The mineral miracle

The energy source that could save the world

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Nuclear power has garnered a bad reputation, particularly after the Fukushima disaster in 2011 devastated Japan. Meltdowns at the Three Mile Island power plant in the United States in 1979, and at Chernobyl, Ukraine in 1986, among others, helped tinge talk of uranium-based power generation with the hint of impending catastrophe.    

But what if there was a safer, more efficient alternative? At the TEDxBeirut conference in November, which consisted of a series of innovative and thought-provoking presentations, Salim Zwein argued that there is and its name is thorium. 

“Thorium is an element that you find virtually everywhere. In every cubic meter of soil you have one gram of thorium,” said the Lebanese quality-control consultant and engineer in his presentation. He added that the metal is so energy-concentrated that it would only take 6,600 tons to meet global energy needs annually. The World Nuclear Association estimates that there are roughly 4.4 million tons of thorium globally, about three times more abundant than uranium.

What makes this metal so attractive is that it could potentially solve the conventional problems associated with nuclear power — waste management, cost efficiency and safety — while offering a high-quality energy source.

Many like Zwein have argued that thorium is more efficient than uranium. “To produce one gigawatt of electricity, you need one ton of thorium, but 35 tons of uranium.” Plus, he adds, 83 percent of the waste that thorium generates will stabilize in 10 years, and the other 17 percent will stabilize in a few hundred years. Uranium, on the other hand, produces more radioactive waste — less than one percent of the uranium is used in the reactor to create energy — and it  takes 10,000 years to stabilize.

No bang for your buck

Of course, there is no discussion of nuclear energy without bringing up proliferation, or using nuclear power to make weapons. One of the benefits of thorium is that, while it is “not proliferation-proof”, it is significantly more difficult to produce bombs using a thorium-based fuel cycle, according to Zwein.

Thorium is not fissile, meaning that it cannot be used directly as an energy source. Rather, it is fertile and can be transmuted into what is essentially uranium-233, which is considered more efficient than the conventional uranium-235, using a fissile material. But a small uranium “driver” is required to start the thorium fuel cycle, and either the driver or the resulting uranium-233 can be used to make a bomb.

However, the transmutation of thorium also creates other isotopes of uranium, namely uranium-232. These particular isotopes “produce very high quantities of gamma rays,” says Zwein, explaining that this makes it prohibitively difficult to handle compared to traditional enriched uranium-235.

 Moreover, he adds, even if one were to extract the uranium from the reactor while avoiding the uranium-232, the high levels of radiation can still be detected by satellite. The International Atomic Energy Agency keeps a close watch on all nuclear reactors so proliferation at a thorium reactor would not go unnoticed. 

Another advantage thorium has is that its higher melting point of about 500 degrees Celsius means there is less of a chance of meltdown or nuclear disaster than with uranium. 

Why hasn’t it been used?

If thorium is such a wonder, one might ask, then why is it not already a household name in electricity generation? Thorium’s properties were discovered in the 1940s and tested in the 1960s, but it lost the nuclear race to uranium. 

“Scientists were more familiar with plutonium [and uranium] than thorium,” Zwein says. The molten salt reactor, another type of nuclear reactor that arguably would best utilize thorium in generating energy, was like “the strange kid in the room”. Instead, the light water reactor became the dominant choice — the same type of reactor that exploded at Chernobyl and Fukushima. After these catastrophes, Zwein remarks, there was a phobia attached to nuclear power and nobody wanted to finance it further. 

But today, thorium is enjoying something of a revival. In 2008, Kirk Sorenson, a former National Aeronautics and Space Association engineer, rediscovered the experiment from the 1960s plant in Oak Ridge, Wisconsin, and began advocating for the idea around the world. The project to rebuild the molten salt reactor ultimately needs funding for research and development.

Arguably, such a power source seems too good to be true and with such claims come skeptics. The National Nuclear Laboratory at the United Kingdom’s Department of Energy & Climate Change released a report in September that stated: “thorium has theoretical advantages regarding sustainability, reducing radio-toxicity and reducing proliferation risk. While there is some justification for these benefits, they are often overstated.” 

Yet the report still recommended that the UK invest in a small amount of research on thorium, given its rising global popularity. 

Indeed, China has been extremely interested in developing thorium reactors and at the beginning of January, allocated $350 million into the research and development process on thorium.

Prospects for Lebanon?

“I’m dreaming, but I want every single country in the world to participate in investing in this kind of energy,” Zwein says, and Lebanon is no exception. When asked about the likelihood of such a project being tackled in Lebanon, especially in light of the recent hype around the country’s potential billion-dollar offshore oil and gas reserves, he said: “Why not? With oil you have one golden ticket, with thorium you have another. Why not go with both?” 

Lebanon currently needs around 2.5 gigawatts of power to provide countrywide 24-hour electricity. A ton of thorium is thought to be capable of producing a gigawatt of power and depending on market fluctuation, costs between $50,000 to $80,000. The country’s annual fuel costs could be met for a fee of $125,000 to $200,000: significantly less than the $1.45 billion spent on oil by Électricité du Liban from January to August in 2012.

It will be difficult to uproot the stigmas attached to nuclear power in order to cultivate popularity for thorium-based energy. For that, more questions need to be answered, meaning considerable investments of time and money into thorium’s research and development. It may be years before the world sees the first thorium reactor, but it could be the answer to the growing energy crisis.