But why have most people never heard of thorium reactors? Why is there not active public discussion of their pros and cons compared with uranium, solar, coal, wind, gas and so on? Why is the public, and the media especially, apparently in ignorance of the existence of a cheap, reliable, clean and far less risky source of energy? Above all – apart from one current trial of a 200MW unit by Japan, Russia and the US and a recent pledge by China to start – why is almost nobody seeking to commercialise this proven source of clean energy?
These are not easy questions to answer – but the situation appears to hold a strong analogy with the stubborn refusal of the world's oil and motor vehicle industries for more than 70 years to consider any alternative to the petrol engine, until quite recently. Industries which have invested vast sums in commercialising or supplying a particular technology are always wary of alternatives that could spell its demise – and will invest heavily in the lobbying and public relations necessary to ensure the competitor remains off the public agenda.
It is one of the greatest of historical ironies that the world became hooked on the uranium cycle as a source of electrical power because those sorts of reactors were originally the best way to make weapons materials, back in the 50s and 60s. Electricity was merely a byproduct. Today the need is for clean power rather than weapons, and Fukushima is a plain warning that it is high time to migrate to a safer technology.
Whether or not it ever adopts nuclear electricity, Australia will continue to be a prominent player as a source of fuel to the rest of the world – be it uranium or thorium. So why this country is not doing leading-edge R&D for the rapid commercialisation of safe nuclear technology is beyond explanation. There is good money to be made both in extracting thorium and in exporting reactors (we bought our most recent one from Argentina).
As a science writer, I do not argue the case for thorium energy over any other source, especially the renewables – that is for engineers, the electricity market and policymakers to sort out. But it must now be seriously considered as an option in our future energy mix.
Also, Geoscience Australia estimates Australia has 485,000 tonnes of thorium, nearly a quarter of the total estimated world reserves. Currently they are worthless - but could be worth billions.
There is a strong argument for Australia to invest some of our current coal and iron ore prosperity in developing a new safe, clean energy source for our own and humanity's future.