Thorium is an alternative to uranium as a way of doing nuclear fission.
Although the chemical element thorium sounds like the kind of material used as a plot device in a comic book blockbuster, it could solve the fuel crisis in the real world.
Thorium is being hailed as the key in the bid to find safer and more sustainable sources of nuclear energy to provide our electricity. And just like in a Hollywood movie, the race is on to be the first to fully harness that power.
Named after Norse god (and Marvel comic book hero) Thor by the Swedish chemist who identified it in 1828, thorium has taken almost 200 years to be taken seriously as an energy contender.
After a period in the 1950s and 1960s in which it flirted with thorium, the US government shut down its research into the radioactive element, preferring to go the uranium route. Critics say thorium was pushed aside because uranium was an easier component for nuclear weapons. But times have changed, and thorium’s status as a safer alternative to uranium is now a help, not the hindrance it was during the Cold War.
India, which has hundreds of thousands of tonnes of the metal amid its terrain, has announced plans to build a thorium-based nuclear reactor by 2016.
But it faces competition from China, where the schedule to deliver a thorium-based nuclear power plant was recently overhauled, meaning scientists in Shanghai have been told to deliver such a facility within the next ten years.
While thorium nuclear exploration is not new – Britain had its own reactor in Dorset carrying out tests 40 years ago – the will to make it a viable energy source is growing stronger.
Professor Roger Barlow from the University of Huddersfield is part of a team researching thorium power generation.
‘Thorium is an alternative to uranium as a way of doing nuclear fission,’ he told Metro. He said thorium is safer because an overheating thorium reactor can be simply switched off, avoiding the problem that occurred at Fukushima, for instance.
Thorium also produces less radioactive waste than uranium, waste which needs to be secured for hundreds rather than tens of thousands of years. He added that it is extremely difficult to weaponise.
Thorium is not fissile, meaning it cannot be split to release energy alone, but when exposed to neutrons it will react to produce a particular isotope of uranium (U-233) that becomes the nuclear fuel. Proponents say this is less dangerous and produces less waste than the usual uranium power plant reaction that generates plutonium, which can be used to make weapons.
But who will be the first across the line in the thorium race?
‘The Chinese have thrown a lot of resources at it,’ said Prof Barlow. ‘I don’t know if they’ll succeed or not. They know they’ve got a large population and as their standard of living improves, people are going to want more and more energy. Although they’re building lots of coal fired power stations, they’re also looking at other ways of generating power.’
Thorium is not without its critics, who point to its nuclear reaction producing U-232, the decay products of which contain gamma radiation. And many supporters of green energy believe the nuclear equation should be abandoned, not solved.
But Prof Barlow thinks those campaigning solely for alternative energy sources such as wind and solar are missing the bigger picture.
‘If you’re trying to move to a low-carbon fuel economy, you need a whole basket of measures,’ he said. ‘And nuclear power has got to be part of that basket.’