Unclear On Nuclear? Try Thorium - Nuclear Energy Without The Side Effects

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:

Mar 22, 2011
by Anonymous


Great article but I have one question: if thorium has all these great advantages then why haven't we began using it sooner? Are there any disadvantages or complications associated with using thorium to produce energy?

Mar 22, 2011
by Jamie Reygle
Jamie Reygle's picture


As Sorensen alludes to in the video, nuclear energy was developed in a wartime context. Uranium reacts fast and powerfully, so makes an excellent bomb. Thorium, on the other hand, does not. 

So, it seems as though uranium's development as an energy source was contextual, and now we have gotten ourselves into a mindset that eliminates other possibilities, and/or utilizes existing, operating technology.

I looked for possible reasons in researching this article, but nothing convincing came up. If you find anything, please post it here.

Jamie Reygle
Great Idea Blogger


Mar 22, 2011
by Anonymous

Add these to mix

Dont forget

Cold Fusion


alone for power with Thorium reactors.

Speed up R&D for T Reactors???

Mar 22, 2011
by Anonymous

We should be offering these reactors to.....

We should be offering these reactors to North Korea, Iran and any country that wants to generate its own electricity.

Meanwhile...we should buy and island and sell storage of the spent fuel as a service. If we keep the nuclear waste on such an island, it would be easier to control.

I say we shoot the uranium waste products into the sun.

Mar 22, 2011
by Anonymous


I say we shoot the uranium waste products into the sun.


What will happen if the rocket is faulty?

Mar 23, 2011
by Anonymous

Because in the 1930's when

Because in the 1930's when these ideas were being laid out as plans, thorium had the distinct disadvantage of not being able to produce plutonium for bombs. Since atom bombs were "all the rage" in geopolitical strategy back then, the policymakers decided to go with uranium instead.

Mar 25, 2011
by Anonymous

Thorium reactors can not be shut down in case of emergency.

If I read the cycle correctly, thorium reactors can not be shut down in case of emergency. A Uranium reactor that gets its control rods inserted almost immediately is down to 1-2% of its power. In a Thorium reactor inserting control rods would stop the generation of new U-233, but the existing U-233 would keep producing the same hundreds of megawatts of electricity for weeks and months. Imagine not being able to cool that.