“Nuclear power and in particular nuclear power produced from thorium needs as much green PR and marketing as wind and solar now.”
My recent blog post on the nuclear question seems to have sparked the interest in a couple of my friends, some of whom are for and some against. I have recently been reading a lot around the idea of using Thorium as a fuel in nuclear reactors, as Professor Al-Khalili briefly touched upon in his documentary. First proposed and designed by the late Alvin Weinberg, the idea for Thorium reactors have been around since the 50′s but were abandoned when it became strategically more desirable to build reactors fuelled by uranium-238, which produces the by product plutonium-239, the primary fissile material used in nuclear weapons. The expediencies of the Cold War won the argument then but they are completely irrelevant in today’s post cold war environment. The new expediency is climate change and in this capacity thorium can and should be allowed to bridge the gap between carbon free energy and the often negative public perception of nuclear power. Below is a quote from the Guardian:
“The idea is to create a new generation of nuclear reactors based on the element thorium, as opposed to the uranium used to produce nuclear power today. Thorium, its advocates claim, is beneficial not only because it’s far more abundant and widely distributed in the Earth’s crust than uranium; in addition, liquid-fluoride thorium reactors (LFTRs) could theoretically be much smaller, much cheaper and much safer than conventional nuclear reactors. The waste they produce would remain dangerous for a far shorter period and, crucially, couldn’t be used to create nuclear weapons. As a bonus, these fourth-generation nuclear plants could even burn up the dangerous plutonium stored in existing nuclear waste stockpiles, using it as a fuel. The Weinberg team is already talking to Sellafield about this idea.”
Having briefly trudged through some of the literature and the nascent website of the Weinberg Foundation, which was formally inaugurated by parliament on 8th Sept 2011, I can see there is a lot to consider and a lot more reading to be done. The project’s green credentials do seem on a good footing though, notably after Friends of the Earth Policy and Campaigns Director, Craig Bennett, wished the Weinberg foundation the best of luck.
There seem to be a whole host of potential sources for carbon free energy sources available to us, ranging from the theoretical to the currently operational. Renewables such as wind and solar and tidal have obvious green appeal and are already in action. But without huge and unprecedented investment and subsidies they will fail to meet demand and shift fossil fuels from their dominant position in the market. Arguably they never will be able to meet the demands of a growing global population. Whilst theoretical, undeveloped or currently uneconomical technologies (such as nuclear fusion or artificial photosynthesis) could prove decisive in producing abundant sources of cheap clean energy to satisfy global demand, they require huge investments in R&D and a lot of patience on behalf of the taxpayers and businesses funding them. Typically this is an unattractive prospect for hard up governments looking for ever more tangible guarantees on their investments.
Enter the liquid fluroide thorium reactor. A different kind of nuclear fuel and one with a whole rack of advantages over its uranium cousins which rely on pressurised light water reactors that are more expensive and more dangerous to run. I will simply link to the Thorium MSR website which explains - albeit onesidedly the pros (and not the cons).
What is needed most of all though is a distinct paradigm shift in our attitude to nuclear (even though recent polls conducted after Fukishima suggest that nuclear remains popular in this country worldwide public support remain on the decline with Germany one of several European nations looking to abandon Nuclear altogether). Nuclear power and in particular nuclear power produced from thorium needs as much green PR and marketing as wind and solar now. Radioactive waste aside, these are carbon free fuels and with the threat of runaway climate change moving away from dirty fuels must surely remain the imperative, even we need to move to an interim source. With time of the essence and a new generation of efficient thorium reactors desperately needed, we surely have to hedge our bets. Intransigence is not an option.