David Suzuki: Will thorium save us from climate change?

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.

Comments (19) Add New Comment
Renewable Guy

When you account for the effects which are not reflected in the market price of fossil fuels, like air pollution and health impacts, the true cost of coal and other fossil fuels is higher than the cost of most renewable energy technologies.
Rating: +14
Pandora's Promise is a good documentary to explain the pro-thorium and nuclear view.
Rating: +3
1 Solution
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.
Rating: -20
Ivan Raszl
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.
Rating: +25
CO2 O2 balance
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.
Rating: -17
Rudy Haugeneder
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.
Rating: -20
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.
Rating: -8
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.
Rating: +4
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.
Rating: +13
Robert Steinhaus
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
Rating: +3
Skip Bryant
Suzuki's view is in many respects contrary to that of several experts on LFTR, notably, Kirk Sorensen. The other side says the by products are much less and many of them can be used for nuclear medicine, and the weapons material is contaminated to the point of being useless. I wish these experts would get their stories straight so we could either move a light speed forward or forget it. The good word is that Suzuki says nucs are far better than fossils... YEA! Now sell that notion to the idiots in government.
Rating: -2
Gordon McDowell
"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 would say 30-50. Folks I've talked to about Molten Salt Reactors (fueled by either Thorium or Uranium) say with reasonable private investment we could be looking at small (Canadian) operating reactors easily within 10 years.

Dr. Suzuki, do we even have 10 years? I remember when 200ppm of GHG was to be avoided, and now I read about how we're trying to avoid 300ppm. I don't think anyone knows exactly where the tipping point is, and I hope we aren't passing it right now.

But having looked at this since 2009, and read anti-thorium articles exactly like yours every single year since then, I don't think you've taken a good-faith examination of why people are pursuing this.

"All nuclear power remains ... difficult to integrate with intermittent renewables."

Well today's baseload nuclear sure does. But why you would blame BASELOAD energy failing to balance out UNRELIABLE energy is beyond me.

Hydroelectric can balance out the renewables... to the extent this battery-like capability of hydro (delaying the release of water) isn't already being used to our advantage.

Natural Gas can sure balance out renewables... but that emits GHG. And emits EVEN MORE GHG when it is cycling on-and-off inefficiently to balance out the renewables.

Molten Salt Reactors have some flexibility in their output, the rate of fission responding dynamically to the amount of heat pulled from the salt. So we ARE looking at nuclear power which will be compatible with unreliable energy sources.

This video is the best I can do to articulate a pro-thorium position from an environmental perspective...


...which is where I consider myself coming from on this.
Rating: +6
Robert Hargraves
The liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR) is not yet commercial, but several companies are developing plans and raising capital, including Terrestrial Energy, Terrapower, Flibe Energy, Martingale, and a new venture in the UK. LFTR has the potential to generate electric power cheaper than coal, dissuading developing nations from building more coal plants, by virtue of economics. Read the new book THORIUM: energy cheaper than coal, http://www.thoriumenergycheaperthancoal.com, to learn more.
Rating: +9
Eric Robinson
This is the "Dream" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GQ9Ll5EX1jc

Here is a comparative summary of energy density and environmental impact for coal, uranium, and thorium in a molten salt reactor. To generate electricity for a city of 1 million people for 1 year:

1) Mine 3,200,000 tonnes of coal – emit 8,500,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases and particulates – landfill 900,000 cubic metres of toxic/radioactive fly-ash.

2) Mine 50,000 tonnes of uranium ore – emit no greenhouse gases – produce 24 tonnes of long lived radiotoxic ‘waste’. (In a High pressure Light Water Reactor, LWR)

3) Mine 50 tonnes of equivalent thorium ore – emit no greenhouse gases – produce 0.8 tonnes of short lived radiotoxic ‘waste’. (In a Low pressure Molten Salt Reactor, LFTR)
Rating: -1
John-Albert Eadie
This article is incompletely researched!! The IFR Integral Fast Reactor can't melt down (as *is* mentioned in the article), is inherently safe, but also can't be used for making weapons. It was proved in the Argonne labs where it ran safely for decades - and there is plus with IFR - it can burn up the waste from the existing reactors, and waste from the weapons program! The IFR is a real answer to supplementing our other green technologies. One commercial reactor that will be tested in China is GE/Hitachi's PRISM reactor. Please read http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/reaction/interviews/till.html, and other material about PRISM.
Rating: -6
John-Albert Eadie
A better link with respect to safety and other aspects of the IFR solution is http://bravenewclimate.com/2008/12/13/integral-fast-reactor-ifr-nuclear-...
Rating: -1
Relocalizing food is far more important than a new way to make nuclear wastes to poison future generations.

Thorium can be used to make weapons ingredients. Thorium causes cancer and birth defects.

Anyone claiming that this technology is safe should volunteer to help contain the leaking from the Fukushima multiple meltdowns.

We're already using less energy than we were a few years ago due to the start of depletion of fossil fuels. We cannot burn fuels that don't exist. The fact that Canada is mining tar sands and the US is using fracking shows we're scraping the bottom of the barrel, the high quality fossil fuels are past now that we've reached the limits to growth on a round, finite planet.
Rating: +3
" In all of this, there is zero correlation between variation in such low doses and incidence of cancer."
Steve, you are confusing facts and propaganda. There is a correlation between any increase in radiation dose and cancer rates. Why do you think Uranium miners wear exposure badges and astronauts have their time in space limited?

But that argument should be moot. Solar and wind are more reliable than the oil industry wants us to believe. Wind turbines tend to be installed in windy places and they need less maintenance than fossil fuel or nuclear power plants.

Molten salt heat storage and base load power generators are being built today, but they aren't powered by thorium, they are powered by the sun. So we don't need some magical power source that might exist in 10 years, we can get off fossil fuels with current technology.
Rating: -3
Not enough is being said about absorbing and / or removing C02 and other GHGS from the atmosphere.

Even if zero C02 emission were reached today that does not change Climate effects of GHG's.

This is a good video from TED about effectively removing C02 from the atmosphere naturally via Grasslands and Agriculture.

Rating: +4
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