Will thorium save us from climate change? | Science Matters | David Suzuki Foundation
Photo: Will thorium save us from climate change?

Many argue that, despite Fukushima and other disasters, nuclear is the best option to reduce carbon emissions fast enough to avoid catastrophic climate change. (Credit: Michael Kappel)

By David Suzuki with contributions from Ian Hanington, Senior Editor

As knowledge about climate change increases, so does demand for clean energy. Technologies like solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, tidal and biofuels, along with energy-grid designs that will help us take advantage of renewables, are part of the equation, as is conservation.

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But many argue that, despite Fukushima and other disasters, nuclear is the best option to reduce carbon emissions fast enough to avoid catastrophic climate change. Because of problems with radioactive waste, meltdown risks and weapons proliferation, some say we must develop safer nuclear technologies.

Even eminent climate scientists like James Hansen claim we can't avoid nuclear if we want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Hansen, a former NASA scientist, with Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution, Kerry Emanuel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Tom Wigley of Australia's University of Adelaide, wrote an open letter last year stating, "the time has come for those who take the threat of global warming seriously to embrace the development and deployment of safer nuclear power systems."

What are "safer nuclear power systems"? And are they the answer?

Proposed technologies; include smaller modular reactors, reactors that shut down automatically after an accident and molten salt reactors. Some would use fuels and coolants deemed safer. (Industry proponents argue the low incidence of nuclear accidents means current technology is safe enough. But the costs and consequences of an accident, as well as problems such as containing highly radioactive wastes, provide strong arguments against building new reactors with current technology.)

One idea is to use thorium instead of uranium for reactor fuel. Thorium is more abundant than uranium. Unlike uranium, it's not fissile; that is, it can't be split to create a nuclear chain reaction, so it must be bred through nuclear reactors to produce fissile uranium.

Thorium-fuelled reactors produce less waste, and while some trace elements in spent uranium fuels remain radioactive for many thousands of years, levels in spent thorium fuels drop off much faster. China and Canada are working on a modified Canadian design that includes thorium along with recycled uranium fuel. With the right type of reactor, such as this design or the integral fast reactor, meltdown risks are reduced or eliminated.

Thorium can be employed in a variety of reactor types, some of which currently use uranium — including heavy water reactors like Canada's CANDU. But some experts say new technologies, such as molten salt reactors, including liquid fluoride thorium reactors, are much safer and more efficient than today's conventional reactors.

So why aren't we using them?

Although they may be better than today's reactors, LFTRs still produce radioactive and corrosive materials, they can be used to produce weapons and we don't know enough about the impacts of using fluoride salts. Fluoride will contain a nuclear reaction, but it can be highly toxic, and deadly as fluorine gas. And though the technology's been around since the 1950s, it hasn't been proven on a commercial scale. Countries including the U.S., China, France and Russia are pursuing it, but in 2010 the U.K.'s National Nuclear Laboratory reported that thorium claims are 'overstated'.

It will also take a lot of time and money to get a large number of reactors on-stream — some say from 30 to 50 years. Given the urgent challenge of global warming, we don't have that much time. Many argue that if renewables received the same level of government subsidies as the nuclear industry, we'd be ahead at lower costs. Thorium essentially just adds another fuel option to the nuclear mix and isn't a significant departure from conventional nuclear. All nuclear power remains expensive, unwieldy and difficult to integrate with intermittent renewables — and carries risks for weapons proliferation.

If the choice is between keeping nuclear power facilities running or shutting them down and replacing them with coal-fired power plants, the nuclear option is best for the climate. But, for now, investing in renewable energy and smart-grid technologies is a faster, more cost-effective and safer option than building new nuclear facilities, regardless of type.

That doesn't mean we should curtail research into nuclear and other options, including thorium's potential to improve the safety and efficiency of nuclear facilities. But we must also build on the momentum of renewable energy development, which has been spurred by its safety, declining costs and proven effectiveness.

February 13, 2014

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Mar 11, 2014
6:32 PM

It’s just sad to see an “article” like this dismissing nuclear energy based on what is obviously not more than 15 minutes of wikipedia research.

Feb 23, 2014
12:37 PM

The private consortium that will manage the decommissioning of the UK’s decaying Magnox nuclear reactors won’t be made to bear financial responsibility in the event of a radioactive incident. Taxpayers will have to pick up the tab instead.

Private contractors will be indemnified by the government, despite concerns that exempting them from financial liability for nuclear incidents could prove a disaster for the taxpayer, the Guardian reports.

Feb 18, 2014
4:00 PM

This doesn’t sound like the living off the surplus the sun provides mantra we are used to hearing from DSF?

Why try to placate those who don’t believe in changing their habits of copious consumption?

Feb 17, 2014
9:38 PM

This is utter nonsense as the only way we can save our kids’ futures is by MAKING THE SUN OUR SOLE ENERGY-POWER SOURCE. I urge Mr Suzuki to check my previous postings here and elsewhere stating that OUR KIDS WILL ONLY SURVIVE BY MAKING THE SUN OUR SOLE ENERGY-POWER SOURCE!!!!!!!!! Everything else being claimed from “clean” fossil fuels to nuclear power results in adding more trapped energy into our environment to end up slowly boiling our kids off earth. Again Mr. Suzuki is missing the boat on how we have to perserve the future for our kids. AGAIN WE HAVE TO MAKE THE SUN OUR SOLE ENERGY-POWER SOURCE, and I have outlined how we can do this in several e-mails to Mr. Suzuki. James Singmaster, III, Ph.D., Environmental Chemist, Ret., Davis CA

Feb 16, 2014
12:21 PM

Like it or not — we will have to continue using nuclear power in some way for the forseeable future. There is no single “fix”. But where is the common sense? It is unfortunate that countries like Japan who desperately need to use nuclear power are located in very unstable and undesireable places geographically. All nuclear tragedies are horrendous but there are places in the world where there are more “reasonable” locations. The global community needs to find a way to balance access to energy in spite of large corporations and there ever more powerful bottom line.

Feb 15, 2014
1:49 PM

I am a person seriously affected by second-hand fragrance and am suffering at work and in most public places. I may lose my job. If we think about the amount of fragrance contamination we encounter in public places such as schools, church, governmental offices, medical facilities and at work

Feb 15, 2014
1:12 PM

Salmon died upstream in Suomi (Lapland) Finland. The water upstream is perhaps radioactive alike the upstream water in Greenland. Salmon was the Bears staple food. Bears are consequently extinct in Suomi. (Strange how they build to this day (1960th) Salmon traps in upstream waters of Suomi .)

Feb 14, 2014
9:47 PM

Is anyone close to getting Scalar energy to produce enough energy for us? I have also heard that it may one day be used for communications. Just think, replacing cell phone radiation with a safe way to send data.

Feb 14, 2014
12:30 PM

Hello David,

I am a Canadian snowbird and, in Hawaii, we are faced with two poisons daily — those from GMO pesticides and Chemtrails.

Can you please comment on these subjects in the future?

There are about four GMO companies on the garden island of Hawaii, which is called Kauai. There is an active, local environmental group here called “Kauai Rising”. I am sure they could benefit from your wisdom.

Many thanks,
Ariana Sheran from Saskatoon

Feb 14, 2014
10:05 AM

Nice to see that you people are at least discussing nuclear power. I am a former strident anti-nuclear person that couldn’t help but notice some very influential people that I respect were either pro-nuclear or reversed their position. These include George Monbiot, Jim Hansen, Bill Gates and even the Dhali Lama to name a few. After reading several books, including Cauldicott, I slowly reversed my position. It’s a complex subject and poorly understood by the public (not to mention most environmentalists). What a shame. The safe development of this technology in the hands of good people is so obviously superior to anything we are currently doing. I guess that it is why it is sometimes called the technology of Angels. The problem is the lack of awareness and misinformation about this evolving technology. There is little doubt if we were to focus globally (incl. the U.S., a must) on developing both Thorium reactors and IFR’s (such as ‘Prism’ from the Argonne research) at the same time continue to build the newer design Gen3 reactors, development of this technology would occur much faster. Remember the new IFR’s will be able to use up old style reactorr spent fuel leaving little waste rendering it harmless in the low hundreds of years instead of thousands of years. Yes there are still questions and issues to be resolved but if one looks honestly and objectively at the evolving technology, those issues are being resolved. Please keep this discussion alive, we need to look more seriously at this option.

Terry Gay

Feb 14, 2014
9:30 AM

This is the worst idea DSF has presented to the public since it joined Cadbury on its junk food campaign as a way to raise funds. Just as the solar industry is coming of age we have DSF taking us back to the nuclear option. Why don’t you promote the oil palm plantation indsutry as well as a way to stop climate change? Seems DSF needs some serious progressive policy advisors as clearly the Cadbury Junk food venture and now the Thorium advocacy campaign are examples of a lost leadership at DSF.

Feb 14, 2014
7:33 AM

FYI, the reason the LFTR was scrapped was because it could not produce weapons grade plutonium.

Also a large scale reactor has been tested and ran for 7 years at the oakridge labs in the 60s.

Our current problem is excessive carbon being released. I would rather see thorium power over any hydrocarbon fueled power.

Feb 14, 2014
4:31 AM

Yeah we should curtail all research they’ve had enough money and time it isn’t like we’re hearing a new story just the same old thats had some spin put on it.

Renewables, costs are continuing to decrease and efficiency increasing. Issue isn’t can it be done,the issue is corruption in government by the fossil fuel industry only need to look at West Virginia, Alberta (everywhere) to see the sad truth.. God I’m a Negative Nancy!!

Feb 13, 2014
4:47 PM

This article pre supposes that we need lots of energy. We only need so much energy if we are to continue the economic growth game. Let’s stop that first and then recalculate. IF climate change is related to carbon emissions then the only growth capable of reversing it is real growth ie trees…carbon capturing reforestation. Please get this on your table.

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