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.

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