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Thorium: safe nuclear fuel of the future?

  Rick's interview with Kirk Sorensen about a nuclear fuel that is relatively clean and safe -- a material called thorium -- was replayed on our August 4/7 program.  When we first aired it, we had a number of emails.  Here are a few excerpts from them. New letters, Links to an Indian news report on that country's thorium project and a report on China's thorium program are below.

John Archibald Law Robertson of Deep River, Ontario tells us:

For Thursday's broadcast of Dispatches you did not need to go to the U.S. to learn of the potential of thorium as a nuclear fuel. In 1978, as a scientist with Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) I published:

"The good neutron economy of (Canadian) CANDU reactors permits them to exploit a thorium fuel cycle that is exceptionally efficient in its use of nuclear fuel. This ability to switch when necessary to a more conserving fuel cycle without having to develop a completely new reactor system, such as the fast breeder, is another very attractive feature of the CANDU reactor system."(The CANDU Reactor System: An Appropriate Technology, Science, Vol. 199, 10 Feb. 1978, pp. 657-664.)

And I provided a detailed reference to substantiate the claim.

In a CANDU reactor the present fuel, uranium oxide, would be replaced by a similar ceramic, thorium oxide. In-reactor tests by AECL, before I retired in 1985, demonstrated that the performance of the two is very similar.

The simple reason that thorium is not yet being exploited is that as long as uranium is at its present price it produces electricity at a lower cost.

Bryan Lokstet of Calgary adds:

It sounds like the final nail in the coffin for the liquid thorium reactor is that it did not produce a viable weapon-grade byproduct to aid the US military's development of nuclear warheads. It seems the legacy of the nuclear arms race still haunts us to this day.

Martin Golder of  Victoria confirms that.

While researching this subject a few years ago I came across a statement that I didn't hear in your program.  The only reason that this process was not chosen as the preferred nuclear power source was because it produced no weapons grade fuel.

Daniel Donaldson of Toronto adds:

I have only the highest esteem for Mr McInnes-Rae as a journalist. But my estimation rose with your segment on LFTR (liquid fluoride thorium reactor) with Kirk Sorensen.

I was a life-long anti-nuclear advocate, but about three years ago I read about the incredible promise that the technology Mr Sorensen advocates for. I've spent many hours searching for the downsides of this technology, and I haven't found a compelling argument against yet.

Yet, my searches have also failed to turn up much of anything in the press or media about Thorium. Your program is one of the first I've heard to focus on this enormously promising possible future.

Canada, with its history of nuclear engineering, including a focus on approaches different from the US mainstream, and huge Thorium reserves;to say nothing of the shameful despolation of the Tar Sands should be a world leader in this technology. Perhaps your piece will catch the ear of someone in Ottawa or AECL who will show some intellectual curiosity, and perhaps a little courage, and put us on this path.

Thanks again.

Wayne Liston of Vancouver wrote about a report from China that appeared since our interview with Kirk Sorensen:

Rick, I am disappointed that your story appeared to ignore the major Chinese commitment to develope a thorium molten salt reactor (headed by Jian Xemin's American educated PHd son) which was announced earlier this year. They have since made clear that this will be an independent project and they will retain all intellectual property rights.

 As thorium is a by-product of rare earth production over which the Chinese have a near monopoly at the moment, they have huge stocks -- partly due to their success in selling the west the neodymium magnets for the windmills we buy from them.

China's thorium reactor initiative  (This announcement came after Rick's original interview with Kirk.) 

Watch An NDTV report on an experimental thorium reactor in India.


Kai Millyard of Toronto disagees with the thorium advocates.

Hi there,

You've done a lot of great work, Rick, but on the thorium business you've allowed yourself to be seriously misled by nuclear advocates.  Thorium is not in any way a replacement for uranium.  It requires uranium (or worse plutonium) to contribute as a nuclear fuel.  A conversation with Dr Gordon Edwards from Montreal would lend a lot of balance.  Here's a dispatch from his I recently recieved:

Hi Norm et al:

About thorium reactors. My mind is open -- just a crack, as you say, Norm.

But we all have to realize that these guys are, with missionary zeal,
trying to sell thorium just the way the original LWR's were sold, by magnifying
the advantages and minimizing the disadvantages.  If you take a look at this
page on thorium research around the world from the World Nuclear Association

http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/inf62.html  [dated March 2011]

you will see that the various thorium schemes are very much in the context of
breeder reactors -- and the most practical schemes require either plutonium or
HEU as a driver fuel, leading to lots of interesting weapons proliferation possibilities.

Thorium reactors are not really seen as a substitute for anything else, but just
one more reactor in a fleet of reactors of many different kinds that will keep the
public and decision-makers at bay -- whenever anything goes wrong with
one model, they'll say "yeah, but look at all the other models we have!"  I am
a total skeptic to any proponent who says that the thorium reactors are going
to make other breeder concepts obsolete.  They are either lying or they have
bubbles in their brains.  Almost all thorium concepts REQUIRE other reactors.

I still think that any technology which routinely mass-produces huge quantities of highly toxic and long-lived poisons is fundamentally crazy.  What happens to a thorium reactor when a bunker buster bomb hits it?

So although I recognize there are numerous intriguing points about thorium, and although I recognize that within the spectrum of breeder reactors thorium offers some clear advantages, I still think the whole damn thing is going very much in the wrong direction -- particularly when you realize that it is going to be the General Groves types that will be making the hard decisions rather than the Albert Einstein types.

I am convinced that the world cannot allow the nuclear industry to progress to the breeder stage -- the only stage where throium reactors make any sense.

If you look on the ccnr website at these two 1978 items:



you will see that I have been dealing with the thorium question for over 30 years.  I think it's a sucker's game -- just another way to lull people into thinking that reprocessing is OK if it serves a larger purpose.

And, by the way, another admission of the wrongheadedness of nuclear power as presented to the public from day one, for it's all based on the fact that uranium is a non-renewable resource which cannot possibly lead to sustainable energy production without advanced fuel cycles and ( I firmly believe) reprocessing.

And by the way, another admission that they have no intentions of burying high level radioactive waste (irradiated nuclear fuel) in some "underground repository" without first building a reprocessing plant there.

But I am happy to discuss any and all aspects of the subject, it's important to stay alert.


P.S. It may be that, one day, after all the power reactors have been shut down and folks have weaned themselves off of nuclear power, some version of these concepts may be useful for waste management purposes. But not now! To do it now would just be unleashing the dogs of nuclear expansionism, leading to a mad flurry of activity that the whole world will end up regrettiing. IMHO.



Peter Shephered sent us a copy of Dr. Edwards email as well, and a cc of a note from Derek Paul to Dr. Edwards:

 Dear Gordon,

    The thorium cycle is the logical follow-on to a successful uranium cycle in which the main problem is that uranium fuel has become to scarce (and expensive). I heard as much from the mouth of WB Lewis himself in private conversations, who saw the thorium cycle as being able to provide the world with nuclear power for 4,000 years.

     If the uranium reactors are unsuccessful, then there can be no logic whatever to continue into the thorium cycle. The argument that thorium reactors would be safer is currently being used to fool people into believing that the radioactive waste would be safer. [Many people do not realise that the activity of nuclear high-level waste is proportional to the total electrical energy generated.] One argument put forward in favour of thorium is that the high-level waste would be OK after about 500 years, whereas, the plutonium 239 in uranium reactor waste would go on purifying itself isotopically for 20,000 years and would be a hazard for much longer (as if anyone wanting to proliferate nuclear weapons in the year 22,000 AD is going to know where to look for the spent fuel after 20,000 years!).

     The problem we face, however, is the next 80 years, which is the period during which the whole of civilization could most easily collapse and, if it is to survive, it will not be because of the choice of thorium, as against uranium reactors. If we are successful at saving civilization, it will be through addressing climate change; the success of renewable energy; assisting in restraining population growth by making family planning freely available worldwide wherever people want it, and by paying full attention to the health and needs of women and children worldwide; paying full attention to conservation and biodiversity; replacing new urban sprawl by planned neighborhoods integrated with new transportation modes, some perhaps not even thought of yet; limiting tree cutting to what will leave enough standing for future years (sustainable cutting is hugely exceeded at present); and implementing a number of other crucial measures omitted here for brevity's sake, though I recommend Annie Leonard's The Story of Stuff, which is highly relevant.

     To answer the thorium cycle promoters, the message of Energy Vision must surely be that the radioactive waste will be fully as objectionable from a thorium cycle as from uranium, and will pose exactly the hazards we now face when trying to deal with the waste from our present reactors, and all the other objections to nuclear power would be essentially unchanged.

Best regards,
Derek Paul


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