Nuclear energy use is growing and will be a huge part of future power production. Environmentalists have mixed opinions about nuclear energy. On one hand nuclear power is potentially dangerous energy source with the problem of storing radioactive waste. On the other hand, nuclear power is a sustainable energy source, reduces carbon emissions, produces no greenhouse gases and decreases dependence on foreign oil.
Both sides of the arguments are valid and the drawbacks must be considered along with the benefits. But what if a nuclear reactor could be built that offered no possibility of a meltdown, generated its power inexpensively, created no weapons-grade by-products, and burnt up existing high-level waste as well as old nuclear weapon stockpiles? It may sound too good to be true, but such a reactor is indeed possible, and a number of teams around the world are now working to make it a reality. What makes this incredible reactor so different is its fuel source: thorium. And many are optimistic that thorium could be the key to unlocking a new generation of clean and safe power.
Thorium promises what Uranium could never deliver – an abundant, safe and clean energy. India, having about 25% of the world’s thorium reserves, has planned its nuclear power program to eventually use thorium exclusively, phasing out uranium as a feed stock. They believe it to be the “fuel of the future.” Norway also has large deposits of thorium and has recently been debating whether to focus on thorium plants.
Thorium has another remarkable property. Add plutonium to the mix – or any other radioactive actinide – and the thorium fuel process will actually incinerate these elements. That’s right: it will chew up old nuclear waste as part of the power-generation process. It could not only generate power, but also act as a waste disposal plant for some of humanity’s most heinous toxic waste. So thorium might just be able to kill two birds with one stone. Not only does a thorium-fueled reactor produce significantly less high-level waste, but it can also dispose of the decommissioned nuclear weapons and highly radioactive waste from nuclear reactors using more conventional fuels. Oh yes, it can also generate electricity and is estimated to be 10 times cheaper than current nuclear energy production.
There is three times as much thorium in the Earth’s crust as uranium (thorium is about as abundant as lead), and much of it is easily accessible, such as in the monazite beach sands lying on the shores of southern India and Brazil. Apart from its abundance, thorium has other advantages over uranium, a major one being that all of the mined thorium is usable in a nuclear reactor, whereas only 0.7% of natural uranium is the fissionable U-235 isotope. After all the factors are considered, a unit mass of thorium contains about 40 times as much available energy as compared with uranium.
One company that has already begun developing thorium-fueled nuclear power is the aptly named Thorium Power (THPW), based just outside Washington DC. Thorium Power is a nuclear energy pioneer and the leading developer of thorium-based nuclear fuels. They are producing technology to overcome the main drawback to thorium, which is the fact that it is not vigorously fissile, and it needs a source of neutrons to kick off the reaction. Unlike enriched uranium, which can be left to its own devices to start producing power, thorium needs a bit of coaxing. The way Thorium Power gets around the sub-criticality of thorium is to create mixed fuels using a combination of enriched uranium, plutonium and thorium.
At the center of the fuel rod is the ‘seed’ for the reaction, which contains plutonium. Wrapped around the core is the ‘blanket’, which is made from a mixture of uranium and thorium. The seed then provides the necessary neutrons to the blanket to kick-start the thorium fuel cycle. Meanwhile, the plutonium and uranium are also undergoing fission.
The primary benefit of Thorium Power’s system is that it can be used in existing nuclear plants with slight modification, such as Russian VVER-1000 reactors. Seth Grae, president and chief executive of Thorium Power, and his team are actively working with the Russians to develop a commercial product by the end of this decade. They already have thorium fuel running in the IR-8 research reactor at the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow.
“In the first quarter of 2008, we expect to have lead test assemblies in a full-size commercial nuclear power plant in Russia,” said Grae.
CNN wrote an article on Thorium Power stating:
“Licensing the technology to firms that win the U.S. contracts to eliminate the Soviet warheads could generate tens of millions of dollars in royalties for Thorium Power. An even larger market would be commercial nuclear power plants, which today spend hundreds of millions of dollars in the U.S. alone to store highly toxic plutonium waste. Using thorium technology, Grae says, they could turn their waste into more fuel that would leave far less radioactive material behind it.”
Nuclear-technology giant Westinghouse evaluated Thorium Power’s system as an option for burning surplus military plutonium, and the company predicted that this would be “substantially” cheaper, quicker, and more effective than the alternative method – burning plutonium with uranium.
Thorium Power believes there is a market for about four thorium-powered reactors each in Russia and United States just for plutonium disposal. It’s also aiming for reactors dealing with commercial plutonium by-products in Europe, Japan, Russia and the USA. It is estimated that 225 of the 444 commercial nuclear power plants in operation worldwide are suitable candidates for conversion to Thorium/uranium fuel.
Grae is also enthusiastic about the benefits thorium fuels offer the environment. “All nuclear compares well to coal, in terms of no emissions into the atmosphere, including no carbon dioxide,” he said. The environmental credentials of his company are also boosted by the presence of environmental lawyer and former member of the Centre for International Environmental Law, David MacGraw, he added. Grae muses that Thorium Power may be the “only nuclear company in the world with an environmentalist on the board”.
There is also significant political backing for thorium, with Senators representing several Western states, including Utah’s Orrin Hatch and Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, working on legislation to promote thorium. They say it’s a cleaner-burning fuel for nuclear-power plants, with the potential to cut high-level nuclear-waste volumes in half. Senator
Hatch is currently proposing the “Thorium Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007,” which aims to ease concerns about nuclear waste by requiring DOE to develop standards for reactors to use thorium fuel rather than uranium.
Thorium could also be a solution to several international disputes, such as Iran and Egypt’s desire to develop nuclear energy. If they were to use thorium, with no weapons-grade byproducts, this would eliminate any concern from Western nations about intentions to build nuclear weapons.
Thorium Power has been receiving more press lately, including an article in the India Business Insight – Priming For Power (11.24.07) – The newspaper reports that Thorium Power Inc. is among the companies vying for construction and equipment contracts worth $100 billion in India’s efforts to raise nuclear power production.
While the possibilities are blue-sky for Thorium Power, we view this as a speculative investment. The company is listed as an “over the counter” stock and comes with all of the additional risk associated with OTC securities, so do you own due diligence and proceed with caution.
However, with a market cap under $100 million and billions in revenue up for grab, this stock could easily be a 10-bagger over the next few years. But they still must prove that their technology is ready for commercial implementation and overcome some political hurdles.
Thorium Power stock has broken out over the past week, doubling from the October low of $0.16. As the promise of thorium reaches more investors, the stock could see a sharp increase in value even without significant news. At these prices, it might be worthwhile to take a small position if you have a portion of your portfolio allocated to speculative plays and extra cash to invest. I do not currently have a position in THPW, but will be considering taking one in the near future.
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