Is thorium the answer to our energy crisis?

It could power the planet for thousands of years, the reactors would never blow up and the waste is relatively clean. So is thorium the nuclear fuel of the future? Helen Brown reports

It's a word that's been generating a steady, background hum in the scientific community for decades now. And the glow of hope emanating from the word "thorium" is now burning brighter than ever. Is this element really the nuclear fuel of the future? Is it really - as some are claiming - cleaner, greener and safer than its scarcer cousin uranium? One thing's for sure: there are massive reserves of thorium throughout the world, and if the power that represents could be harnessed, it could keep us in energy-saving light bulbs for thousands of years to come. So why aren't governments investing in the technology needed to make that potential a reality?

Over the past year, Professor Egil Lillestol of the Institute of Physics and Technology at the University of Bergen, has been attempting to convince the world that nuclear reactors fuelled by thorium could be the answer to the world's energy problems. If we accept that we need alternatives to the CO2-belching fossil fuels, then, Lillestol says: "We all have to do whatever we can to reduce the consumption of energy and to develop solar and wind energy. These are, currently, the only two sources that can give us substantial amounts of renewable energy, but unfortunately far from enough."

Lillestol believes that nuclear power is the only solution. But nuclear power has a bad reputation. The public remembers the disasters all too well, from the Sellafield fire of 1957 to Chernobyl's meltdown in 1986. We are frightened, too, by the prospect of waste from spent fuel rods that remain lethally radioactive for many thousands of years. If that's not nasty enough, some nuclear waste can also be reprocessed into weapons-grade plutonium. The processing of plutonium for re-use as fuel for reactors is difficult and consequently much of the waste is left to build in weapons-grade stockpiles that could pose a serious security threat were some to fall into the wrong hands.

But according to some, including Lillestol, thorium - a silvery white metal discovered in 1828 by the Swedish chemist Jons Jakob Berzelius, who named it after Thor, the Norse god of thunder - could solve all these problems. As Lillestol points out, thorium is "three times more abundant than uranium in the earth's crust, and produces 250 times more energy per unit of weight than uranium in the present reactors". Unlike a uranium reactor, a thorium power station would produce no plutonium. Consequently, the waste produced from burning thorium in a reactor would not be such a security risk if it fell into the wrong hands, and the spent fuel rods are dramatically less radioactive than conventional nuclear waste. Dr Paul Norman of the University of Birmingham's Physics department talks in terms of "hundreds of years of radioactivity as opposed to thousands".

Furthermore, thorium requires an accelerator-driven system (or ADS) reactor, and these have significant differences from reactors commonly used for uranium. When a uranium-235 atom splits, it releases a wave of high-energy neutrons which can then collide with other U-235 atoms, releasing more neutrons. This is the chain reaction responsible for the explosive power of an atom bomb, and when out of control, it is also the force that can drive a disastrous meltown in a reactor's core.

But in an ADS reactor, that chain reaction cannot get out of control. "The technology for building such a reactor became ripe some 10 years ago. It uses an external beam of protons to kick-start the reactions," says Lillestol. The thorium does not then continue the reaction on its own - it needs the external beam of protons to keep it running. To stop the reaction, and close down a power station, all that would be needed to be done would be to pull the plug on that external beam of protons.

"In the first step, the protons enter into molten lead where a large number of neutrons are produced," continues Lillestol. "These neutrons enter into the thorium blanket. In fact the proton accelerator has to have a rather intense proton beam, and such accelerators could not be built 10 years ago. This is no longer considered to be a major obstacle."

Lillestol says that the problem is political will - and money. "Nobel laureate Carlo Rubbia began work on the ADS while he was director-general at CERN [the European Organisation for Nuclear Research]. He and his group made so much progress that we all believed that a prototype would be built within a decade. However, when the EU turned down the application for $500m first in 1999 and then in 2000, Rubbia gave up pushing and concentrated on solar energy which he then was also heavily engaged in."

Lillestol - whom Rubbia appointed as deputy division leader of CERN's Physics Division back in 1989 - has continued to fight for the thorium cause. He estimates the cost of a prototype reactor at 550m euros and believes it will take around 15 years to develop: "Molten lead becomes highly corrosive - and the problem is, how do we contain that lead? But the greatest difficulty is getting the world's experts to work together in one place and on one prototype. This, I believe, can only be achieved if all the participating countries have equal rights to all the results." Of course, the supply network for uranium has already been established, and is an important issue for governments all over the world. Switching to thorium would move the goalposts and put new power in the hands of the countries that have the thorium. And on such massive issues, it seems that no one likes change.

India, which has about a quarter of the world's total reserves, has already planned its nuclear power program eventually to use thorium, phasing out uranium. But Greenpeace thinks this is a bad idea. The organisation's senior adviser on nuclear energy, Jean McSorley, says: "Operating thorium reactors would mean taking an enormous risk with untried and untested reactors. We shouldn't forget that we need to reduce energy demand, and fully embrace clean, safe and secure alternatives such as renewable energy systems."

But Dr Norman says that new nuclear technology, of some description, is the future. "If you want evidence that nuclear power is back on the agenda, then take a look at what's happening at universities. Our Masters course on the Physics and Technology of Nuclear Reactors was launched 50 years ago, and this year we've got 36 students - the most we've ever had, almost double the previous highest number which was 19 students back in 1957. Global warming is proving far more deadly than Chernobyl. We could try and keep running with the current reactors, which will run as long as uranium-235 lasts. Or we could try something new." He agrees the something new could well be thorium. Or nuclear fusion, which, he admits, "is technically harder to achieve". Perhaps a thorium reactor is not so far-fetched.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Voices
The male menopause: those affected can suffer hot flushes, night sweats, joint pain, low libido, depression and an increase in body fat, among other symptoms
voicesSo the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Life and Style
health
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Stiller as Derek Zoolander in the leaked trailer for Zoolander 2
film
News
The 43-year-old rapper was stopped at the Lamezia Terme International Airport in Calabria after he had played a concert in the city on Friday night
people
Sport
Pedro has been linked with a move to Manchester United
transfers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...

Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen