The topic of nuclear power is a sensitive one. It generates huge amounts of electricity with zero carbon emissions, and thus is held up as a solution to global energy woes. But it also entails several risks, including weapons development, meltdown, and the hazards of disposing of its waste products.
However those risks and benefits all pertain to a very specific kind of nuclear energy: nuclear fission of uranium or plutonium isotopes. There is another kind of nuclear energy that’s been waiting in the wings for decades – and it may just demand a change of mind set on nuclear power.
Nuclear fission using thorium is easily within our reach, and compared with conventional nuclear energy, the risks are considerably lower. Thorium power also has other attractions. Its production of nuclear waste would be on a significantly lower scale than that of conventional nuclear power.
Thorium would be easier to obtain than uranium. Perhaps the most salient benefit of thorium power, in our geopolitically dicey world, is that the fuel is much harder to turn into a bomb.
South Africa’s future water crisis linked to the current energy crisis
Within 35 years, South Africa will be short of fresh water which will be linked to the energy crisis. The preferred way to address this is through desalination. However, unless the energy crisis is addressed, South Africa is destined for long-term power and water shortages primarily because power will be need to produce clean water.
Trevor Blench, chairman of Steenkampskraal Thorium Limited (STL), said the solution lies in developing small thorium-based nuclear power stations, which are far safer than uranium-based power stations and more affordable. Thorium reactors use dry cooling or minimal water, either inland fresh water from rivers and dams or sea water along South Africa’s coastline to create energy and desalinate water.
Mr Blench said while many parts of Africa are dry, the thorium reactor could desalinate sea-water for human consumption and produce water for irrigation. “Millions of people die every year in Africa from water-borne diseases. Our reactor could produce clean drinking water.”
“Thorium represents an emerging and safe technology that is more efficient than uranium, produces significantly less hazardous waste and cannot easily be used for nuclear proliferation purposes,” he said. “The solution to the energy and future water crisis is to develop small thorium-based nuclear power stations deployed at these strategic locations.”
Mr Blench said that thorium fuel is being tested in Norway. STL owns the rights to the thorium of the Steenkampskraal mine in the Western Cape. He added that the Steenkampskraal mine has the highest known thorium and rare earth grades in the world. Thorium is a much cleaner fuel than uranium.
Steenkampskraal was mined by Anglo American during the 1950s and 1960s for its thorium. About a dozen reactors were built in Germany, England and America. It is believed that most of that thorium came from this mine. “We are designing a nuclear reactor that is appropriate for Africa. Typically, African countries have a total annual electricity production of between 1 000 and 5 000 MW per year. They do not have well-developed grids to distribute electricity, and currently generate a lot of their electricity with diesel generators, at very high cost.” “These countries cannot afford to spend billions of dollars buying big expensive reactors, up to ten years building such a reactor or plug a 1 000 MW nuclear reactor into their tiny grids,” he said.
Mr Blench said the reactor being developed will be suitable for African and remote conditions. “The reactor will be affordable for the small countries that make up most of Africa and it will cost a fraction of the large nuclear Light Water Reactors (LWRs). It will be modular and quick to build.”
Mr Blench believes that if Africa is going to embark on a nuclear future, it should leap-frog over the Generation 3 reactors and go straight to Generation 4 reactors. “The technology is available. It has been tried and tested over many years. Our reactor is a Gen 4 design. What does that mean? It means that our reactor is intrinsically safe and meltdown-proof.”
“There are many problems in Africa. Three of the biggest problems are food, water and power. Our plant can produce hydrogen in the form of ammonia. This ‘hydrogen’ could be used to make fertilisers to improve agricultural yields.”
“Most parts of Africa suffer from power shortages that retard their rates of economic growth and hold down their living standards. Our small plant could provide electricity for remote towns and villages all over the continent.”