2009-12-26

Thinking about Thorium

I'm not, as yet, prepared to do a back-flip on Nuclear power. However the proposals behind reactors powered by Thorium, rather than Uranium, are quite compelling. Here's a summary of the advantages:

  1. The radioactive waste created by Thorium reactors decays over a much shorter time period - 200 years as opposed to many thousands by "traditional" nuclear reactors.
  2. Nuclear waste from "traditional" reactors can be inserted into a Thorium reactor and turned into regular Thorium radioactive waste - this means that Thorium reactors can permanently remove the radioactive waste stored around the world from traditional nuclear reactors.
  3. Thorium can be used to create nuclear bombs (the US tested a Thorium bomb back in the 1950s) but it is much more difficult to achieve and cannot be stored for very long (unlike Plutonium bombs).
  4. A melt-down is impossible in a Thorium reactor.
  5. Thorium is more widely available than uranium.
  6. Thorium does not have to go through many secondary processes to use it in a reactor, making it cheaper to use.
I do, however, have some concerns:
  • Any nation with a Thorium reactor has the ability to create weaponized Thorium. While it is not as "good" as plutonium it nevertheless increases the potential for nuclear weapons proliferation. Having Thorium reactors in the US, UK, Europe, Canada and other nations might seem acceptable... but what about Thorium reactors in third world nations? Would we trust Zimbabwe or Saudi Arabia or North Korea with Thorium reactors?
  • If a Thorium reactor is destroyed with conventional explosives (by terrorists or by an air force), what will the result be? Will a Chernobyl like radioactive cloud be released?
  • if a nation has a Thorium reactor, will they also, by proxy, have the technology to create and weaponize Plutonium?
  • Can radioactive waste from a Thorium reactor be used in a "dirty bomb"?
While I like the potential behind Thorium reactors, the danger posed by the concerns I have just outlined make me wary. Unstable third-world nations need a safe and reliable source of non-carbon emitting electrical energy in order for them to progress without harming themselves or the rest of the world. Coal and Gas plants in third world nations are "safe" but produce carbon dioxide. If they were replaced by (for example) wind, solar or geothermal energy then electricity would be available that is both safe and good for the environment. But a dictator who has a Thorium reactor under his control is far more dangerous to his nation and its neighbours than a dictator with a bunch of wind turbines under his control.

3 comments:

Coffee Bean said...

I knew absolutely nothing about this. Very interesting.

aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa said...

Thorium cannot be used to make a nuclear explosion. The reaction must be driven by an external source. As soon as this source is removed, the reaction stops. A Chernyobl cannot happen with a thorium reactor

There was no thorium bomb in the 1950s. I guess you can scatter radioactive thorium with a conventional blast, but is it any more dangerous than spent uranium, now being used in bullets and shells? Besides, terrorists could grab medical isotopes and scatter them too.

The powers don't want to make thorium reactors, they want their deadly plutonium

http://ensec.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=187:thorium-as-a-secure-nuclear-fuel-alternative&catid=94:0409content&Itemid=342

aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa said...

Wind and solar power are inconsistent sources. A generator fuelled by ethanol is consistent and reliable, and carbon neutral as the co2 is absorbed by plants, which are later turned into more ethanol. Geothermal and hot rock (radioactive granite) sources are reliable early on but gradually cool.
1st world countries must subsidise 3rd world power or they will take the cheapest path