Sunday, September 5, 2010

Is this the magical energy solution?

I've never heard of thorium, a naturally occurring, slightly radioactive metal. It is estimated to be about three to four times more abundant than uranium in the Earth's crust. It is abundant and cheap.

Nobel laureate Carlo Rubbia at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research), The Telegraph reports, says a tonne of the silvery metal – named after the Norse god of thunder, who also gave us Thor’s day or Thursday - produces as much energy as 200 tonnes of uranium, or 3,500,000 tonnes of coal. A mere fistful would light London for a week.
"It’s the Big One," said Kirk Sorensen, a former NASA rocket engineer and now chief nuclear technologist at Teledyne Brown Engineering. "Once you start looking more closely, it blows your mind away. You can run civilisation on thorium for hundreds of thousands of years, and it’s essentially free. You don’t have to deal with uranium cartels."
Thorium eats its own hazardous waste. It can even scavenge the plutonium left by uranium reactors, acting as an eco-cleaner. And there's lots of it lying around: The U.S. and Australia are full of the stuff. So are the granite rocks of Cornwall.

So why haven't we tried to use it yet, relying instead on uranium? Turns out that the U.S. need to build an atomic bomb made uranium the choice. Now the impediment is vested interests in uranium: too much infrastructure in place.

Thorium-fluoride reactors can operate at atmospheric temperature. The plants would be much smaller and less expensive. You wouldn’t need those huge containment domes because there’s no pressurized water in the reactor.

There's hope.
The Norwegian group Aker Solutions has bought Dr Rubbia’s patent for the thorium fuel-cycle, and is working on his design for a proton accelerator at its UK operation. Victoria Ashley, the project manager, said it could lead to a network of pint-sized 600MW reactors that are lodged underground, can supply small grids, and do not require a safety citadel.

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