Starting with the control of fire some 350,000 years ago, economies have always been, and continue to be, predicated on the type of energy technology in use at the time. The majority of today's economy is still dependent on the original carbon combustion technology (fire) that launched the evolution of both human culture and human biology. If we cannot end our reliance on carbon energy sources, then catastrophic climate change leading to the devolution of human culture becomes a real possibility. That may sound like hyperbole, but it is not.
The newer technologies, such as solar, wind, and electric vehicles, are decades away from replacing the fossil fuel economy. In fact, electric vehicle technology is INCREASING the release of atmospheric carbon dioxide, since, instead of burning hydrocarbons directly, the technology increases the need to generate more electricity, which increases the combustion of carbon; 67% of electricity generation comes from burning fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, and petroleum). Every time one form of energy is converted to a different form, energy is lost in the process, and in the case of electricity, even more is lost due to resistance during transmission and again during the charging process. It can be argued that electric vehicles have a bigger carbon footprint than they would if they burned the fossil fuel directly, instead of first putting it through power plants.
For these reasons, we are suggesting that nuclear energy has to be the bridging technology that allows us to reduce our hydrocarbon use over the next thirty to fifty years, while the new renewable energy sources mature. In particular, the utilization of thorium as fuel in both existing and future reactors is a change that can be started almost immediately while we develop molten salt reactors for commercial use.
In this paper, we intend to outline the history of thorium energy research, and suggest that a major effort, both scientific and economic, be made to implement thorium energy technology. This is not simply an economic issue (although it certainly is that). There are serious and real implications for human well-being on a global scale. If we think that the migrant situation from Africa and the Middle East is problematic now, imagine if climate change turns these two regions into deserts, or Bangladesh is rendered uninhabitable by permanent flooding. Action has to be taken immediately, and thorium technology may be the fastest, cleanest way to go.
The Problem with Nuclear Energy
Three serious reactor accidents have damaged the public's perception and acceptance of nuclear technology: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and the latest, Fukushima. As unfortunate and dangerous as these situations are, if we look past our negativity and probability biases, we would realize that there is a tendency to attribute a greater significance and increased probability to recent and dramatic events - such as airliner crashes or nuclear accidents - than to other types of mishaps that are, in fact, much more probable AND dangerous - like highway accidents or widespread air pollution. The damage that resulted from all three nuclear accidents combined would not even fill the error bars of the measured economic, health, and climatic effects of global air pollution that has resulted from burning hydrocarbons for energy.
Technology can make nuclear power safer, although nothing can ever be completely safe, and the nuclear waste that is generated, while being potentially dangerous for protracted periods of time, has the immediate advantage of being localized and extremely compact. That compares favorably against combustion waste, which is both massive in quantity and extremely widespread. It is irrational to be vaporizing our garbage into the atmosphere, where it facilitates the warming of the biosphere and damages the health of all air-breathing life.
Nuclear waste is dangerous and long-lasting, but it is small in magnitude and can be safely contained in-situ while longer-term storage solutions are developed.
Thorium was discovered by Swedish chemist Jacob Berzelius in 1828. It is three times more abundant than uranium and is found in beach sand but not in the ocean because it is insoluble, in contrast to uranium. It is three or four times more abundant in the Earth's crust than uranium.
Thorium exists in nature as the isotope Th-232, which decays with a half-life of 14 billion years; one could spend their entire life sleeping on a pile of thorium and receive no more than the natural background radiation. In other words, it is not radioactive. An additional benefit is that thorium-232 appears in nature unmixed with isotopes, does not require enrichment for use as reactor fuel, does not generate plutonium (which can be used for weapons), and only needs relatively inexpensive chemical separation from ore impurities.
Th-232 is not fissile on its own and is not directly usable as a fuel in a thermal neutron reactor. It first needs to be bombarded with neutrons in order for it to transmute into uranium-233 (U-233), which is an excellent fissile fuel material. An overly simple analogy is to compare this "priming" to requiring a lit match before paper will start burning. (This, of course, is a chemical reaction not a nuclear one, but hopefully, it illustrates the concept.)
Neutron priming of Th-232:
(Source: Thorium Energy World)
The current nuclear fuel, uranium-235 (U-235), on the other hand, is fissile on its own and transmutes into plutonium-239, which is a nuclear weapons-grade material. Since thorium does not produce plutonium, it carries a much lower risk of contributing to weapons proliferation. It turns out that, historically, the use of thorium as nuclear fuel was not pursued specifically because it did not have weapons potential, unlike uranium. Uranium, therefore, became the standard fuel for both weapons and peaceful nuclear applications.
The most common source of thorium is a rare earth mineral called monazite. The estimated amount of monazite resources is about 16 MT, of which 12 MT are located in the sand deposits of India. The next three largest deposits are located in Brazil, Australia, and the U.S. Most thorium is the result of rare earth mining, and it is not economical at this point to mine it directly. As a result, China is thought to have large stores of thorium (no way of knowing how large) as a result of its position as the world's dominant rare earth miner.
There are seven types of reactors which are capable of using thorium fuel. For simplicity, we will only mention the top three candidates: heavy water CANDU reactors, high-temperature gas-cooled reactors, and molten salt reactors.
The Canadian CANDU heavy water reactors are technically well suited for thorium fuels. In addition to this, CANDU technology is well established and widely deployed commercially.
High-temperature gas-cooled reactors are also well suited for thorium fuels. These reactors are stable at high temperatures and their fuel type can be irradiated for very long periods, thus deeply burning their original fissile charge.
Molten salt reactors are still at the design stage, but promise to be very well suited for thorium fuels. These reactors are the safest alternative of all the reactor types. They are designed in such a way that if the system gets too hot, a plug melts and the liquid matrix drains out of the reactor and into an underground reservoir, thereby eliminating any chance of a meltdown.
(Source: Neutron Bytes)
There Are Problems
There is a lag time of at least 15 to 20 years before thorium reactors become commercially available. Part of this delay in implementation has to do with the level of existing investment in uranium-based reactors - there is too much at stake for the established nuclear industry for it to show financial enthusiasm. It is left up to India and China, and young start-ups to pursue the technology - with the full knowledge that they will not be commercial threats for decades.
The threat of fusion energy also plays a role. At the moment, fusion is seen as a very costly "Hail Mary pass", but if it were to become commercially feasible, it would turn all fission technologies into pumpkins. How much does one want to invest in improving a technology that could be made irrelevant by fusion? (Privately funded Tri Alpha Energy seems close to some success.)
Some of the new designs are modular, allowing for placement in remote locations as well as in large manufacturing facilities that want control over their own power. This presents the problem of having to protect large numbers of nuclear reactors; big or small, they are potential targets that need safe-keeping. The other issue that arises from this is that with many small (and dispersed) reactors, fuel and waste has to be transported, which carries a level of risk in and of itself.
The fact remains that despite having several advantages over present fuels, thorium is still a nuclear fuel, and the public, for the most part, is not enthusiastic about anything nuclear.
Is This Knowledge Investable?
Not easily. There has been a resurgence of privately funded nuclear energy start-ups in the last several years: Helion Energy, Terra Power, NuScale Power, Thorium Power Canada. But none of these is publicly traded, and they carry a high level of risk that the average investor shouldn't take.
Thor Energy is a Norwegian company that is heading a consortium, which includes Westinghouse Electric, and which is testing thorium-based fuels in existing reactors which will enable the burn and reduction of existing waste stockpiles of plutonium. Westinghouse Electric is owned by the conglomerate Toshiba Corporation (OTCPK:TOSBF), and is the only way to invest in that project.
India, being in possession of the majority of the world's monazite sands and in great need of electricity, is furiously (and rather secretly) pursuing thorium energy technology. We refer the reader to our recent Seeking Alpha article "India is The New China: Investing in India's Demographic Dividend" for Indian infrastructure investment possibilities.
Lightbridge (NASDAQ:LTBR) is a nuclear fuel technology company with segments that include a nuclear fuel technology business and a nuclear energy consulting business. The nuclear fuel technology business develops next-generation nuclear fuel (thorium) technology that increases the power output of commercial reactors.
Since thorium is produced as a by-product of rare earth mining, investing in these miners would be a connection to thorium, which, at the moment, is still considered valueless waste. There would be considerable gains to be realized if the worthless tailings suddenly became valuable, maybe more valuable than the rare earths themselves. Unfortunately, most of the rare earth mining is China's domain and difficult to invest in.
A significant impediment to investing in rare earth mining is the fact that the mining industry in general, and rare earth mining in particular, have been in a downward spiral since 2011, and even the miners that are still standing carry no guarantees that they will remain so. We present several rare earth mining companies, but stress that they are all high-risk and counsel investors to not invest more than they are comfortable losing. An investment in any of the following has to be considered as an improbable long-term position.
Pele Mountain (OTCPK:GOLDF). Pele's monazite processing strategy is to collaborate with monazite suppliers, a technical expert in processing, and rare earth end users to produce separated, high-purity, individual rare earth oxides that have much greater value than mixed rare earth concentrates and can be used in downstream value added processing and manufacturing. Pele will source monazite from countries that embrace sustainable mining practices and are allied trading partners with Canada.
Lynas Corporation Limited (OTCPK:LYSCF). Lynas is an Australia-based company engaged in integrated extraction and processing of rare earth minerals, primarily in Australia and Malaysia, and development of rare earth deposits.
Avalon Advanced Materials Inc. (OTCQX:AVLNF). Avalon Rare Metals Inc. is a Canada-based mineral exploration and development company. The company focuses on rare metals and minerals.
Medallion Resources Ltd. (OTCPK:MLLOF). A Canada-based company which is engaged in the acquisition, exploration, and evaluation of mineral properties. Medallion focuses on a rare earth business, which involves the mineral monazite.
In conclusion, thorium has tremendous potential to provide the type of clean, safe, and affordable energy that the planet needs in order to maintain a healthy biosphere and to sustain economic activity and growth. There are challenges - technical, economic, and societal - but with focused effort, these can be overcome.
- Uranium 2014: Resources, Production and Demand, Joint Report by the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency and the International Atomic Energy Agency
- Thorium nuclear fuel irradiation project initiated, Thor Energy website
- Thorium, World Nuclear Association
- A future energy giant? India's thorium-based nuclear plans, Phys.org
- A report on Thorium: The newest of the technology metals, Jack Lifton, Resource Investor
Disclosure: I/we have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.
I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.