Nuclear energy alternative

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We’re facing an energy crisis. A major source for our energy needs comes from fossil fuels, which are causing damaging changes to our climate. What other sources are available?  Alternatives include hydro, solar, wind, hydrogen, and thermal power. Each is limited and cannot meet the need to replace fossil fuels. But there’s another source – nuclear power.

This miracle source of energy is expressed in Einstein’s famous equation: e=mc2. So, the energy of one kilogram of matter is 25 billion kilowatt-hours. For comparison, the average yearly energy consumption of a house in Canada is approximately 11,300 kilowatt-hours. Normally, conversion of matter to energy requires very high temperatures and pressures found only in stars. There is, however, a process of converting matter to energy that can be done here on Earth – nuclear fission, splitting the nucleus of an atom. This converts a small amount of matter into energy. The process was discovered in the 1930s, and by the 1950s, reactors were sufficiently developed for commercial application. The source material for these reactors was an isotope of uranium – U235.

From its initial inception, significant progress has been made in nuclear fission as an energy source. Today, there are about 440 nuclear power plants producing 10% of the world’s electricity. But three major problems remain: cost, risk, and waste. A 2020 report from the World Nuclear Energy Industry said the cost of electricity from nuclear power stations is $135 USD per megawatt hour compared to $109 from coal and $41 from solar and wind.

More serious is risk. Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Three Mile Island are known in history as major nuclear disasters. Significant meltdowns from nuclear reactors are expected every 10 to 20 years. Such failures create health hazards, economic disruption, and social problems on a massive scale.

The final – and longest lasting problem – is waste. The waste from U235 reactors contains isotopes that remain dangerously radioactive for thousands of years. To date, very little has been done to ensure the safe disposal of this waste. This is a problem that will affect generations to come.  It’s a major issue, with currently more than a quarter of a million metric tonnes of highly radioactive waste waiting for safe disposal.

With all of this, the problem remains: the world will need more energy from safer, more environmentally appropriate, sources. What are the alternatives?

One option for nuclear power is the use of thorium as the source fuel. A thorium reactor is much safer, less likely to have run-away reactions and would be less costly to operate. Most importantly, its waste has a half-life of about 300 years and is much easier to manage.

So, why isn’t Canada investigating thorium reactors? Shouldn’t we be asking our governments (federal and provincial) to explain their stand on future developments in energy sources and thorium reactors in particular? Canada has a good supply of thorium and our experience with heavy water reactors transfers easily to thorium reactors.

Let’s be proactive in seeking solutions.