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Thorium: Clean fuel for the 21st Century

Thorium is a metal which can be used as a fuel in a nuclear power plant. Thorium is so abundant that it could power the world for many thousands of years. Thorium also offers a unique way of disposing of the world’s existing stocks of nuclear waste and spent fuel.  Leading nuclear nations such as China and India are investing heavily in developing thorium fuel to combat climate change and achieve energy security.

Securing Global Energy Security – Rising demand for low carbon electricity is prompting a global expansion of nuclear power generation.  Development of thorium as an alternative nuclear fuel will ease pressure on existing uranium reserves, keeping fuel prices low. There is enough thorium in the world to power our energy needs for thousands of years.

Globally Abundant - Thorium is about three times as abundant as uranium, and is widely dispersed around the world, with large reserves found in countries such as India, Norway, Australia and the United States.

Role in Plutonium Management - Plutonium is a by-product created by the use of uranium in nuclear reactors. Plutonium poses some proliferation risk, but it is also an excellent nuclear fuel. Because of the proliferation risk, nations producing plutonium face huge long-term storage costs unless they can find alternative ways to deal with this material.

Thorium offers an innovative way of solving this problem.  Plutonium can be safely disposed of by being mixed with thorium, used as a nuclear fuel and “burnt up” in conventional Light Water Reactors.  Norwegian company Thor Energy is running a 5-year test program on mixed thorium-plutonium fuel at the OECD Halden Test reactor in Norway.  Thor Energy is working to commercialise the fuel by 2020.

Waste Disposal – By-products from conventional nuclear plants include unwanted “minor Actinide” and “Transuranic” elements -unstable and radioactive elements produced in small quantities from the fission process. Some of these elements have very long half-lives and produce large amounts of radiation. However, these elements could be disposed of in a thorium fuel mix.

Huge International Investment – In 2011 the Chinese government launched a $350 million programme to develop thorium-fuelled molten salt reactors, with a goal of reaching commercial readiness by 2035.  India is also pursuing a comprehensive thorium fuel plan with a first commercial thorium-fuelled reactor scheduled for 2025 . It has large reserves of thorium which it plans to utilise in Prototype Fast Breeder Reactors, two of which are under construction at Kalpakkam.

Inside the Earth – We wouldn’t be here without the thorium in the Earth’s core! Scientists estimate that half of the heat generated in the Earth’s core comes from radioactive decay of uranium and thorium. This enormous heat generates Earth’s magnetic field due to the convection currents it causes in the liquid metal mantle. In turn, Earth’s magnetic field shields us from dangerous high-energy cosmic particles.

History of Thorium tests – The thorium fuel cycle has been successfully demonstrated in over 20 reactors worldwide, including the UK’s ‘Dragon’ High Temperature Gas Reactor which operated from 1966 to 1973. Click on the gallery to learn more.

© The Alvin Weinberg Foundation 2014
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