Nuclear Thorium

Thorium: Nuclear Power’s Last Hope…Maybe


Awhile back I did a piece on nuclear energy and you would have thought I was in favour of hanging petty thieves (that theory belongs to the Harper Conservatives). I said nothing in favour of nuclear but only made the point that before anything is rejected, it (the modern version) should be studied so we can understand our options. At that point we had had Chernobyl and Three Mile Island but not, of course, Fukushima.

In the Globe and Mail for May 23 last, on the op-ed page is an article by Neil Reynolds, headlined “With Thorium We Could Have Safe Nuclear Power”.

Here is the opening paragraph to set the stage:

[quote]In the beginning, nuclear scientists identified two fuel sources for the atomic age: uranium and thorium. They went with uranium. Why? It wasn’t because uranium was the better fuel. Thorium is more abundant. It is simpler. It is safer. (Although slightly radioactive, it can’t sustain a chain reaction in a nuclear reactor and, hence, can’t “melt down.”)[/quote]

Incidentally, why did we end up taking what was so obviously the wrong path? In short, because you can’t make Plutonium from Thorium – while you can from Uranium. And Plutonium was essential to building nuclear warheads. As Reynolds explains, “In the Cold War, the science goal was synonymous with the military goal:
nuclear weapons. Plutonium delivered the deadliest mushroom cloud.” Nuclear power from Uranium was a two-for-one proposition: energy and weapons.

Now, Dear Friends, did old Uncle Rafe come out in favour of nuclear power? Is it time we all set our hairpieces on fire? Does he want to have reactors like they have (had, I suppose) in Japan?

No, I want no such thing! Nuclear power as we know it has been thoroughly discredited as dangerous and expensive – and we still haven’t found a safe way to get rid of the waste.

Nor am I ready to accept a column in the Toronto Globe and Mail as definitive of the matter. Mr. Reynolds is an experienced and able columnist but he is not the scientific community. His proposition requires a hell of a lot more information from not only science but regurgitated from a thorough public debate.

If there is to be a debate it must be about Thorium, not Uranium, and free of the sort of cant by which debates are too often destroyed.

If Thorium is what Reynolds says it is, there would be an end to the destruction of our rivers and Site “C” would be abandoned (which it should be regardless).

Which brings on the other side of the debate:
What if our energy customers decide to abandon us in favour of Thorium? In the island mentality that is the hallmark of our American cousins, they will always opt for their own supply of whatever is critically needed – so long as they have that option.

Ironically, it was the US cancelling of our Uranium which had got us into big time trouble in the late 70s. So sure were we of American customers that Atomic Energy of Canada, Ltd. stockpiled a huge quantity which it was now stuck with. That led the way for Canada, under then Deputy Energy Minister and later Senator Jack Austin, to form a worldwide cartel of uranium producers.

My own history was as BC Minister of Environment, banning exploration for and mining of Uranium in 1979.

But, let’s get back to the theme – we are not talking about Uranium but Thorium and for all the reasons above and more it makes abundant good sense to find out what it does and judge its use based on the Precautionary Principle – meaning that proponents must demonstrate its safeness.

Now, once again, dear friends, as loudly as possible, and in unison, shout: “Rafe Mair is not in favour of nuclear power – only of examining an alternative which is alleged to be a safe, and efficient alternative!”


About Rafe Mair

Rafe Mair, LL.B, LL.D (Hon) a B.C. MLA 1975 to 1981, was Minister of Environment from late 1978 through 1979. In 1981 he left politics for Talk Radio becoming recognized as one of B.C.'s pre-eminent journalists. An avid fly fisherman, he took a special interest in Atlantic salmon farms and private power projects as environmental calamities and became a powerful voice in opposition to them. Rafe is the co-founder of The Common Sense Canadian and writes a regular blog at

4 thoughts on “Thorium: Nuclear Power’s Last Hope…Maybe

  1. IIRC, India is going full scale into thorium for nuclear power generation.

    And your remarks about the situation in Japan are rather silly. It’s like saying I won’t ride a car because the Model T was so damned dangerous. The Japanese reactors were thoroughly obsolete and should have been decommissioned years ago, as nearly all reactors of that design have been elsewhere. The remarks about waste disposal are off base. You’d rather dispose of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? Which is the greater threat, something that can be stored in a relatively small area or something that is distributed throughout the atmosphere?

    Still, I think it’s too late for the full scale use of nuclear power. Wind is practical now, and solar is on the edge of being so; there’s also geothermal in some areas. When nuclear would have been valuable is over the past 30 years or so, to avoid crapping up the atmosphere will hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide. In thoughtlessly derailing nuclear at the very time it would have been most valuable, the environmental movement has made its own significant contribution to the climate change crisis. Exxon move over — save a seat for Greenpeace too.

  2. Trailblazer makes a valid point. “Cheap” is a poor choice of words. This power would be better described as economically feasible using present day leading edge Canadian expertise. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Study would reveal if it was also environmentally feasible. Garbage incineration for “waste to power” could be implemented alongside at remote mine/fracking sites. We could transport the garbage by rail on the return trip from delivering the ore to port…..if we had a railway.

  3. There are lots of questions to be asked of Thorium, but they should be asked.
    We should also ask if cheap “thorium” electricity becomes available (particularly in the North) will this encourage yet more mining in remote areas?
    It could become a double edged sword..

  4. Last week I commented on the CBC site. It kind of relates to what Rafe says here.

    “A huge portion of Hydro projections are for the industrial sector and for export, not the requirements of the residential taxpayer. Yet we are footing the bill. In particular, for the planned new mining in the Northwest and new fracking for gas in the Northeast, Site C power will be close to the point of consumption so that part of the equation is relatively efficient. But maybe they should have numerous small nuclear reactors on site instead. They could be small and of CANDU design operating on thorium, deemed reasonably safe. As a matter of fact, maybe if anyone needs to use more electricity we should put a nuclear reactor within sight, residential users in the south included. That may promote conservation for both industry and residential. If economics and growth of the economy are trumping the environment anyways then why not cut to the chase and choose the cheapest power available.”

    With an open mind and professional (not political) evaluation, this may indeed be more friendly than draining alpine lakes on the Sunshine Coast, where the water turns hard just when the power is needed.

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