It is a crying shame that we (the rest of the world) did not think to encourage Iran and other states to develop thorium-based nuclear power many years ago. The thorium fuel cycle provides nuclear-powered steam generation, but is largely absent the use of fissile isotopes in the cycle which may be used for nuclear proliferation.  Thorium-232 is more abundant that uranium-(235 + 238) isotopes and does not require isotopic separation as uranium does.

The great exploration boom in progress with rare earth elements would facilitate thorium supply. Thorium and uranium are commonly found in rare earth ores and, to the dismay of extractive metallurgists since the Manhattan Project, these elements tend follow along in rare earth extraction process. The isolation of thorium was developed long ago.  Point is, since so many rare earth element extraction process streams are either in operation or are pending, now is the time to accumulate thorium.

At present however, thorium is a troublesome and undesired radioactive metal whose isolation and disposal can be quite problematic. The best process schemes partition thorium away from the value stream as early in the process as possible and channel it into the raffinate stream for treatment and disposal in the evaporation pond.

The specific activity of natural thorium is 2.2 x 10^-7 curies per gram (an alpha emitter). The specific activity of natural uranium is 7.1 x 10^-7 curies per gram.  Alpha emitters pose special hazards in their handling. Dusts are a serious problem and workers must be protected especially from inhalation or ingestion. While alpha’s are not difficult to shield from, their low penetration through ordinary materials or even air makes them a bit more challenging to detect and quantitate relative to beta’s and gamma’s. In spite of the mild radioactivity of thorium, managing the occupational health of workers is known technology in practice in the nuclear industry.

Regrettably, most of the world’s nuclear power infrastructure is geared to uranium and plutonium streams. Thorium, the red-headed stepchild of the actinides, is thoughtlessly discharged to the evaporation ponds or to the rad waste repository- wherever that is- to accumulate fruitlessly. If we’re digging the stuff up anyway, why not put it to use? It is a shame and a waste to squander it.

Advertisements