Thorium Reactors – The Future of Energy
Broadly speaking, the primary energy sources globally fall into three categories: fossil fuels (oil, coal, and natural gas), renewables (wind, solar, geothermal, hydro, biomass), and nuclear.
Our future prosperity depends on our ability to transition from the first category to alternative sources and discover and adopt new processes to safely and efficiently tap them.
We will be up to the task, and the ultimate endpoint will be an amazing new form of nuclear power generation.
But first, let’s look at our options.
More than 78% of the energy we use in the U.S. comes from fossil fuels. For many reasons, we’ll grow less and less dependent on them in the future.
Many oil and natural gas-producing nations have politicized the availability of these resources on the global market, reducing the certainty of availability and causing tremendous price fluctuations. European countries especially are scrambling to reduce this dependence.
Sustainability and climate change concerns related to fossil fuels, especially coal, are adding pressure to transition away from them even before we use them up, or the cost of extracting them becomes prohibitive.
Also, we can’t count on fossil fuels forever. While we technically may never “run out,” oil and gas production has likely peaked or will soon peak, meaning it will become increasingly difficult to retrieve these resources cost-effectively. At some point, economic factors and the increasing price advantage of alternatives will drive fossil fuels to a dwindling fraction of the total market.
We’re making strides with renewable energy production thanks to incremental technology breakthroughs in energy storage and transmission. Renewables account for 12.5% of U.S. energy usage, and this number will continue to creep up, but renewables will never be the dominant energy source for reasons I’ll discuss below.
Renewables, on the surface, appear to be the ideal solution since, by definition, producing renewable energy doesn’t deplete the source. The amount of sunlight, water, wind, thermal energy, and biomaterial isn’t reduced or at least remains extremely plentiful throughout these production processes.
A significant challenge for renewables, though, is the fact that we as a society want invisible energy. We want it to be there when we need it, but we’d rather not see it being generated or transmitted. And as renewables expand, we’ll “see” a lot more of it. That’s why today we’re noting the politicized backlash to encroaching wind and solar farms, for example.
Sure, people are accustomed to seeing a coal-fired power plant if they happen to drive past one on the city’s outskirts. But too many people still wince at fields of wind turbines covering scenic vistas. Soon they’ll also see massive floating turbines offshore of their favorite ocean beaches.
We’re probably less than a generation away from reaching the limit in terms of the omnipresence of renewables infrastructure we’re willing to accept.
Nuclear generation accounts for 8.9% of the energy we use. It recently slipped to third place, following renewables. While transitions in the power industry are slow, in less than 15 years, nuclear will have shifted back into second place, and within a few decades, it will supplant fossil fuels as our primary source of energy.
We currently rely on uranium to fuel our nuclear reaction processes, but over the next decade or two, we’ll follow India’s lead and work towards thorium-based reactor systems. These systems, which utilize thorium and fluoride salts, are more expensive to build, but the advantages of thorium reactors are significant, as I’ll discuss below.
All in all, though, whether a nuclear power plant is uranium or thorium-based, nuclear technology overcomes nearly all the concerns we identified for both fossil fuel and renewable power generation.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, nuclear power plants have the highest capacity of all types of power plants – meaning they stay online longer and run more steadily than any other energy production option today.
Thorium reactors have efficiency levels as high as 98% compared to 5% for current uranium-based technologies, placing them well above fossil fuel and renewables systems in this area. The same analysis points out that pound for pound, thorium produces twice as much energy as uranium fission processes.
Geopolitical impact? Check.
Uranium reserves are spread across the world. With the understanding that these reserves vary in quality and accessibility, of the top 10 countries with the most reserves, India and Canada lead the way. Several Eastern European countries are in the mix too, along with a few African nations. China rounds out the top ten, and the U.S. stands at #16. It’s not an ideal scenario, but it’s an improvement compared to the location of oil and gas reserves. India, the U.S., Australia, and Canada are estimated to have the highest reserves of thorium. Additionally, we can sleep a bit better since thorium is much more difficult to weaponize.
Infrastructure Footprint? Check.
The Department of Energy has determined that a nuclear fission facility that’s typically located on 1 square mile produces the same amount of energy as a windfarm that takes up 360 times more space and a photovoltaic power plant that takes up 75 times more space.
Our scenic vistas and ocean views can mostly remain unspoiled.
Raw Material Depletion? Check.
The world has roughly two hundred years’ worth of uranium at current prices and usage rates. But technological advances in efficient use, processing, and reusing of uranium are on the horizon that could extend this significantly. Higher prices will unlock even more of the material.
And then there’s seawater. Seawater contains minute portions of uranium, but there’s enough there to extend this depletion scenario by tens of thousands of years and even longer since seawater-based uranium is continually replenished by runoff from the land. Researchers are working diligently to develop cost-effective ways to capture uranium from seawater. For these reasons, we will likely have plenty of time, even without the transition to thorium.
There’s estimated to be three times more thorium available in the world than uranium. It tends to be found closer to the surface in more dense quantities, making extraction easier and safer, although possibly lending itself to strip mining techniques.
It’s inaccurate and, frankly, very lazy to simply dismiss the prospects of nuclear power generation because of the incidents at Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Three Mile Island. Yes, Chernobyl and Fukushima were disasters that we should do whatever it takes to ensure they never happen again. As for Three Mile Island, the cause was operator and system error, but there were no health impacts for workers or members of the nearby public and no environmental damage. The same can’t be said for the typical oil refinery explosion.
We’re continuing to see advances in uranium-based nuclear plant coolant and fusion-containing technology. Thorium systems will prove far safer yet, given that the reactions are self-regulating and not self-sustaining.
Environmental Impact. Getting Better.
Nuclear plants will never be as environmentally benign as renewables-based energy production. Nuclear waste disposal is a concern, but new innovations are significantly improving this situation too. Thorium systems should resolve this matter even further. Thorium is used up far more efficiently in the reaction process, so waste is minimal compared to uranium systems. What waste remains is radioactive for only 500 years compared to 10,000 years for uranium. There is also speculation that the 500 years can be reduced substantially with a few more advancements.
I haven’t mentioned two future forms of power generation: space-based solar power and nuclear fusion. Both are in development and likely a considerable time away.
As we think through the options, we will have sufficient, safe energy sources far into the future. Except for very specialized uses, fossil fuels will go the way of the dinosaurs from whence they came. Renewables will always be a welcomed niche contributor to our power grids, but we won’t be able to scale them to the extent that they’ll be our dominant source.
Our future is nuclear … in spite of Hollywood and misguided environmental activists who choose to get their science from that world. These phenomena slowed society’s progress in developing and benefitting from nuclear power by decades and ironically perpetuated the proliferation of far more dangerous and polluting energy production in the meantime.
We’ll think more clearly about this very soon.
Thanks for the overview. It is also noteworthy that thorium reactors can burn the waste from old style nuclear reactors.
I really like reading through a post that can make men and women think. Also, thank you for allowing me to comment!