Apr 06, 2012
Does thorium have a future as an alternative to uranium?Back
Cape Town|Africa|Mining|Nuclear|Nuclear Support Group|Safety|Waste|Water|Africa|India|Norway|South Africa|United States|South African Institute Of Mining|Energy|Nuclear|Product|Thorium Technology|Environmental|Bush|Power|Waste|Water|Renewables Technologies|Thorium Technology
© Reuse this
There is a concerted effort to revive the idea of thorium as a better and ‘greener’ alternative to uranium. I would not classify thorium as ‘green’, but the experts tell us that it has four key properties that make it superior to uranium: you need less thorium to produce the same amount of energy, compared with uranium; thorium is more abundant than uranium (three to four times more); thorium cannot be used to make bombs because of its ‘proliferation resistance’ property (except that it does generate fissionable materials, such as U233, and its radioactive waste is said to be less dangerous and has a shorter half-life than uranium waste.
Thorium’s history confirms why it was never an option for atom bombs. There were thorium reactors in the 1950s and 1960s; US and German scientist worked on the reactors. The reactors were actually functional but not commercially available. By and large, these reactor programmes were abandoned for uranium-based reactors because the latter could be used to generate energy and to produce weapons-grade uranium and plutonium.
India has a big thorium reactor programme and seeks to be a leading country in thorium development. You will not hear much about it because it is quite a secret, following a pact India signed with the US during the George W Bush era. India never signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, despite having nuclear bombs, which it actually tested at some point. So, India had to get the US’s nod for it to access critical technology from the Nuclear Support Group for its civilian nuclear programme. India has large deposits of thorium and this explains its urgency to develop thorium technology.
Commercially developed thorium reactors may not be very far off. There are two major developments as far as this story goes: Norway, in partnership with other countries, is racing to develop a commercially viable thorium fuel cycle to replace uranium-enriched rods for current light water reactors with thorium fuel, and India – and perhaps other countries as well – is looking at fourth-generation nuclear reactors as the next revolution in nuclear generation with many more modular formats similar to what we tried for the pebble-bed modular reactor (PBMR).
Norway’s commercialproofing can be done in the next five years at substantially lower costs than those associated with the PBMR. I am not a supporter of nuclear power but, clearly, the Norwegians, who do not even have nuclear power, have worked out a very strategic niche and role for themselves. We should apply their ‘nose’ for strategic niches to the development of cutting-edge renewables technologies.
Our nuclear industry should learn the hard lesson about developing new nuclear technologies: going big, bulky ends up being slow and costly. India’s thorium reactors are still a very long way from being proven. When the Indians decide to be less secretive, they may spring a surprise on us or they may come out clean on how foolhardy their whole endeavour may have been.
From what we know, India is looking at having a fast-breeder thorium reactor of about 300 MW up and ready by 2013 or so. We will wait and see whether this really happens.
South Africa also sits with large deposits of thorium. In fact, we have a mine called Steenkampskraal – which was last operational in the 1950s – which produced some thorium that was probably supplied to the US thorium reactors.
Steenkampskraal is being reopened, but not for thorium production – it has one of the largest deposits of high-grade monazite, an ore that contains generous amounts of thorium and rare-earth oxides (REOs). Monazite is also a waste product of mineral sands mining. So we sit on all of this ‘waste’ which is thought to have great value if commercial use for thorium can be found. This explains the big interest in thorium from the South African side.
The irony is that green technologies which use all sorts of REOs could end up making thorium as an alternative to uranium a viable option. Even digging REOs for green technologies is not without its problems and challenges. This is because an increase in the volumes REOs mined results in an increase in the radioactive waste pile, which goes unnoticed by the environmental lobby linked to the mining or disposal of monazite. I do not know the exact levels of radiotoxicity and the extent of the problem, but it does exist.
I am personally sceptical about thorium for now. I suppose the same things that bug me about nuclear energy would play themselves out in my thought processing of thorium.
These would be issues of waste of public funds, safety, the disposal of radioactive waste and the interest of big money in sucking the public purse for profit. But, as I am a great fan of open-mindedness, I will keep my mind open for now. However, as is always the case, as you go along the journey of discovery, you will find that you have more questions than answers.
Edited by: Martin Zhuwakinyu© Reuse this Comment Guidelines (150 word limit)
Other Saliem Fakir News
Unconventional reserves, unlike cheap conventional sources, remain vulnerable to market conditions, technology and geological characteristics. Transplanting from one country condition to another will always remain a challenge, given the different conditions that...
Updated 3 hours ago A total of 200 000 Johannesburg youths will be given opportunities to either further their education or get job opportunities by 2016, the city's Mayor Mpho Parks Tau said on Wednesday. "The Vulindlel' eJozi programme will enable them to enter work, education and...
Updated 3 hours ago The Department of Public Works (DPW) on Wednesday said it was “moving seamlessly” into the second phase of its turnaround strategy, following the successful implementation of the first phase. “In the first phase, we stabilised the department leading to improved lease...
Updated 3 hours ago The Department of Trade and Industry (the DTI) on Tuesday said 80% of the broad-based black economic empowerment (BBBEE) Codes of Good Practice had been implemented on May 1. In a statement, the DTI said it wanted to “set the record straight” regarding the...
Recent Research Reports
Steel 2015: A review of South Africa's steel sector (PDF Report)
Creamer Media’s Steel 2015 report provides an overview of the key developments in the global steel industry and particularly of South Africa’s steel sector over the past year, including details of production and consumption, as well as the country's primary carbon...
Projects in Progress 2015 - First Edition (PDF Report)
In fact, this edition of Creamer Media’s Projects in Progress 2015 supplement tracks developments taking place under the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme, which has had four bidding rounds. It appears to remain a shining light on the...
Electricity 2015: A review of South Africa's electricity sector (PDF Report)
Creamer Media’s Electricity 2015 report provides an overview of State-owned power utility Eskom and independent power producers, as well as electricity planning, transmission, distribution and the theft thereof, besides other issues.
Construction 2015: A review of South Africa’s construction sector (PDF Report)
Creamer Media’s Construction 2015 Report examines South Africa’s construction industry over the past 12 months. The report provides insight into the business environment; the key participants in the sector; local construction demand; geographic diversification;...
Liquid Fuels 2014 - A review of South Africa's Liquid Fuels sector (PDF Report)
Creamer Media’s Liquid Fuels 2014 Report examines these issues, focusing on the business environment, oil and gas exploration, the country’s feedstock supplies, the development of South Africa’s biofuels industry, fuel pricing, competition in the sector, the...
Water 2014: A review of South Africa's water sector (PDF Report)
Creamer Media’s Water 2014 report considers the aforementioned issues, not only in the South African context, but also in the African and global context, and examines the issues of water and sanitation, water quality and the demand for water, among others.
This Week's Magazine
Mercedes-Benz will launch ten plug-in hybrid models by 2017, says the German automaker’s parent company, Daimler. Following the launch of the S 500 plug-in hybrid, March saw the introduction of the C 350 e, the second model to feature the drive-train concept. Under...
Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson's recent unveiling of something of a road map for an upscaled and accelerated deployment of independent power producer (IPP) capacity has been widely welcomed. Besides plans to accelerate and expand the hitherto successful...
South African Airways (SAA) acting CEO Nico Bezuidenhout has firmly denied reports that a stake in the airline was going to be sold to Air China. “Categorically, SAA is not in any talks with any airline to sell itself at the moment,” he stated at a media briefing at...
Russian State-owned nuclear group Rosatom has confirmed that it is in talks with Nigeria about the construction of nuclear power plants (NPPs) in that country, but has denied that any agreement has been signed. This follows a recent report in the Nigerian media that...
Gas products and services company Afrox has launched a pilot programme to deliver its range of Handigas liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) to domestic consumers to fill a gap in the market, thereby expanding its direct contact with end-users.