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mattbrowne's avatar

Thorium-fueled nuclear reactors - Pros and cons?

Asked by mattbrowne (31633points) March 30th, 2011

“Some nuclear scientists propose switching from uranium-based reactors to ones fueled by cheaper, safer thorium. Thorium-fueled reactors are supposed to be much safer than uranium-powered ones, use far less material (1 metric ton of thorium gets as much bang as 200 metric tons of uranium, or 3.5 million metric tons of coal), produce waste that is toxic for a shorter period of time (300 years vs. uranium’s tens of thousands of years), and is hard to weaponize. But it will take a lot of money to develop a new generation of thorium-fueled reactors. China is taking the lead in picking up the thread, building on plans developed and abandoned in Europe.”

Any opinions?

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3 Answers

WasCy's avatar

I’m afraid that real development of commercial nuclear-powered energy has taken a hit for another generation with the recent accident. It’s a shame, too, because as bad as this accident has been – and it has been bloody awful – the short and long term casualty effects of the current (and ongoing) disaster will be less than an average year’s toll of coal miners killed in mining disasters, and the climate effects are already proven to be nearly nil in comparison. Yet, the public perception of “nuclear accident” will continue to be “ecological catastrophe”, regardless of the facts.

mattbrowne's avatar

I disagree @WasCy. This is not just a matter of comparing death tolls here and now. It’s about long-term consequences and potential serious long-term consequences. Inhaling a few atoms of plutonium for example already has serious consequences. But we are looking at grams or kilograms or even tons of plutonium here. If human beings colonized the entire galaxy terrorists could still use all this plutonium to kill trillions and trillions of people.

The reason I’m asking about thorium is the following. The anti-nuclear movement will probably not succeed in banning all nuclear power plants on our planet. So is there a chance of the pro-nuclear movement switching to something like thorium-fueled reactors instead.

WasCy's avatar

I think, that human history over the long term being what it is, and our willingness to eventually expand our knowledge and the frontiers of our technology despite both known and unknown risk, that we will someday get to where you propose, and even better. But I think it’s going to take us a very long time to get there. I doubt that thorium reactors will even be approved for use in your lifetime, and never mind mine.

I didn’t want to seem so pessimistic as to say “it’ll never happen”, but I don’t think that you or I will live to see it happen. Otherwise, I agree with you that uranium and the fission byproducts are dangerous, plutonium is the most dangerouns element we’re likely to encounter on this planet – and we manufacture it as a byproduct of the generation of electricity that we use every day. Madness.

I’ll have to start reading about thorium reactors, though. I’ve been out of the nuclear industry for nearly two decades now. Time to learn something new.

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