Saturday, January 2, 2010

Thorium--Super Uranium

by Richard Crews
Suppose someone told you that there was a radioactive element that was four times as abundant as Uranium; easier to mine, refine, process, and handle as nuclear fuel; stronger than Uranium (it produced more neutrons); and safer (it could not explode or melt-down Chernobyl style, and could not be used to make explosive atomic weapons)?

There is--Thorium, atomic element number 90 (Uranium is number 92).

You're probably asking, "So why aren't we using it?"

Because the cost of electricity is currently 80 percent higher than from traditional, Uranium-based heavy-water reactors. Uranium prices would need to increase 15-fold from current levels of roughly $80 per kilogram to make it economically attractive.

Historically Uranium technology got a tremendous boost during the development of nuclear weapons, and Thorium has never caught up. Thorium has simply not been studied and commercialized adequately. There has always been enough Uranium ore around, and a lot is known about how to mine and refine it; there has never been enough geo-political, commercial, or ecological impetus to find the several millions of dollars it would take to bring Thorium to the energy marketplace.

This is simply outrageous.

There are in fact bills in Congress to study and fund Thorium energy research and development. But there have been such bills in Congress before--for quite a few years. Perhaps getting something actually done about this will be another "revolutionary" Obama initiative for 2010 (before the mid-term elections dilute the Democrat's power and we settle back into patronizing, avuncular political paralysis).

Note that India has taken on the challenge of developing safe, cost-effective, commercially viable Thorium electricity-power generation--and made great strides.

Also take a look at an article in Scientific American for a more extensive discussion of the economic and technical problems of Thorium-based and other nuclear power technologies.