Around 50 years ago, the U.S. chose to develop uranium-based nuclear energy instead of thorium-based energy. Both energy sources provided a ton of power — though theoretically thorium could provide a lot more.What made the difference, however, were the byproducts. Uranium byproducts could be used for nuclear bombs, and that’s all Richard Nixon needed to know.
Writes Doug L. Hoffman, author of The Resilient Earth:
In the US, the military was not interested in ‘safe’ atomic reactors, they wanted the enriched uranium and plutonium produced by uranium fuelled reactors for use in weapons. The world’s largest consumer of civilian nuclear power turned its back on thorium because it did not produce dangerous enough waste products.
Many argue this was a terrible choice.
Not only is thorium thought to be 3-4 times more abundant than uranium, cleaner, safer, and vastly more powerful, but it also has byproducts that — rather than killing people — could save lives.
Kirk Sorensen, CEO of Flibe Energy, believes the medical isotopes produced from liquid fluoride thorium reactors (LFTRs) will actually be more valuable than the electricity generated. Furthermore, he says this revenue stream will be sufficient to fund the proliferation of thorium reactors for commercial purposes – that the electricity generated will be, in essence, a secondary product.
The isotopes produced from LFTRs include Bismuth-213 and Molybdenum-99, which are used to fight cancer. Currently, over 90% of these isotopes are imported from Canada. Increasing the domestic supply of these isotopes will also help curb their rising cost.
As well, Forbes reports that monazite sands, the principal source of thorium, often contain significant amounts of rare earth elements.
China supplies over 95% of the world’s rare earth elements, which have important commercial and military applications in advanced electronics and are in everything from smartphones to drones.
Jim Kennedy, who co-organised the 2012 Thorium Energy Alliance Conference, notes current U.S. government policy towards thorium discourages the domestic production of rare earths elements. Monazite mining companies have to store the radioactive thorium (which they have no use for) they encounter during their quests for rare earth elements.
Kennedy has proposed the creation of a “Thorium Storage and Industrial Products Corporation” which would store the thorium obtained from monazite mines and find end-users for the product, specifically, as an energy source. This “Thorium Bank” would require Congressional approval (but not funding!), and would serve as a centralized headquarters for the mass proliferation of thorium energy in the United States.
For now the full benefits of thorium energy are unproven, though countries like China, India and Norway are investing heavily in research and development.
Thorium also carries its own risk of proliferation as a weapon of mass destruction, according to a study from the University of Cambridge. The report indicated that thorium could be converted to weapons-grade U-233 “using well-known chemical processes that use standard laboratory equipment and are not subject to IAEA safeguards.” The researchers note that this would be extremely hard to trace — which makes the development of such a weapons system a potential goal for terrorist organisations, or more likely, an unruly nation-state.
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