With Asia expecting to see significant nuclear energy growth in the coming decades, thorium-based nuclear power could emerge as the answer for a reliable and safe energy solution for ASEAN, given that increasing economic growth will necessitate the development of reliable and safe energy solutions and energy infrastructure.
According to a 2013 World Energy Outlook report from OECD/IEA, nuclear energy has “…a limited role in Southeast Asia over the Outlook period. This reflects the complexities of developing a nuclear power programme and the slow progress to date of most countries that have included nuclear in their long-term plans.
To date, Vietnam is the most active ASEAN nation, currently undertaking site preparation, work force training and the creation of a legal framework. Moreover, it has signed a co-operative agreement with Russia to build its first nuclear power plant. Nuclear energy is expected to enter the power mix before 2025.
Thailand has included nuclear power in its Power Development Plan from 2026. This is due to limited indigenous energy resources, a key driver behind this development. Thailand is projected to produce nuclear power before 2030. So why the consideration of thorium?
A naturally occurring radioactive chemical element that has several advantages over uranium and plutonium, thorium is both more abundant and produces significantly less nuclear waste, with lower radioactivity levels than uranium. With peak oil being a significant long-term concern, ASEAN has to plan ahead in order to maintain its energy security.
According to information from the World Nuclear Association: “The thorium fuel cycle offers enormous energy security benefits in the long-term – due to its potential for being a self-sustaining fuel without the need for fast neutron reactors.”
There are significant ecological costs associated with the continued use of hydrocarbon energy (i.e. fossil fuels) like coal. Notwithstanding the threat posed to energy security by peak oil, China has exemplified how industrialisation brings ecological costs. The health impact of coal power stations has been clearly documented.
Mostly found within the rare earth phosphate mineral monazite, two-thirds of global reserves exist in heavy mineral sands deposits on the southern and eastern coasts of the Indian subcontinent. Substantial deposits also exist in Australia, Brazil, Canada and Malaysia. This places a crucial energy resource in region with existing economic and logistical links to Southeast Asian nations.
Aside from its superior energy density compared to uranium and greater natural abundance, liquid fluoride thorium reactors (LFTRs) are designed to be meltdown-proof, with the thorium fuel being drained to subterranean storage should a power failure occur or if temperatures exceed a set limit.
Mining thorium is safer and more efficient than mining uranium, with superior cost efficiency and less environmental damage than uranium mining. It us also impractical to manufacture nuclear bombs from a thorium reactor’s byproducts.
Alvin Radkowsky, who designed the worlds first full-scale atomic electric power plant, explained: “A thorium reactor’s plutonium production rate would be less than 2 percent of that of a standard reactor, and the plutonium’s isotopic content would make it unsuitable for a nuclear detonation.”
It also produces much less nuclear waste than uranium, eliminating the need for infrastructure dealing with its long term storage and disposal. Chinese scientists have claimed that hazardous waste from thorium will be a thousand times less than with uranium, with its radio-toxicity declining to safe levels after just a few centuries, compared to the several millennia needed for uranium nuclear waste.
In essence, the thorium fuel cycle is a potential way to produce long term nuclear energy with low radio-toxic waste, and can be done through incinerating weapons grade plutonium (WPu) or civilian plutonium, according to information from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
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Thorium is already being used in India’s nuclear power programme, with countries like Germany, Russia, France, Canada and China experimenting with thorium as a substitute nuclear fuel. Japan and Israel are also among the countries evaluating thorium’s potential as an energy resource. Thorium reactors are currently at a development stage where they possess generating capacities of between 10-100 megawatts.
This puts them into a category where they have clear and compelling cost and manufacturing benefits. For instance, they could be deployed as energy solutions for powering remote off-grid areas (i.e. mining operations) in Indonesia.
Nobel laureate Carlo Rubbia, a physicist of CERN, has estimated that one tonne of thorium can produce as much energy as 200 tonnes of uranium, or 3,500,000 tonnes of coal. This renders thorium an ideal substitute for ensuring the energy security of most ASEAN countries, particularly Indonesia. The majority of Indonesia’s energy needs are currently med by coal, which brings significant long-term healthcare and ecological costs.
There are significant challenges that ASEAN will have to surmount in order to develop a robust regional nuclear infrastructure and industrial ecosystem. Amongst there are developing independent regulatory agencies and building a skilled work force able to build, operate and maintain the nuclear infrastructure that the region requires.
According to Nuclear Energy Insider, typical nuclear power stations use uranium as their fuel source, but thorium reactors can offer greater safety, significantly reduced waste and superior fuel efficiency. With these reduced externalities and benefits to the energy security of most states, this merits serious consideration of thorium as an energy commodity, versus the use of uranium and all its associated costs, tangible and intangible.
Kirk Sorensen, a former NASA rocket engineer and currently co-founder at nuclear technology firm Flibe Energy stated: “Once you start looking more closely, it blows your mind away. You can run civilisation on thorium for hundreds of thousands of years, and it’s essentially free. You don’t have to deal with uranium cartels.”
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