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Thorium

When we learned how to make carbon our slave instead of other people, we started to learn how to become a civilised people. Thorium has a million times the energy density of a carbon-hydrogen bond. What does that mean for human civilisation? Because we’re not going to run out of this stuff. We will never run out.

So says Kirk Sorensen in a 5-minute YouTube video summarising the benefits. See also his company Flibe Energy and the Energy From Thorium Foundation. Between this and fracking there really is no need to worry about energy. That whole debate is simply between those who are for and those who are against civilisation.

31 comments to Thorium

  • Dave Walker

    There are other compelling things about Thorium. Principally:

    1. you can’t weaponise it, in practical terms
    2. fissioning Thorium requires giving it a sustained whack with a particle beam – so Thorium reactors will always fail safe if the beam is cut off
    3. I’ve heard anecdotally – but can’t confirm yet – that Thorium fission by-products are less radioactive long-term than Uranium fission by-products
    4. Thorium is actually more energy-dense than Uranium – and, as you state, it’s a lot more abundant.

    Thorium was actually examined very early on in the story of nuclear fission for power, but was apparently dropped in favour of Uranium because the latter had other more explosive applications. There are some old designs still around for Thorium reactors, and these could be brought up to date pretty readily.

    For any nation looking into Uranium-based reactors as “a civilian energy source”, I’m surprised there is not a greater public show made of saying “here, have all the Thorium you could want, and some reactor designs to work with…”

  • The Laughing CAvalier

    Correspondence with the Ministry last year elicited the answer that the government has not the slightest interest in Thorium energy; it isn’t featured in the long term plan. Furthermore, the junior minister pooh poohs its viability. In short, like shale gas, another opportunity lost.

  • Mary Contrary

    Thorium does have certain technical issues, as yet unresolved. This is hardly surprising, given the way it has been almost totally ignored in recent decades. It would be a mistake to claim the thorium is entirely ready for service. However, shale gas will provide us with ample energy for amply long enough to solve these issues: Rob is entirely correct in his argument.

  • The problem is not a shortage of energy but a surplus of government.

    But when you really think about it, is there any major problem affecting any Western nation today that wasn’t either caused by government or greatly exacerbated by it?

  • the other rob

    Didn’t I read something, recently, about a new molten salt reactor that will burn not only Thorium but also waste from existing reactors?

  • Mr Ed

    This lady knows more than all of us, in all likelihood, about Thorium, via the Royal Institution.

  • Johnnydub

    The problem is not a shortage of energy but a surplus of government.

    This could be a comment on almost every Samizdata thread and certainly something I find myself saying till I’m blue in the face…

  • Greg

    The crux of the problem for those who want more nuclear power generating capacity developed is: “… those who are … against civilization”. The “watermelons” (green outside, red inside) want to undo western civ. Decimating energy production is just one part of that. There are large segments of the population who don’t trust the nuclear power companies, those building and operating plants, but what’s harder to overcome is that folks don’t trust the idea of nuclear power. None of them has a clue as to how nuclear power is developed and operated in the US vs other major nuclear powers–the US is a third world nuclear power, so don’t look here for answers to how it could be made to work better.

    How do we re-educate two generations regarding the technological and economic facts of life? The other side owns the educational establishment and the media. Reducing the surplus of government would certainly help with this problem as with most (all?) problems (as noted by Johnnydub). Education of the easily swayed middle voter (low info voter), is a challenge: these folks don’t understand very much to begin with!

    I’m too discouraged generally to think that me and like minded citizens talking to each other, even loudly and publicly, will have any effect whatsoever in moving this debate in the right direction. But you all are generally less discouraged than me and almost universally smarter. So, how do we move things in the right direction regarding massively increasing production of cheap energy? I say “massively” not because I think a massive increase would be good; I just think it would occur naturally if the government surplus problem were solved. [let me stipulate before I'm accused of wanting to return to 19th century mass burning of coal to heat homes and child labor fueled factories, that some energy production methods are no longer acceptable or necessary, especially in large cities. And I think a free market would avoid those production methods--no one would buy such energy. And if they did, say in China, we'd have a nice little greenhouse gas experiment. A first in climate science: theory, model, experiment/observation, analysis, feeding back to confirm/refute theory and model!]

  • But, but, but — thorium is radioactive! Don’t you know radioactivity is EEEEEEEEEEEEEEville? ;-)

  • Mr Ed

    No archaeologist has ever found remains from a lost civilisation. Many have found relics. A civilisation is a state of affairs in which civil behaviour prevails, it is a state of mind. The fruits of civilisation may be found, be they buildings, objects, artefacts and so on, evidence ultimately of the productive application of labour and capital.

    We might have all the electricity and energy that we could use, but we would not have a civilisation without civil behaviour prevailing. It’s no use having cheap energy with exorbitant taxes and ruinous regulations.

    Whether Western civilisation will survive might be a question of whether or not it has survived, or has it already perished but like a duck dying of a heart attack, gliding down to Earth with an inglorious bump.

  • Paul Marks

    I make no apology for repeating something I have often pointed out before……

    Those Greens claim to be fearful of C02 emissions should be in favour of nuclear power (thorium or non thorium based nuclear power), the fact that most of them are actually radically HOSTILE to nuclear power tells us a lot about their true motivations.

    They are against industrial civilisation – period.

    As for whether technology can answer our energy and other problems – of course it could, but as others such as Mr Ed have pointed out above, the rise of statism means that free people will not be given a chance to accumulate capital over time to save our civilisation.

    The state has increased (in both size and scope), is increasing and must be rolled back.

  • Steve D

    When I was a young boy, I used to think that the greens would HAVE to be in favor of nuclear. Imagine my surprise when I found out the truth

    ‘Between this and fracking there really is no need to worry about energy.’

    There hasn’t been a reason to worry about energy since 1942. In fact, when 4th generation nuclear reactors come on line 10-15 years from now, there will be no nuclear waste either.

    The best thing about thorium is that it may well be possible to make a small engine powered by it. In fact 1g of thorium = 7500 g of gasoline. I’m waiting for my thorium powered golf cart!

    Which is all good since it gives us thousands of years to tame fusion.

  • The Wobbly Guy

    Well, rather than fixate on the West (which is probably doomed with green ideology and PC malaise), I decided to see what the two Asian giants think about Thorium. I already know that India, for the longest time, had a plan to progress gradually to Thorium reactors, but I’m not sure about their progress given the problems in their governance structures. It seems they have been dilly-dallying for quite a while, but progress has been made.

    China’s case is the most interesting – you can’t say the PRC government is in the way. They’re doing a lot to boost it forward. Sure, it might be wasteful, but I daresay like anything the PRC state puts its mind to, it gets results. And their emphasis seems to be spurring progress in other nations too.
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/comment/ambroseevans_pritchard/9784044/China-blazes-trail-for-clean-nuclear-power-from-thorium.html

    And that is a good thing regardless of who succeeds. Once again, China saves the day. :p

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    Does this mean that Asians will start to worship Thorium, God of lightning, electricity, and home heating? Will Marvel Comics move to Mumbai? Who will answer these rhetorical questions?

  • Alsadius

    Sadly, there’s one big problem with thorium that I don’t see any easy solution to – it’s abundant in percentage-of-crust terms, but it doesn’t really concentrate anywhere. As such, while there’s a lot of it out there, mining it is a nightmare. Gold may be rare, but when you find it, you find it pure. Thorium is in everything, but there’s essentially none of it there.

  • Stonyground

    “They [Those Greens] are against industrial civilisation – period.”

    They don’t seem to be against the hi-tec toys and the lifestyle totally free of drudgery, cheap transport, modern medicine etc. etc.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Paul:
    “The state has increased (in both size and scope), is increasing and must be rolled back.”

    There is a paradox here, because the reason the State has been able to expand so far, is that modern tech has enabled us to produce so much. If we lived as our ancestors lived before the agricultural+industrial revolutions, then the State could not extract much of a surplus out of us.
    If successful, the greens will undermine the State which they want to expand. Kind of like the Laffer curve, in fact.

  • Snorry: I think that the perceived expansion of the State is a sort of “optical” illusion, if one takes the view that the real issue is not the modern State as we know it, but violence and compulsion inherent in it. I doubt that violence and compulsion as such have significantly increased since the dawn of mankind. All they did was take a more (much much more) organized and globalized form – and that was indeed made possible by technological advancement. I guess my point is that the real goal of people who value freedom should be the minimization of all violence and compulsion, no matter what form it takes. Currently and for the most part, the State has monopoly on compulsion (and outright naked violence), but that does not at all mean that the human condition was much better overall before the modern State came into being, or that it is going to immediately improve once this State finally collapses under its own weight (which it inevitably will).

    Now that I re-read your comment and my own, I don’t necessarily see a disagreement. So, FWIW etc.

  • Tedd

    Alsadius:

    Much the same is true of titanium, and kept it from being more widely used for many years. But then the process for refining it became more efficient and the markets for it’s potential products (notably, sports equipment) grew, and it became relatively common. So the difficulty in refining thorium isn’t necessarily a big problem. Also, thorium would have very good energy density (relative to chemical fuels), which would help.

  • Rob Fisher (Surrey)

    Alsadius: the video I linked mentions one mine that already produces enough thorium for the world’s current energy usage, and points out that there are many others like it.

  • John McVey

    If memory serves me, thorium is thinly spread because it is often found with other rare earth materials, such as cerium and neodymium, in mineral sands that are typically a phosphate rock rather than oxide or whatnot, with low percentages of every individual component. Leaving aside the fact that one mine already supplies buckletloads of thorium today, I don’t see the thinness of that spread being a problem because many of those other materials are themselves valuable, to the point that in some instances I know of the pursuit of those other materials leaves behind enriched thorium ore as a by-product that the miners don’t quite know what to do with!

    If, further, the demand for thorium were to increase markedly due to viable thorium reactors, the reverse situation may then ensue. That is, the focus of the mining becomes the thorium and the other materials become the by-products. The availability and prices of other rare earths and phosphate fertiliser could fall quite a bit, though I couldn’t possibly say by how much. That would be nice just for the neodymium alone, and maybe ditto the phosphate.

    JJM

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    JJM- Isn’t China buying up all those rare earth sites? What a double bonus for them!

  • Re thorium avaiability. At any sort of price that a nuclear industry would be willing to pay (say, the $100 a lb that uranium goes for, for all the costs are in the capital structure, not the fuel) there would not be a shortage of Th. In fact, there are vast numbers of minerals that we don’t mine precisely because there’s nowhere to dispose of the Th byproduct of mining those minerals.

    Just as an example, think of fly ash from coal burning. Some of this is used in concrete: but a lot cannot be so used because it is too high in Th and U. Too high here meaning about 100 parts per million. Or 100 grammes per tonne. There’s 150 million tonnes of this stuff produced a year and we’ve about 30 years worth of it sitting around in piles.

    Call it a billion tonnes: at 100 grammes per tonne Th. Yes, we do know how to get it out. I get lost in all the zeroes here but that’s what, 10,000 tonnes? 100,000? Just from one waste pile that we’ve got sitting around. Then look at the 2 billion tonnes of red mud…..and so on.

  • Mr Ed

    100g/tonne = 0.01% or one in ten thousand, so 100,000 tonnes, just under 5 HMS Invincibles. A lot of sorting out the wheat from chaff, a simple if tedious chemical processing operation, then you have the issue of getting more value out from the heat of the ultimate reaction than you put in in costs.

  • Bill

    As far as fracking is concerned it’s fine if it is done right. But when a company screws up the water table… The difference between an oil spill and a fracking accident is no one is drinking the water from the oil spill.

  • Laird

    Alisa, re your earlier comment that “the real goal of people who value freedom should be the minimization of all violence and compulsion, no matter what form it takes.” I don’t think I agree, because I don’t think it’s possible to reduce the aggregate level of “violence and compulsion” in the world. All we can hope to do is fragment it, decentralize it, so that it comes at us in smaller units. Violence at retail rather than wholesale, as it were. Governments specialize in providing violence wholesale. I’d rather take my chances with the local retail providers.

  • Good point, Laird.

  • RogerC

    I’ve always had reservations about nuclear power, but sub-critical thorium reactor designs appear to deal with all of them. The advantages are concisely listed by Dave Walker in the first reply.

    Uranium-based designs seem to be the worst possible choice to me. They fail open, in a horrible manner. Once out of control, they’re very hard to get back under control again. Even if your reactor operates its whole life without a mishap, the waste stays dangerous for far longer than any repository that we can build for it will last, on the order of 100,000 years.

    In fact, the only advantage I’ve ever been able to see is one that only applies if you’re a big government in search of nuclear weapons: They breed easily weaponised isotopes. I’ve always thought that this was the civilian nuclear industry’s raison d’etre.

    Thorium-based designs are the exact reverse. Easily controlled, can’t melt down, fail safely, the waste only stays dangerous for about 300 years and there’s a lot less of it. We can easily find a site that will remain intact for 300 years. On top of this, they can consume existing waste as part of their fuel cycle.

    The technology’s not easily weaponised though, so I can see why the existing nuclear club don’t want to invest in it.

    ~R~

  • Ian Furber

    A few months ago a Norwegian guy came round asking me to do an article for him on some stuff called “Thorium” I understand it was discovered by a Norwegian and named after the God Thor. Anyway I wrote a balanced article about Thorium stating the benefits and the dangers. When he read the article he said, this is no good I only want people to know about the good stuff and not any of the bad shit. I told him that it is important that people know the full truth about something like that. With that he promptly told me to stuff the article I had written, and stated “I will write my own article” I told him Good, go for it. Anyway he wrote the article and the local paper published it. Not one mention of any of the dangers. After reading up more on Thorium I thought, ‘Do we really want this shit (Thorium) on our doorstep’.

    Thorium, Not The Nuclear Savior Claimed
    As people have been discussing the issues surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi Disaster, the future of nuclear power comes up. Frequently someone will show up to the discussion to proclaim thorium will be the savior of the nuclear industry and all of the world’s power needs.
    The misinformation on thorium is highly promoted by the nuclear industry and various companies that want investment dollars for thorium reactors and fuel. This fairy tale being told about thorium is far from accurate and realistic. The problem becomes worse as uninformed people hear a brief propaganda piece on thorium and pass on that information without any research of their own.
    One myth is that thorium is safe. Thorium-232 has a half-life of 14 billion years (billions, not millions). Thorium-232 is also highly radiotoxic, with the same amount of radioactivity of uranium and thorium; thorium produces a far higher dose in the body. If someone inhaled an amount of thorium the bone surface dose is 200 times higher than if they inhaled the same amount of uranium. Thorium also requires longer spent fuel storage than uranium. With the daughter products of thorium like technetium 99 with a half-life of over 200,000 years, thorium is not safe nor a solution to spent fuel storage issues.
    Thorium is unable to produce energy on its own. Something thorium cheerleaders frequently fail to mention is that it needs a fissile material like uranium-235 or plutonium-239 to operate the reactor. Uranium-235 and plutonium-239 are both considered bomb making materials and a proliferation risk. So now all the “safety” of thorium has been trumped by the need for weapons grade material to operate the reactor. The work involved to enrich the uranium-235 used in a thorium reactor to the percentage needed for a bomb is not a difficult process. The reprocessing cycle does not resolve the proliferation risk.
    Another myth is that thorium reactors can run at atmospheric temperatures, in order to produce power they must be run differently and would not be at atmospheric temperatures. Many of the thorium reactors use liquid sodium fluoride in the reactor process. This material is highly toxic and has its own series of risks.
    The creation of thorium fuels is also not safer than creating uranium fuels. Thorium poses the same nuclear waste and toxic substance problems found in mining and fuel milling of uranium.
    Thorium power production has been experimented with for over 50 years. Thorium breeder reactors have been experimented with but have technical issues and breed fuel at lower rates than traditional breeder reactors. It is frequently claimed that India has a bunch of successful thorium commercial power reactors. The reality is that India has been trying for decades and still has not developed a commercial thorium reactor.
    Thorium is also not more economical to run. The fuel cycle is more costly and the needed protections for workers, plant safety and the public are considerably more than existing fuels.
    The Germans experimented with a Thorium reactor, the THTR-300. They found even with the thorium reactor there were substantial risks in a loss of coolant event. They also had issues with concrete structures failing due to extremely high heat, fracturing thorium fuel and hot spots in the reactor. There was also a radioactive release into the air due to a malfunction. The reactor was eventually scrapped due to technical problems and costs.
    Another rather silly claim going around is that “thorium is so safe you can handle it with your bare hands!”. Sorry, but you can do the same thing with a uranium fuel pellet.

  • yes but… no. I am not under the impression Thorium is ‘safe’ so much ‘safer’ than a uranium cycle reactor. This is mostly because of the containment issue (ie a breach and loss of pressure simply has far less ‘catastrophic potential’ for a Thorium cycle reactor).