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Nuclear Energy

Published on November 30th, 2011 | by Nicholas Brown


Thorium is More Abundant than Uranium, but Can It Work?

November 30th, 2011 by  

I have heard people tout thorium as the nuclear fuel of the future, and that it is cheaper, safer, and more abundant than uranium due to it’s extremely high density, but, first, you need to understand what the economic problem with traditional (uranium) nuclear reactors is.

According to MIT’s future of nuclear power 2009 analysis, the cost to construct uranium nuclear reactors has been increasing at a rate of 15% since 2002 and they also pointed out that most of the cost of nuclear electricity is the cost to construct the nuclear reactor(s). According to the same MIT analysis I mentioned above, the cost of nuclear power increased from 6.7 cents per kWh in 2002 to 8.4 cents per kWh in 2009.

According to MIT, most of the cost of nuclear electricity is actually the cost to construct the nuclear reactors (capital cost), not the fuel. Nuclear power plants have a high capital cost and low fuel cost. Even I was surprised to learn that at first since the fuel is so expensive. But this is because nuclear reactors consume very little fuel.

Most power plants (excluding, solar, wind, and geothermal) are the opposite, financially. They have a low capital cost, and a very high fuel cost (due to high fuel consumption).

My main point is that in order for thorium-fueled power plants to be considerably cheaper, their capital cost would have to be considerably lower than that of traditional uranium reactors. If not, they could only be marginally cheaper, because, as I said, most of the cost of nuclear electricity is the capital cost of the plant.

Other factors to take into consideration are how much fuel thorium reactors consume. If they consume much more than traditional reactors, then the relatively low cost of thorium would not be able to solve the problem.

Potential benefits of using thorium:

  • Even though most of the cost of nuclear electricity is the capital cost of the plant, 30% of the cost is fuel and maintenance, so don’t rule out the importance of the lower fuel cost.
  • If thorium reactors are as safe as proponents claim they are, they may not need to be constructed like fortresses as traditional reactors are to contain disasters and radiation. Fortresses are very expensive.
  • Some thorium can be obtained as a byproduct of rare earth material mining of monazite. This has a sustainability advantage, since obtaining thorium from it requires no additional mining, which can be environmentally destructive and comes with a financial cost as well.

Read more about the thorium fuel cycle here.

Have more info on thorium, like whether or not the waste created really is insignificant, and whether or not the capital costs really are much lower than traditional nuclear plants? Please fill us in.

Related Stories:

  1. TerraPower Developing Nuclear Reactors that Run on Depleted Uranium
  2. Will Peak Uranium Hit Nuclear Plants?
  3. French Thumb Nose At Nuclear Power

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About the Author

writes on CleanTechnica, Gas2, Kleef&Co, and Green Building Elements. He has a keen interest in physics-intensive topics such as electricity generation, refrigeration and air conditioning technology, energy storage, and geography. His website is: Kompulsa.com.

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