Most of us are thinking that uranium is the fission fuel and for practical reasons today, that is so. The pluses are raw ore mining, processing and reactors all exist and there is a lot of experience on hand with new technology and innovations coming to produce much more energy. The downside is old technology is still in place and there are evil people who would, given a chance, build terrorist sized dirty bombs or bonafide detonating level fission devices.

Fissionable Periodic Table Segment

Contrasting to this is the “other nuclear fuel.” Sitting by uranium on the periodic table is the element thorium, which is also a fissionable element that releases heat and power to electrical generation sets. Thorium isn’t blessed with raw ore mining, processing and reactors all in place. The stop was from the perception that thorium would be too hard and expensive to come up with for commercial fueling purposes. Even as the U.S. Geological Survey and other have noted that thorium exits at about threefold more than uranium, it was widely disbursed. No stops apply about dirty bombs or detonations when considering thorium.

This month has seen the discovery of a huge deposit in commercially recoverable thorium reserves and has seen the due diligence get into the high confidence zone. The Lemhi Pass District in Idaho is showing a huge deposit. A major reserve holder is Thorium Energy Inc. whose determination to work the geological search after following earlier attempts by Sawyer Petroleum, Union Pacific and Idaho Power Company. Of the small portion of the entire geological structure, Thorium Energy, Inc. claims 600,000 tons of proven thorium oxide with perhaps as much as 1.8 million tons more over the entire landholding. This huge deposit of ore is spread over about 2 square miles of surface area. Other valuable rare earth minerals are also present.

The past year has also seen renewed interest in the Conway Granite formation in New Hampshire. While a lower grade, i.e. a lower proportion of thorium to base rock, the Conway Granite is another huge repository of thorium suitable for fuel use.

Add to these the Japanese low energy technique for recovering heavy metals such as thorium and uranium from seawater, the supply of materials for fissionable fuels is amazing. Not to even consider the deposits already available in known mine deposits, mine tailings, the reprocessing technology and hard truth that uranium hasn’t been prospected for in about 30 years due to the U.S. and Russian Federation’s effort to burn through the materials removed from weapons. The supply of fissionable fuel is abundant, to say it slightly.

Thorium Fuel Rods

Thorium offers other advantages. As a combined fuel with the nastier remnants of old technology uranium fueled reactors, specialized thorium reactor designs can “burn up” much of the worst of the “atomic waste” that exists today and would be formed over the coming years.

The problem facing consumers is the industry is driving forward with its own goals of ever better uranium-fueled reactors. That is fully understandable. The investment needed to cope with the engineering requirements, fabrication and construction of facilities and the enormous financial carrying costs for regulation compliance and special interest delays sucks the capital out from researching and exploiting another huge resource. One day a respectable researcher will run the numbers and tell electricity ratepayers what they pay each month to entertain these outside cost providers.

This all leaves thorium fuel outside of the main effort for energy production. It is likely an error in public policy and popular opinion. The effort to push thorium fuel research will have to come from the U.S. government for research and other incentives to get the engineering resources pointed to a full range of available fuels. The penultimate goal of a non dangerous fuel that is devoid of properties for terrorist threats which offers a lower cost for fuel with a means to dispense with the more dangerous elements on hand now and are coming is goal worth public support.

The opportunity cost isn’t so high. Much of what is needed is known from experience in reactor design now. More opportunity lies in developments beyond light water reactor systems using helium gas or molten salts for conveyance of heat out to generation. A full press effort to increase efficiency will increase add even more power and drive down the rates consumers must pay. Each part of a growth in fissionable power generation offers great economic opportunity and the bulk of the benefits would occur over long periods of time wherever plant installations are sited. The power industry is watching, a nudge from all of us would help.

Maybe I should have titled 10,000 years or even more. In any case, atomic fission has a future and it’s just as bright a public opinion wishes it to be and inversely priced to the effort we’re willing to apply. That means the harder we push the government for more and faster research, licensing and controlling outside pressure and delays, the lower our electricity rates will be.

Some of the best links about thorium as a fuel and other methodologies are at Brian Wang’s site “Next Big Future,” a wide ranging futurist blog also listed in the blog roll in the left column. A site with a lot of current and personal expertise and exceptional personal connections to the leaders in the field is Charles Barton’s “Nuclear Green” where interviews and a much deeper look can be obtained as Charles’ site is strongly oriented to atomic fission. A very strong site that I think is also a Charles Barton effort is “Energy From Thorium” a much more educational type of site and the truth be told, specialized enough to be somewhat over the head of many people. Nevertheless it is worthwhile to give this site a view if only to be assured that you are more capable than first thought and that atomic and nuclear energy are technologies within the grasp of many more people that one might first imagine.

Perhaps the political class will catch up with the knowledgeable of us and realize that there are practical and valuable opportunities in energy and fuels. A quick and solid national commitment to double the fission based electrical power generation output over 10 years would be a worthy goal. Unlike fuels, atomic and nuclear power requires our society to get to a consensus, and that is the task this blog post sets forth to help start. I hope this post and these links will help you help us all.


1 Comment so far

  1. Charles Barton on April 4, 2008 6:35 PM

    Thank you very much for the compliments. “Energy from Thorium” is Kirk Sorensen’s blog. I cross post on Energy from Thorium from Nuclear Green.

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