Thorium – a chemical element named after the Norse god of thunder – is an emerging nuclear feedstock that is catching the interest of scientists, energy experts and policymakers around the world as an alternative to uranium-based nuclear energy.
Advocates of thorium, the so-called "green nuke" option, cite several key advantages over uranium – that it produces less waste, is abundant and has a drastically reduced threat of weaponization.
Thorium-based spent fuel rods are significantly less radioactive than their conventional counterparts; so much so that Dr. Paul Norman of the University of Birmingham's Physics department describes the nuclear waste for thorium versus uranium as "hundreds of years of radioactivity as opposed to thousands."
Large thorium reserves exist around the world, especially in Australia and India but also in Norway, Canada and the US. Further, the thorium-based nuclear energy process does not produce plutonium, which minimizes the risk of weaponization. Thorium reactors can also be smaller and cheaper to build because they don’t require high-pressure water containment domes.
These advantages have led companies and governments alike to show interest in thorium. Norwegian company Aker Solutions (Oslo: AKSO.OL) is working on a nuclear power station using thorium as its main fuel source.
India, which is home to about a quarter of the world's total reserves, has revised its nuclear power strategy to phase out uranium in favor of thorium and has built the world’s first nuclear reactor running on thorium. Greenland has also changed its policy to allow for the exploration of thorium.
But thorium is not without its shortcomings. Turning the element into fuel is still very costly and some nuclear proliferation risk remains. And like uranium, thorium is a radioactive material and poses unresolved mining, handling and waste storage issues.
Converting nuclear programs to run on thorium reactors may look promising when compared to uranium, but the transition would require huge investments in an untested technology at a time when governments haven’t yet fully pursued cheaper, cleaner alternatives offered by energy efficiency and renewable energy systems.
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