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Posted by Mark Halper

Takashi Kamei speaking in Shanghai recently, where he proposed an international group to oversee the   safe extraction, storage, and distribution of thorium.

Thorium holds incredible promise to power alternative reactor designs and usher in an era of much safer nuclear power that would underpin a C02-free energy future. But it has its potential hazards.

One of those is the significant – even deadly – environmental damage it could cause at the very beginning of its supply chain, when mining companies extract thorium from rare earth minerals like monazite in which thorium typically resides.

Thorium is mildly radioactive, so anyone pulling it out of the ground must store it properly – or better yet, arrange for its distribution to reactors once the world starts deploying thorium nuclear power.

This includes rare earth companies like those in China – the country that controls almost all the world’s rare earth production. For those companies, thorium can simply be a waste by-product with no use until China starts building thorium reactors – an area in which it has significant plans.

Sounding an alert that rare earth miners in China have not always followed strict safety procedures, Takashi Kamei of Japan’s Research Institute for Applied Sciences has proposed an international mechanism for assuring the safe extraction, storage and eventually distribution of thorium.

Speaking at the recent Thorium Energy Conference 2012 in Shanghai, Kamei proposed an oversight group called the Organisation of Rare Earth Exportation Companies (OREEC) that would raise a tax from international rare earth consumers to help fund the safe handling of thorium at its origin.

Tax and protect: This slide from Kamei’s Shanghai presentation shows how rare earth customers would   fund the safe handling of thorium and rare earths.

“Thorium’s production is not so clean,” Kamei warned.

He implored consumers of rare earths to help finance the safe extraction and handling of the rare earth’s thorium by-product. Without such safety, the rare earths that are vital to so many products including environmentally beneficial items like hybrid cars and wind turbines could ironically trigger severe environmental damage (watch this blog space soon for some cold truth on rare earth’s CO2-reduction capabilities).

That, in turn, would mean that, “China’s thorium dream will disappear” as thorium would be rendered a “dangerous radioactive waste,” said Kamei, who besides advocating the international group,  is also designing thorium nuclear reactors.

“The question is who has the responsibility to take care of the remaining thorium,” Kamei noted, referring to the rare earth production’s thorium by-product. “And of course, this is the consumers.”

Kamei calls his proposed tax a “ThAX” – an acronym of thorium and tax – and notes that while it would represent a higher financial price to the end user, it would lower the environmental cost. (My editorial comment: Another solution might be for the producer to eat the costs of responsible production – feel free to comment below).

“If China sells rare earths at a cheaper price, they do not have the opportunity to take care of the thorium,” said Kamei, noting that the purpose of OREEC “is to protect the environment.”

Kamei’s idea echoes a similar plan – without the global tax – put forth in the U.S. by rare earth and thorium advocates Jim Kennedy and John Kutsch, of the Thorium Energy Alliance. They are lobbying Congress to support a federal rare earth co-operative as well as a “Thorium Bank” that would store thorium and prop up both the rare earth and thorium industries.

Photos by Mark Halper.

Comments

  1. Robert Steinhaus says:

    Jaqueline L. Kiplinger of Los Alamos National Laboratory is the project leader of coveted R&D 100 award winning Th-ING: Thorium Is Now Green technology for safely and environmentally consciously extracting Thorium from monazite sands and Thorium containing ores without producing large amounts of environmentally damaging chemical/radioactive mixed wastes.
    http://www.rdmag.com/award-winners/2011/08/price-right-better-nuclear-fuel

    Note: There is no “dirty side of thorium” that needs to be fearfully managed to assure a reliable global supply of Thorium and rare earths.

  2. Martin Kral says:

    The producer or manufacturer ‘never’ eats the cost. The consumer will always pay in the end. The question should be, will the producer spend the money to store the by-product or will some third party be paid through a tax structure to store it. This is a bit of a catch-22 because a ‘for profit’ company will cut corners to increase profit and a ‘not for profit’ company will just waste the tax money and not get the job done. We see that scenario all the time. The producer should be ultimately responsible and should pay a very heavy fine when in violation. If and when TMSR comes online, the producer can then resell the thorium to that market.

    Here’s a little history, Oilman Rockefeller found that a byproduct from his Kerosene process could be made profitable as a gasoline for motors. He then marketed that and of course changed the world. Thorium needs a big market potential too and the storage problem will resolve itself.

    This is where I think the government should get involved: R&D for TMSR.

    PS: I agree with Robert because ‘fear’ is the most difficult problem to resolve with technology. Everything else can eventually be resolved.

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