expand their business interests, the US has become more like the totalitarian Communist Chinese. The lame-stream-media, controlled by a few Plutocrats, have provided fake-news promoting China’s propaganda of lavish expansion.

    God bless the victims of the CCP virus, they are casualties of World War IV (4).

    In spite of globalist appeasers, reminiscent of Hitler’s totalitarian exploits, history will record these events as positive because the CCP, intentionally or not, has activated the US response. Over time, the CCP military could have increased their capability; therefore, starting now is better for the US military, rather than postponing any longer.

    The CCP has stumbled into one of the greatest military blunders in 5 thousand years of recorded history. Prematurely instigating violence violates “The Art of War”, ironic Chinese author Sun Tzu’s instructions. With US pacifists assistance, the CCP could have, to their advantage, been transparent, cooperative and apologetic about their virus; thereby, diplomatically buying time to continue their war preparation.

    I predict Trump will officially recognize Taiwan, in defiance of current official standing, as the response to the CCP brutal take-over of Hong Kong (I was there 1969). Taiwan’s official recognition as an ally will increase US capability in that geographic area, (intentionally not typing south china sea) Indo Pacific.

    Continuing my theory, China did not accidentally cause the CCP virus pandemic. In addition to Mr. Robinson’s contribution (noted above) there is evidence reported in the legitimate media that China’s economy has stalled, forcing the CCP to gamble and pull the trigger prematurely. Extensive video on YouTube of China’s “ghost cities” documents the corruption implicit in millions of empty residences, within new highrise buildings, collapsing structurally and financially.

    Richard Lingensjo / builder
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FrsAzAlvxeI

    Amazon’s criminal (beyond civil suite) copyright sales of my book are not investigated by the compromised FBI, agency designated with that responsibility.

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