The fuel of the future?

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First aired on Quirks & Quarks (15/09/12)


As concern over climate change continues to mount, and evidence of a warming planet continues to build, people are looking for alternatives to fossil fuels to feed our growing need for energy. And one of the alternatives is nuclear power. But especially since the disaster at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in Japan in 2011, nuclear power has lost a bit of its appeal, which was already in decline. In fact, no one has built a nuclear power plant in North America in decades.

But what if nuclear power was safer, greener and more efficient? What if the nuclear reactor couldn't suffer a meltdown? And what if its fuel couldn't be used to arm nuclear weapons? According to supporters of nuclear power, thorium is that fuel, and according to Richard Martin's new book Superfuel, thorium could be the key to fuelling a safe, green future. Martin is a writer based in Boulder, Colorado, who has been following the energy sector for the past two decades. 

In his book, Martin comes across as almost evangelical about the properties of thorium. "I'm one of those people who believes that the way to get to a carbon-free energy economy has to go through nuclear power," Martin said to Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald in a recent interview. "As much as I would love to run our society on wind turbines and solar power, at least for the next 50 years, we're going to need nuclear power to provide baseload electricity without burning fossil fuels."

Martin has long been a supporter of nuclear power. "There are obvious problems with uranium-based nuclear power," he said. "I became familiar with thorium about four years ago, and it was one of those things that seemed too good to be true. The more I investigated it, the more I realized that thorium does offer some real possibilities...It's not a panacea, but it could be a critical part of our energy future."

So what exactly is thorium and how does it differ from uranium? For one thing, the radioactive element is far more abundant than in its more famous cousin uranium — about four times more common, according to Martin.

"It's been said that if you scoop up a handful of sand on a beach in Mumbai, you've got enough thorium in your hand to run the city for a year," said Martin. In addition to being plentiful, it's also safer than uranium, he said. For example, if you crowd enough uranium into a single space, you set off a chain reaction that could potentially result in a nuclear bomb, but that could never happen with thorium. "For thorium to chain-react, it has to be bombarded by an external source of neutrons."

So how can we go about using this dense, safe source of energy? For example, in Canada could we convert our CANDU reactors over to thorium? The short answer is yes. "You can use thorium in those and you'd get the benefits of efficiency gains...the way I put it is that using thorium in conventional reactors would be a big step forward," said Martin. But it's not the perfect solution. "It's kind of like putting biofuel in a Hummer — you're not really capturing the full benefits. To capture the full benefits, you need a new machine."

So thorium is plentiful, easy to handle, efficient and safer: why aren't we using it already? Blame the military industrial complex. Because uranium was being used to develop weapons during the Second World War, uranium became the default radioactive element, as it were, when research turned to nuclear energy after the war. And in North America, the nuclear energy industry is still based on uranium. So is thorium just an idealistic pipe dream? "It's going to happen, it's just not necessarily going to happen in North America first," said Martin. China, for example, is starting to invest heavily in developing thorium reactors. "The way I put it in the book is that the thorium revival is going to happen and it's going to be led by countries like India and China that really desperately need new sources of carbon-free energy. The question is whether countries like Canada and the U.S. are going to be leaders or followers."

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