Instead of giving up on nuclear power, say a group of nuclear scientists, we should just switch from uranium-based reactors to ones fueled by cheaper, safer thorium.
- What is thorium?
A silvery metal (symbol: Th; atomic number: 90) close to uranium on the periodic table of elements, with just two fewer protons. It was discovered in 1828, and is named after the Norse god of thunder. As an added bonus, it’s “almost as common as dirt,” says Antonia Zerbisias in The Toronto Star.
- Why are fans so excited about it?
Thorium-fueled reactors are supposed to be much safer than uranium-powered ones, use far less material, produce waste that is toxic for a shorter period of time, and is hard to weaponize. In fact, thorium can even feed off of toxic plutonium waste to produce energy. And because the biggest cost in nuclear power is safety, and thorium reactors can’t melt down, argues Michael Anissimov in Accelerating Future, they will eventually be much cheaper, too.
- How cheap would it be?
If a town of 1,000 bought a 1-megawatt thorium reactor for $250,000, using 20 kilograms of thorium a year with almost no oversight, every family could pay as little as $0.40 a year for all their electricity, Anissimov predicts. And small reactors like that aren’t just potentially cost-effective, he says; they’re much safer, too.
So, if thorium is cheaper and safer, why do we use uranium? Because we can make weapons out of its byproducts.