Image: W. Oelen
Imagine a virtually unlimited energy source – one so cheap that it costs pennies to operate all our advanced technologies and industries. Imagine a world where all your individual energy needs can be provided by a small amount of substance that can fit into the palm of your hand. Imagine a source of energy that does not hurt the environment, with a carbon footprint of zero. This was the failed promise of nuclear energy. However, according to engineer Kirk Sorensen, it could still deliver – it’s just that, at present, we are using the wrong materials.
In the early days of nuclear technology, scientists and energy companies had to make a choice between using one of two possible candidates as a fuel source: uranium or thorium. Because uranium was better suited for making nuclear weapons, it became the standard element of choice. However, thorium is an extremely common element and therefore extremely inexpensive. While it may have been a non-starter for weapons, it begs the question as to why energy companies have previously slighted this abundant source.
For example, thorium reactors produce a much lower level of nuclear waste than those with uranium as their chief material. This waste itself can even be recycled in a thorium reactor. Uranium waste, by contrast, has to be stored in underground stockpiles that may eventually need to be blasted off into space if energy ever gets inexpensive enough for space travel. Another benefit of a thorium nuclear plant over a uranium-fed one is that thorium reactors will not heat up. Uranium-fed reactors have cores that constantly need to be cooled by rivers, oceans and other water sources. If the core heats up, the plant can melt down and leak radioactive material. Thorium reactors can also harvest the extra carbon in the air to create liquid fuel for cars, which would sequester the extra carbon that is responsible for global warming.
Given all of thorium’s benefits for the earth over uranium, it may make one wonder why it has been so slow to be adapted as an alternative energy source. Research on thorium reactors is currently taking place in China, but as safety is a pressing concern, the need to be thorough means that the results of such work could take years, possibly even decades, to emerge. Thorium itself is not entirely safe, as long-term exposure to its radiation has been said to cause cancer in humans. Building new reactors costs a great deal of money, too – money which governments over the world might not be totally convinced to spend.
However, as uranium is understandably viewed with caution, thorium, if contained properly, could one day make nuclear power less demonized. In a best-case scenario, it could become a revolutionary new energy source, and one that may help save the planet from more man-made pollution.