Will Thorium Save Us All?

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Image: Science & Technology Facilities Council

In your Friday edition of "technology will save us," the Daily Mail tells us that scientists in Britain have created EMMA, the Electron Model of Many Applications, a cute-as-a-button particle accelerator (pictured above), duplicates of which could be used in thorium reactors that would solve all our energy problems. Or that's what thorium advocates say, anyway. As they explain:

One ton of thorium can produce as much energy as 200 tons of uranium, or 3.5 million tons of coal, and the thorium deposits that have already been identified would meet the entire world's energy needs for at least 10,000 years. Unlike uranium, it’s easy and cheap to refine, and it's far less toxic. Happily, it produces energy without producing any carbon dioxide: so an economy that ran on thorium power would have virtually no carbon footprint.

Better still, a thorium reactor would be incapable of having a meltdown, and would generate only 0.6 per cent of the radioactive waste of a conventional nuclear plant. It could even be adapted to 'burn' existing, stockpiled uranium waste in its core, thus enormously reducing its radioactive half-life and toxicity.

Without going too far into the technical details, a small accelerator like EMMA could be used to charge the fission reaction in a thorium reactor. China is exploring its own version of a thorium reactor, though interest in the US, at least among those with the power to do something about it, seems rather tepid (if you're interested, there's a long article from Wired on thorium here).

So could thorium reactors save us all? Not being a nuclear physicist, I can't really say. Just from reading here and there about it, there seem to be some knowledgeable people who say yes, and others who are more skeptical. So the answer is...maybe! Personally, I'm hoping that the project at the National Ignition Facility (I explained here) is what produces limitless clean energy and therefore saves us all, mostly because that one involves a fantastically enormous laser.