Why the Decades-Old Decision to Give Up Funding Thorium Still Haunts the U.S. Government

By: | August 9th, 2014

As Industry Tap recently reported, Thorium could be the safer, cleaner, more powerful alternative to fossil fuels. Thorium is a naturally occurring radioactive chemical element with the symbol Th and atomic number 90. It’s named after the Norse god Thor and is hailed as the wonder fuel that wasn’t.

Currently, uranium (or the desired isotope in it U-235) is the element of choice for fueling nuclear reactors worldwide. The element is rare in nature, and because it is fissile, the process requires almost constant attention and delicate handling to produce energy and prevent it splitting itself, which would result in exploding and thus causing meltdowns. The radioactive waste it produces is also quite abundant and overall a growing problem.

Thorium or Th-232, on the other hand, is 3-4 times more abundant in nature compared to uranium and is not fissile, meaning it can be packed together without splitting and exploding. Unlike its counterpart’s plutonium and uranium, it does not need a water pressure reactor to undergo fission, but rather a much safer molten salt reactor that is okay to walk away from.

As the neutrons it fires to split the thorium simply just stop firing after it runs out, a power plant could be left alone while in the process and not explode. It actually could be tipped over, shaken, overheat, and still not explode. This process also produces significantly less nuclear waste than reactors that use uranium.

Thorium is not the enemy of uranium. However, it does not work as a fuel without substantial quantities of either U-235 or Pu-239 to provide the neutron flux that turns the element into an isotope that will fission to release almost exactly the same amount of heat per unit mass as fissioning either uranium or plutonium. Thorium, like its neighbors on the periodic table, produces that heat without releasing any CO2, NOx, SOx, mercury or fly ash.

So why did the U.S. give up funding for its nuclear reactors? During the 1970s, we had already gotten the ball rolling on investments in plutonium and uranium, on top of the fact that it is much easier to create nuclear weapons from the two elements because they are so reactive. We chose to stick with what we know rather than spend billions in investing in thorium when all the funding went to PL and UR.

The government’s decision back then to avoid thorium has not gone unnoticed. There is a strong growing support for the world to switch to this more efficient element to power the world, as we grow desperate for more cleaner and abundant energy sources.

Are we far off from a future powered by the wonder element?

Austin Miller

I am an aspiring physicist, with an interest in art and technology.

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