A report into the much-touted nuclear fuel alternative thorium has concluded that many of its supposed benefits are “overstated.”
The report, which was compiled for the Department for Energy and Climate Change by the UK’s National Nuclear Laboratory, notes that thorium has “theoretical advantages” in the fields of sustainability, reduced radiotoxicity and lower proliferation risk, but adds: “While there is some justification for these benefits, they are often overstated.”
Proponents of thorium as a nuclear fuel point to its widespread availability, efficiency in running, reduction in hazardous waste and the impossibility of building a nuclear bomb from spent fuel. However, further research is needed to commercialise the fuel and make it competitive with existing nuclear reactors.
Britain built an experimental thorium-fuelled reactor in the ’60s and ’70s in Winfrith, but it’s now partially decommissioned. Elsewhere, however, research has continued — China is developing several different types of thorium reactor, and India is expected to start construction of a thorium plant in four years.
“It is important to recognise that worldwide there remains interest in thorium fuel cycles and this is not likely to diminish in the near future,” the report says. “It may therefore be judicious for the UK to maintain a low level of engagement in thorium fuel cycle research and development by involvement in international collaborative research activities.”