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Thorium

It seems that, as of lately thorium is steadily increasing in popularity, as an alternative to traditional nuclear fuels. Here's Mr. Kirk Sorensen in a TED video advocating the use of thorium. Thorium even has a nice, green website, among other resources expounding on how awesome it is.

The general picture projected by thorium advocates is that it is very much like a silver bullet for the energy crisis. This sounds wonderful, but also too good to be true. If it's as good as they say, how come thorium reactors are not common ? Surely it has disadvantages as well ?

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    @Mihai it'll be interesting to see the impact thorium will have in the future of nuclear power, especially given things like the backyard reactor, possible for 2013? Jun 21, 2011 at 22:29
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    @Monkey Tuesday most definitely; as described in the article you linked, the backyard reactor is unlikely to succeed - esp. after Fukushima. A lot of people don't want reactors in their country, much less in their backyards. This idea reminds me of the Russian floating reactors, which according to a group of Russian scientists, cannot be guaranteed to be safe from terrorist attacks. This would probably apply to the backyard reactors as well. However, thorium eliminates these concerns, so it would be very interesting indeed. Jun 22, 2011 at 9:38
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    "Can thorium end the energy crisis" Even a Dyson Sphere won't end the "energy crisis", which is just shorthand for "People want more energy, more cheaply than we now get it. "how come thorium reactors are not common" Because they're expensive, untried, and no one wants to invest nearly a billion dollars in such a venture because the risk of failure is greater than with conventional nuclear technology. "Surely it has disadvantages as well" Yes, primarily its low energy output, and there's still the problem with waste. "Is it a silver bullet" type questions are not skeptical.
    – Adam Davis
    Jul 5, 2011 at 23:17
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    @Adam: high cost is, of course, to be expected for new or untried technologies - but the potential of a high ROI is usually enough to "get the ball rolling". About the energy output - Mr. Sorensen claims that thorium can be 200 times more efficient than current uranium reactors. Maybe you could elaborate on your points in an answer ? Jul 6, 2011 at 10:38
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    @Mihai I don't believe this is a good question for this site. How can anyone possibly answer whether a new technology is or isn't a "silver bullet" for a problem when 1) the problem isn't really a problem and 2) the technology is still being researched.
    – Adam Davis
    Jul 6, 2011 at 14:38

2 Answers 2

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Can thorium end the energy crisis?

No, it cannot.

The current "energy crisis" is basically the high price of crude oil, on the demand side driven mainly by the transportation sector. And it's not going to change soon:

The transportation sector accounts for the largest increment in total liquids demand, making up nearly 80 percent of the world increase.

Source: http://www.eia.gov/oiaf/ieo/liquid_fuels.html

There is no "energy crisis" in case of electric energy. In fact, in case of electricity supply grows faster, than demand.

There are no plans for nuclear powered cars. For electric ones there is already a surplus of electricity, thus having more efficient nuclear power doesn't change much in that equation. It has many other advantages, but that's beyond scope of this question.

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    Actually, I suspect the real crisis lies in the fact that while you can just cavalierly erect new coal-powered reactors to deal with electricity demand, it's not such a great idea from a pollution standpoint (in many different aspects, including the wholesale production of particulate uranium into the air).
    – Ernie
    Jul 26, 2011 at 21:31
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    do reference why you think there's a surplus of electricity. Whatever data I see suggests otherwise, that we're headed for major blackouts due to the closing of coal fired plants without replacements (due to "environmental" regulations and that even with the current output a major increase of electric car use would lead to the grid becoming overstressed (of course this will be different per country or even region)
    – jwenting
    Aug 4, 2011 at 8:43
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    Thorium (presumably) creates energy. Cars consume energy. Different forms of energy can be converted into each other... leading to far more opportunities (and problems) than this answer covers.
    – NPSF3000
    Jul 19, 2015 at 2:53
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    @vartec "Having more (cheaper) electricity in the grid does not solve transportation problem." How do you know? What impact would it have on competitiveness of Rail? Would Hydrogen become more common? Would 3D printing (and other local manufacturing) reduce need for transport? Would biofuels be produced more cheaply? Arguing that cheap electricity can't change transportation... well is kinda like arguing oil can't change your horse's fuel needs.
    – NPSF3000
    Jul 20, 2015 at 21:37
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    @vartec where did I say the grid is an issue? "Batteries are the issue" - so, how would a massive supply of cheap/free clean energy change batteries? " it's failed, as we do have cars running on oil" We also have cars running on batteries, biofuel, hydrogen, solar panels etc. You keep thinking about direct impact, but seem to be ignoring indirect impacts. "but we will not have cars running on thorium" Citation needed.
    – NPSF3000
    Jul 20, 2015 at 22:53
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A short summary of what I understand are the key points in Kirk Sorenson's presentations. He is very good at providing sources for all his claims, so I won't repeat most of them here.

  1. Nuclear power is essential for reducing pollution, including atmospheric CO2. This is based on its energy density (up to 6 orders of magnitude).[1]

  2. Thorium is far more plentiful than uranium[2], and does not need to be enriched to be used as a nuclear fuel. Thorium is not fissile like Uranium-235, but it is fertile: if it is exposed to neutrons it becomes fissile in the form of U-233.

  3. A Molten Salt Reactor, like the one demonstrated at Oak Ridge in the late 1960s, is inherently safe, and more efficient than Pressurized Water Reactors.

  4. With a source of cheap and plentiful electricity, we could synthesize fuel usable in conventional vehicles at reasonable cost (comparable to or cheaper than present prices). These fuels would be nearly carbon-neutral because they would be synthesized using atmospheric CO2. Dimethyl ether is one suggestion as a direct substitute for diesel fuel.

Based on those points, Thorium is a very good candidate to end the "artificial energy crisis". [3]

Suggested resources:

[1] https://web.archive.org/web/20220523032927/https://cdn.nanalyze.com/uploads/2021/03/energy-density-of-fuel-sources.jpg

[2] http://www.daretothink.org/numbers-not-adjectives/how-long-will-our-supplies-of-uranium-and-thorium-last/

[3] http://www.daretothink.org/shortest-intro-to-molten-salt-the-thorium-reactor/

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    You've made some good points here, but you do not seem to consider the reasons that thorium might not (or has not yet) ended energy problems.
    – inund8
    Jan 13, 2023 at 21:06
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    The question asked if it is possible, not why it hasn't. The reasons that thorium (or any nuclear energy solution) might not or have not yet ended energy problems is almost entirely political will, not technical or scientific.
    – mopani
    Jan 15, 2023 at 22:55
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    I would also advise against going into the fourth point - synthesising combustible fuels using atmospheric CO2 and electricity would be an entirely independent breakthrough. It would essentially be a way to replace batteries, not power stations, since we can already use electricity directly instead of such fuels. Its only relevance is that it might actually be more important to look for such energy storage solutions than to investigate the generation possibilities of thorium.
    – IMSoP
    Jan 16, 2023 at 12:50
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    @IMSoP You make a very good point about distinguishing between providing sources and sources that are high quality. My comment was not on the quality of sources that Sorensen cites, but simply to point anyone with an interest in pursuing it further in the appropriate direction so that they can determine for themselves the quality of Sorenen's sources.
    – mopani
    Jan 17, 2023 at 20:24
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    @IMSoP Re: the fourth point -- this is one of Sorensen's arguments. He cites processes already developed (at least in the laboratory) that would make this feasible; scaling up the process to the volume required is assumed to yet be determined.
    – mopani
    Jan 17, 2023 at 20:26

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