Thorium Holds Key to Japan's Industrial Future

Japan wants to shift to a low-carbon society, but the challenge will be how it goes about it. The key to achieving this difficult goal is industrial revitalization. This will require technological innovation and the ability to secure precious resources. Thorium may provide an answer.

Thorium is a naturally occurring radioactive substance. Its use is almost exclusively limited to nuclear fuel. However, unlike uranium, it is not fissionable and has not been used as nuclear fuel up to now.
But it can be burned if plutonium is used to ignite it. After more than 40 years of using nuclear power, the world has a 2,000-ton stockpile of plutonium.

If thorium is used as a fuel for nuclear power generation, electricity can be supplied without discharging carbon dioxide. Another plus is that the method does not produce plutonium, which can be used to make nuclear weapons.

Thus, thorium has a potential to help in efforts to curb global warming and bring about a world without nuclear weapons at the same time.

In Japan, electric vehicle technology is one of the key elements for industrial revitalization. Here, too, thorium has the potential to play a prominent role.
Magnets made from compounds which include rare earths, a type of rare metal, are indispensable for small motors that power electric cars. Last year, Japan's demand for rare earth metals totaled some 20,000 tons. Since China accounts for 97 percent of global production of rare earths, any suspension of supply would be a major concern.

In June, Beijing decided on a policy of stockpiling certain amounts of rare earths. The United States, concerned about China's monopoly in this field, started a project to assess its own deposits at the Mountain Pass rare earth mine in California and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, in July 2009, Japan adopted a strategy to secure a stable supply of rare metals. In October that year, Masayuki Naoshima, minister of economy, trade and industry, visited China to seek a deal. But China turned down the request, citing the need for measures to prevent environmental pollution.

Behind China's monopoly in the market for rare earth metals is thorium.

Rare earth ores often contain thorium, whose radioactivity could cause environmental pollution. Therefore, the mining of rare earths is usually limited to mines with low rates of thorium content. However, globally, there are few such mines.

If thorium can be used in nuclear power plants, rare earth deposits with high thorium content will be more actively developed. While Japan does not produce thorium, globally, thorium resources are more abundant than uranium. If thorium and rare earths can be utilized at the same time, it may be possible to halt China's monopoly on rare earths and accelerate commercial production of electric cars. This is why thorium could be the savior of next-generation industries.

After U.S. President Barack Obama's speech on a world without nuclear weapons delivered in April 2009 in Prague, thorium has attracted international attention.

Already, accords on thorium use have been concluded between U.S. and French companies in the field of nuclear power generation as well as between Canadian and Chinese companies. Qinshan nuclear power plant in China's Zhejiang province plans to start using thorium fuel this year. The world is starting to move toward practical application of thorium for power generation.

To use thorium, reaction properties in existing nuclear reactors need to be verified. New types of nuclear reactors, such as a molten-salt reactor, must also be developed.

Japan needs to develop the technological know-how to use thorium and secure a steady supply of the resource. By doing so, it will be able to navigate the rough seas ahead toward the goal of fostering next-generation industries.

Now is the time for Japan to demonstrate its leadership in the world by drawing up a comprehensive strategy for industrial revitalization centering on thorium.

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The article was published in the International Herald Tribune on Thursday September 2.

Takashi Kamei received his PhD in Nulear Engineering from Kyoto University and worked as a lecturer in Tenri University and as an assistant professor in Kyoto University. At the International Institute for Advanced Studies, Kyoto Japan, he is a specialist in energy systems. Dr. Kamei has written many articles on safe and economic energy supplies.

Thorium Holds Key to Japan's Industrial Future, International Herald Tribune, by Takashi Kamei

The article published online at Asahi, Thorium Holds Key to Japan's Industrial Future by Takashi Kamei

Takashi Kamei at the International Institute for Advanced Studies, Kyoto University

Last updated 7 September, 2010