Mobilisation, Action, Solutions and Peaceful Resistance.
The Fukushima disaster reminded us all of the dangers inherent in uranium-fueled nuclear reactors. Fresh news this month about Tepco’s continued struggle to contain and cool the fuel rods highlights just how energetic uranium fission reactions are and how challenging to control. Of course, that level of energy is exactly why we use nuclear energy – it is incredibly efficient as a source of power, and it creates very few emissions and carries a laudable safety record to boot.
This conversation – “nuclear good but uranium dangerous” – regularly leads to a very good question: what about thorium? Thorium sits two spots left of uranium on the periodic table, in the same row or series. Elements in the same series share characteristics. With uranium and thorium, the key similarity is that both can absorb neutrons and transmute into fissile elements.
That means thorium could be used to fuel nuclear reactors, just like uranium. And as proponents of the underdog fuel will happily tell you, thorium is more abundant in nature than uranium, is not fissile on its own (which means reactions can be stopped when necessary), produces waste products that are less radioactive, and generates more energy per ton.
So why on earth are we using uranium? As you may recall, research into the mechanization of nuclear reactions was initially driven not by the desire to make energy, but by the desire to make bombs. The $2 billion Manhattan Project that produced the atomic bomb sparked a worldwide surge in nuclear research, most of it funded by governments embroiled in the Cold War. And here we come to it: Thorium reactors do not produce plutonium, which is what you need to make a nuke.