The Clean Nuclear Energy Source Conspiracy That Will Change the World
You would be forgiven if you have never heard of the element thorium before. Despite being exceedingly abundant, radioactive, and used for a wide variety of things, thorium has escaped mainstream attention for much of its existence. This is strange considering it was the second radioactive element to be discovered after uranium and is potentially a future source of clean, renewable energy.
What is thorium? Why hasn’t it been better advertised as a force for renewable energy? Where did it come from? Can it bring nuclear power back from the brink of extinction?
What Is Thorium?
Thorium is a metallic element on the periodic table with the symbol Th. Its atomic number is 90 and it has a standard atomic weight of 232.0377. It is weakly radioactive and has been used in a variety of products since its discovery in the 19th century. Thorium is extremely abundant on Earth and is available in much higher quantities worldwide than uranium.
In fact, a large portion of the Earth’s internal heat that occurs under our feet happens due to the radioactive decay of thorium. That is how prevalent and deeply embedded in our planet this element is.
A Brief History of Thorium
Like all elements not created in a lab, thorium has been with us since the formation of the planet Earth billions of years ago. However, it was not identified as a unique element and classified until 1829 by Jöns Jakob Berzelius. While discovered in 1829, no one quite knew what to do with the newly classified material and it was not put into formal commercial use until 1885.
1885 saw the invention of the gas mantle. This new invention put the thorium to use as a powerful and portable light source. Today, you would recognize gas mantles as camping lanterns but back at the turn of the 19th century, they were a widespread and prevalent new lighting device.
Thorium was not discovered to be radioactive until 1898, thirteen years after its initial discovery, and long after it had been used in countless new mantles around the world. Thorium rapidly followed uranium as the second element to be classified as radioactive. Uranium was found to be radioactive in 1896.
Despite its radioactive classification, thorium was used for nearly six decades in the production of various household products and items. From the popular gas mantle to heat resistant ceramics and other metal alloys, thorium worked its way into products all across the globe.
By the 1950s, after the bombing of Japan at the end of World War II and the rise of the Cold War, nuclear technology and radiation were on the minds of almost every American. Due to this realization and a new fear of nuclear and radioactive technologies, thorium began to be gradually phased out of use for household and commercial products. Despite that, it continued to be used, less but still widely, until 2000. Gas mantles were, and continue to be, the greatest source of thorium in public use.
The reason for thorium’s wide use in public products, despite being radioactive, is because it is far less radioactive than what people normally thing of. It is far weaker and less dangerous than uranium or plutonium. In fact, there was a journal study done in the year 2000, following the realization of how widely thorium had been used in the 20th century, which affirmed that thorium was largely safe.
The study, found in the Journal of Radiological Protection, said if someone were to use a gas mantle (camping lantern), every weekend for their whole life it would not be harmful. The problem was not in the use of the product containing thorium but rather the production of the products and the environmental considerations around those factories.
One can ask, why are there no thorium reactors?
Outside of commercial use, thorium was found to be a potentially useful source of nuclear power. The fuel was much more plentiful than uranium, safer to handle, and was easier to obtain. In 1962, the Indian Point Energy Center in New York was the first to build a functioning thorium reactor. India also quickly showed interest in using thorium as a potential source of nuclear fuel to feed its growing demand for power. India has one of the largest thorium deposits in the world, if not the largest.
Despite being found to be an easier nuclear fuel type than uranium to find and employ and one that is much safer, thorium continues to lag behind other innovations in the field of clean energy generation. A world that is concerned with climate change, renewable energy, and a greener future should be all over thorium. So why aren’t we?
A Grand Thorium Conspiracy?
The benefits on their face and the distinct lack of public interest in the development and use of thorium has led some to believe that there is a conspiracy that is blocking its development as a viable technology for the future. What are these conspiracies and do they have any merit at all?
I. Big Oil
There can be no talk of conspiracies surrounding new forms of renewable energy without mentioning the amorphous and ever-present Big Oil. Large oil companies and those who depend on them for revenue have been blamed for blocking the development of new forms of clean energy in the past. Oil is a big business and has arguably made more people rich than any other commodity in human history. There are a lot of powerful interests and an absolute ton of cash wrapped up in oil.
The emergence of safe nuclear power would definitely harm the oil industry. Since thorium is much safer and more abundant than uranium, it poses a threat to become the (relatively) clean nuclear power source we have been looking for and is thus a huge threat to the oil companies.
Oil and gas companies have been blamed for blocking everything from thorium production to natural gas to hydrogen fuel cells. While they surely have an interest in blocking any form of energy that might ding their bottom line, there is no concrete evidence of a widespread effort to block thorium research by companies involved with oil and gas.
II. Nuclear Bombs
The other popular conspiracy theory surrounding thorium is that since it cannot be used in the production of nuclear weapons, countries are much less interested in investing money into researching further thorium technology.
The same thing that makes thorium much safer nuclear material than uranium is the same reason why it is a lousy nuclear weapon’s catalyst. Thorium is a much more stable element than uranium and therefore cannot be effectively employed in the use of nuclear weapons.
This conspiracy theory states that major powers only care about the technology that can continue to bolster their nuclear arsenals, and since thorium cannot do that, they are not interested in it. The idea that nations are only truly invested in weapons of mass destruction is disturbing but there are those out there who subscribe to this theory and consider nuclear power to be a byproduct of nuclear weapons production and nothing more than that.
Similar to the Big Oil theory, this theory looks good on its face but there is no evidence to support this. Outside of North Korea and Iran, no other nations are actively pursuing nuclear technology. The major nuclear powers, publicly, are more concerned with maintaining their stockpiles and perfect the delivery method rather than creating new nuclear bombs.
Nuclear weapons testing is no longer permitted by the major nations and therefore, the current nuclear power industry is not a front for ongoing nuclear testing because there is no more testing actively going on.
Nuclear Power Basics
Nuclear power is not all that complicated. The main way that humans generate electricity is by spinning large coils in turbines between magnets. This creates electricity and is the technology behind everything from gas powered generators to coal fired power plants and nuclear power plants.
The basic concept behind a nuclear power plant is by using, comparatively, tiny amounts of fuel, you can heat large amounts of water to create steam. The steam will rise up through the generating turbines, spinning them, and creating power. This cycle of heating water, creating steam, running the steam through a turbine and cooling off the byproduct is used throughout the modern world.
Nuclear power creates the heat through nuclear reactions which can be done with much less input than say, a coal power plant. That is the main draw., The main drawback is the nuclear waste and potential for human error, natural disasters, and accidents that could potentially release toxic and lethal nuclear materials into the surrounding environment.
Thorium Compared To The Current Uranium Reactors
Thorium has an equal energy creation potential to uranium. It uses a very similar process to create heat to its uranium counterpart and thorium reactors could definitely be built to generate power. That was demonstrated as far back as 1962.
Thorium produces much less nuclear waste than uranium. This has multiple benefits. First, it reduces the cleanup and disposal process which is the most dangerous and costly part of running a nuclear power plant today. Second, safer waste cannot be used as nuclear fuel like some of the byproducts of uranium can. This means there is less of a chance of the waste falling into the hands of misguided actors and cuts down on the potential for nuclear proliferation quite a bit.
Despite some claims, thorium does still produce nuclear waste and the waste is still damaging to people and the environment, it is just much less damaging than uranium waste. You still would not want to be dumping this stuff haphazardly and a disposal process is still needed for these plants.
As stated before, thorium is much easier to obtain and refine than uranium and is available in much larger quantities. This means that more countries have access to this material over uranium, which is rare and not readily available.
The Future of Thorium
If thorium is better than uranium and can create clean energy and renewable energy with less danger and hassle, why isn’t it more prevalent? What gives?
Contrary to popular belief, thorium is being actively researched and developed in the 21st century. The main proponent of thorium technology right now is India. India is a nuclear power that also has the benefit of having massive thorium deposits readily available within its borders. Three thorium reactors were built in India in the 20th century and they are moving forward with developing many more for the 21st century. Their goal is to have 30% of their energy come from thorium by mid-century in a quest to become energy independent.
The truth of the matter is, right now conventional fuel is cheap. Natural gas, crude oil, and shale oil are all plentiful and affordable. As long as fossil fuels are cheap and flowing, the appetite for massive investment into clean energy is going to be small, no matter how promising it may sound on its surface.
Nuclear research and development are expensive. Building nuclear power plants are extremely expensive. As nice as it would be to simply retrofit current uranium reactors to use thorium, it is not that simple and the truth is much more complicated than that. These things take time, investment, and interest in order to achieve, and right now, those things are low in the Western world.
Thorium definitely has a future and as time goes on, it will become more mainstream and more recognized as a cleaner energy source for a future that is striving to run on completely renewable energy. There is a lot of research and development surrounding thorium reactors, primarily driven by India but recently nations such as Indonesia and others are starting to invest in thorium technology.
By 2050, do not be surprised if major countries are getting a sizeable chunk of their energy from thorium reactors but until then, the development of new nuclear technology is slow. As fun as conspiracies are to dabble in, there is no credible evidence to suggest any grand thorium conspiracy and its slow development can be attributed to current market forces and struggles in retrofitting current nuclear technology than anything else.
Thorium very well could change the world, but as anyone who has changed the world before knows, that can take a long time.
So don’t worry…