You cannot make a reliable atomic bomb with the waste from a thorium reactor. They tried to do it during the Cold War but dropped the idea when it proved difficult and dangerous. This is why so much effort is going into designing thorium-fuelled reactors.
Thorium’s other advantages over uranium as a fuel include the fact that gas-cooled reactors using it cannot melt down and there is much less radioactive waste. In other words, these benefits remove almost all the Green Lobby’s objections to nuclear power.
There is still some way to go before purpose-built thorium-fuelled reactors are for sale. But, the Germans have built one already and stringent tests are under way to get approval from the world’s nuclear watchdogs for thorium pellets and pebbles.
The world has four times the amount of thorium than uranium and such is its potential that nuclear scientists in Britain, France, Russia, Turkey, Norway, South Africa, India – and the superpowers of the US and China – are all beavering away with thorium experiments, both in reactor design and fuel.
There is no doubt that the anti-nuclear lobby will gear up to scare the public silly by claiming that thorium is just as bad or worse than conventional nuclear fuels.
They will probably conceal the fact that thorium is already used in the mantles of paraffin pressure lamps, in light bulb elements, lantern mantles, arc-light lamps, welding electrodes and heat-resistant ceramics. Glass containing thorium oxide is used in high-quality lenses for cameras and scientific instruments, and in the manufacture of super-strong magnets and for such things as computer hard drives.
They may also downplay the fact that a thorium reactor’s waste (depending on the design) can be much less than that produced by a conventional reactor fuelled by uranium. The waste it would produce also would decay to safe levels in hundreds of year rather than thousands or millions of years.
Before panic strikes sensitive readers, they should know that a banana will set off a Geiger counter.
Scientists working on designing nuclear reactors that use thorium, either in the form of pellets or pebbles, are making steady progress. Some of this progress is being made in South Africa (with the approval of the nuclear non-proliferation authorities). We are not Iran, Pakistan, India or North Korea.
There is another South Africa connection. At Steenkampskraal north of Cape Town, there is a mine once operated in the 1950s by Anglo American and closed down in the 1960s. It is a thorium and rare earths mine (stuff essential to cellphone manufacture, among other things). The thorium-rich ore is called monazite.
What can we conclude? Well, it indicates a number of things. South African nuclear scientists are up there with the best in the world. They are no longer cut off as they were during apartheid.
It is possible to foresee a future in which thorium-fuelled reactors, designed and built in South Africa, are exported to countries that are desperate for new sources of cheap base-load electricity.
* Keith Bryer is a retired communications consultant.