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Homegrown Power:  Why Thorium May Save The World

Thorium is a greener form of energy with huge possibilities for the future. Thorium is a greener form of energy with huge possibilities for the future.

Few will deny that fossil fuels are an archaic technology that need to be replaced as our primary power source. Our use of petroleum-based power accounts for a vast majority of the world's air pollution and contributes in no small way to global warming. Catastrophes like the recent BP oil spill have devastated communities and ocean-dwelling organisms, bringing more attention to the dangerous nature of our primary fuel source.

Additionally, energy is a huge expense for many Americans, with gas prices affecting everything from the obvious pain at the gas pump to food and other commodities that must be shipped, often halfway across the world, before arriving at your local supermarket or retail store. In our already tough economy, these extra expenses are even more difficult for struggling families to afford.

Many scientists who advocate continued research into thorium will attest that one golf ball sized piece of the stuff could power an individual's energy use for their entire lifetime.

In this climate, alternative energy sources like solar, hydroelectric, wind, and geothermal power are gaining ground. Nuclear power has been in use for decades, but because of safety and environmental concerns as well as political reasons, nuclear power has always faced serious opposition in the US; never becoming as popular in this country as it has in other parts of the world.

Historic disasters like Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and last year's tsunami and subsequent meltdown of the Fukushima Daichi Power Plant in Japan have shown us the devastating problems that can accompany conventional nuclear energy. This, along with the closures of plants across the US and the rest of the world due to safety concerns and leakages, has put the brakes on traditional uranium-based nuclear power creation across the world.

But what if there was a nuclear power source that, when used properly, could never cause another disaster like Fukushima? Well, there just may be. Popularity has been growing behind thorium, a radioactive element that has been recently finding new advocates in the scientific and environmental communities.

Although thorium has been used for decades in a variety of ways and in some nuclear power reactors since the early 1960s, an obsession with national security coupled with political pressure meant uranium was chosen as the ideal nuclear option, rather than its much less threatening counterpart, thorium. At the time, US priorities were with the Military Industrial Complex, for which uranium is the obvious choice because of its uses in nuclear weapons technology. It seems that a nation just isn’t anyone nowadays without "The Bomb."

Nuclear giant and up-and-coming economic superpower India is the first country to get fully behind thorium power.

Thorium is not only a much less volatile and radioactive substance in its natural form -- no glowing green slime here, only a hard, silvery grey stone that can be handled safely in small quantities by humans with their bare skin -- it is nearly impossible to turn thorium into a weapon. Because it requires outside help to continue a reaction, nuclear fission (the self-perpetuating continuous reaction that we see in uranium-fueled nuclear explosions) is impossible with thorium. In short, fallout bunkers may finally be a thing of the past.

Thorium-based reactors aren’t vulnerable to terrorist attacks or natural disasters either. Because of the type of reactor commonly used in thorium power plants, a system failure is not the apocalyptic event that we traditionally see in nuclear meltdowns. Any explosion or leak would simply send the radioactive substances to a secure holding tank to await removal. They would not flow freely into the ocean or local rivers as they commonly do now. No massive release of radiation, no evacuations, no more cleanup workers essentially volunteering to die from radiation poisoning or cancer.

In addition, thorium as a power source is not only significantly cleaner, easier to store, and simpler to dispose of (it can produce up to 10,000 times less radioactive waste than uranium) it is also much more efficient. Many scientists who advocate continued research into thorium will attest that one golf ball sized piece of the stuff could power an individual's energy use for their entire lifetime.

Even better: we have a whole lot of thorium right here in the US and Canada. It is about four times more abundant than uranium on the Earth's surface, and the Thorium Energy Alliance (TEA) argues that the reserves held in the US alone could power, all on its own, our country at its current energy usage level for another one thousand years. That would certainly buy us some time to continue increasing our energy efficiency and develop new renewable power sources.

Though most of the world is still lagging in their development of thorium technology, one country appears to have gone all-in. Nuclear giant and up-and-coming economic superpower India is the first country to get fully behind thorium power. With about 25 percent of the world's thorium (by comparison, the US has about 15 percent, which is still impressive) India has realized their enormous potential to supply reliable electricity to the 1.5 billion people in their country. In addition to their existing reactors, they have a new prototype reactor opening next year and another five to follow.

Though none are yet as dedicated as India, other countries are developing thorium-based power, like Germany, China, and the US. Canada also has enormous capability to utilize thorium as well, with most of their existing nuclear plants already compatible with thorium as a power source. By contrast, many US plants, like the recently closed San Onofre nuclear power station north of San Diego, use what are referred to as "light water reactors," which don't work well with thorium.

The few minor setbacks of thorium power are a concern, but most are also relatively easily overcome. For example, many US plants will need to be retrofitted or rebuilt to accommodate this new power source, and the startup costs will be a little steep. But in the long run, thorium is still a much more affordable option than most traditional power sources.

Additionally thorium, like uranium, is a radioactive substance, but in this case the radioactivity is more of a PR problem than a really serious one. Unless someone is constantly surrounded by thorium or inhaling it in its powder or aerosol form, the radioactivity emitted from the substance is negligible.

Like any emerging technology, more research must be done to determine the best methods for utilizing thorium as an energy source and the possible unintended consequences of the element being used in wide-scale power production. However, the possibilities thus far are very hopeful.

Clearly, fossil fuels are not a viable source for our future energy use. Ultimately, we will need multiple energy options used in conjunction with an increased focus on conserving energy and improving efficiency, and we as consumers are going to have to be a part of the solution rather than just part of the problem. Cutting back on electricity and gas use is paramount -- those of us who grow indoors should be investing in low-energy lighting and equipment.

Additionally, an important lifestyle choice that we at Rosebud Magazine have always promoted is to grow your own produce when you can and to buy only food or products that are produced within a small radius of your home -- typically no more than 50-100 miles, depending on where you live. Not only will you help local businesses and entrepreneurs, it will save money for you and energy for the planet because of the gas no longer required for transportation.

There can never be too many options for energy creation and conservation. Our planet's population is growing rapidly and if we cannot keep up with demand in  a safe, clean, and sustainable way, the results will be catastrophic. Let's all hope that our continued technological advancements and conservation endeavors -- including thorium power -- can catch up to us before it's too late.

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An energy expert talks about the power of thorium.
Last modified on Tuesday, 26 June 2012 18:37

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