What is this ‘stuff’ called thorium that I reference in most of my articles? Well it is time to discuss what it is and why I reference it as an energy source for the future of nuclear power technology. It is difficult to explain something technical in layman terms for most to understand. But here goes.
There are four basic chemical elements or isotopes used as nuclear “fuels” found in nature: deuterium, lithium, thorium, and uranium. There is also a fifth nuclear fuel, plutonium that is no longer found in nature because it has completely decayed away. However, it can be produced in a nuclear reactor from uranium. In a previous column I mentioned deuterium as an isotope of hydrogen (heavy water) and its use in a nuclear fusion reaction. The isotope deuterium is also one of the minerals found in non-distilled drinking water and to clarify, there is no health risk in its normal density. Then there is lithium, also used in a nuclear fusion reaction and an element everyone should be aware of. It’s used in the batteries for your cell phones and other electronic devices. I will write about safe and normal radiation exposure in a future article.
Most everyone has heard something about uranium but what is thorium? Thorium is a radioactive mineral element (basically a rock) that can be used to generate large quantities of non-carbon electricity. Compared to the uranium that powers today’s nuclear plants, thorium is 4 times more abundant and widely distributed in the Earth’s crust, which means that every country has some (no planetary boundary). Thorium can be used as a solid fuel or a liquid fuel (in a molten salt). In it’s liquid state, a thorium fuelled reactor can consume up to 99% of the thorium fuel with a small amount of actinides (unused elements) remaining for a short time period, and most importantly, are not useful for making nuclear weapons. In addition, thorium fuelled molten salt reactors could be used to consume the generated plutonium stored in existing nuclear waste stockpiles as a fuel source instead of burying it underground.
Thorium is a radioactive element with a half-life of about 14 billion years which means that its decay chain is so slow that we can handle it with our bare hands without health risk. Thorium (Th-232) is fertile which means it can not fission in a nuclear reactor or be used for bomb making material (no boom!). However, there is a controlled way to transmute Th-232 with a neutron to split the atom, resulting in an isotope of uranium, U-233, which is fissile. It is the U-233 that would actually fissions in a thorium molten salt nuclear reactor to create heat, extremely stable very hot heat producing more energy for more industrial uses than today’s nuclear reactors.
The basic reason we should think very seriously about nuclear power is because of the structure of matter itself. Matter is composed of a nucleus, a very dense material of protons and neutrons, and these very small electrons that orbit the nucleus like the planets orbit the sun. All of the energy, with a very few exceptions, that we use on earth today is based on re-arranging these electrons (chemical energy) and protons (nuclear energy) in all the existing fuel forms that you are familiar with. The atom will provide us with an unlimited energy source.
Okay, that is the end of this detail eye quivering technical stuff for this article. The take away to remember is the name thorium. It will become a household word one of these days like uranium did for the last generation, except under a more positive reliable light.
Bonus Video: http://www.egeneration.org/why-arent-we-using-this/