Thorium has long been recognised as an effective nuclear fuel – it is readily available (especially in Australia), more efficient, produces half as much waste, and is not viable as a source of weapons-grade plutonium.
Cold War demands for nuclear arms spurred nuclear reactor design towards uranium rather than thorium, with destructive capability then a higher priority than environmental concerns.
The main reason behind the opposition to a switch to thorium is the nuclear industry would be required to radically change its infrastructure, while having little financial incentive to do so.
“This is a market economy, so the economics will have to be in favour for thorium to move that way,” said Mujid Kazimi, director of the Center for Advanced Nuclear Energy Systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“It could take another 50 years for us to reach the level where uranium prices are so high that thorium looks attractive.”
Kazimi suggests one way to expedite a change to the cleaner thorium fuel in the US would be for the government to change the manner in which it deals with nuclear waste, charging by volume of plutonium produced rather than charging waste fees as a percentage of the cost of the electricity produced.
“Right now, it doesn’t matter how large the fuel waste is,” Kazimi said.
“But if the Government comes in and says we’re going to increase fees in terms of waste in proportion to plutonium content, that will push for thorium.”
As a less invasive alternative, Seth Grae of nuclear power firm Thorium Power suggests allowing consumers to choose where they purchase their energy, allowing an aware customer base to tell the market an investment in cleaner nuclear energy was required.
“When customers choose who their electric provider is, that’s a very powerful thing,” he said.