Nuclear energy has been a necessary evil, providing power in a way that is cleaner and more efficient than coal, but leaving hazardous waste and weapons-grade byproducts that pose a risk to everyone. However, there is a way to produce nuclear energy without any weapons-grade byproducts and waste that is only radioactive for a few hundred years rather than hundreds of thousands of years – and we’ve been able to do it since the '50s. The answer is Thorium.
Named after the Norse god of thunder, thorium could be the key to the 'greening' of the nuclear power industry. In addition to safer waste, thorium has a number of other benefits. It is 4x as abundant in nature than uranium, roughly 8% of which is located in the US. It is fertile, rather than fissile, which means reactions can be stopped when necessary making it virtually impossible to use as a weapon in a terrorist attack. Additionally, it even generates more energy per ton than uranium.
Back in the 1950s and '60s, researchers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory proved the efficacy of thorium reactors in hundreds of tests, but the work was abandoned when the Military determined they could adapt uranium power for their naval fleets. It was also noted by the research that thorium could not be used to build nuclear weapons, which much speculation has pointed to as the reason thorium wasn’t used.
Today, the focus has shifted from nuclear weapons to green energy technologies, giving thorium a fighting chance. In January 2011, the Chinese Academy of Science launched a Strategic Priority Research Program named the “Advanced Fission Energy Program”. One of the program’s main projects is building a Thorium Molten Salt Reactor (TMSR). A TMSR utilizes thorium energy by the development of molten salt and molten salt-cooled reactor technologies. They expect to have a 2MW TMSR within 5 years and a 1000MW reactor operational by 2035.