If the current events in Japan have demonstrated one thing, it's that nuclear energy in its current form is not safe. Put simply, if the Japanese can't do it right with their impeccable approach to workmanship, then heaven help the rest of us.
But nuclear energy produces about 13,000 times the amount of energy per pound of fuel than coal, and considerably less waste. The only problem with the waste, of course, is that uranium and plutonium produce immeasurably more dangerous waste than coal, or oil, or natural gas, or any other energy source currently in widespread use: not only does it need to be stored safely for thousands of years (like that's going to happen), but if it gets in the wrong hands, well, use your imagination.
With so many unknowns surrounding nuclear power - the impossibility of 100% safe operation; the unlikeliness of ensuring safe storage of nuclear waste across millennia; the probability of some of that waste ending up in the hands of terrorists or rogue states - you could justifiably be wondering why there are nearly 450 nuclear power stations operating around the world, with a further 65 under construction.
You could especially be wondering why, if you knew that a way to process a much safer form of nuclear energy has been available for nearly the last half a century. And then if you discovered that the source of this energy was four times more abundant than uranium (which contains all the plutonium), you could well be vigorously shaking and slapping your head simultaneously.
Don't do it to yourself! Even if it is true that thorium possesses all these properties.
The primary advantage of thorium is probably safety. As reported recently in The Telegraph, thorium expert Kirk Sorensen claims that, "If it begins to overheat, a little plug melts and the salts drain into a pan.
There is no need for computers, or the sort of electrical pumps that were
crippled by the tsunami. The reactor saves itself. They operate at atmospheric pressure so you don’t have the sort of hydrogen
explosions we’ve seen in Japan. One of these reactors would have come
through the tsunami just fine. There would have been no radiation release.” This is largely because thorium is not fissile: it cannot sustain a nuclear chain reaction without a catalyst.
But that's not all. Because thorium is lighter than uranium (which is lighter than plutonium), it doesn't produce as many heavy, radioactive byproducts. It produces considerably less waste than its heavier cousins, and that is waste that only needs to be managed for 500 years - still a long time, but nowhere near the 10,000 years that some existing nuclear waste requires. That's if you want to store it. Alternatively, you could add a bit of plutonium to the mix, and you'd burn it all up as part of the energy creation process. That's right: handled properly, a thorium reactor produces no radioactive waste.
Oh, and thorium comes out of the ground as 100% thorium. It doesn't need to be enriched, like uranium, which contains less than 1% fissionable material. So, while there is around four times as much thorium in the ground as uranium, there is closer to 6,000 times more usable thorium than usable uranium.
In the USA, which possesses the world's largest thorium reserves, an experimental thorium reactor was built at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee back in the '60s, operating for around five years before its funding was cut. Today, there is an operating thorium reactor in India, and plans for them in China, Russia and Norway.
Meanwhile, Senators Orrin Hatch [R-UT] and Harry Reid [D-NV] attempted to introduce the Thorium Energy Independence and Security Act of 2008, which would have established "an office for the regulation of thorium fuel cycle nuclear power generation," and provided $250 million to develop thorium as a viable energy resource. The bill never got past committee.
Okay, start shaking and a-slapping that head.
Here's the aforementioned Sorensen getting into some detail: