Proponents of thorium as a nuclear fuel speak of its safety and cost savings over uranium, but a new government report from the UK finds these statements overly exaggerated. Supposedly, thorium waste is impossible to use as a bomb component, isn’t toxic, and is more efficient.
“Thorium has theoretical advantages regarding sustainability, reducing radiotoxicity and reducing proliferation risk,” states the report, prepared for the Department of Energy and Climate Change by the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL).
NNL remains pessimistic, mostly because UK utility companies aren’t willing to invest the money to fully investigate thorium’s supposed benefits, but will probably continue to spend some resources continuing development of the fuel. The UK Atomic Energy Authority [AEA] built an experimental thorium-fueled reactor in the 60’s, but it’s mostly decommissioned right now.
Flibe Energy in the US is building a reactor based on designs developed by the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the 1960’s. Other countries are also developing thorium with more-or-less the same fervor, including China and India. India’s solid-thorium reactor could be ready for testing in the next five years.
According to the World Nuclear Association, thorium is mildly radioactive, and occurs naturally in many parts of the world, the largest reserves existing in Australia, US, India, and Brazil. While it does seem to be abundant, current methods still produce waste that is extremely toxic for a long time, which is hard to store safely, and could be used for building dirty-bombs.
Making thorium sources fissionable still doesn’t seem economically feasible with current methods. High-temperature, liquid-fuel nuclear reactors could solve some of the problems with thorium, but still haven’t been tested sufficiently to show whether there are truly any benefit to the change.