Stronger case now for thorium as a cleaner, safer nuclear fuel


Richmond Lee

Published: 4:13 AM, March 31, 2014

I read with interest the report, “Beijing brings forward date for uranium-free nuclear power plant” (March 21). Evidently, energy-hungry China is cleverly exploring ways to reduce dependence on fossil fuel, the main cause of greenhouse gases.

The case for China’s interest in using thorium as the new nuclear fuel is clear: As a major exporter of rare earth metals, it inadvertently produces thorium as radioactive waste; turning this into fuel would be highly attractive and cost-saving.

Research into thorium nuclear fuel began in the 1960s at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the United States. But interest waned, as it did not produce a nuclear-grade weapon like uranium did.

The case for thorium as nuclear fuel has become stronger now, as we must look into alternative fuels to reduce our carbon footprint.

Not forgetting the Fukushima tragedy, proponents of thorium reactors have redesigned the nuclear plant to incorporate an important safety aspect: Using molten salt to drive the dynamo.

In current uranium-based plants, nuclear reaction in the core produces energy that turns water into steam to drive the wheels. A pump is required to supply water to cool and circulate the process.

Thus, extreme build-up of pressure in the system can lead to disaster if the pump stalls. Since thorium reactors would depend on molten salt, dangerous high pressure would be avoided and a pump would not be needed.

Another advantage of thorium power is that it produces no nuclear waste, unlike uranium, and has a net zero carbon footprint.

But old conceptions that nuclear energy is unsafe must first be abandoned before we engage in deeper studies of the safety and economic utility of this rediscovered technology.

I believe that thorium, in time, will phase out uranium and be a key part of the energy make-up, alongside solar and other renewable sources. Singapore might even have such a reactor in the future.