China Moving to Thorium as Safe Nuclear Fuel

From  The Australian

The nuclear industry has been stirred this week by a report out of London set off by a Labour member of the House of Lords, Bryony Worthington, revealing that China is moving to thorium as a nuclear fuel.

Baroness Worthington is an environmental campaigner, Labour’s climate change spokeswoman in the upper house, and was for a long time a strong opponent of nuclear energy.

However, she had a “Road to Damascus” conversion a few years ago to become Britain’s leading political voice in favour of thorium, uranium’s half-brother.

Worthington, head of the all-parliamentary group on thorium energy, has just returned from China and reports that country is in the thorium vanguard. Former leader Jiang Zemin’s son has been handed $US350 million ($333m) to get thorium power generation going. He reportedly already has 140 scientists with PhDs working for him, and will hire another 600.

Thorium is radioactive and more abundant than uranium in the earth’s crust. Although not fissile itself, thorium-232 will absorb neutrons to produce uranium-233, which is fissile. It is found in monazite, a rare-earth-bearing mineral, and its radioactive properties are the plague of rare-earths miners.

Just ask Lynas.

The point is that thorium reactors, unlike uranium ones, cannot melt down or blow up, so do not threaten Fukushima or Chernobyl-style disasters.

Unlike uranium, it is not easily used to make nuclear weapons.

According to Geoscience Australia, Australia has the largest identified thorium resource — 485,000 tonnes — followed by India, Turkey and Brazil. But here it has been subject to the same state bans on mining as uranium.

The appeal of thorium is that floods, earthquakes, fires, tsunamis or operator error cannot generate critical incidents.

Thorium reactors have a passive, molten salt-cooling system that operates naturally if the reactor shuts down. There is no steam pressure, so the reactor cannot explode like at Chernobyl, nor is there hydrogen to explode like at Fukushima. There’s also minimal hazardous waste.

Worthington has been vocal on the subject, pointing out that most of the problems associated with uranium reactors do not apply to those powered by thorium. Last year she even pointed out — in an article in the left-wing bible The Guardian, no less — that “there are 70,000 nuclear weapons in the world and none are (sic) based on thorium or its derivatives”. It is now nearly seven years since Canberra had a detailed look at thorium.

In 2006 a parliamentary committee reported the mineral had the potential to contain some 40 times more energy per unit than uranium, and without recourse to fast-breeder reactors.

In 2011 we got the first hint of China’s interest when the country’s Academy of Sciences announced its plan to build a thorium reactor. Clearly, this program is now on the fast track.

The other one to watch is India. It has been working on thorium plans for decades; it is motivated largely by energy independence needs (having the second-largest thorium resource in the world, against the dependence on imported uranium).

Norway also has extensive thorium deposits and is now experimenting in partnership with Westinghouse on the potential of thorium at its nuclear reactor.

In Japan, Chubu Electric, which owns the temporarily closed Hamaoka nuclear plant, began a thorium study after Fukushima. Bill Gates has been involved in thorium advocacy.

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