ENVIRO NOTES: Safe, renewable energy should be a priority

Many nuclear reactors are generating power safely, but opposition to nuclear-power generation remains strong, writes Dr. Roy Strang.

Despite the fact that, around the world, many nuclear reactors are generating power safely – France alone has at least 60 in operation, generating 75 per cent of that country’s electricity requirement – opposition to nuclear power generation remains strong and widespread.

Opponents point to the Chernobyl, Three Islands and, more recently, the Fukushima accidents as ominous warnings of inherent risks, along with the problem of safe disposal of radioactive waste materials. Looming over all this lies the threat of nuclear weaponry.

The ever-increasing world demand for energy challenges politicians, engineers and scientists to ‘keep the home (fires) lights burning.’ Current data shows a 10 per cent growth in world energy consumption between 1990 and 2008. One estimate forecasts the energy demand in 2040 will be 30 per cent greater than in 2010; another estimate is that requirement in 2035 will be at least 50 per cent higher than in 2008. The precise numbers are debatable, but the trend is clearly upwards.

How can the steadily increasing demand be met?

No matter how successful exploratory drilling for new wells may be, one day, some day all the accessible fossil fuel will be used up – though that day may well still be far off. In any case, burning those fuels is in disfavour because of the resultant atmospheric pollution. Renewable and non-polluting energy sources are being developed, but it’s questionable if they can ever replace fossil fuels. Wind farms are falling out of favour since they require back-up systems for times when winds don’t blow, and they’re harmful to avifauna; solar power, by definition, needs sunlight; the technology for tidal or wave power, still a work in progress, is applicable only along coastlines; fracking is highly suspect. That leaves us geothermal power, still in its infancy, and leads back to more nuclear generators with all their problems.

Fortunately, there is an alternative to uranium. It is thorium. Not only is thorium more abundant than uranium, it is less radioactive, and thorium-fuelled reactors burn more hotly than those using uranium fuel, so that almost all of the fue – about 99 per cent – is consumed and little residue is left over. Importantly, thorium is difficult to use in production of weaponry.

Given all these advantages, why isn’t thorium used widely instead of uranium? Since there are no fissile isotopes in thorium, fissile material such as 233 or 235 Uranium or plutonium must be added to ensure the desired reaction can be achieved.

According to an M.I.T. report from 2011, there is need for further research to develop the economic practicality “of extraction of its latent energy in a cost-effective manner.” The report goes on, “though there is little in the way of barriers to a thorium fuel cycle, with current or near-term reactor design there is also little incentive for any significant market penetration.”

Is this absence of impetus to achieve significant market penetration due to industrial or government inertia? It’s indeed a sad commentary on governments around the world if a major impediment to developing thorium nuclear technology is that it does not lend itself easily to weapons production. Work is in progress in Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, United Kingdom and the United States, but India is the leader in promoting and developing thorium as an acceptable source of energy.

Perhaps this is only the introduction to an intriguing story.

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