Thorium, a naturally occurring radioactive chemical element that was discovered in 1828 by the Norwegian mineralogist Morten Thrane Esmark and named after Thor, the Norse god of thunder, is undergoing something of a renaissance thanks to Chinese research.
The United States pioneered thorium research during the Cold War before abandoning it in the early 1970s because of its limited use in making weapons. The Defense Department needed plutonium residue from uranium to build nuclear bombs. The imperatives of the Cold War prevailed. The research gathered dust in the archives until it was retrieved and published by former NASA engineer Kirk Sorensen. The United States largely ignored him. China did not.
China, hampered by electricity shortages in many of its cities, is racing to develop nuclear technology fueled by thorium which some energy experts predict will revolutionize an industry racked by safety concerns following Japan’s Fukushima power plant meltdown in 2011.
According the Chinese government, the country’s energy shortage could become real a national sucurity problem. Energy disputes with its neighbours, above all Japan, are becoming the biggest threat to world peace. It is a resource race compounded by a geostrategic struggle.
Also trying to be first to master thorium power are France, Norway and Japan. Norway has just started a four month test of a small reactor and Premier Shinzō Abe revealed just before Christmas last year that he planned to relaunch nuclear energy in Japan with “entirely different” technology. Could thorium be the technology he is talking about?
China is building 40 percent of the world’s new nuclear power plants. If it masters thorium — work on a first prototype plant is scheduled to be completed within five years’ time — the technology is certain to play a major role in the government’s plans to increase its nuclear energy supply twenty times over the next two decades and lessen its dependence on coal.
China has enough thorium to satisfy its electricity needs for an estimated “20,000 years.” Also the radioactive mineral is scattered liberally across Britain and the Americans have buried tonnes of it, as it is a hazardous byproduct of rare earth metal mining.
Cambridge University has shown that is possible to throw nuclear waste into the reactor with thorium. In other words, it can help clean up the mess left by half a century of nuclear weapons and uranium reactors, instead of transporting it at great cost to be encased in concrete and buried for millennia.
This could be a technology race or a joint venture in the world’s common interest. But it hardly matters which is the case. If the Chinese can crack thorium, the world will need less coal, natural gas and oil for power production. Wind turbines might vanish from our landscape. The risks of a global energy crunch, resource wars and climate change will all diminish. China’s attempts to develop thorium can only mean a better world for the rest of us. If they succeed.