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Scientists hail metal thorium as alternative source of energy

Published time: November 01, 2010 07:41
Edited time: November 09, 2010 15:30

Thorium. Some scientists believe that this metal, named after the god of thunder, could end our dependence on fossil fuels and become the best alternative to uranium to produce nuclear power.

We all use energy, but at what cost?

Energy security is why many modern wars are fought. Oil is running out, and there does not seem to be a viable alternative in sight.

However, unbeknownst to most, there is an energy source that is clean, green and abundant all over the globe. Thorium is nuclear fuel, and its supporters believe it will change the world.

“Conflicts that we see today based around energy could go away,” said chief nuclear technologist of Teledyne Brown Engineering Kirk Sorensen. “These energy sources that I am talking about that do not emit carbon dioxide or greenhouse gases, and do not produce dangerous waste, could enable us to have cleaner water, cleaner air and less intrusion on our environment from energy production.”

A ton of the silvery metal produces as much energy as 200 tons of uranium, or 3.5 million tons of coal. According to Sorensen, a small lump of thorium is enough to provide the amount of power needed to run a person’s entire life.

A group working on thorium in the UK says it has not managed to get the British government interested so far. So, it is looking to cooperate with countries like Russia.

For several years now, a Russian physicist has been proposing to build thorium power stations but, ironically, his ideas have not been taken up.

“There is a lot of focus on renewables at the moment so maybe that is why they feel there is more public support for renewables rather than nuclear [sources of energy],” said A project manager at Aker Solutions, Victoria Ashley. “I think if they truly understood the potential of thorium, then they would realize that it is a good investment.”

Research on thorium was largely halted in the middle of the last century after a uranium-powered reactor was designed. Many believe thorium also fell out of the spotlight because making a bomb out of it is thought to be almost impossible. Even today not all scientists are thorium converts.

“The thorium reactors do not really work,” said a nuclear engineer from Large and Associates, John Large. “They are very challenging. It is a whole new fuel technology which has considerable and very insurmountable problems, in my opinion.”

“They would have problems in developing the processing cycle, the way in which you split the fuel from the waste from the reactor,” he added. “They would have difficulties in actually storing the fuel.”

Since 2007, cities from London to Sydney have held Earth Hour, turning the lights off to save energy. Proponents say if thorium power became a reality, we could turn the lights back on, with confidence.

Thorium is a divisive thing. Some say it is a technology that has been tried, tested and found lacking. Others say that because uranium got there first, thorium was never given a proper chance. But while it is abundant, cheap and even possible, the scientists at the annual thorium conference say give it a go, it could change the world.

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