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New Steps in Nuclear: Is Thorium the Answer?

Colona, IL
A nuclear power plant on the coast
A nuclear power plant on the coast

For most people, nuclear energy is a terrifying concept. Especially for older generations who have witnessed the impact of nuclear failure firsthand. Can you blame them? History is littered with examples of meltdowns like Chernobyl or Three Mile Island. On top of that, the constant threat of nuclear war during the Cold War and the political minefields following it have left people on edge. It's no wonder nuclear power is now grouped with scary words like radiation, explosions, death, and war.


In reality, though, nuclear energy production has become safer and cleaner. Some may argue that it is even more sustainable than other fossil fuels. Burning coal and oil releases a lot of harmful pollution into the air, which can cause serious health problems and contribute to climate change. On the other contrary, nuclear power plants don’t emit these pollutants when they’re running. Modern nuclear reactors are even designed with advanced safety features to prevent accidents. Despite these grand strides, nuclear power is far from perfect. But to squash any uncertainty, how can we find a better, more efficient type of nuclear power?


To tackle that, we first have to understand how nuclear power currently works. Think of it as very intense tea brewing. Nuclear reactors use uranium fuel rods, which, when they split (or undergo fission), release a massive amount of energy in the form of heat. This heat turns water into steam, which then drives turbines to generate electricity. It's like a supercharged version of boiling water to make tea, but instead of getting a warm beverage, we get massive amounts of clean energy.


Uranium has been the default element for this process ever since its fissionable nature had been discovered while looking for weaponizable materials. Uranium is relatively abundant and energy-dense, however, it has downsides that fuel people’s paranoia. It produces long-lived radioactive waste, poses significant safety risks, and can be used to produce nuclear weapons. Enter Thorium, a contender with some impressive tricks up its sleeve.


Abundancy

First off, thorium is more abundant in the Earth's crust than uranium, making it a more sustainable option in the long run. It’s about three to four times more plentiful. According to Stanford University, “The Thorium Energy Alliance estimates that ‘there is enough thorium in the United States alone to power the country at its current energy level for over 1,000 years’”.


Additionally, one ton of thorium can go a lot further than one ton of uranium (200x more efficient to use thorium, according to CERN). Uranium exists in earth’s atmosphere in two isotopes: U-238, and U-235. U-238 makes up more than 99% of the Uranium on Earth, yet it can’t be used in nuclear power. So the uranium ore extracted from the crust undergoes an enrichment process in which ~1% of U-235 has to be increased in concentration. However, still a portion of it remains unusable. Meanwhile, Thorium is all ready to go, with no enrichment or byproducts necessary.


Thorium’s abundance also contributes to decreasing nuclear waste emissions. The waste from thorium reactors is less hazardous and has a shorter half-life than that from uranium reactors, making long-term storage and disposal easier and less risky. It is also efficient, with potentially higher fuel burn-up rates, meaning more energy can be extracted from the same amount of material, leading to even less waste.


Safety

Thorium appears to be safer regarding both mining and energy production. Thorium mines can be open pits, meaning that it is mined out in the open air in a crater-like environment. This type of mine does not require ventilation whereas closed-off uranium mines allow toxic radon levels to be dangerous for workers.


Thorium also has an additional safety feature due to its chemical properties. It is considered a “fertile,” instead of a “fissile” like Uranium. Essentially, fissile elements can undergo nuclear fission (can split up) without assistance. In comparison, fertile elements cannot, instead they need a bit of helper material or need to be altered. Thorium, being fertile, could be seen as safer since dangerous situations can be swiftly quelled by removing the helper material. This type of passive security may be beneficial in preventing things like the meltdowns at Chernobyl or Three Mile Island, but it is important to note that technology has already gotten to the point where other methods are already utilized to make Uranium just as safe.


Infrastructure

The current global geopolitical/economic landscape would both benefit from the usage of thorium and may simultaneously take a hit. The main reason Uranium was originally researched as the main fuel for nuclear reactors was its militarizable ability. Thorium is not weaponizable due to its fertile nature. The only thing at a Thorium reactor plant that could be used in aggression is the minuscule amount of the aforementioned helper material, which would be a significantly small amount. Thorium has the potential to cool nuclear war threats by eliminating the potential to secretly manufacture illegal weapons.


That’s great and all, so why isn’t Thorium used in a more widespread manner? Well, economically, switching to thorium isn’t just about digging up a different kind of rock. It would mean investing in new reactor designs and infrastructure. This could be tough considering the billions already sunk into uranium-based technology. Also, no country wants to get rid of this powerful alternative to diplomacy; after all, weapons are power.


Future of Nuclear

Thorium has benefits in regards to its abundance, chemical composition, safety features, and peaceful nature. But it is important to understand that nothing is utopic so obviously thorium does have downsides as well. Despite being pretty promising, thorium fuel cycles are still largely theoretical. The technology is not as mature as uranium-based systems, and significant research and development are needed to bring thorium reactors to commercial viability.


As previously established, nuclear power isn’t necessarily bad. In fact, energy experts tend to prefer it to its fossil fuel counterparts. But what does the future of nuclear power hold? Are we going to maintain and expand our Uranium technology? Will we transition to making Thorium reactors more common? Is there some different technology that is in progress that will revolutionize nuclear? Only time can answer those questions.


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