NEXT: A Thorium-fueled Nuclear Future?

David Staley David Staley NEXT: A Thorium-fueled Nuclear Future?
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In Wuwei, at the eastern terminus of the Hexi Corridor, the Chinese are testing an experimental thorium nuclear reactor. These kinds of reactors have been thought to be theoretically possible, but commercially unfeasible, and the Chinese experiment is to determine the viability of the technology. 

There appear to be several advantages of thorium reactors over uranium-based reactors. For one, thorium reactors use molten salts rather than water to cool reactions. According to an article in nature, “Molten-salt reactors are considered to be relatively safe because the fuel is already dissolved in liquid and they operate at lower pressures than do conventional nuclear reactors, which reduces the risk of explosive meltdowns.”

Thorium-232 is not fissile, meaning it cannot be split like a uranium atom. To be useful, thorium must be converted to fissile material—when it is radiated inside a reactor it forms uranium-233—which then generates heat. Though more plentiful than uranium, thorium is more expensive to mine; that, added to the fact that it must be converted to make it capable of generating heat are the main reasons for concluding that thorium-based nuclear reactors are less cost-effective than traditional reactors. 

This is why the Chinese experiment is drawing attention: if it proves commercially viable, thorium reactors could emerge as the new standard.  

It is not generally agreed upon whether or not the waste products of thorium can be weaponized as uranium’s waste can, and so this safety feature has not been conclusively established. But there are some suggestions that there is much less waste produced from thorium reactions. If this proves true, that alone might make the technology more attractive to the hesitant.

Samuel Miller McDonald has argued that, as we transition to a renewable solar- and wind-based energy system, a no-emission source such as nuclear power will need to be employed in order to make up the deficits that occur during moments of light wind and limited sunlight.  

Advocates suggest that replacing fossil fuel–based energy with 100% renewables would require so many scarce elements, from lithium to land space, that it could be next to impossible to meet total and growing demand, especially in the short timeframe necessitated by the climate crisis. Around the world there are already conflicts related to the mining of these minerals, as well as the placement of solar and wind farms. Nuclear energy, for its part, can provide a steady supply of power for days without wind, sun, or batteries—increasingly important as weather patterns become ever more erratic—with relatively small land footprints, and future innovations may make nuclear an even more efficient option.

Boston Review – Is Nuclear Power Our Best Bet Against Climate Change?

Indeed, today’s nuclear reactors are much smaller, efficient and safer than those found at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, both of which remain fixed in the popular imagination as reminders of the dangers of nuclear power generation. Several European countries—and the Biden Administration—are signaling renewed interest in nuclear power generation:

More than half a dozen European countries recently announced plans to build a new generation of nuclear reactors. Some are smaller and cheaper than older designs, occupying the space of two football fields and costing a fraction of the price of standard nuclear plants. The Biden administration is also backing such technology as a tool of “mass decarbonization” for the United States. 

The New York Times – Europe Revisits Nuclear Power as Climate Deadlines Loom

If countries are as serious as they claim about combatting climate change, there is reason to believe that increasing nuclear power generation will emerge as an important part of that strategy, especially in China and India, where coal-burning plants remain the chief technology for producing electricity.  

By a wide margin, China has the largest number of coal-burning plants in the world. Although the government announced in 2015 a policy of coal “decapacity,” “by 2016 the country’s economy was beginning to slow, leading the central government to introduce a large stimulus spending package, with emphasis on coal-intensive heavy industry and new coal plants. By 2017, China’s coal consumption and production were back on the rise, reaching 3,840 million tonnes of production and 4,040 million tonnes of consumption in 2020.” If China is serious about “decapacity,” they might start to convert their numerous coal plants into thorium nuclear plants. Thus, the importance of the Wuwei experiment.  

For its part, India has pledged that renewable sources will provide 50% of its energy by 2030, a relatively rapid transition, especially given the prominence of coal to the Indian economy today. Giving up coal is going to prove difficult for India: 

More than 70% of all power produced in India comes from coal-fired power plants. Coal is also a source of considerable taxes and royalties to governments at all levels and, of course, provides many people with jobs and livelihoods. 

BBC – How a just transition can make India’s coal history

If India hopes to meet its target for using renewables, it would seem that nuclear power generation would need to be part of the mix. In that case, India might very well decide that thorium reactors would be an attractive option, given that it appears to have plentiful supplies of thorium, about 25% of the world’s reserves.

Interestingly enough, it also turns out the moon has a rich source of thorium. As we witness the increasing commercialization of space, I wonder if the moon will be coveted as a source for thorium, with some enterprising company in the business of mining the moon. Given the expense of extracting thorium on Earth, however, one can only surmise that mining the moon would be even more expensive, and thus not an economically-viable plan. But an Elon Musk, or Jeff Bezos or some future version of these billionaires, eager to escape the Earth and setting their sights on colonizing the moon, might build permanent settlements near these veins of thorium, to fuel the nuclear reactors necessary to power human settlement on the Moon.  

David Staley is an associate professor of history, design, and educational studies at The Ohio State University. He is host of the “Voices of Excellence” podcastCreativeMornings Columbus and is president of Columbus Futurists. 

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