Is Thorium the right choice for our energy future?

by Jasmina Nikoloska

The question on what our energy future should be based on  is complex.

Currently one of  the biggest environmental concern  is global warming and therefore investing in renewables and sustainable energy sources is reasonable, but could we meet our energy needs without nuclear?

German MPs recently voted 513-79 in favour of renewables, approving plans to shut down the country’s nuclear plants by 2022.

After Fukushima disaster Germany shut down instantly eight of the older reactors but remaining nine reactors will be shut down in stages by the end of 2022.

Their ambition is to double the share of energy stemming from water, wind, sun or biogas to at least 35%.

Some argue that that  if we back up from  nuclear, it would be in favour of the coal, which will directly affect with more CO2 emissions and  more global warming.

According to the latest figures published by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), a growth trend of renewables is not strong as it would need to be but unfortunately the use of coal increased for 7%.

With eight new nuclear sites revealed, Managing Radioactive Waste Safely Programme updated and consultation document on  the way on  how potential sites for geological nuclear disposal will be identified and  assessed, it is more than obvious that Britain  is pushing ahead  its nuclear plans.

The Chinese National Academy’s ultimate target is to develop a wholly new nuclear system that will be the future of advanced nuclear fission energy – a nuclear energy, thorium-based molten salt reactor system – Future nuclear technology with thorium?

Thorium - 350

Thorium - 350

India is presently further ahead than any other country in the development of the thorium fuel cycle, but even so the R&D has only progressed on  a relatively small scale.

As with India, Norway’s interest in thorium is because of the indigenous reserves and it is therefore clear why the level of investment and  recent interest has been shown.

For a country such as the UK, with neither thorium or uranium reserves, the incentive for thorium is much reduced, as in both cases it would remain dependent on overseas suppliers.

The thorium fuel cycle presents an alternative option  to the usual uranium plutonium fuel cycle that has long been advocated and researched, but which has yet to be adopted on a commercial scale.

The thorium fuel cycle is claimed to be advantageous in several respects, one of which is that it generates very low quantities of transuranic materials, including plutonium.

Although it is thought  that radioactivity reduction could be significant, still more realistic studies which take account of the effect of U-235 or Pu-239 seed fuels required to breed  the U-233 suggest the benefits are more modest.

Based on National Nuclear Laboratory’s (NNL) knowledge and experience of introducing new fuels into modern reactors, it is estimated that this is likely to take 10 to 15 years even with a concerted R&D effort and investment before the thorium fuel cycle could be established in current reactors and much longer for any future reactor systems.

While the thorium fuel cycle is theoretically capable of being self-sustainable, this is only achievable with full recycle.

According to the NNL economic benefits are theoretically achievable by using thorium fuels, in current market conditions the position is marginal and insufficient to justify major investment.

The conclusion of the NNL’s paper is that the thorium fuel cycle does not currently have a role to play in the UK context, other than  its potential application for plutonium  management in the medium to long term.

With the world’s population due to hit nine billion by 2050, it is unlikely that the pressure to reduce energy consumption is possible therefore we have to highlight every potential energy source.

On the other hand I can see a good point in the Jean McSorley’s, statement, senior consultant for Greenpeace’s nuclear campaign.

“Even if thorium technology does progress to the point where it might be commercially viable, it will face the same problems as conventional nuclear: it is not renewable or sustainable and cannot effectively connect to smart grids. The technology is not tried and tested, and none of the main players is interested. Thorium reactors are no more than a distraction”.

 

You can see the report here: 2010 National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) report (PDF)

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