Breaking Boundaries: Australia's Quest for a Zero Carbon Energy

26 January 2024

In the search for reliable, non-carbon energy the nuclear option is usually disregarded with “anti-nuke” arguments and attitudes that hark back to the 1960s. The two main arguments against nuclear power were the fear of a melt-down and the link to nuclear weapons.

When the prospect of nuclear energy was being researched in the late 1940s there was a choice of nuclear ‘fuel’, Uranium or Thorium. This was a time when the West was sliding into a Cold War with the Soviet Union. Given that the production of nuclear energy with Uranium could be coupled with the production of nuclear weapons, Uranium became the basis for nuclear energy. The process of producing energy from Uranium was also easier than with Thorium.

Fast forward seventy years and we are in a world with an emerging energy crisis due to inadequate reliable base-load ‘renewable’ energy production, a hesitancy to use fossil fuels and a bias against the nuclear option. What better time to re-examine Thorium. Commercial scale nuclear reactors using Thorium-based fuels have been operated in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, mainly in the USA. Many nations have conducted research into Thorium nuclear reactors, in particular India, China and Canada.

There are several different types of nuclear reactor suitable for using Thorium. While Heavy Water Reactors such as the Canadian “CANDU” reactor may be near the top of the list, Thorium Molten Salt Reactors, currently being tested in China, may also be a viable alternative with the advantage of not requiring significant amounts of cooling water.

Thorium is a ‘fertile’ nuclear material not ‘fissile’ which means that it requires small amounts of fissile material such as Uranium-233 to initiate and maintain the reaction. This provides two main advantages: one, there is no risk of a Chernobyl style melt-down, and two, you cannot make nuclear weapons directly from Thorium.

The current paradigm whereby multiple wind and solar energy sites are being constructed, to be linked to the national grid by a web of proposed transmission lines across farmland is causing much concern and division in the community. Bearing in mind that since the year 2000 Australia has lost 15 percent of its arable ground to infrastructure development and urban encroachment, perhaps centralized power generation, such as Thorium nuclear, should be re-assessed.

There are those with vested interests in Uranium based nuclear energy, and while there are still many technological issues to be addressed in using Thorium-fuelled reactors on a larger scale, Australia has the world’s fourth largest estimated deposits of Thorium and should be at the forefront of developing it as an alternative source of low risk, zero carbon-emission nuclear energy.