The false claims of the thorium lobby

The mythologies of thorium and uranium, Greenpeace,  by Jan Beránek – 24 March, 2014 Thorium and uranium represent the heaviest naturally occurring elements on Earth. Both were named after ancient gods: Uranus was the principal Greek god of the sky while Thor was the Norse (and broadly Germanic) god of a thunder.

……What are the chances that replacing the Greek god with a Germanic one will help? Would Thor take his powerful hammer and nail it all down? Not likely….

Let’s look more closely at some of the hopeful claims around thorium.

Safer reactors? The risks inherent in nuclear reactors are due to the massive concentrations of radioactive materials and the huge amount of heat they produce (which is actually needed to generate electricity). No matter if the fuel is based on uranium or thorium, if it’s solid or liquid, this characteristic alone will inevitably continue to be the Achilles heel of any nuclear reactor. As you can read in the Union of Concerned Scientists’ briefing on this issue, the truth is that the U.S. Department of Energy concluded in 2009 after a review that “the choice between uranium-based fuel and thorium-based fuel is seen basically as one of preference, with no fundamental difference in addressing the nuclear power issues [of waste management, proliferation risk, safety, security, economics, and sustainability].”

Less nuclear waste? It’s obvious that fission applied to different nuclear fuel results in a different composition of radioactive waste. But it’s still radioactive waste and whether the waste produced by thorium reactors is less problematic (because there’s no plutonium in it) remains a question. Spent thorium fuel still contains long-lived isotopes such as proactinium-231 (with a half-life 32,000 years which is even longer than plutonium Pu-239) which implies the need for long term management in timescales comparable to typical high level waste from uranium reactors. Not surprisingly, a chart published in Nuclear Engineering International magazine in November 2009 shows that the radiotoxicity of spent thorium fuel is actually higher than uranium spent fuel over the long term, ie after first 10,000 years:

graph Torium toxicity

No proliferation? Yes, thorium can’t itself be used to build nuclear weapons but it can’t be used directly as a nuclear fuel either. In fact, it has to be first converted into the fissile uranium isotope, U-233. That’s an isotope that is suitable for nuclear weapons. The US successfully detonated a nuclear bomb containing U-233 in 1955.

Even the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change commissioned a report which concluded in 2012  that the claims by thorium proponents who say that the radioactive chemical element makes it impossible to build a bomb from nuclear waste, leaves less hazardous waste than uranium reactors, and that it runs more efficiently, are “overstated”.

Thorium reactors exist only in blueprints and early experiments, which means there could be other issues not yet detected that would complicate their large scale implementation. In any case, this also means that it would take much longer than a decade before thorium reactors would potentially become available for a larger commercial deployment…….


One Response to “The false claims of the thorium lobby”

  1. A Green Road Project Says:

    Reblogged this on A Green Road Daily News.

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