R/€ = 15.24Change: 0.00
R/$ = 14.41Change: -0.03
Au 1057.95 $/ozChange: 0.07
Pt 835.50 $/ozChange: 0.00
Note: Search is limited to the most recent 250 articles. Set date range to access earlier articles.
Where? With... When?

And must exclude these words...
Close Main Search
Close Main Login
My Profile News Alerts Newsletters Logout Close Main Profile
Agriculture   Automotive   Chemicals   Competition Policy   Construction   Defence   Economy   Electricity   Energy   Environment   ICT   Metals   Mining   Science and Technology   Services   Trade   Transport & Logistics   Water  
What's On Press Office Tenders Suppliers Directory Research Jobs Announcements Letters About Us
RSS Feed
Article   Comments   Other News   Research   Magazine  
Apr 06, 2012

Does thorium have a future as an alternative to uranium?

Cape Town|Africa|India|Mining|Modular|Nuclear|Nuclear Support Group|Safety|Technology|Waste|Water|Africa|Norway|South Africa|United States|South African Institute Of Mining|Energy|Product|Thorium Technology|Environmental|Bush|Power|Waste|Renewables Technologies|Thorium Technology
© Reuse this

Irecently attended a thorium conference in Cape Town hosted by the South African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy.

There is a concerted effort to revive the idea of thorium as a better and ‘greener’ alternative to uranium. I would not classify thorium as ‘green’, but the experts tell us that it has four key properties that make it superior to uranium: you need less thorium to produce the same amount of energy, compared with uranium; thorium is more abundant than uranium (three to four times more); thorium cannot be used to make bombs because of its ‘proliferation resistance’ property (except that it does generate fissionable materials, such as U233, and its radioactive waste is said to be less dangerous and has a shorter half-life than uranium waste.

Thorium’s history confirms why it was never an option for atom bombs. There were thorium reactors in the 1950s and 1960s; US and German scientist worked on the reactors. The reactors were actually functional but not commercially available. By and large, these reactor programmes were abandoned for uranium-based reactors because the latter could be used to generate energy and to produce weapons-grade uranium and plutonium.

India has a big thorium reactor programme and seeks to be a leading country in thorium development. You will not hear much about it because it is quite a secret, following a pact India signed with the US during the George W Bush era. India never signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, despite having nuclear bombs, which it actually tested at some point. So, India had to get the US’s nod for it to access critical technology from the Nuclear Support Group for its civilian nuclear programme. India has large deposits of thorium and this explains its urgency to develop thorium technology.

Commercially developed thorium reactors may not be very far off. There are two major developments as far as this story goes: Norway, in partnership with other countries, is racing to develop a commercially viable thorium fuel cycle to replace uranium-enriched rods for current light water reactors with thorium fuel, and India – and perhaps other countries as well – is looking at fourth-generation nuclear reactors as the next revolution in nuclear generation with many more modular formats similar to what we tried for the pebble-bed modular reactor (PBMR).

Norway’s commercialproofing can be done in the next five years at substantially lower costs than those associated with the PBMR. I am not a supporter of nuclear power but, clearly, the Norwegians, who do not even have nuclear power, have worked out a very strategic niche and role for themselves. We should apply their ‘nose’ for strategic niches to the development of cutting-edge renewables technologies.

Our nuclear industry should learn the hard lesson about developing new nuclear technologies: going big, bulky ends up being slow and costly. India’s thorium reactors are still a very long way from being proven. When the Indians decide to be less secretive, they may spring a surprise on us or they may come out clean on how foolhardy their whole endeavour may have been.

From what we know, India is looking at having a fast-breeder thorium reactor of about 300 MW up and ready by 2013 or so. We will wait and see whether this really happens.

South Africa also sits with large deposits of thorium. In fact, we have a mine called Steenkampskraal – which was last operational in the 1950s – which produced some thorium that was probably supplied to the US thorium reactors.

Steenkampskraal is being reopened, but not for thorium production – it has one of the largest deposits of high-grade monazite, an ore that contains generous amounts of thorium and rare-earth oxides (REOs). Monazite is also a waste product of mineral sands mining. So we sit on all of this ‘waste’ which is thought to have great value if commercial use for thorium can be found. This explains the big interest in thorium from the South African side.

The irony is that green technologies which use all sorts of REOs could end up making thorium as an alternative to uranium a viable option. Even digging REOs for green technologies is not without its problems and challenges. This is because an increase in the volumes REOs mined results in an increase in the radioactive waste pile, which goes unnoticed by the environmental lobby linked to the mining or disposal of monazite. I do not know the exact levels of radiotoxicity and the extent of the problem, but it does exist.

I am personally sceptical about thorium for now. I suppose the same things that bug me about nuclear energy would play themselves out in my thought processing of thorium.

These would be issues of waste of public funds, safety, the disposal of radioactive waste and the interest of big money in sucking the public purse for profit. But, as I am a great fan of open-mindedness, I will keep my mind open for now. However, as is always the case, as you go along the journey of discovery, you will find that you have more questions than answers.

Edited by: Martin Zhuwakinyu
Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor
© Reuse this Comment Guidelines (150 word limit)
Other Saliem Fakir News
Schumpeter once wrote: "There is certainly no point in trying to conserve obsolescent industries indefinitely; but there is a point in trying to avoid their coming down with a crash and in attempting to turn a rout into an orderly retreat." This is not about...
South Africa is fourteenth out of the 20 or so worst emitters of greenhouse gases. Today or historically, we account for between 1% and 2% of global emissions. Even though this may be considered small, South Africa’s position as a developing but emerging economy...
The African National Congress's (ANC's)  National General Council (NGC) discussion document was released a few weeks ago and makes for an interesting read. This article will focus on the economic transformation chapter. Those who have doubts that the ANC is behind...
Latest News
Updated 7 hours ago French conglomerate Bollore may have to halt work on the Niger to Benin section of its giant West Africa rail project after a rival company won a court order to stop it going ahead. The dispute concerns rival rail schemes in the area.
Updated 7 hours ago A week ahead of the second annual gathering of the Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (Focac), in Johannesburg, the JSE is rolling out the proverbial red carpet for Chinese investors looking to Africa’s largest bourse for possible investment opportunities, calling...
Updated 7 hours ago The South African National Roads Agency Limited (Sanral) applied for leave to appeal on Friday against the Western Cape High Court judgment that set aside the approvals that would enable it to toll sections of the N1 and N2 freeways in Cape Town. This prompted the...
Recent Research Reports
Water 2015: A review of South Africa's water sector (PDF Report)
Creamer Media’s Water 2015 Report considers the aforementioned issues, not only in the South African context but also in the African and global context in terms of supply and demand, water stress and insecurity, and access to water and sanitation, besides others.
Input Sector Review: Pumps 2015 (PDF Report)
Creamer Media’s 2015 Input Sector Review on Pumps provides an overview of South Africa’s pumps industry with particular focus on pump manufacture and supply, aftermarket services, marketing strategies, local and export demand, imports, sector support, investment...
Liquid Fuels 2015: A review of South Africa's liquid fuels sector (PDF Report)
Creamer Media’s Liquid Fuels 2015 Report examines these issues in the context of South Africa’s business environment; oil and gas exploration; fuel pricing; the development of the country’s biofuels industry; the logistics of transporting liquid fuels; and...
Road and Rail 2015: A review of South Africa's road and rail sectors (PDF Report)
Creamer Media’s Road and Rail 2015 report examines South Africa’s road and rail transport system, with particular focus on the size and state of the country’s road and rail infrastructure and network, the funding and maintenance of these respective networks, and...
Defence 2015: A review of South Africa's defence sector (PDF Report)
Creamer Media’s Coal 2015 report examines South Africa’s coal industry with regards to the business environment, the key participants in the sector, local demand, export sales and coal logistics, projects being undertaken by the large and smaller participants in the...
Real Economy Year Book 2015 (PDF Report)
There are very few beacons of hope on South Africa’s economic horizon. Economic growth is weak, unemployment is rising, electricity supply is insufficient to meet demand and/or spur growth, with poor prospects for many of the commodities mined and exported. However,...
This Week's Magazine
The BMW Group will invest R6-billion at BMW Group South Africa’s (BMW SA’s) Rosslyn plant to produce the next-generation X3 sports-activity vehicle (SAV) for the local and export markets. Rosslyn will continue production of the current 3 Series through its lifecycle,...
The lack of consequences for poor performance and transgressions on the part of contractors remains a significant hurdle to tackling South Africa’s service delivery challenges, delegates heard at the Consulting Engineers South Africa Infrastructure Indaba, on...
City of Ekurhuleni executive mayor Mondli Gungubele earlier this month officially named the city’s bus rapid transit (BRT) system, Harambee.
NICK CHRISTODOULOU As about 58% of data stored by organisations is dark, they must identify this dark data to expose risks and valuable information
About 58% of unstructured data stored by companies is dark data, which means that the value or regulatory importance of the data has not been determined. Subsequently, most of the stored data add costs, rather than increasing revenue or reduce regulatory risks, says...
BRIAN VERWEY Effective management, review and administration of non-core elements can improve business operations and increase revenue and decrease unforeseen risks
Effective logistics, import/export and manufacturing consulting services require detailed industry knowledge and experience, but can add significant value to these industries by providing expert advice on various technical elements in their value chains, says...
Alert Close
Embed Code Close
Research Reports Close
Research Reports are a product of the
Research Channel Africa. Reports can be bought individually or you can gain full access to all reports as part of a Research Channel Africa subscription.
Find Out More Buy Report
Engineering News
Completely Re-Engineered
Experience it now. Click here
*website to launch in a few weeks
Subscribe Now for $96 Close
Subscribe Now for $96