What is thorium and why is it playing a role in the nuclear debate?

27 March 2012

Question

What is thorium and why is it playing a role in the nuclear debate?

Answer

Eric - Thorium is element 90. It's about 3 times more abundant than uranium. Thorium, if you put it inside a nuclear reactor, will absorb a neutron and turn it to uranium-233 and then that becomes a fuel. Ben - So, it could be a useful thing to put into a nuclear reactor if we can get it to absorb those neutrons, if we can get it to play a part. Would it be safer? Would it be more useful or are the by-products less harmful? Eric - I think we have to look at it from a resource standpoint since it's 3 times more abundant than uranium, it provides another energy input, so we have to provide a catalyst to turn that thorium into something that could be fissioned to break in half and that catalyst becomes a neutron. So from a safety standpoint, from a waste standpoint, I really don't see - you know, if you look at 10,000 feet, any real difference between the thorium or uranium cycle. Ben - So it's perhaps not the panacea that the internet seems to claim that it is? Eric - Well, I think if you had a chance to read Sir David King's SSEE Report towards a low carbon pathway, he talks about moving to a decarbonised society with more nuclear power and has discussions that there isn't enough uranium and so, that's where thorium can provide that extra element.

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