What do students interested in the field of Thorium Energy think about the developments and the future? Aaron Hall is studying Mechanical Engineering and currently in the pre-med program at Washington University in St. Louis. He gives us a student’s perspective and his opinions.
An economic revitalization is necessary in the wake of the global financial crisis where nations have been stricken with record levels of unemployment and sluggish recoveries. Could the creation of a new energy industry, such as one based on thorium, be the jolt needed to revive the global economy? If renewable energy industries, like wind and solar, are predicted to make a substantial impact on the global economy, imagine the vast impact that a thorium-based energy market could have, which has the ability to generate exponentially more energy, ideally at a fraction of the cost.
The facts of the matter are that a thorium energy future is becoming more and more likely, especially as research initiatives have begun to increase globally. Recently, the international thorium movement received encouraging news when the Chinese Association of Science (CAS) announced the creation of an advanced research center dedicated completely to thorium molten salt reactors. The leaders of CAS have been visiting universities across China, encouraging students to apply to research positions at the institution. After research is complete, China wishes to utilize the thorium reactor for international commercial use.
Additionally, India has completed its final design for the world’s first thorium reactor as implementation of its long-term research program approaches. India’s energy plan is both very progressive and logical. It plans to supply almost one third of its energy demands by 2050 with its thorium reserves, which are some of the largest in the world. This large-scale plan will require many long-term employees to design, build, and maintain the reactors as well as to excavate and process the thorium.
In the United States, large-scale government-sponsored thorium research has been virtually nonexistent since the program was shut down at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 1973 due to the federal government’s emphasis on solid fuel reactors because of cold war priorities. Furthermore, American regulations discourage mining where thorium is present because the law has exaggerated thorium’s environmental risk. Fortunately, U.S. Senators Blunt and Manchin have been working with thorium experts to introduce a bill that focuses on revising the US regulation, making it possible to harvest thorium and other rare earth elements, a critical first step in American thorium research. The American private sector has begun to explore liquid fluoride thorium reactors, not just for power plants, but for NASA deep space exploration and military grid-free energy projects. However, the likelihood of thorium taking off in the U.S. is very slim with an impenetrable fossil fuel lobby in congress and a population who is skeptical of everything nuclear. This is a shame because in Europe, where a thorium industry is in the making (SeeAreva and Solvay Announcement), the nuclear industry will require 40,000 new nuclear employees by 2020 according to EuroNuclear. The implementation of a broad thorium research program has the potential to create new employment opportunities and a lucrative thorium industry in whatever nation decides to pursue it.
Energy sector jobs only make up 2% of the global labor force. In examining the possible benefits of an emerging energy market, the long-term costs and benefits to each industry connected to it must be taken into account. In the case of thorium, mining has the potential to create an additional source of revenue instead of posing a cost to energy generation. In many cases, thorium has already been excavated and left in waste piles from other mineral mines. If thorium were to be upgraded to commodity status, there would be essentially no cost to get the thorium since it is already above ground. Recall that thorium is often present near other rare earth elements, so global thorium energy implementation could renew a diversified rare earth industry. The benefit would be two fold; those nations who have rare earths present, could have mining operations that yield both thorium and other rare earths. And nations without these resources would have many nations to buy thorium and rare earths from, allowing sellers to compete to deliver the lowest cost. Thorium has what it takes to revitalize nations’ economies, to encourage employment across the globe, and comfortably meet Earth’s skyrocketing energy demands.
Fostering cooperation and transparency amongst all nations’ thorium research should be a top priority if countries wish to have sustainable energy free of carbon dioxide emission. Early signs of collaboration have begun to surface. The U.S. Oak Ridge National Laboratory has decided to cooperate with the Chinese thorium research effort. The U.S. Department of Energy has signed a protocol with China that states that any research that comes from their joint venture will be available to the international scientific community. Ideally, the intellectual property created through global thorium research should be made open for all scientists. Sharing knowledge would allow research initiatives to work together to develop a diverse range of reactors so that a winner can be chosen for international use.
To advance synergetic research, conventions like the Thorium Energy Conference, hosted last year in Geneva, need to continue as a means of raising awareness and cooperation amongst the world’s top scientists. For thorium to have a future, the leaders of tomorrow must be educated on its benefits. Students and young scientists across the globe should also be the target of thorium energy efforts. The next generation is more educated than any previous generation and will be faced with the dire status of Earth’s climate and the shaky global economy. Thorium can be the logical solution they choose, they just need to understand it now.