Thorium as a Climate Solution
By Josie Kelpsas
You’ve probably heard of Uranium 235, an isotope of Uranium viable for energy production.
Have you heard of another potential element that could power reactors of its own? This mysterious element is more abundant than Uranium, but can it be used successfully on the path towards clean energy?
Something you walk on every single day has immense untapped opportunity in the energy sector. At a concentration of about 6 ppm in soil, Thorium has the potential to be turned into fuels and used just like Uranium in the progression to clean energy.
Although not directly translatable into fuel, like fissile Uranium, Thorium must be combined with other elements or transformed to be useful as fuel. In its natural form, Thorium 232 is able to absorb a neutron and become Uranium 233. This is more similar to the process of using other Uranium isotopes other than 235 where the transmuted element is the element used in energy Production.
A major plus to Thorium 232 as compared to Uranium 235 is the byproducts emitted after the reaction takes place. In a typical Uranium reactor, Uranium 238 (a larger isotope) is emitted which could eventually become other elements like plutonium. This is the main concern in terms of nuclear waste in the long game; how will these elements which are toxic to humans effect us in 10, 100, or even 1000+ years? Well, the Thorium reaction eliminates this byproduct completely.
The upkeep of maintaining the neutron-Thorium reaction is the only real issue with this method of production. Thorium 232 needs to continue to react with a neutron source to maintain a chemical reaction that produces the fissile element. Therefore, something that is already fissile must be present at all times. This includes Uranium 235 as well as Uranium 233. Designing a process which limites neutron loss and optimizes most of the other parts of the energy collection is essential to promote the effectiveness of this Thorium reaction.
Currently, there are five distinct reactor designs that are able to use this Thorium as fuel. This differs as compared to the majority of Uranium reactors in the world, which are all mostly thermal-neutron reactors. Alongside the five already being used for Thorium, there are two which are still in their design and perfect phase. This indicates that there may be more research and thought that could be put into these Thorium reactors to further ensure safety and efficiency in the process.
A leading country in this Thorium production is actually India. As the third-largest renewable energy focused country, this isn’t incredibly surprising. Considering the fact that estimates claim
Uranium supplies will run low within the next 100 years, determining if Thorium is the answer to replace nuclear reactors must be a priority. Either way, renewable energy is the future. Without it, global warming will continue to wreak havoc on the Earth as we know it. Maybe digging holes to the center of the earth to harness the geothermal energy of the core is the answer, although all of that displaced dirt would have a massive stockpile of Thorium and it would be awful to waste it.