Thorium: Rare Earth Liability or Asset?

By Michael Montgomery—Exclusive to Rare Earth Investing News

The production of rare earth oxides comes attached with a major problem: radioactive waste. The mining of the rare earths and the processing of the various elements produces large amounts of thorium as a byproduct. This material is radioactive and dangerous to human health. In China, lax environmental laws have allowed the country to build a monopoly in the market. However, now the country is looking to mitigate environmental damage from the production of rare earths, shutting down small mining operations, and raising environmental standards. This has had a dramatic effect on the price of these elements, which is why western companies are looking to produce on their deposits. One such company, Lynas Corporation (ASX:LYC) is building a processing plant in Malaysia that is coming under fire as concerns about the disposal of thorium and the effects on the local population mount. There is a possibility that this liability could become a resource of rare earth mining companies, as thorium can be used as fuel for nuclear power.

“The 800-pound gorilla in every rare-earth venture’s room, was the radioactive thorium- and/or uranium-bearing waste that will be generated by the extraction, separation, and refining operations,” stated rare earth expert, Jack Lifton.

The concentration plant that Lynas is building in Malaysia is planned to be finished in September and has the ability to process 11,000 tonnes of oxide per year. Residents in the area around the plant are concerned that the plant may have the same devastating effects as the Mitsubishi rare earth plant, which has been attributed to Leukemia outbreaks. Mitsubishi is now engaged in a $100 million dollar cleanup of the site.

Dr. Matthew James, Lynas’s Director of Corporate Communications stated that “the raw material from Mount Weld has thorium levels 50 times lower than the tin tailings used in the old Mitsubishi plant and the concentrate shipped to Malaysia will be “safe, non-toxic and non-hazardous.”

The company has plans for the disposal of thorium, involving the mixing of thorium with lime, to dilute the material. Then the diluted thorium would be encased in concrete to be used as artificial reef systems and sea walls. The company could, however, be missing an opportunity to turn their waste into a resource, as nuclear fuel.

Thorium as nuclear fuel

Scientists have been working on using thorium as nuclear fuel as opposed to uranium because of the associated benefits . First, thorium is more abundant, easier to mine, and because is a byproduct of mining such things as rare earth oxides. Secondly, spent uranium fuel has to be used to start the nuclear reaction when using thorium. And lastly, because thorium is impractical to make nuclear weapons, the threat of proliferation is greatly reduced.

“A thorium-based reactor cannot start by itself, as the metal must first be bombarded with neutrons to transform into uranium-233, which is a fissionable material. This means existing nuclear waste can be used in the start-up function and burned up in the process,” reported James Kitler, for Hard Assets Investor.

Current nuclear reactors would have to be modified to run off pure thorium, however, companies are working on thorium-uranium rods as a direct replacement. The benefits of the switch to thorium are massive, environmental and safety concerns with spent fuel are mitigated by decades not centuries, the material is cheaper and more abundant that uranium while not subject to supply shortages of uranium.

The impending nuclear meltdowns in Japan after the horrific earthquake and tsunami could be a double-edged sword for the industry. On one hand, the move to thorium would make operations slightly safer. However, if a meltdown were to occur,  all planned future nuclear power facilities would be jeopardized. If thorium takes off as a nuclear fuel, rare earth mining companies would be smart to start stockpiling the it instead of looking for ways to safely dispose of the material.

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Comments
  • There will soon be a massive demand for Thorium..
    Chinas announcement last month that they plan to dominate the export market for Thorium Reactors (eg LFTR) has caused a shock wave thru all the institutions that were working on these units. The race is on!
    With Chinas muscle, insiders predict that within 5 years, we will have 50,000 years supply of Thorium Electricity for a tenth the price of “Coal Fired”.
    It is also a good time to close investments in those markets that will be severely affected by a flood of cheap energy from thorium. Eg. Coal, Oil, Uranium and Wind Power.

    Reply
  • Thorium will have a big impact on the Electric-Vehicle industry.
    I have worked in electronic & IT research for 40 years. With recent breakthroughs in Nano Tech., we think we are only 1 year away from a super-capacitor that will rival a petrol tank for Miles per cubic foot. The charge time is under a minute. The big problem has always been the fact that the electricity to power them came from burning Coal. That problem will soon be gone.

    Russia, India and China are all rushing into the export market for small Thorium reactors! Thorium electricity will be extremely cheap and carbon free.

    These two factors, Super Batteries and abundant, cheap, green Electricity, will quickly spell the end of Oil and Coal dependency! It will be the end of the Carbon Tax debate.
    There is a good article covering these points at www vs2020.com entitled “Zero Carbon Electricity”

    Reply
  • Will never happen. Electric vehicle are a joke and 30yrs from now we will all still be pumping gas. Once people realize how expensive electric cars will be to own and maintain and how detrimental getting the necessary components out of the ground are to build the cars there will be outrage about them. Thorium is not carbon neutral we still have to get it out of the ground. To loose coal, oil and uranium would destroy all the worlds markets and hurt every economy, there is no way the wealthy would give up what they have and unfortunately they are the people who control what will happen. Visions of Lolly pops and electric cars are bs people are stupid enough to believe that everything will be rosy once electric cars are here because all they have to do is plug their “carbon neutral” car into a socket and they are saving the world. Thorium may happen but it will be on such a small scale that it will have no impact. Thank you. And good night.

    Reply
  • Will never happen. Electric vehicle are a joke and 30yrs from now we will all still be pumping gas. Once people realize how expensive electric cars will be to own and maintain and how detrimental getting the necessary components out of the ground are to build the cars there will be outrage about them. Thorium is not carbon neutral we still have to get it out of the ground. To loose coal, oil and uranium would destroy all the worlds markets and hurt every economy, there is no way the wealthy would give up what they have and unfortunately they are the people who control what will happen. Visions of Lolly pops and electric cars are bs people are stupid enough to believe that everything will be rosy once electric cars are here because all they have to do is plug their “carbon neutral” car into a socket and they are saving the world. Thorium may happen but it will be on such a small scale that it will have no impact. Thank you. And good night.

    Reply
  • Yep. Great. There will always be the next great thing. India has been aiming at thorium forever since they have the main “non-byproduct’ deposits. Where’s their reactors? Kinda died off over time. The Chinese have H3 reactions in mind as one of the goals of thier space agency. H3 is everywhere in space and on the moon donchyaknow. Intensly concentrated and no radioactive fuel waste. Ah, but practicallity is winning again. Roll out the nukes and coal fired plants China! If you want to sell your coal, oil and uranium shares, I’ll buy ’em.

    Think of it. If capacitors could maintain an energy charge equivelant to a tank of gas in the same volume as that tank of gas, then producing countries would burn whatever to make it and export it in tankers to us allong side oil. We would print more money; because it is easier than work, thereby stealing simultaneously from our heritage and our future to buy it. Produce something or die drowning in your own delusions.

    Reply

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