As people have been discussing the issues surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi Disaster, the future of nuclear power comes up. Frequently someone will show up to the discussion to proclaim thorium will be the savior of the nuclear industry and all of the world’s power needs.
The misinformation on thorium is highly promoted by the nuclear industry and various companies that want investment dollars for thorium reactors and fuel. This fairy tale being told about thorium is far from accurate and realistic. The problem becomes worse as uninformed people hear a brief propaganda piece on thorium and pass on that information without any research of their own.
One myth is that thorium is safe. Thorium-232 has a half life of 14 billion years (billions, not millions). Thorium-232 is also highly radiotoxic, with the same amount of radioactivity of uranium and thorium, thorium produces a far higher dose in the body. If someone inhaled an amount of thorium the bone surface dose is 200 times higher than if they inhaled the same amount of uranium. Thorium also requires longer spent fuel storage than uranium. With the daughter products of thorium like technetium‐99 with a half life of over 200,000 years, thorium is not safe nor a solution to spent fuel storage issues.
Thorium is unable to produce energy on its own. Something thorium cheerleaders frequently fail to mention is that it needs a fissile material like uranium-235 or plutonium-239 to operate the reactor. Uranium-235 and plutonium-239 are both considered bomb making materials and a proliferation risk. So now all the “safety” of thorium has been trumped by the need for weapons grade material to operate the reactor. The work involved to enrich the uranium-235 used in a thorium reactor to the percentage needed for a bomb is not a difficult process. The reprocessing cycle does not resolve the proliferation risk.
Another myth is that thorium reactors can run at atmospheric temperatures, in order to produce power they must be run differently and would not be at atmospheric temperatures. Many of the thorium reactors use liquid sodium fluoride in the reactor process. This material is highly toxic and has its own series of risks.
The creation of thorium fuels is also not safer than creating uranium fuels. Thorium poses the same nuclear waste and toxic substance problems found in mining and fuel milling of uranium.
Thorium power production has been experimented with for over 50 years. Thorium breeder reactors have been experimented with but have technical issues and breed fuel at lower rates than tradiational breeder reactors. It is frequently claimed that India has a bunch of successful thorium commercial power reactors. The reality is that India has been trying for decades and still has not developed a commercial thorium reactor.
Thorium is also not more economical to run. The fuel cycle is more costly and the needed protections for workers, plant safety and the public are considerably more than existing fuels.
The Germans experimented with a Thorium reactor, the THTR-300. They found even with the thorium reactor there were substantial risks in a loss of coolant event. They also had issues with concrete structures failing due to extremely high heat, fracturing thorium fuel and hot spots in the reactor. There was also a radioactive release into the air due to a malfunction. The reactor was eventually scrapped due to technical problems and costs.
Another rather silly claim going around is that “thorium is so safe you can handle it with your bare hands!”. Sorry, but you can do the same thing with a uranium fuel pellet.
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