Could nuclear power solve our energy crisis?

Science HeaderEnergy crisis, greenhouse effect, fossil fuel emissions, lack of natural resources, rising oil prices: these are just a few of the phrases you may have heard thrown around in the last few years. Inevitably, you will have talked about, heard about or read about the need for us to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels, quickly.

The majority of the world’s current energy supply is obtained from coal, gas and oil. All of these resources are non-renewable, severely depleted and the rate of usage increasing day in day out. It is estimated that gas reserves will run out somewhere in the next 50 years, and for oil we’re given a deadline between 2025 and 2070. The cut-off point for life as we know it is drawing ever closer. Even though a lot of efforts have been and are being made to switch to renewable energy sources, we can see our time with fossil fuels is running out.

So the answer is simple: renewable, clean and safe energy; right? We all know the pros and cons of renewable energy sources such as solar, hydroelectric and wind energies. These forms are expensive and require lots of land space. There is never enough power generated and you also cannot rely on them 24/7, being doomed to a blackout when the sun goes down.

However, a renewable source rarely thought about is nuclear power. Nuclear power is the most underrated, under promoted and most mistrusted of all clean energy sources. Nuclear power facilities can produce energy at a 91% efficiency rate all day and every day; a rate that solar, wind and hydroelectricity could never even dream of accomplishing. It could be the answer to the world’s energy needs we’ve all been waiting for.

It is estimated that gas reserves will run out sometime in the next 50 years. For oil, we have been given a deadline between 2025 and 2070.

But unfortunately the word ‘nuclear’ has become a sort of taboo. The negative connotations associated with the word, from nuclear bombs to Chernobyl to the more recent Fukushima, have turned us off nuclear as an energy source, a bias that could ultimately cost us a lot of time, money and resources.

What is nuclear energy?
Nuclear technology uses a method called nuclear fission to create energy. It was first developed in the 1940s during the Second World War and research initially focused on producing bombs by splitting the atoms of either uranium or plutonium. Fission is a method of splitting an atom into two smaller atoms, which don’t need as much energy to hold them together as the larger atom. The extra energy is released as heat and radiation. Fission of the uranium creates heat that is used to boil water to steam inside a reactor vessel. The steam then turns huge turbines in magnetic fields that drive generators that in turn, make electricity for your smartphone and coffee machine.

What are the problems?
The problems in nuclear energy lie in the choice of fuel (uranium) and the choice of a water-based reactor. Basically, the uranium releases enough heat to boil the water to 300 degrees celsius. We all know that water turns to vapour at 100 degrees celsius, so how do we keep it in liquid form for it to be able to turn the turbines and generate electricity? The answer is to keep the whole chamber at an extremely high pressure so the water is in essence ‘squeezed’ into staying as a liquid. This chamber needs a coolant around it to stop the plant from overheating. Now imagine what happens when there is a natural disaster, or a power cut and this cooling system stops working: a high pressure chamber heated to 300 degrees celsius, with a radioactive source spells catastrophe.

For most people, that is why nuclear energy is not seen as a viable energy source, and it was the same with me. It is not safe, and I do not want it near me or my country. But then I stumbled across a TED talk by researcher and scientist Kirk Sorensen, founder of Filbe Energy. He describes advances into a new fuel source called thorium that could eliminate all these problems.

Why thorium?
Thorium is element 90 on the Periodic Table. Thorium reactors use molten salts instead of water to drive the turbines. These stay liquid at much higher temperatures, thus eliminating the need for high pressure chambers and virtually eliminating all possibility of disaster.

Thorium is far more abundant than uranium, with one gram of thorium on average in every cubic metre of soil, though some places far more abundant. It is found nearly everywhere in the world. It is such a concentrated energy source that you could hold enough thorium energy to last you a lifetime in the palm of your hand.

Because thorium is so much more energy dense than uranium, it also creates much less waste. For every 250 tons of uranium radioactive waste, the equivalent energy produced in a thorium reactor only produces one tonne of waste. Not to mention the fact that uranium radioactive waste takes 10,000 years to decay, whereas in 10 years 83% of thorium fission products are stable. It is a cheap energy source; $50,000 (approximately €39,584) of thorium can create as much energy as 1.5bn dollars (1.2bn euro) of oil. So why are we not using it already?

Here comes the sad story. We should be and we would be if it were not for nuclear bombs. Nuclear energy was first pioneered by the military in World War II with the hope of making nuclear weapons. Uranium was the obvious choice as it is more reactive, more unstable – and more likely to cause an explosion! The unfortunate side effect of this was that its cleaner and more efficient fuel alternative, thorium, was forgotten about when it came to transferring these nuclear technologies over to energy. It is largely a result of wartime politics. Cold War-era governments backed uranium-based reactors because they produced plutonium — handy for making nuclear weapons.

The repercussions of this are that the reactors are built for uranium only. Although it would be possible to switch today’s commercial nuclear uranium power plants over to thorium fuel, it would be at great cost. This is a cost that countries are not willing to pay for a fuel that still holds so much negative bias from the public.

However, all is not lost. Although America may have axed research into thorium reactors in the 1970s due to it being unsuitable for nuclear weapons, the idea was rediscovered in 2008 and world leaders seem to be catching on. In 2011, the Chinese Academy of Sciences announced that it will finance the development of a programme to develop a thorium-fuelled molten salt reactor (TFMSR). This is the first of four “strategic leader in science and technology projects” that the Chinese Academy of Science will be supporting. The Chinese Academy of Sciences claims the country now has “the world’s largest national effort on Thorium”, employing a team of 430 scientists and engineers, a number planned to rise to 750 personnel by 2015. India also has abundant thorium reserves and the country’s nuclear-power programme, which is aiming to supply a quarter of the country’s electricity (up from 3% at the moment), plans to use these for fuel.

So watch this space. Thorium may be the fuel of the future, the answer to all our prayers. But make sure you know your facts and rid your mind of bias against nuclear power. Because, ultimately, these negative connotations will prevent funding going ahead for future nuclear projects, prevent the government from investing in them and prevent Ireland from advancing into the future of clean nuclear energy fuels. It will not happen overnight, but possibly in the future our children will have a completely different take on the word ‘nuclear energy’. It will be viewed as a concept to be embraced instead of feared.