Thorium: The Use Case for an Abundant Nuclear Energy Material

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By Ryan Blanchette, Former DOD intelligence analyst

As the push towards green, clean, and sustainable energy solutions ramps up, one metal sits in large supply around the globe which mainly remains untapped due to lack of demand – but has the potential to be a driving force behind energy independence and clean energy solutions. Thorium is a naturally occurring, slightly radioactive metal found in rock and soil that is estimated to be three times as globally plentiful than uranium. This abundance, along with the recent popularity of uranium and the re-emergence of nuclear energy proponents, has given rise to questions regarding its validity as a cheap nuclear energy source with certain advantages to uranium as well as its role in energy security and avoiding pitfalls of dependence on other nations in order to keep the lights on at home.

The relative availability of thorium presents the first benefit over its more well-known nuclear fuel cousin. Thorium occurs as oxides, silicates and phosphates, often with rare earth elements and other critical materials such as niobium, tantalum and zirconium. The total world thorium resources as of 2020 are estimated to be around 6 million tons, although insufficient data by way of gamma spectroscopy means this number could be higher. Thorium geology and mineralogy, though not widely studied in the past, is currently receiving increasing attention owing to its close association with rare earth elements and other critical materials. The possibility of thorium as a by-product of rare earth element production is becoming increasingly relevant today and could drive up estimates of thorium availability worldwide. That being said, India tops the list at estimated thorium reserves with 800,000 tons mainly located on the eastern coast within sandy deposits of Andhra Pradesh.

India dots the I in BRICS, the increasingly well-known Eastern-based intergovernmental cooperative founded in 2009 as a way to curb Western geopolitical and economic hegemony and act as a rival to the G7 nations, with efforts to become less dependent on the US dollar. It is not that India has an unfavorable relationship with the United States – both countries still view each other with great respect – but India has been historically caught in the middle between Western societal influence & governmental policy and loyalty to Eastern cultural roots and classical alliances. The other nations rounding out BRICS are in the top 10 of thorium reserves, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to find a metal or mineral in which the BRICS nations, or allies thereof, do not have a major supply chain leverage in order to work with.  China has taken particular interest in thorium, bringing the world’s first thorium-powered nuclear reactor in over 50 years online in 2021. Beijing has plans to step up its thorium plans if all goes well and envisions nuclear reactors capable of powering over 100,000 homes.

However, thorium deposits in Western nations are available and remain vastly untapped. The United States, Australia, and Canada all boast large amounts of reserves with the US top in the West at an estimated 440,000 tons; much of which is located in the Lehmi Pass along the Idaho-Montana border. Australia’s thorium is concentrated in New South Wales and Victoria, and Canada’s thorium lies in the area around Elliot Lake, Ontario, once dubbed the “uranium capital of the world” and exists as a by-product of uranium deposits that were formerly mined there.

The G7 Western nations are talking serious about energy independence, and it remains to be seen how much they walk that path as well. COVID-19, regional wars and escalations like Ukraine and the newest Israel-Palestine conflict, and paradigm shifts in geopolitical dynamics have all highlighted the drawbacks of globalization and being vulnerable to singular sources of critical minerals for national security or energy purposes; being dependent on one or a few countries for certain resources can run a nation into issues especially when tides turn, and those countries no longer see you in such a favorable light.

In the late 1990s, the “death of mining” was informally announced in the West as an ease of global relations meant any commodity needs could be met by other countries who would provide those metals to us, leaving our pristine backyards free from environmental upheaval by man and machine. This proclamation of course was called much too early, and the pendulum inevitably swinging in the other direction has meant a rise in geopolitical tensions not seen since the 1950s, with major powers of the world consolidating control against the other and vying for authority in lands where their influence is not certain, such as Africa and Latin America.

Mining has once again been brought to the forefront as an absolute necessity for clean energy goals and national security critical minerals concerns, as the Minerals Race heats up in this decade and carries on into the next, probably bringing resource wars and proxy conflicts with it along the way.

Looking at thorium from a scientific perspective, another benefit arises from the use of molten salt technology which has the potential to be less affected by accidents, which is obviously a major concern with nuclear reactors. The molten salt eliminates the need for liquid burning via a water source, one of the more common situations in which nuclear reaction can get out of control. Having no need for large amounts of water to act as coolant, like in a uranium power plant, also means thorium reactors can be built nearly anywhere they are needed. Another check mark for environmental concern would be the fact that burning thorium does not create plutonium, the highly toxic element created by uranium reactors, easing the load on those working with the reactors and those who have to plan for hazardous waste removal. Thorium can also generate more fissile material than it consumes, meaning it has more efficient long-term potential.

There are several key features of thorium that give it an edge over uranium-based energy models. However, due to thorium taking a backseat to uranium over the last 60 years, the technology and resources available to harness thorium’s capability are not currently in place. In a viable clean energy future, both thorium and uranium nuclear power would be utilized to accomplish a leading nation’s energy goals. Given the state of world politics and instability along with lofty carbon neutral goals, progressive nations of the world should lend credence to the prospect of thorium-based power as a key element of their energy sufficiency.

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