Thorium shows potential as safer nuclear energy

Usmaan Hasan

Last week, Waste Control Specialists halted development of an Andrews County waste containment center because of concerns over flawed containment. The struggle for effective waste control solutions brings to attention one of the critical flaws of modern uranium-based nuclear energy: It is a high-cost endeavor which poses serious containment risks and dangers to the public. To assuage fear and prevent future catastrophes such as Fukushima, it is imperative that traditional uranium reactors be phased out in favor of liquid fluoride thorium reactors, or LFTRs.

Thorium’s namesake, Thor, is the Norse god of thunder and lightning. Despite the element’s tangential relation to hunk Chris Hemsworth, it has failed to gain traction in the mainstream. In the 1960s, Oak Ridge National Laboratory studied thorium and found that LFTRs are incredibly difficult to weaponize. As bomb-ready uranium technology enjoyed decades of unrestricted access to Cold War military dollars, thorium research fell by the wayside. 

There are a myriad of concerns with nuclear energy, and as a result, there are only two operational nuclear power plants in Texas. The containment of radioactive waste produced by uranium-based nuclear reactors, which is hazardous for at least 40 years, is one point of concern. And because nuclear reactors are essentially contained nuclear explosions, fear of a malfunction captivates the nightmares of communities living near nuclear plants.

Liquid fluoride thorium reactors will change this.

The best part of a thorium reactor is its improved efficiency. Very little long-term waste and almost no short-term waste is produced. This means the necessity for sprawling waste-containment solutions such as Yucca Mountain and Waste Control Specialists is significantly reduced. 

Moreover, research has indicated that a thorium reactor is substantially safer than uranium fuel. For one, because LFTRs are inherently self-regulating, they naturally reduce the risk of a meltdown. The mechanics of thorium salts mean that the higher the temperature of the nuclear core gets, the less “explosions” occur. While an out-of-control reaction in a traditional uranium plant core would be amplified, this is not a concern in a thorium alternative.

In light of these facts, China is now leading the charge for new nuclear technology. It has announced plans to commercially deploy LFTRs by 2030 using the data first collected by Oak Ridge in 1969. It seems strange that the United States has the 5th-greatest number of thorium deposits and the 2nd-largest thorium reserves yet has failed to seriously pursue LFTR technology. The existence of $73 billion of short-sighted subsidies for nuclear weapons means the U.S. is now losing the war for better technology.

In an industry crowded out by selective investments, thorium will never see the light of day without aggressive support. Failing to back viable thorium means an antiquated energy infrastructure that threatens to poison places such as Andrews County and the ground we store waste in. 

Hasan is a business and international relations and global studies freshman from Plano. Follow him on Twitter @UzzieHasan.