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Is Thorium the Biggest Energy Breakthrough Since Fire? Possibly....

For the past several months, a friend of mine has been telling me about the potentially game-changing implications of an obscure (at least to me) metal named Thorium after the Norse god of thunder, Thor.

It seems he is not the only person who believes thorium, a naturally-occurring, slightly radioactive metal discovered in 1828 by the Swedish chemist Jons Jakob Berzelius, could provide the world with an ultra-safe, ultra-cheap source of nuclear power.

Last week, scores of thorium boosters gathered in the United Kingdom to launch a new advocacy organizing, the Weinberg Foundation, which plans to push the promise of thorium nuclear energy into the mainstream political discussion of clean energy and climate change. The message they’re sending is that thorium is the anti-dote to the world’s most pressing energy and environmental challenges.

So what is the big deal about thorium? In 2006, writing in the magazine Cosmos, Tim Dean summarized perhaps the most optimistic scenario for what a Thorium-powered nuclear world would be like:


What if we could build a nuclear reactor 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? And what if the waste produced by such a reactor was radioactive for a mere few hundred years rather than tens of thousands? 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.

Jack Mason's picture

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Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on September 14, 2011

Thorium is important, but without Flibe, it’s not worth much.

Flibe is a liquid fluoride salt based coolant that is the other key ingredient in a thorium reactor (particularly the LFTR: Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor).

It is actually the Flibe that is responsible for most of the safety improvements of the LFTR: unlike water-cooled reactors, there is no problem with steam or hydrogen explosions. Unlike liquid sodium, Flibe does not burn in air or water. Unlike helium coolant, no high-pressure vessels are required and the coolant can’t escape from the fuel through leaky pipes. Also, dangerous fission products like iodine and cesium that can escape from most other reactors during severe accidents are chemically trapped in Flibe and stay in solution in the coolant.

Flibe is also partly responsible for the great reduction in long-lived nuclear waste that LFTRs provide. It does this by making fuel reprocessing easy and cheap. Because in a LFTR, the fuel is dissolved into the Flibe, there are no fuel rods to fabricate and breakdown again.

Flibe allows the reactor to operate at high temperature: 700C versus only 300C for a water cooled reactor. This is critical for producing hydrogen. Cheap hydrogen will decrease our dependence on petroleum. Also, a reactor that switches back-and-forth between electricity and hydrogen can provide a large dispatchable supply which allows greater use of renewables in a future non-fossil electrical system.

LFTR is described here: and there is currently research ongoing in the US for creating a Flibe cooled solid fuel reactor (variants are named FHR, AHTR, SmAHRT, and PB-AHTR), that can bring the benefits of Flibe to “non fuel cycle countries” (i.e. those with whom we don’t wish to share reprocessing technology).

Paul O's picture
Paul O on September 15, 2011

If Only the Bilions spent on “Renewables” and such had been spent on Thorium instead…..If Only.

Jonathan Cole's picture
Jonathan Cole on September 16, 2011

Just what we need more hype!! While thorium is a huge improvement over uranium/plutonium fusion reactors it still has risks that need to be carefully evaluated. We don’t need boosterism, we need methodical, scientifically valid study as well as looking at all the implications of every catastrophic scenario. It is still hard to beat that good old fusion reactor in the sky – the sun. 93 million miles a way, it gives a good albeit not perfect means of protection. And with the increasing knowledge about the threat of large solar storms to the grid, we may want to be looking at ultra-distributed systems rather than risking a multi-year shut-down of civilization. And in case anyone says the time variant aspects of solar energy cannot compete with generators that are always on, think again.





Paul O's picture
Paul O on September 17, 2011

Frankly the article in your link looks even more hype-ish than anything else.  No mention was made of costs, and as far as I can tell, I’d buy solar panels and lithium batteries and use the energy myself in my own home.

Do you seriously propose this for use in Third World Countries as an alternative to Coal? Or in areas where there are long months with little direct sunshine?

Are you seriously Juxtaposing this to Thorium?

Atomik Rabbit's picture
Atomik Rabbit on September 17, 2011

In a media-driven democracy, one huge PR advantage Thorium has over its heftier cousin is that in the public mind Uranium has been irrevocably tied to bombs and meltdowns.

Thorium, as an energy innocent, will be regarded as not only the “new and improved” nuclear, but a blank slate in the media’s official history of calamity.

Nevertheless, because it is a complex technology that exploits the power of forces locked into heavy nuclei by long-gone supernova, it violates the atavistic religion of the Antis, and will be opposed by them on whatever specious grounds they can muster.

John Englert's picture
John Englert on September 18, 2011

Thorium will not be used as an energy source in America until all the career politicians are retired or fired. This is because none of them want to explain to the citizens why we’ve gone so many decades with fluctuating energy prices leading to large trade deficits when there was already an alternative. And they certainly don’t want to explain why people have been sending their sons and daughters to risk their lives securing another country’s oil when the waste Thorium from one rare earth mine could power America.

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