What is Thorium?
Nuclear energy is usually created with an element called uranium, but it doesn’t have to be. Thorium is an element that could produce more nuclear energy, with lower chances of nuclear power plant failure, and produce less nuclear waste. This technology was heavily researched from the 1950s to the 1970s, but the American government wanted to use uranium instead of thorium, mainly because uranium can be used to create nuclear weapons. (Remember, at that time, America and Russia were both building huge amounts of nuclear weapons).
There is enough uranium and thorium on Earth to supply all of the world’s energy needs for tens of thousand of years. In fact, thorium is found in dirt all over the Earth, you have a small amount of it in your body right now and probably breathe it in everyday. Compared to uranium, there is about 3x as much thorium on the Earth. However, not all of it can be removed from the Earth in an easy, efficient, and profitable way. India has the largest supply of profitably usable thorium.
Thorium-based nuclear power plants could be designed so that it is not possible to fail and damage the environment. Basically, if the thorium-based power plant gets too hot, the system stops and the thorium goes into a special tank, to cool down. This design is not possible with uranium.
Thorium is also about 200x more efficient than uranium. For every 250 tons of uranium, only one single ton of uranium energy is released, the other 249 tons cannot be used to produce energy. With thorium-based power plants, scientists believe 99% of thorium would be able to generate energy, and just 1% wasted.
At this time, if you count all the nuclear energy plants using uranium and add the years they have operated together, it adds up to around 10,000 to 20,000 years of operation. Countless billions have been invested. People have about 0 years of experience using thorium, and need to invest billions more dollars to make the technology usable. A big fear is that the science could be wrong. It is possible that after creating the thorium reactor, it is actually less efficient or less safe than scientists believed. Aside from the fears of failure, Thorium fuel is also more difficult prepare than uranium fuels.
Who is developing this technology?
China and India are both investing heavily into thorium. This is very understandable; these two countries have serious need for huge amounts cheap, green energy. India, of course, has the largest amount of usable thorium. Originally, they planned to use thorium for 30% of their energy needs by 2050, but it seems this number has gone down. They are still building more nuclear power plants though. If they can develop thorium-based nuclear technology, it could really help their country.
China is the leader in thorium-based nuclear energy technology right now. American scientists shared their research on thorium with a team of Chinese scientists who have really worked hard to make this technological concept become a reality. Two thorium-based nuclear plants are being built in China, and should be working by 2020. If these 2 projects are a success, hopefully China will be friendly and share the technology with the rest of the world!