David Suzuki: Will thorium save us from climate change?

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      As knowledge about climate change increases, so does demand for clean energy. Technologies like solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, tidal, and biofuels, along with energy-grid designs that will help us take advantage of renewables, are part of the equation, as is conservation.

      But many argue that, despite Fukushima and other disasters, nuclear is the best option to reduce carbon emissions fast enough to avoid catastrophic climate change. Because of problems with radioactive waste, meltdown risks, and weapons proliferation, some say we must develop safer nuclear technologies.

      Even eminent climate scientists like James Hansen claim we can’t avoid nuclear if we want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Hansen, a former NASA scientist, with Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution, Kerry Emanuel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Tom Wigley of Australia’s University of Adelaide, wrote an open letter last year stating, “the time has come for those who take the threat of global warming seriously to embrace the development and deployment of safer nuclear power systems.”

      What are “safer nuclear power systems”? And are they the answer?

      Proposed technologies include smaller modular reactors, reactors that shut down automatically after an accident, and molten salt reactors. Some would use fuels and coolants deemed safer. (Industry proponents argue the low incidence of nuclear accidents means current technology is safe enough. But the costs and consequences of an accident, as well as problems such as containing highly radioactive wastes, provide strong arguments against building new reactors with current technology.)

      One idea is to use thorium instead of uranium for reactor fuel. Thorium is more abundant than uranium. Unlike uranium, it’s not fissile; that is, it can’t be split to create a nuclear chain reaction, so it must be bred through nuclear reactors to produce fissile uranium.

      Thorium-fuelled reactors produce less waste, and while some trace elements in spent uranium fuels remain radioactive for many thousands of years, levels in spent thorium fuels drop off much faster. China and Canada are working on a modified Canadian design that includes thorium along with recycled uranium fuel. With the right type of reactor, such as this design or the integral fast reactor, meltdown risks are reduced or eliminated.

      Thorium can be employed in a variety of reactor types, some of which currently use uranium—including heavy water reactors like Canada’s CANDU. But some experts say new technologies, such as molten salt reactors, including liquid fluoride thorium reactors, are much safer and more efficient than today’s conventional reactors.

      So why aren’t we using them?

      Although they may be better than today’s reactors, LFTRs still produce radioactive and corrosive materials, they can be used to produce weapons and we don’t know enough about the impacts of using fluoride salts. Fluoride will contain a nuclear reaction, but it can be highly toxic, and deadly as fluorine gas. And though the technology’s been around since the 1950s, it hasn’t been proven on a commercial scale. Countries including the U.S., China, France, and Russia are pursuing it, but in 2010 the U.K.’s National Nuclear Laboratory reported that thorium claims are “overstated”.

      It will also take a lot of time and money to get a large number of reactors on-stream—some say from 30 to 50 years. Given the urgent challenge of global warming, we don’t have that much time. Many argue that if renewables received the same level of government subsidies as the nuclear industry, we’d be ahead at lower costs. Thorium essentially just adds another fuel option to the nuclear mix and isn’t a significant departure from conventional nuclear. All nuclear power remains expensive, unwieldy and difficult to integrate with intermittent renewables—and carries risks for weapons proliferation.

      If the choice is between keeping nuclear power facilities running or shutting them down and replacing them with coal-fired power plants, the nuclear option is best for the climate. But, for now, investing in renewable energy and smart-grid technologies is a faster, more cost-effective, and safer option than building new nuclear facilities, regardless of type.

      That doesn’t mean we should curtail research into nuclear and other options, including thorium’s potential to improve the safety and efficiency of nuclear facilities. But we must also build on the momentum of renewable energy development, which has been spurred by its safety, declining costs, and proven effectiveness.

      With contributions from David Suzuki Foundation senior editor Ian Hanington. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.

       

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      Marco

      Feb 11, 2014 at 7:32pm

      Pandora's Promise is a good documentary to explain the pro-thorium and nuclear view.

      1 Solution

      Feb 11, 2014 at 7:34pm

      Pre-industrial revolution technology and a collective awareness that "progress" is not progress is the only solution. Let's live instead of being poisoned to death by technology.

      Ivan Raszl

      Feb 11, 2014 at 7:49pm

      Disingenuous article.

      RE: "Although they may be better than today’s reactors, LFTRs still produce radioactive and corrosive materials, they can be used to produce weapons and we don’t know enough about the impacts of using fluoride salts. Fluoride will contain a nuclear reaction, but it can be highly toxic, and deadly as fluorine gas. And though the technology’s been around since the 1950s, it hasn’t been proven on a commercial scale. Countries including the U.S., China, France, and Russia are pursuing it, but in 2010 the U.K.’s National Nuclear Laboratory reported that thorium claims are “overstated”."

      We haven't been developing or building these Th reactors since the 1950s so they could be tested on a commercial scale as the article suggests. The project was shelved because they are not good for nuclear weapons.

      RE: "It will also take a lot of time and money to get a large number of reactors on-stream—some say from 30 to 50 years. Given the urgent challenge of global warming, we don’t have that much time. "

      Some say? Who are those some? People who have a stake in dismissing it?

      The reality is that we're likely to be able to create Thorium nuclear reactors that could displace fossil fuels much faster (within 10 years) than we develop some hypothetical solution we have no idea about with solar and wind that could provide base load. We know exactly what to do with Thorium, we just need money to actually build a test reactor and then go into production. There is no unknown technology we need to make it happen. With solar and wind we need some major breakthrough for significantly increased efficiency and battery technology which may not happen for 20 years and we don't have that much time as you said.

      I support research into solar and wind, but since it's not viable for base load the reality is that if we don't do clean and green nuclear we will end up with solar, wind and coal, gas for base load.

      Conclusion is wrong in the article. Research into solar and wind should not displace nuclear. We should work on both and use both to get rid of fossils.

      CO2 O2 balance

      Feb 11, 2014 at 8:00pm

      Come on Dave. You're a smart person. We have too many people emitting too much CO2 and we have a transit authority operating diesel buses rather than hydro-powered trolleybuses on trolleybus routes.

      You're blaming the symptoms for the problem. We just have too many people and not enough plants producing O2 as well as fuck ups at TransLink.

      Rudy Haugeneder

      Feb 11, 2014 at 8:49pm

      Nothing will save the planet's environment and climate other than reducing the global population by 90% over the next two or three decades -- leaving more than 200 million more people than lived on the planet at the time Columbus landed in the Americas and when there were a half billion of us worldwide.
      Drastic yes, but perhaps the only answer. There must be a civil and voluntary way of reaching that goal, or it must be enacted by the elites.

      Donald

      Feb 11, 2014 at 10:37pm

      Wind is one of the most reliable sources of energy and improves grid reliability. Solar thermal with heat storage can be used for base loads. Solar PV is already on par with coal cost wise. (even not including coal's pollution costs)
      So I almost completely agree with Dr. Suzuki. My only beef, is with his ok to research safer thorium and nuclear reactors. I see no reason we can't eliminate them entirely.
      As for the position that there are too many people. That is only partly right, but the real problems are consumption and impact. We can do little to reduce population in the short term, but we can do much to reduce our impact.
      http://www.abc.net.au/environment/articles/2014/01/22/3926001.htm

      marius

      Feb 12, 2014 at 5:24am

      actually, the best and fastest method to reduce CO2 and other greenhouse gases is to stop eating meat. According to UN stats, livestock production produces more greenhouse gasses than all the cars, trucks, buses, planes and ships in the world combined. As an added benefit more food is grown, more people fed and more plants are available to absorb more CO2. but I think most people care more about eating meat than actually doing something for the environment.

      Steve

      Feb 12, 2014 at 6:42am

      Two problems I have with this:
      1) low-level radiation is nowhere near as dangerous as many claim. We normally see about 3mSv of ionizing radiation per year from natural sources. Airline pilots, people living in Denver (CO) get much higher exposure. People living in certain areas with specific geology (high concentration of near-surface Uranium, Thorium, Radium deposits) can receive doses up to 200mSv /year. Astronauts are permitted annual exposure limits of 500mSv/year. In all of this, there is zero correlation between variation in such low doses and incidence of cancer. The Fukushima evacuation zone is defined by 20mSv/year, a limit chosen by a politically-motivated international bodies. If we used scientifically established maximum safe dose limits, Fukushima would not have even registered! Even the IAEA says it is time to let these people return home. UNSCEAR and WHO have agreed that no one will be injured as a consequence of the release of radionuclides. Politically inspired radiophobia is the true cancer on the body-politic because it is standing in the way of true solutions to non-polluting energy supplies for ALL humanity. More here: http://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2013/01/11/like-weve-been-saying-... . In the history of civilian nuclear power, only Chernobyl has killed anyone. What other large-scale energy industry can make such a claim over the past 25-30 years?
      2) It is a falsehood to say nuclear takes too long vs. renewables. Total nonsense. A reactor might take a long time when everyone is working against it, but when a political/regulatory/supply-chain are working TOGETHER, it can be sped up tremendously. Lets not forget, ONE reactor will produce as much reliable energy as TWO THOUSAND unreliable wind turbines! China currently has reactors being completed in 4-5 years. France puts a complete lie to this claim based on historical evidence. They went nuclear, essentially decarbonizing their national grid in about 20 years. Look at the data, from BraveNewClimate: http://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/programs/energy-and-climate/nuclear...

      I'm sorry Dr. Suzuki if these facts are inconvenient.

      Robert Steinhaus

      Feb 12, 2014 at 8:08am

      Nuclear fusion is cleaner than any form of nuclear fission. The fuel (Deuterium) separated from sea water used in D-D fusion is totally non-radioactive and the nuclear waste produced by fusion (helium) is also totally non-radioactive.
      Unfortunately, there is only one form of fusion that produces any net energy (more energy out than the energy required to power the fusion experiment) and is currently practical. That form of fusion is called PACER fusion. PACER fusion, like all inertial confinement fusion concepts (LLNL National Ignition Facility, Sandia z-Pinch, Naval Research Lab’s Laser Fusion, etc.) produces power from fusion by small controlled fusion explosions. PACER fusion is a field tested and proven fusion technology that produces net energy (at the Gigawatt level) which other fusion programs only promise to deliver in 20 - 50 years. PACER fusion requires no physics or technology breakthroughs to build and could reliably produce Gigawatts of electrical power from fusion in less than 3 years. PACER fusion uses a tiny amount of fissile material, as little as 0.25 grams in the smallest designs, and about 16 grams of cryo-deuterium liquid to produce the conditions necessary to reliably ignite a D-D fusion plasma. Modern PACER devices require a fusion driver (heavy ion accelerator or laser) to ignite the fission-fusion assembly.

      The time since the earth first formed = 4.54 billion years.
      The time until the sun burns out = 5 billion years.
      The deuterium in the sea is capable of completely powering planet earth at a level of 60 Terawatts for 8.33 billion years
      Documents relating to PACER fusion - http://goo.gl/ZKGuQ
      Practical fusion to fully power the planet longer than the earth has existed or the sun will burn
      http://goo.gl/g5ycR

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