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.
“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.