Thorium as a Nuclear Fuel

By The Daily Reckoning | More Articles by The Daily Reckoning

If you’re mining mineral sands, Thorium is a no-go because of its radioactivity. But what if you’re building nuclear plants to generate electricity for the modern world and are looking for a substitute for uranium? Thorium may just fit the bill nicely.

In a report published in September of 2007, the Parliament of Australia looked at Thorium as a nuclear fuel and briefly explored the potential for a Thorium producing industry in Australia. The executive summary of the report made the following conclusions:

• Thorium can be used in a new generation of nuclear reactors as an alternative source of fuel for the generation of electricity
• A Thorium-based fuel cycle is more proliferation resistant than conventional uranium-based reactors
• A Thorium-based fuel cycle is more energy efficient than conventional uranium-based reactors
• Thorium is abundant in Australia
• There are still technical issues needing resolution before a thorium-based fuel cycle can become common.
• The last two points are probably the most important. Without getting into gory detail about the Thorium-based nuclear fuel cycle, let’s just say it’s possible and promising but challenging. It is also going to be necessary before too much longer.

"Of the 439 nuclear power plants in the world today, 70 per cent are more than 20 years old," reports Sam Knight in the May 31st issue of the Financial Times. "While global electricity demand grew by more than 60 per cent from 1980 to 2004, the number of new nuclear reactors being built halved every 10 years.

"There are political and environmental reasons for the decline of nuclear power as a source of electricity. But there are practical and economic reasons to expect its resurgence. One big reason is global electricity demand. World electricity demand is forecast to double by 2030-yet 25% of all existing power plants (natural gas and coal) are scheduled for replacement by then.

If you having rising total demand and ageing fleet of power plants that run on coal and natural gas, how will you make up the difference? For the developed world-which does not have an abundance of conventional hydrocarbons or cannot afford them-nuclear is a sensible, reliable, long-term alternative.

That is why India is trying to quintuple its nuclear capacity in the next twelve years. China already has 11 working reactors, but wants at least ten times that number to get away from coal and keep its economy booming.

Nuclear Waste and Unleaded Fuel

The obvious trouble with the nuclear industry is toxic waste and proliferation. Where do you put the radioactive nuclear fuel when you’re done with it?

It’s not like it’s going anywhere. And how do you keep nuclear fuel out of the hands of nations who want to weaponise it? Thorium may play a role in solving both problems. A U.S.-based outfit named Thorium Power (OTC:THPW) has spent the last ten years working on a Thorium-based reactor fuel that produces 70% less nuclear waste and no by-product that can be weaponised. The company’s CEO compares the state of the nuclear industry to the state of the fuel industry for cars before unleaded petrol. He thinks his company can produce a kind of unleaded nuclear petrol and change the economics and politics of nuclear power.

Making Thorium work on a commercial scale is complicated (far beyond the bounds of this letter). But I thought I’d mention it because it’s an avenue Australia’s mineral sands producers may have open to them in a few years. Thorium would go from being a toxic by product of zircon and rutile production, to a commercial product all its own.

According to GeoScience Australia, Australia has monazite resources of 5.2 million tonnes. With an estimated Thorium content of 7%, that gives Australia a Thorium resource of around 364,000 tonnes. Nolan’s Bore-the location of Arafura’s REO operations-is a Thorium hot bed.

We’re way ahead of the curve on this one. But keep an eye on Thorium. We’ll be keeping an eye on any Aussie companies who accidentally or deliberately have a lot of Thorium. If a commercial market develops in the next few years, you could see another nuclear boom like Uranium.