There is more energy available in Thorium than all coal, gas, oil and uranium combined. It has been estimated that 30 times more thorium than what is required to supply the entire world’s energy demand is mined as a by-product every year.
What is Thorium?
Thorium is a basic element of nature, like Iron and Uranium. The element thorium was discovered in 1828. More than a 100 years later, in 1941, its potential as an energy source was proved. The element has some favourable characteristics making it an ideal nuclear fuel for next generation reactors; it is safe, clean, affordable and scalable.
Unlike Uranium, Thorium itself will not split and release energy. Rather, when it is exposed to neutrons, it will undergo a series of nuclear reactions until it eventually emerges as an isotope of uranium called U-233, which will readily split and release energy next time it absorbs a neutron. Thorium is therefore called fertile, whereas U-233 is called fissile.
After World War II, uranium-based nuclear reactors were built to produce electricity. These were similar to the reactor designs that produced material for nuclear weapons. Even though the usability and benefits of using Thorium had been discovered in 1950s, West’s development of nuclear energy was inextricably linked to the development of atomic bombs because uranium’s by-products are much easier to weaponise. Today all commercial nuclear plants run on enriched uranium.
Why India wants to develop Thorium Nuclear reactors?
When the nuclear research started in India, it was soon realized India had very limited resources for Uranium (only 1% to 2% of global reserves) but India possesses over 25% of global Thorium reserves. The country’s meager uranium deposits convinced the founding father of its nuclear programme, Homi Bhabha, that any long-term strategy must exploit thorium, its most abundant fuel, which inspired a three-stage programme that is still the central plank of India’s nuclear energy policy.
India’s three-stage nuclear power programme was formulated by Homi Bhabha in the 1950s to secure the country’s long term energy independence. First, conventional uranium-fueled reactors produce plutonium as a by-product. The next stage combines this with more uranium in ‘fast breeder’ reactors that generate more plutonium than they use. That’s used to build more breeder reactors, and once the fleet is large enough they switch to converting thorium into U233. The final stage combines U233 with more thorium to kick-start self-sustaining ‘thermal breeder’ reactors that can be refueled using raw thorium.
Advantages of Thorium based nuclear energy:
- Safe – There are safe methods of using thorium with no risk for meltdown or explosions. Thorium Energy is also proliferation resistant.
- Clean – Thorium reactors create zero-emission energy. The amount of waste is low both in amount and lifetime.
- Affordable – Thorium is one of the most energy-dense elements in nature, found in great quantities on all continents. There is more Thorium Energy available than in all oil, gas, coal and uranium on Earth combined
- Proven – Research into the use of Thorium Energy started in the 1950’s in the US government’s atomic lab, with successful and well-documented results.
Even though the development of Thorium Nuclear Power Plants of commercial use are still years away it is the most promising source of non-fossil fuel energy.