Wednesday, 19 September 2012

The Thorium Problem

Current legislation in the US classifies thorium as a dangerous radioactive material. This is in spite of the fact that it has a very long half life of 12.5 billion years and it is an alpha emitter, which means that the radiation is stopped by a few centimetres of air or by your skin. In metallic form you could carry it around in your pocket without risk. The result is that, because thorium is present in most rare earth ores, it has become more and more expensive to mine and separate rare earth elements in the US than in China, which now has a virtual monopoly on rare earth element production.
Global Rare Earth Metal Oxide Production - 1950-2006 (‘000s Tonnes)

Rather than change the legislation dealing with thorium and address the root cause of the situation, the US government has announced that it is launching a WTO case against China.  China's reaction has been to threaten to reduce rare earth output to match its domestic demand and stop exporting rare earth’s. Since these are used in a wide range of manufacturing industries the knock-on effect on the world’s manufacturers would be dramatic.   Rare earths are used to produce magnets used in hard disks and offshore wind farms, batteries for computers and mobile phones, catalysts for the oil industry and catalysts for car exhausts.

In Gordon Mc Dowell’s video below, John Kutsch of the Thorium Energy Alliance and Jim Kennedy of ThREE Consulting take a comprehensive tour of the rare earth problem and follow it up by presenting a highly persuasive case for using liquid fuelled thorium reactors (LFTR’s) to generate electricity, or just high temperature thermal energy, to power communities or industries.

China is the world leader in research into the use of thorium and liquid fuelled thorium reactors and is currently employing 400 people working on thorium projects.  To paraphrase Jim Kennedy (at 12:34), "the Vice President of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Dr Jiang Mianheng, who is also the son of the former Chinese premier, has publicly announced that China intends to not just develop LFTR’s, but also to take out worldwide patents to protect the intellectual property generated by their research". 

The US has little time left to make a serious commitment to develop Weinberg’s 1960’s Oak Ridge research before finding themselves having to pay royalties to China for something they have already successfully demonstrated forty years ago.