Are Thorium Reactors the Future of Nuclear Energy?

Thorium reactors hold promise as an alternative for uranium in the nuclear energy sector, but are they really a viable option?

The world’s energy needs are expected to skyrocket thanks to population growth and higher demand from developing nations, making thorium reactors increasingly appealing.

Nuclear energy is considered by some to be a green energy because it does not produce direct carbon dioxide emissions, unlike fossil fuels, which contribute to air and water pollution.

Over the last decade, more countries around the world have turned to nuclear as an energy source, integrating nuclear energy into their energy grids, specifically to produce electricity.

While nuclear power reactors are being built in large quantities around the world, these reactors are not without drawbacks. Nuclear meltdowns remain a concern, and uranium has negative connotations due to its association with weapons and the radioactive material leftover in nuclear waste. There are also claims that uranium’s low price makes it an unsustainable option, despite predictions of a rally.

Thorium, on the other hand, is seen by some as a less dangerous, more environmentally friendly path. So how does thorium fuel play into the future of global energy?

What is thorium?

Discovered in 1828 by a Swedish chemist who named the element after the Norse god of thunder, Thor, thorium is a slightly radioactive element that is naturally occurring in the Earth’s crust. It is more abundant in nature than uranium and is fertile rather than fissile, meaning it can be converted into fissile material through radiation. It is meant to be used alongside fissile materials, which are able to go through nuclear fission, like recycled plutonium and uranium.

Despite its benefits, using thorium as a primary source of nuclear energy is challenging. The World Nuclear Association notes that extracting latent energy is still difficult to do in a cost-effective manner, and research into refinement technology will be needed if thorium is to be turned into a viable source.

That said, it’s worth noting that the question of whether thorium reactors work for energy production was answered in 2013, when privately owned Norwegian company Thor Energy began using thorium to produce power at its Halden test reactor in Norway. “It is the fundamental first step in the thorium evolution,” Thor Energy CEO Oystein Asphjell told Reuters at the time.

How thorium works

Thorium can’t split to make a nuclear chain reaction like uranium. In scientific terms, it isn’t fissile. However, if it is bombarded by neutrons from an energy fuel that is fissile — like uranium-235 or plutonium-239 — it is converted into uranium-233. The process creates energy and is self-sustaining after it begins; fission of uranium-233 turns more thorium nearby into the same nuclear fuel.

There are many more complex processes involved, but this relationship between thorium and fissile materials serves as the foundation for the technology in thorium reactors.

Thorium vs. uranium

It’s important to understand the differences between uranium and thorium when considering developments in nuclear energy. Here are a few key ways they differ.

Cost and efficiency

One reason thorium is an interesting alternative to uranium is that it is cheaper and more abundant. Thorium is also used more efficiently in the reaction process — thorium inputs are almost completely used up during a nuclear reaction, meaning spent fuel or radioactive waste is reduced to a minimum. That is especially important considering the longevity of radioactive nuclear waste in the environment.

Weapons and safety

In 1939, the Manhattan Project showed the potential devastation atomic energy can produce when enriched uranium is used in weapons production, and that has remained top of mind since then.

More recently, the dangers posed by uranium fuel rods, radioactive waste and reactor decay — widely publicized in the wake of the Fukushima disaster in 2011 — are a key reason why experts are giving thorium reactors serious consideration. As thorium is not fissile on its own, reactions could be stopped in case of emergency. There is also concern that the isotope-dense heavy water used to cool the fuel rods could seep out into the water and surrounding areas.

Thorium is considered a strong choice for non-proliferation when it comes to nuclear weapons, but it is also important to note that there have been occasions in history where nuclear weapons based off of thorium have been detonated. While that is a risk, the nature of these weapons makes them difficult to handle and easy to detect.

As a result, the use of thorium reactors could allow countries like Iran and North Korea to benefit from nuclear power by minimizing concerns that they are secretly developing nuclear weapons.

Thorium can also be used to breed uranium for use in a breeder reactor. These nuclear reactors are unique because they produce more fissionable material than they consume, making them very efficient.

It’s worth noting that thorium and uranium have an interesting relationship in that they are both complements and competitors to each other. Put very simply, thorium can be used together with conventional uranium-based nuclear power generation, meaning a thriving thorium industry would not necessarily make uranium obsolete.

Thorium exploration

Thorium is present in small quantities in soils and rocks everywhere, and it’s estimated to be about four times more plentiful than uranium. India holds the largest natural thorium reserves in the world, though reserves are also significant in China, Australia, the US, Turkey and Norway, as per Reuters. The metal can be found in epigenetic vein deposits, low-grade deposits and black sand placer deposits.

Though it is abundant, few companies are currently exploring for thorium. Since 2014, exploration and development of rare earths projects associated with thorium have commenced in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Greenland, India, Russia, South Africa, the US and Vietnam. Skyharbour Resources (TSXV:SYH,OTCQB:SYHBF) is one company currently exploring for thorium. Its Falcon Point uranium and thorium project is located in the Athabasca Basin in Saskatchewan.

Thorium reactors in the works

As mentioned, Thor Energy was the first to begin energy production through thorium, but it now faces competition from firms in the nuclear industry around the world.

For example, India has been interested in thorium-based nuclear energy for decades, according to the US Geological Survey. The country’s nuclear developers have designed an advanced heavy water reactor that is specifically aimed at using thorium as a fuel.

China is also a major player in the development of thorium reactors. The country has committed to spending US$3.3 billion on two molten salt thorium nuclear reactors in the Gobi Desert. China hopes to have these reactors operating in the next few years.

In Indonesia, ThorCon and the country’s government are working on launching a thorium molten salt reactor that is expected to be operating by 2025.

Thorium Power Canada, in partnership with DBI, has developed thorium reactor designs, including a planned 10 megawatt reactor in Chile. Thorium Power Canada estimates the reactor will provide enough power to produce 20 million liters per day at the desalination plant, which is the equivalent of powering 3,500 homes.

Thorium’s challenge

As can be seen, thorium has been considered an excellent nuclear energy alternative for decades. It’s hard to believe that the safety and efficiency benefits have not led to more popular use of thorium reactors — but there are reasons for that.

Put simply, thorium-based reactors are still not economically viable for the most part. Uranium has benefited from decades of research, development and infrastructure thanks to its dual applications in weapons and energy during the Cold War. This research has allowed countries to establish protocols, infrastructure and knowledge bases that make uranium-based energy an easier option.

The result is that at least for now, thorium reactors are unlikely to gain the upper hand over uranium oxide reactors. It’s possible that thorium reactors could become more dominant in the future, but a lot of work will have to be done to get to that point.

What do you think of thorium? Will it be the future of nuclear energy?

This is an updated version of an article originally published by the Investing News Network in 2015.

Don’t forget to follow us @INN_Resource for real-time news updates!

Securities Disclosure: I, Melissa Pistilli, hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.

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TICKER SYMBOLS: TSX:LAM; ASX:LAM; OTCQX:LMRXF Laramide Resources Ltd. is pleased to announce the appointment of Jacqueline Allison CFA, PhD, PGeo, FCIM, as a new Non-Executive Director effective immediately. Ms. Allison holds a PhD in Mineral Economics from McGill University a Professional Geoscientist designation, and a Chartered Financial Analyst designation. Ms. Allison brings more than 20 years of Canadian and ...

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Laramide Resources Ltd. (" Laramide " or the " Company ") (TSX: LAM) (ASX: LAM) (OTCQX: LMRXF) is pleased to announce the appointment of Jacqueline Allison CFA, PhD, PGeo, FCIM, as a new Non-Executive Director effective immediately.

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a bowl of U3O8 yellow cake

Australia is the second largest producer of uranium in the world. Here's a look at the mines that are producing today, and the significant ones that are being developed.

Despite sitting on the largest known recoverable resources of uranium worldwide — 1.69 million metric tonnes in 2019 — Australia uses no part of it for energy. Instead, Australia exports the valuable resource, which accounts for one-quarter of its energy exports.

In fact, Australia was the second largest producer of uranium in 2020, producing 6,203 metric tonnes. It was only beaten by Kazakhstan, which produced nearly 20,000 metric tonnes that year.

Australian uranium production has centred around three mines in recent years — Olympic Dam, Beverly Four Mile and Ranger — until the Ranger mine ceased operations in 2021.
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gold bars

2020 was a banner year for gold-backed ETF inflows, but interest has lagged this year as investors become more comfortable taking risks.

In 2020, gold-backed exchange-traded fund (ETF) inflows ballooned to an impressive 877 tonnes, marking the largest one year intake in ETF history.

Investor appetite was fueled by economic stimulus mixed with concerns about COVID-19 closures, which together brought risk-averse buyers to the yellow metal in droves, propelling investment demand.

"Over the first three quarters of 2020, gold ETFs accounted for almost two-thirds of total investment demand," notes a monthly ETF report released by the World Gold Council (WGC) in January.


"This is significantly higher than any previous full year. Gold ETF demand was also equivalent to a quarter of the average annual gold mine production over the past five years."

Since then, gold ETF demand has waned as investors become more comfortable taking risks. So far, 2021 has seen outflows of 269.1 tonnes compared to 87.6 tonnes of inflows. Of the first 10 months of the year, six registered net outflows from the ETF segment.

In fact, a large part of gold's muted Q3 price performance has been attributed to a 7 percent decline in demand coming largely from the ETF segment. This trend continued in October, when gold ETF holdings shed 25.5 tonnes.

"Global gold ETF holdings fell to 3,567 tonnes (US$203 billion) during the month — notching year-to-date low levels — as investor appetite for gold diminished in the ETF space following price declines in August and September," an October WGC gold ETF report states.

After two months of pressure pushed the gold price to a six month low at the end of September, October saw the metal begin to rebound from the US$1,750 per ounce range to US$1,819.

Adam Perlaky, senior analyst at the WGC, told the Investing News Network (INN) that gold's price positivity in October was largely driven by growing inflationary tones.

"In recent years, gold has been inversely correlated with nominal interest rates, and yet gold strengthened during the month despite higher nominal rates," he said via email. "This is likely a result of rising inflation expectations, though changes in the relative move in interest rates may have had an impact."

He added, "Though higher rates could be a headwind for gold, broader concerns of inflation and a potential recession highlight gold's value as an effective portfolio hedge."

The role of gold amid uncertainty

Gold's use as a hedge against inflation is likely to come into focus in the coming months, a sentiment that was echoed by Juan Carlos Artigas, head of research at the WGC.

Artigas explained that while some are of the belief that the "elements of high inflation we've seen so far are transitory" and will dissipate, there will be longer-term reverberations from the current inflation, and potential secondary effects from the fiscal and monetary policies that were put in place to restart the economy.

In mid-November, JP Morgan (NYSE:JPM) said it anticipates that the US Federal Reserve will raise rates in September 2022 by 0.25 percent, followed by 25 basis point increases on a quarterly basis until real rates hit zero.

"Gold still can face headwinds from potentially higher interest rates," said Artigas.

"(The) opportunity cost of holding gold is one of the drivers of performance, and especially in the short and the medium term, interest rates tend to influence gold's behavior significantly, especially in a period where investors are looking to understand how central banks will behave."

However, as the head of research at the WGC pointed out, there are also some tailwinds that could move gold higher, including inflation that may not be transient, but more structural.

He also pointed out that interest rates are still historically very low, which has pushed investors to make their portfolios more risky. Hedging against this type of exposure is positive for gold's investment side. Additionally, on the consumer side, US infrastructure spending could also serve as a catalyst to more gold upside.

"What we know historically is that better economic growth tends to support consumption of gold, whether it is in the form of jewelry or technology, and 2021 is a good example of that, where you saw the contraction in gold-backed ETF holdings, you (also) saw an increase in demand coming from jewelry, technology and even bar and coin investment," Artigas commented to INN.

Another factor the researcher is watching is central bank gold holdings, which are on track for a 12th consecutive year of inflows. Artigas noted that a 2021 survey of central bankers conducted by the WGC found that the monetary institutes are interested in "expanding the role that gold has in foreign reserves."

"We do expect central banks to continue to be net buyers," he said, adding, "We have seen investors, especially more strategic longer-term investors, taking advantage of the price pullback that we saw in previous months as an opportunity to add gold to their portfolios."

For investors wanting to look at the strategic role gold has played throughout history, the WGC recently released a five part documentary series titled The Golden Thread.

The price of gold was at the US$1,790 level on November 25.

Don't forget to follow us @INN_Resource for real-time updates!

Securities Disclosure: I, Georgia Williams, hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.

Editorial Disclosure: The Investing News Network does not guarantee the accuracy or thoroughness of the information reported in the interviews it conducts. The opinions expressed in these interviews do not reflect the opinions of the Investing News Network and do not constitute investment advice. All readers are encouraged to perform their own due diligence.

Commercially viable scandium deposits are rare, making widespread use of the metal tricky. However, there is indeed opportunity in the space.

Scandium is a critical metal that is as strong as titanium, as light as aluminum and as hard as ceramic.

While it is more abundant than lead, mercury and all the precious metals, there are no pure scandium-producing mines. The rare earth element is often a by-product, produced from refining other metals, including uranium.

Pure scandium metal rarely concentrates at higher grades alongside other metals, making commercially usable scandium deposits very rare. What's more, even when scandium is found at elevated levels, processing it can be difficult, leading to very few stable sources of this critical metal.


Not surprisingly, that means there has been very little adoption of scandium in commercial applications. However, as John Kaiser of Kaiser Research has pointed out several times in the past few years, as well as more recently, that doesn't mean there hasn't been research into how scandium could be used in the future.

"Hundreds of applications (have been) filed, many of them related to alloys with aluminum," he said in an interview with the Investing News Network. "This obscure metal is going to go ballistic in the next few years."

Kaiser made that statement a few years back, and scandium has yet to go ballistic. But he still has hope for the metal, and it could yet have its day in the sun.

Below is an overview of the scandium market. Topics covered include current production, newcomers to the space and the metal's potentially bright future.

Current scandium production

The first known large-scale scandium production was associated with Russian military programs. Details are lost to history, but Russians reportedly alloyed the metal with aluminum to make lightweight MIG fighter parts. Mining at these historic Russian production sites has ceased, but stockpiles of scandium oxide and scandium master alloy remain in Russia. These stockpiles are rumored to be dwindling, but continue to be offered for sale on the market.

Today, most scandium is produced as a by-product during the processing of other ores, such as uranium or rare earths, or recovered from previously processed tailings. As a result, scandium supply can be affected by the supply and demand dynamics of the metals it is produced with. That can make the metal's already tough-to-follow market dynamics even more difficult to understand.

According to the US Geological Survey, scandium-producing countries include China, where it is a by-product of iron ore, rare earths, titanium and zirconium; and the Philippines, where it is a by-product of nickel. Scandium is also produced as a by-product of uranium in Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

More US production could be on the horizon as well after a push in legislation that encourages the Department of Defense to look into the potential uses of the metal. Environmental and construction permits have been approved for NioCorp's (TSX:NB,OTCQX:NIOBF) polymetallic Elk Creek project with probable reserves estimated to be 36 million tonnes containing 65.7 parts per million scandium.

Scandium resources have been identified in minerals-rich regions across the world, most notably in Australia, where a number of junior mining companies are working to develop scandium deposits in New South Wales. These include Scandium International Mining (TSX:SCY), which controls the Nyngan project; Clean TeQ Holdings (ASX:CLQ,OTCQX:CTEQF), which holds the Sunrise project; and Platina Resources (ASX:PGM,OTC Pink:PTNUF), which is working on the Owendale project.

Scandium price and trading

The US Geological Survey states that the global scandium market is "small relative to most other metals." This is exemplified by global production and consumption, which is only an estimated 15 to 20 metric tons annually.

The US Department of Commerce and the International Trade Commission do not have specific data on trading for the metal. Furthermore, there is no formal buy/sell market today — scandium is not traded on an exchange and there are no terminal or futures markets.

Instead, the metal is traded between private parties, mostly at undisclosed prices and in undisclosed amounts. Therefore, understanding the precise volume of production and cost of scandium is difficult, and independent estimations are more relevant.

Production estimates are based on levels of trader activity and interest, as well as the knowledge that some traders deal in the critical metal from very small operations.

The estimates also include consumers believed to be sourcing their own scandium through small, controlled recovery operations, but don't consider amounts of the metal contained in the master alloy currently being sold from Russian stockpiles.

The scandium opportunity

Analysts expect the global scandium market to grow at a compound annual growth rate of above 11 percent between 2020 and 2025. "The major factors driving the growth of the market studied are the accelerating usage in solid oxide fuel cells, and the rising demand for aluminum-scandium alloys," notes ReportLinker.

Despite the lack of known, stable supply, scientists and engineers have been working hard to develop new products incorporating the metal. Scandium's potential in high-tech applications is well documented. Highlights of the metal's properties include:

  • It can be used in the creation of stronger, corrosion-resistant, heat-tolerant and weldable aluminum alloys for lightweight aircraft and automobiles.
  • Its outstanding electrical properties and heat resistance are valuable for solid oxide fuel cells.
  • It has unique optical properties for high-intensity lamps.

A recent Kaiser Research report on scandium details the wide variety of end uses for scandium now and into the future, as well as where potential supply to meet that demand may originate.

potential scandium oxide supply and demand

Potential scandium oxide supply and demand.

Kaiser Research

As Kaiser has explained, "There's an enormous latent demand for scandium if it ever became available on a primary, scalable basis."

In other words, the only barrier to accessing demand from a new family of high-performance aluminum materials and energy/lighting products is the lack of commercially viable larger-scale scandium production. Interestingly, Kaiser's work highlights two important scandium market events that may "have the potential to launch scandium demand growth over the next decade towards a 1,000 (tonne per annum) market worth US$2 billion."

For one, Rio Tinto (NYSE:RIO,ASX:RIO,LSE:RIO) announced in 2020 that it has developed a route to recovery for scandium at its Sorel-Tracy facility in Quebec, where it produces titanium slag from the Lac Tio iron-titanium deposit. In mid-2021, Rio Tinto began commercial-scale operations at its new scandium oxide production facility.

"The Rio Tinto development is a game changer for the scandium sector," said Kaiser, who believes the increase in scandium production could help boost the sector.

Secondly, Scandium International Mining filed an application in late 2019 for a patent protecting a method for recovering scandium and other metals from the waste streams of copper oxide leaching operations. In mid-2020, the company announced that copper raffinate tests showed its patent-pending process could recover enough scandium to match the supply being added to the market by Rio Tinto.

"Conditions are finally right for scandium to become the ideal lightweighting solution for aluminum," Kaiser said in his note to investors.

This is an updated version of an article originally published by the Investing News Network in 2014.

Don't forget to follow us @INN_Resource for real-time news updates!

Securities Disclosure: I, Melissa Pistilli, hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.

Editorial Disclosure: The Investing News Network does not guarantee the accuracy or thoroughness of the information reported in the interviews it conducts. The opinions expressed in these interviews do not reflect the opinions of the Investing News Network and do not constitute investment advice. All readers are encouraged to perform their own due diligence.

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