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The Myth of ‘Safe’ Thorium for Nuclear Energy

Christina Sarich

NationofChange / News Analysis

Published: Thursday 22 May 2014

How can something be ‘safe’ for the environment and humankind if it has a half-life of 14 billion years (older than some estimates for the age of the earth, and only slightly longer than the estimated age of the entire universe), and is radiotoxic?

How can something be ‘safe’ for the environment and humankind if it has a half-life of 14 billion years (older than some estimates for the age of the earth, and only slightly longer than the estimated age of the entire universe), and is radiotoxic? While questions concerning the Fukushima incident and growing concern over nuclear power plague the planet, there seems to be a new golden child, propagandized as the savior of nuclear energy, but is thorium really safe as an alternative fuel for nuclear energy generation?

Thorium does contain 6 naturally occurring isotopes, but one of the ‘remains’ of nuclear energy generation utilizing this element is Thorium-232. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also admits that thorium can be artificially produced. They describe thorium’s radioactive properties:

“As thorium-232 undergoes radioactive decay, it emits an alpha particle, with accompanying gamma radiation, and forms radium-228. This process of releasing radiation and forming a new radionuclide continues until stable lead-208 is formed. The half-life of thorium-232 is about 14 billion years. Two other isotopes of thorium, which can be significant in the environment, are thorium-230 and thorium-228. Both decay by alpha emission, with accompanying gamma radiation, in 75,400 years and 1.9 years, respectively.”

Supporters of thorium as a nuclear energy ‘alternative’ argue that it has 200 times the energy content of uranium, without creating plutonium – the main ingredient used in nuclear weapons of mass destruction. According to Nobel Prize winning physicist, Carlo Rubbia, just one tonne of thorium can generate as much power as 200 tonnes of uranium.  

Uranium mining is partly what subsidized the violence-mongering nations through recent multiple wars. There aretwo methods of extracting uranium: conventional open- pit or underground mining, or a chemical process of In-Situ-Leaching (ISL). Depending on the depth in the ground of the seam of rock containing uranium, the deposit is either mined using surface (open-cast or open- pit) or sub-surface (underground) mining. In Canadian Saskatchewan, it can be extracted from ore, which contains levels as high as 20% uranium. These mining practices absolutely devastate the environment, making native Navajo land, for instance, too toxic to live on despite hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on clean up.  

Furthermore, the use of uranium in nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons hardly needs to be substantiated. Nagasaki, Japan, and Hiroshima were just the predecessors to Fukushima. Conservative estimates of death tolls in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, respectively, are over 75,000 and 150,000. These numbers do not include radiation-induced sickness, and many are just now reporting the true health ramifications realized by victims of Fukushima. Scientists are still struggling to determine the true fallout for US citizens. 

“According to Maxim Shingarkin, deputy chairman of Russia’s State Duma Committee for Natural Resources, “Currents in the world ocean are so structured that the areas of seafood capture near the U.S. northwest coast are more likely to contain radioactive nuclides than even the Sea of Okhotsk, which is much closer to Japan. These products are the main danger for mankind because they can find their way to people’s tables on a massive scale.”

In comes thorium. It is touted with the use of misinformation campaigns and fear mongering about meeting energy needs, but thorium can’t be considered a safe nuclear substitute because it is highly radiotoxic. While it may produce much greater energy yields, it can also have much more dire impacts on a human being's health. If someone were to inhale an amount of thorium the bone surface dose is 200 times that 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.

Most importantly, thorium cannot produce energy all on its own. It requires a fissile material, such as uranium-235 in order to make nuclear fuel. It also needs something like plutonium-239 to operate the nuclear reactor. The World Nuclear Association also admits that, “there are several tonnes of plutonium in our biosphere, a legacy of atmospheric weapons testing in the 1950s and 1960s. Plutonium is a highly toxic substance. Thorium reactors would also likely be run utilizing sodium fluoride, a toxic substance with its own health concerns.

Many countries are looking to India, including the US, China, Russia, and France, to build a successful commercial thorium nuclear reactor, but it still hasn’t been done. The Germans experimented with a Thorium reactor, called the THTR-300; however, German scientists found even with the thorium reactor there were substantial risks in a loss of coolant (and as we all know from Fukushima, keeping the reactors cool is paramount for safety). China even announced this year that it intended to develop a thorium MSR, but nuclear radiologist Peter Karamoskos, of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), says the world shouldn’t hold its breath.

Karamoskos explains:

“Without exception, [thorium reactors] have never been commercially viable, nor do any of the intended new designs even remotely seem to be viable. Like all nuclear power production they rely on extensive taxpayer subsidies; the only difference is that with thorium and other breeder reactors these are of an order of magnitude greater, which is why no government has ever continued their funding.”

Yet, the US government has plans to build new nuclear reactors, while decommissioning older ones that pose a break down threat, even though Japan’s former Prime Ministers have unified to stand against nuclear weapons and energy altogether. Thorium fuel will simply be another failure in the nuclear era, one that has long overstayed its welcome. Thorium is not more economical, it is not safer, and it poses yet another nuclear disaster risk which this world simply can’t afford, for any price.

Solar and wind power, anyone?

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