Thinking about thorium

Thorium metal

Thorium metal

I have previously written about thorium, a metal which offers an alternative to uranium for nuclear energy. Its supporters argue that it offers benefits in terms of safety, very little radioactive waste, no material suitable for weapons, and fuel availability not for centuries but for millennia.  The biggest barrier to thorium development is not technical, but commercial.  Existing players in the nuclear business have a massive investment in uranium technology, and would need big incentives to develop what is, in essence, a parallel substitute technology.

We come here (and I hate to say this) to one of the rather few failings of capitalism: the financing of ultra-long-term projects.  Especially where those projects are at high risk of regulatory sabotage (think of Angela Merkel’s decision to close down the German nuclear industry — and build coal-fired power stations instead).  If you were a merchant banker, would you want to join a consortium to put tens of billions into a sixty-year project, given the regulatory uncertainty?  No.  Nor would I.

I never thought I’d find myself nodding in the direction of state capitalism, but in this one area where the Chinese have an advantage (and a great deal of money to invest), and as Ambrose Evans-Pritchard reports in the Daily Telegraph, they are on the case.  We have here a major new energy technology where on present form, the Chinese have the lead.

(I see this as a parallel to the exploitation of methane hydrates, where several countries including China have exploratory projects, yet the UK, despite all its deep-sea drilling expertise, does not, so far as I know, have a dog in that fight).

Ambrose does a much better job than I could in setting out the case for thorium, so I won’t repeat it all here.  He puts one of the strongest arguments for thorium in just four words: “Wind turbines will vanish”.  (In fact the billions we have wasted on wind farms would have gone a long way towards developing thorium, and been much better spent).   But the fact that thorium is available for thousands of years gives a good answer to all those who say “Aha!  You may have fossil fuels for 200 years, but what will you do after that, hey?”.  The obvious answer is that no one knows what energy technologies will be available in 200 years’ time, and the job of politicians, regulators and industry is to keep the lights on for this generation.  But it would be good to be able to point to an energy technology which is “sustainable” (in all senses of the word) practically from here to eternity.

I get a number of UKIP members writing to me urging me to support thorium, and in principle, I am happy to do so.  But how?  Simply urging Western nuclear players to get off their butts and invest in thorium will not get a big response.  And I for one don’t want to argue for state capitalism, and nationalisation of the energy industry.

But the government can and should set strategic policy objectives, and manage day-to-day policies to support those objectives.  It might promote thorium research in universities and research institutes.  It might make a priority of monitoring technological development elsewhere.  But most of all, it needs to sit down with the industry and talk about the regulatory environment, and the sort of long-term guarantees which the industry would need to support thorium investment.  This in turn might call for cross-party support, since no government can make regulatory guarantees for sixty years.

So UKIP supports thorium development in principle.  We have nothing like a detailed plan for developing and promoting it.  Such a plan can only be developed in partnership between government and industry.  But we can and do urge government to pick up the issue and run with it.

In conclusion, one small piece of good news on the energy front.  The wind industry is saying that it may not be prepared to invest more in UK wind because of (here it is again) regulatory uncertainty.  And a good thing too.  A major energy investment in a futile technology, which is wholly dependent on government subsidy, amounts to highway robbery of the tax-payer.

 

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7 Responses to Thinking about thorium

  1. eworrall1 says:

    The best thing the government can do is get the hell out of people’s way.

    If you could address the regulatory uncertainty, say by offering massive compensation should the regulations change in an unfavourable way, then Thorium development will appear.

    Don’t kill Thorium by turning it into a government special interest project. The money would go to incompetents and criminals.

    If you’re wondering why I think the government would be utterly incompetent in its approach to Thorium reactor development, just look at the Government’s track record with IT – the NHS disaster, the Tax System debacle, a shameful chain of hideously expensive disaster after disaster. Name an IT project the government has gotten right in the last decade, if you can.

    There are wrong choices which could be made in Thorium development, and government projects have a good track record for making wrong choices. Harmful, dangerous, stupid approaches to producing Thorium energy exist, and there are strong incentives for making the wrong choices.

    Let me explain.

    Thorium cannot sustain a nuclear reaction by itself – it needs help. The safe way to produce a Thorium reaction is to use a nuclear accelerator – that way if anything goes wrong, you switch off the electricity supply to the nuclear accelerator, and the nuclear reaction stops.

    But particle accelerators of the required characteristics, to initiate a commercial scale Thorium pile, have not yet been developed. So a lot of research dispenses with the safe approach, and instead uses a Uranium or Plutonium core to provide the particle stream.

    A plutonium driven Thorium pile negates the safety advantages of Thorium – and could actually be more dangerous than current nuclear technology. If something goes wrong with the reactor, you can’t quench the Plutonium pile just by switching off the electricity. And if you use a Plutonium pile, instead of one reactor to manage, you have two connected reactors – either of which could suffer problems, and both of which have to be competently managed.

    Since using a Plutonium Core is a lot easier than the alternative – using as yet undeveloped particle accelerator technology, any government project would focus on using a Plutonium or Uranium core. Because the one thing civil servants fear is to be the focus of failure – as long as the project delivers a design which works, at least on paper, their responsibility ends. And the safest approach, career wise, to creating a design for a Thorium reactor, is to use dangerous technology which is guaranteed to produce a design which “works”. What happens next is someone elses problem.

    At least when a government IT project malfunctions, all it creates is lots of embarrassment.

  2. Politics today seems to be all about image. The BBC and ITV seem to be the major image guardians for a start, then the red tops (Oooooer! Missus!), then the “broadsheets” – especially the near bankrupt Guardian.
    Articles like this inspire me. They really do. Nobody else – especially politicians – seem to have this breadth of vision or knowledge.
    The line on the BBC and other media at the moment is that Nigel Farage has been singled out as a maverick nutter who needs to be shown for what he is – a fool. When he doesn’t actually fit into the part set for him, they interrupt and shout him down.
    There are, they say, no other politicians in the UKIP party either.
    I fear that articles like the one above will be food for their narrow minded approach – I can see it now. Roger Helmer the nutter.
    Please be careful! You are far too valuable to be seen like that. And, like Nigel Farrage, you are someone who has actually not spent their whole life climbing the greasy pole of politics.
    Keep doing it! You are representing a lot more people than you realise.

  3. Wilson Boardman says:

    Surely the strongest argument for investing in Thorium is the threat from Uranium enrichment by unstable developing nations?
    For Example: If Iran could be offered a Thorium-based nuclear power generation system, there is zero risk of them using their nuclear industry for bomb technology thus helping to stabilise the Middle-eastern powder keg.
    Similarly if India (already developing Thorium) Pakistan, Israel, and eventually all the nuclear nations could be teased into switching to Thorium, the effect on world stability/preace would be immense.

    • eworrall1 says:

      A Thorium reactor can unfortunately be used for nuclear weapons production. Burning Thorium produces small quantities of Uranium 233. U233 is not the usual material used to make atomic bombs, but the US concluded in the 1950s that it was still theoretically possible to build an atom bomb using U233 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uranium-233

      Isolating U233 from a Thorium core would be easier than enriching Uranium ore, because simple chemical processes could be used – the U233 is chemically quite different to Thorium. And any isotopic impurity in the U233 would be likely to be U235, also useful bomb material. So it is possible that Uranium extracted by simple chemical reactions from a Thorium reactor core could simply be fabricated into an atomic bomb without further processing.

      If for some reason it was not feasible to remove rods from the reactor to extract the Uranium 233 (e.g. because of international monitoring efforts), then more conventional means could be used – depleted Uranium (widely available on the international market, used for armour piercing anti tank weapons) could be converted into Plutonium by covertly introducing it into the reactor room, surrounding it with a moderator, to slow down the neutrons emitted by the Thorium pile, and waiting for the Neutron flux to convert the depleted Uranium into Plutonium.

  4. neilfutureboy says:

    I don’t think this is such a failure of free enterprise because, as you point out, the main barrier to everything nuclear is the threat of government regulating it out of existence.

    Thorium is 4 times more common in the Earth’s crust than uranium & the process of using it inherently slightly safer but Uranium is godd for billions of years and already, by any objective test, orders of magnitude safer than conventional power generation. Much of the enthusiasm for thorium among Greens and those who think they must be placated will disappear as soon as it is practical in the same way that “Greens” used to be nice about shale gas until it became practical.

    Nonetheless thorium is worth developing as well. Doubtless had the nuclear industry not been stifled it would have been decades ago but we are where we are.

    I would like to suggest that, as with space development, UKIP adopt a policy of offering a prize for a successful reactor. In the same way that John McCain promised a $300 m prize for aa high energy battery. The record of prizes, at all levels, is far better, when they work, for producing inovations than conventional grants. When they don’t work no prize is given and thus they cost zero & so are infinitely more effective.

  5. LFTRs in 5 minutes – Thorium Reactors

  6. SadButMadLad says:

    “…one of the rather few failings of capitalism: the financing of ultra-long-term projects.”

    That’s not a failing of Capitalism. In fact its one of the strengths. Look at woodland. It takes decades to produce wood to chop down. But woodland is still bought and sold – because though you might not chop any trees down, you can sell it on to someone who can. It all depends on one thing – politicians to keep the hell away from anything to do with business. It’s politicians interfering that causes long-term projects to fail.

    “The obvious answer is that no one knows what energy technologies will be available in 200 years’ time, and the job of politicians, regulators and industry is to keep the lights on for this generation.”

    It’s definitely not the job of politicians or regulators to do anything. They are the ones who cock things up. They can’t plan anything. Its industry who keep the lights on. It’s in the interests to do so – so that they can keep making a profit. And it’s industry who will work out what’s going to be working in 200 years time because many players will try different solutions and the successful ones will thrive.

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