A thorium reactor is a form of nuclear energy, proposed for use as a molten salt reactor. It is fueled by the uranium-233 isotope that is taken from the element thorium. Thorium is weakly radioactive, has a high melting point, and is available with more abundance than uranium as an element. It was first discovered in 1829 by Morten Thrane Esmark, an amateur mineralogist from Norway.
The primary advantage of a thorium reactor is that it is extremely friendly to the environment. When operating, it produces zero greenhouse gas emissions. There is minimal pollution, despite the slightly radioactive nature of the element and its unstable nature.
As for the primary disadvantage of a thorium reactor, the toxic and radioactive elements must be properly handled to create the zero-pollution footprint. It creates a molten salt mixture that is highly corrosive. The materials used to process these materials must be able to withstand its harshness.
Here are some additional key points to think about when looking at the pros and cons of a thorium reactor.
List of the Pros of a Thorium Reactor
1. It eliminates the threat of nuclear weapons.
Although a standard thorium reactor is fueled uranium-233 isotope, there is no need for uranium enrichment with this technology. That means the malicious step to modify energy fuel into a nuclear weapon goes away with this technology. There would be fewer comparisons with these facilities operational about which leader has the bigger button to push. When irradiated, thorium produces uranium-232 initially and that disrupts the reaction process for current nuclear weapon technologies.
2. It comes from a plentiful supply.
Thorium is believed to have at least 3 times more availability than uranium. That would provide the world with enough fuel to power reactors with this element for several centuries. Future generations would be able to benefit from this technology and it would be able to fuel innovation in many different industries because the threat of a power shortage would be effectively eliminated. In the U.S., there is an estimated supply of thorium that could meet current energy needs for the next 1,000 years.
3. It is a technology that can be mass-produced.
Although thorium reactors have a high initial start-up cost, those costs can be reduced with proper manufacturing techniques. Copenhagen Atomics believes that thorium reactors could be produced on an assembly line. Their waste burner design, for example, is small enough that it can fit inside a standard shipping container.
4. It eliminates the threat of nuclear waste.
One of the unique benefits of a thorium reactor is that it can be mixed with current nuclear wastes that are produced. That means the waste products that are currently in storage could be used again as a power source. At the same time, when thorium is added to current nuclear waste, the storage time for the waste is reduced. Current estimates for nuclear storage are up to 100,000 years of maintenance. With thorium waste, the estimated time is just 300 years.
5. It produces high levels of energy.
A thorium reactor can produce efficiency levels as high as 98%. Current nuclear technologies can achieve an efficiency rate of about 5% with its fuel. That means thorium energy has the potential to produce more energy than any current traditional fossil-fuel based option, current nuclear technologies, and renewable power resources.
6. It eliminates the safety concerns of traditional nuclear power.
Thorium reactors have a unique ability to self-regulate their temperature levels. Should the reactor overheat for some reason, then the reaction that is generated begins to slow down on its own. At the same time, thorium reactors operate at standard atmospheric pressures, eliminating the need to have pressurized water. That reduces the risks of steam-based incidents. The fuel for molten salt reactors is already in a liquid form as well, so the threat of a meltdown emergency is eliminated.
7. It offers the potential to reduce war and eliminate poverty.
The potential of a thorium reactor is this: it could provide enough clean energy for every person, community, and nation on our planet. With increased resource access, poverty could be reduced, security threats could be reduced, and there would be a greater chance for peace. Thorium could even be created through the incineration of weapons-grade plutonium that is currently installed on warheads globally, which would further reduce the threat of a nuclear Armageddon from occurring.
8. Storage costs for spent fuel would be reduced.
The use of thorium reactors instead of traditional nuclear reactors would eliminate the need for large-scale storage of spent fuel. It may also reduce the need for long-term storage as the technology for reusing fuels is improved. Some estimate that the threat of hazardous waste from a thorium reactor will be 1,000 times less than comparable uranium-based technologies that are currently in use.
9. It is a highly efficient technology compared to fossil-fuel power generation.
The benefit of a thorium reactor is that just one ton of this element can produce as much energy as an estimated 200 tons of uranium. Yet, when thorium is compared to coal-fired power plants, the difference is much greater. One ton of thorium can create the same amount of energy as 3.5 million tons of coal. To put that into perspective, coal currently creates about 40% of the electrical power produced in the U.S. and about 60% of the electrical power produced in China.
10. Thorium is safer to mine.
Thorium ore is generally found in higher concentrations when compared to uranium ore in its respective natural states. That means mining is more efficient and would be potentially safer and less costly. Pit mining is possible with thorium, which eliminates the threat of high radon levels that can sometimes be found in uranium mines.
List of the Cons of a Thorium Reactor
1. There is no current infrastructure to support thorium use.
In the United States, thorium research has been on the back burner for more than 30 years. No country in the world today has an approval agency that is ready to approve the current designs that are available for a thorium reactor. This includes the molten salt reactor designs that are available. Many nations do not even have the knowledge base necessary to create an approval agency in the first place.
2. The start-up process could be lengthy and costly.
Because there is not an infrastructure in place to support thorium technologies, the cost of start-up would need to include the cost to implement administrative oversight of this technology. In 2004, the proposed cost for a new prototype system in the United States were listed as being “less than $1 billion” with operational costs of about $100 million per year. Because this is a technology not in play right now, many of the anticipated costs are only speculative and could be much higher.
3. Not every thorium design is self-sustaining.
Although thorium reactors would create up to two orders of magnitude less in nuclear waste, not every reactor can produce as much fissile material as it consumes while generating energy. Some reactor designs required the addition of new fissile materials, such as plutonium, to maintain production levels. That reduces many of the benefits that a thorium reactor is able to deliver once it becomes operational.
4. The fissile materials created by a thorium reactor provide different dangers.
A standard thorium reactor would use irradiated thorium to produce energy. When thorium is irradiated, it creates uranium-232. This material produces high levels of dangerous gamma rays, even if certain nuclear threats are eliminated. If molten salts are not used and uranium-233 is preferred, then the fuel can be used in nuclear weapons, which eliminates the purpose of transitioning to this technology for many in the first place.
5. It costs more.
Thorium reactors have a higher cost of fuel fabrication compared to traditional nuclear technologies. Standard fuel rods may have storage challenges and costs that must be met, but with current technology, it is still cheaper to generate power on fuel rods than it is to provide molten salts or irradiated thorium for energy production.
6. Research into thorium energy is politically restricted.
Although thorium research has occurred in Germany, Denmark, the U.S., and other locations, only India and China are actively pursuing this technology with an intent to utilize it in the near future. India, for example, forecasts that they could produce up to 30% of their projected power needs with the implementation of thorium reactor technologies by 2050. Part of the reason for this is that traditional nuclear technologies are still functional and much cheaper. There is no risk of having zero payoff occur like a thorium reactor creates.
These thorium reactor pros and cons prove that there is a lot of potential in this technology. For countries with nuclear capabilities, starting or reopening the research into the various methods of fueling a thorium reactor may be somewhat costly, but could also be life-changing to future generations. If the negatives of this technology can be appropriately managed, this type of reactor could be the future of power on planet Earth.