Energy Sources You’ve Never Heard of: Thorium

This naturally occurring silvery metal may be the answer to the world's energy problems.

Thorium. The name may conjure memories of school chemistry labs or even the Norse god of thunder that it’s named after, but this silvery metal may be the answer to the world’s energy problems.

This naturally occurring metal is more common than tin, mercury and silver and is three times more abundant than naturally occurring uranium. It is all around us - Copacabana beach is full of it. More importantly - when used - one ton of thorium can produce as much energy as 200 tons of uranium or 3.5 million tons of coal. It is harnessed by putting it in a reactor, where it then breaks down to form uranium–233 - a first rate nuclear fuel that will go on burning for years.

Nuclear energy’s popularity plummeted after Fukushima and there are recurring concerns over nuclear waste storage and as the weaponisation of nuclear fuels. However, thorium produces much less waste as well as no enriched by-products for military use. No wonder Hans Blix is a fan. In fact, there are very few negative sides to the metal Labour Peer Baroness Worthington called “a fuel no one has heard of, that everyone needs to hear of”. So why are we not using it?

Harnessing the technological capabilities is of course the number one challenge. It would also require a complete shift away from conventional nuclear reactors. You can’t get a tanker to stop in a minute and retrofitting plants or replacing them (if the technology was ever ready) is no simple task.  But before all of this, proving the source is the first priority, and on this front some countries are beginning to take notice.

China, of course, is leading the race and is planning on building the first reactor within ten years. Princeling Jiang Mianheng, son of former leader Jiang Zemin, estimates that China has enough thorium to power its electricity needs for “20,000 years”. The British have their own research project – ThorEA – anchored at Huddersfield University under Professor Robert Cywinksi, and other countries around the world are dipping their toe in. However, the Government’s chief scientific adviser Sir John Beddington said in September that the benefits of thorium are 'often overstated', although he conceded that there are 'theoretical advantages regarding sustainability, reducing radiotoxicity and reducing proliferation risk'.

Britain led the way in developing the world’s first civil nuclear power station.  How fitting a tribute if we were to continue the world-beating R&D we still conduct in the field of nuclear by developing this next generation of nuclear power technology and accruing all the benefits of nuclear with so few of the disadvantages. 

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