Humans have been on the lookout for endlessly renewable fuel for a long time. While Thorium, in place of Uranium or Plutonium, is much easier to find and mine, changing up the construction of current nuclear power facilities will take a large investment to try to replace a technology that is working.
History of Nuclear Power
Nuclear power has gotten a bad name because the disasters are so catastrophic. If a coal-fired power plant catches fire and is destroyed, one facility needs to be replaced. The risks of coal at the time of mining aren’t taken into consideration when studying the repercussions and safety of the technology. Unfortunately, everyone knows the names of facilities such as Fukushima and Chernobyl. Precious little attention is given to the more than 600 nuclear power plants currently working across the globe today and functioning effectively. In addition, some of these plants are quite old and still functioning effectively, such as the Russian Obninsk that has been supplying power to the grid since the 1950s.
A New Source
Power is released from fuels by burning, as wood and coal are burned. It can also be released through catalyzation, such as when natural gas is supplied to catalytic materials to produce heat. In each case, some energy is held in reserve until it’s activated or ignited, then the fuel is consumed. However, Thorium offers us a much longer burn time for a much smaller initial investment. Even better, Thorium is fertile rather than fissile. This means that it holds its energy in reserve but has to be combined with another molecule to ignite. Concerns about nuclear fuel being used in weapons become much less worrisome if Thorium is the primary source of fuel in our nuclear plants; even if it’s stolen, it can’t ignite on its own. A few countries are already researching Thorium as a replacement for Uranium, which will make nuclear power plants an even cleaner source of energy. This technology will be highly useful for countries such as China and India, which have much higher naturally occurring stores of Thorium for mining.
Inefficiency Is Always a Risk
There’s a great deal of concern about nuclear waste. This concern is valid but could be reduced by putting Thorium to work in newly designed reactors. Even enriched uranium burns inefficiently and leaves material that is still radioactive but can no longer be activated for fuel. Thorium can be burned more efficiently and with less waste, but this efficiency is only achieved by the third burn phase. Uranium is still needed for the first one.
Clearly Thorium could serve as a more efficient fuel to be used in nuclear reactors. There will need to be a focused time of research and new plants will have to be designed. However, instead of making design changes following a disaster, the nuclear power industry could proactively design at the onset to avoid inefficiencies and environmental hazards.