Thorium: An Alternative to Uranium, 2007 Update

DETROIT () -- The component of the global warming agenda that is purely political is the driving force behind the contemporary uranium "boom." Doomsayers and scaremongers are shouting, not whispering, that we must stop using the sources of heat, which have been discovered, chosen and used universally to power our industrial civilization during the last two centuries, and choose, overnight, something else, which is now in limited use (nuclear power) or is basically just emerging from the laboratory (solar power) or is understudied but dramatic in appearance (wind, tide and geothermal).

Rather than trying to catch the uranium roller coaster on a down loop investors who think about the long-term need to take a serious look at the naturally occurring radioactive metal, thorium, which but for the exigencies of the last truly global war and the need for some nations to defend themselves from other nations that would conquer them in the name of the latest and greatest social movement, or that old time religion, would have been the metal of choice for the development of nuclear powered electric generating stations.

Is it time for thorium to make its re-entry on the global stage? The answer is yes, and therein lays an opportunity.

Just about one year ago I wrote an article for Resource Investor entitled "." A lot has happened since then with regard to both uranium and thorium, but only the run up in the price of uranium has been covered by the financial press. Even that run up has been covered by short sighted analysts as if an increasing demand for uranium is a given. I want to bring the readers of RI up to date on the very significant events that have occurred in thorium power technology and the re-assessing of America's thorium reserves since then.

There is no serious fundamental immediate or near-term basis of supply shortage to account for the tripling of the price of uranium in the last year. There are no more uranium fuelled nuclear power plants today than there were a year ago, and no new plants have been ordered in the United States. It is in fact not at all clear just who or what is buying uranium to increase the demand so substantially in such a short time. Uranium mining stocks are being traded in a frenzy that masks the discussion of whether or not there is any need for such an investment in uranium production. It is therefore absolutely necessary for investors to keep in mind the distinction drawn by television investment evangelist, "Mad Money Jim Cramer," that short-term ownership of a stock is a trade as opposed to a long term hold, which is an investment.

There are lots of hazy stories around to justify the uranium frenzy. I have been told, for example, that uranium fuelled nuclear power plants scheduled to be decommissioned will now be kept in service, but this does not require any new supply! I have also read that China will build 20 new pebble-bed (i.e., cheap to construct) reactors to produce electricity in remote regions without the need for coal or oil in the next 20 years. But even Chinese long-term thinking wouldn't justify buying so much nuclear fuel in advance, would it?

What has happened is that investors and mining companies are speculating on a nuclear power boom that they think will shortly begin due to the widespread concern, even fear, generated by the study of global warming, which holds that:

  1. It has been proven scientifically that the earth's climate is entering a period of rapidly escalating global warming;
  1. It has been accepted that if this global warming has been caused by anthropogenic (i.e., man made) activity, and the IPPC is 90% certain that this is scientifically proven, then the primary bad actor is the carbon dioxide naturally formed by the burning of coal, oil and natural gas to produce electric power and vehicular propulsion, and;
  1. If the burning of coal, oil and natural gas for these purposes is not eliminated, or, at least, substantially curtailed (or, if it is held at present levels and all the carbon dioxide generated by stationary power plants is somehow "sequestered," i.e. stored) then the global economy will suffer irreparable damage as the climate shifts permanently causing massive changes in the habitability and agricultural usefulness of the earth's surface, and therefore coal, oil and natural gas must be replaced as sources of heat as soon as possible.

The only well understood, well-known and developed technology that can possibly, in a relatively short time frame, substitute for the generation of heat by the external combustion of carbon-based fuels is based on nuclear reactors, the heat from which can (and, indeed, now does) produce superheated steam to turn turbines to produce electricity. By locating nuclear power plants on shore lines, the electricity they produce could be used not only directly for commercial, municipal and residential power, but also to electrolyze water (including sea water) to produce hydrogen as a clean burning fuel for vehicular propulsion. The burning of hydrogen by internal combustion engines produces only water as a waste product, and the principle, and only draw back to the mass production of hydrogen powered internal combustion engines is the lack of a fuel production and distribution infrastructure.

Speaking of hydrogen for a moment, I think that investors should, perhaps, now be looking at Hydrogen Engine Center, Inc. (HEC), a company founded by an engineer who was with the Ford Motor Company when that company actually had a plan to maintain a leading place in the development of alternatively fuelled power plants. Ford discontinued the program, but the engineer did not. HEC is making and selling hydrogen fuelled internal combustion engines (ICE) right now, and its website has some good discussions of sources for hydrogen, other than the electrolysis of water, which I think are worth looking at. I am "warming" up to the idea of hydrogen powered internal combustion engines for mobile (vehicular) power plants both as direct motive power and as on-board sources of electricity generation either for direct application to the motive wheels or for recharging batteries as needed.

When I read the website of this company, and I read news articles about BMW, a first class automotive engineering company, putting hydrogen powered big engine (V-12!) cars on the test road, I am tempted to reassess my original scepticism about hydrogen as a direct fuel for ICEs in cars. What I haven't changed my mind about is the mistake that the Ford Motor Company made in choosing development intensive paths instead of this one, hydrogen powered ICEs, for immediate consideration.

Now back to the main discussion. There are sufficient global uranium reserves to supply the needs of all the nuclear power plants that our global industrial civilization could build even if it is decided politically, because economically it is nonsense, to replace 100% of carbon burning plant currently generating electricity. There is also sufficient uranium to fuel all of these plants for centuries. Clearly the price of developing all of the known uranium reserves and looking for more will not be an issue if governments decide that this emergency is upon us.

The speculation that nuclear reactors will produce electricity so that, even if carbon burning power plants are phased out, there will be no reduction in available electric power is also driving into high gear (excuse the pun) research into the critical components for vehicles that can no longer use carbon-based fuels such as high capacity, long service life, rechargeable lithium-ion battery technology for plug-in hybrid electric ground vehicles (cars, trucks and trains) using storage batteries and a small internal combustion engine to generate electricity.

These are already seen to be themselves only an intermediate technology awaiting the arrival of a hydrogen distribution system in the next generation that will allow internal combustion engines burning hydrogen to either generate electricity directly to drive ground vehicles or be used to charge higher capacity batteries than we now have for propulsion systems.

Mobile hydrogen burning fuel cells may replace the projected substantial size battery packs and even on board hydrogen burning internal combustion engines for charging them if a fuel cell catalyst system can be found that doesn't involve the need for huge amounts of platinum group metals that simply do not exist in the quantities required for global use even if hydrogen burning internal combustion engines completely replace hydrocarbon (gasoline and kerosene) and oxygenate (ethanol) burning ones thus eliminating completely the need for catalytic converters, which today are the principle demand drivers for platinum group metals.

In 1939, it was publicly announced that the fission of some of the isotopes of a few heavy elements had been induced by a man made experiment, which was in fact designed to build heavier elements not break apart the ones being targeted. It was immediately obvious to a few specialized scientists that if a system could be constructed in which the newly named "nuclear fission" were produced and controlled, i.e., it could be started and stopped, then a new source of, essentially, limitless power (heat) could be constructed that would not need to burn carbon-based fuels.

At the same time it was theorized that if sufficient quantities of the rare isotopes of uranium or thorium that exhibited the property of being fissile could be concentrated then it should be possible to, by known engineering, produce a special minimum quantity of them, a critical mass, in which once fission had been triggered by an outside source the fission would generate additional fission, through a chain reaction, so rapidly that a large quantity of the potential energy. Perhaps as much as a few percent would be released in a fraction of a second.

This theory so impressed the world's then best known scientist, Albert Einstein, that he signed a letter to then president Franklin D. Roosevelt that stated that he agreed that if such a bomb were constructed it might be possible, for example, to contain it in a seagoing vessel, which, if brought into a port and detonated, would destroy the port. World War II had already begun in Europe and Asia when Roosevelt's scientific advisors concluded that Einstein's conjecture was not only possible but that research into constructing such a weapon was probably already under way in both Germany and Japan.

Thorium although it had a relatively abundant fissile isotopes was immediately relegated to a back seat, because its properties dictated that although it could be used to manufacture a nuclear reactor it could not be used to or be useful in the construction of a fission weapon!

Thorium powered reactors were designed and built during and just after World War II to test power an ocean going vessel and to create the first civilian use only nuclear power plant at Shippingport, Pennsylvania.

Early proponents of civilian nuclear power did not want to manufacture devices from which weapons grade materials (i.e., highly enriched uranium or the new synthetically produced and highly fissile plutonium) could be easily extracted, because at the beginning of the "atomic age" it was believed that only a massively expensive and sophisticated industrial nation could afford to build the enormously costly and limited use base to produce weapons grade materials.

So, the development of thorium-based nuclear reactors was continued for a while in parallel with those using uranium and/or plutonium-based technologies. Then a series of intelligence underestimates and political errors combined to terminate government support and funding of what parallel development there was and to propel uranium to the first and only place in the race.

First, the devastated, and by American standards, primitive Russian industrial base produced and detonated a test atomic bomb in 1949. Then Great Britain whose scientists had contributed to the bomb's development way out of proportion to their numbers, but whose industrial base was considered to have been shattered by the war, followed the Russians shortly after with a successful test of their own even though Britain had been cut off from research and development information almost as soon as the war ended.

The atomic arms race was on, and it became the obsession of the world's politicians that the future must belong to the leader in numbers of atomic weapons. Thorium reactors were quickly forgotten for the same reason as they had once appealed. They could not be used, in any easy way, to make weapons grade material. Uranium and its daughter element, plutonium, were crowned the undisputed queens of nuclear power.

The governments of the nuclear powers went on a 50 year binge of hypocrisy. They talked about clean cheap safe civilian nuclear power but they skewed the nuclear power industry through subsidies towards uranium. This kept the weapons grade uranium and plutonium pipeline with a backup system and kept the nuclear fuel reprocessing industry in business economically. Most insidiously the public was trained to view safety as the prevention of detonations (not possible) or leaks (less likely than at carbon-based power plants) rather then the prevention of any possibility at all, of producing weapons grade material. Thus thorium was relegated to the back of the funding line.

The United States and the Russian Federation today have many times the number of nuclear weapons either one would need to destroy civilization. In addition Great Britain, France, China, Israel, Pakistan, India and bankrupt and starving North Korea have nuclear weapons and delivery systems for them. All it seems to take today to build a nuclear weapon is a uranium-based reactor, time and a knowledge base. The world does not need any more nuclear reactors based on uranium and/or plutonium!

The speed with which it is claimed that global warming is advancing dictates that we need immediately to begin to switch over to nuclear reactors to produce the heat upon which the generation of electricity is based.

It is too dangerous to build or allow remaining in operation nuclear reactors that can produce weapons grade material. The answer is thorium-based nuclear reactors.

An American company, Thorium Power, Ltd., [OTCBB:THPW], is at the forefront of thorium power technology. The principals of the company in fact give it a continuity and breadth of expertise in engineering, government, law and the military that is outstanding and unbroken from the very dawn of the idea of safe civilian nuclear power. The company's website makes fascinating, and I think, today, compulsory reading for any investor who wants to participate for the long run in the continuation and maintenance of a society and polity, the United States of America, that can improve and expand the quality of life for the earth's billions without the need for depriving its own citizens of anything or of controlling the lives of others.

Although thorium power is today a common topic among the punditocracy - just "Google" the term "thorium" to see what I mean - it is not at all clear how to invest in the mining and production of thorium.

Look at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) documentation on thorium, but, be aware, that it is out of date. The current USGS material shows the U.S. with less than 200,000 tonnes of thorium reserves. In fact a new company, so far private, Thorium Energy, Inc. told me that the unpublished results of a new study commissioned by it from the USGS that show that TE's Lemhi Pass property in Idaho has 600,000 tonnes of thorium reserves by itself. This if proved out would give the U.S. the largest reserves of thorium in the world, and would in fact be more than 1/3 of the world's known thorium.

The Lemhi Pass deposit is said to be primarily thorium, and this is rather unusual historically. Most of the world's known thorium reserves are byproducts of rare earth minerals such as monazite, which, coincidentally, is also found in a property called the Mountain Pass site in southern California, which environmentalists shut down because of the radioactivity from the thorium in the tailings - the thorium was not concentrated and removed because it had little or no commercial value.

The mine was ironically discovered by prospectors using Geiger counters looking for uranium in the first, post World War II, uranium boom! Molycorp moved away from the original discovery because of the radioactivity and developed another, relatively non-radioactive, ore body on the property and then fruitlessly tried for decades to create a market for the rare earths produced. I don't know who owns this property now, but keep an eye open for it. Mountain Pass could come roaring back.

The main source of rare earths today, globally, is China, and the principal producer of rare earth metals there is a unit of the parent company, Baotou, of China's third largest steel maker, Baosteel. The products of Baotou's rare earth production unit are marketed in North America by a Canadian subsidiary named HEFA. It is intriguing that the website for HEFA, which names all of the rare earth products available from the company does not mention thorium. Does this mean that the Chinese do not know the thorium is there, or does it mean that they do know but have no wish to sell material outside of China that can be used in place of uranium?

The American company, W.R. Grace [NYSE:GRA] has been in business since 1854 and has processed rare earth ores for decades. It was even doing so when the ores were produced in the United States. It certainly has the technology, at least historically, to produce thorium metal and its alloys if required as it did during World War II when the company was called upon to produce uranium chemicals, metals and alloys for the Manhattan Project.

Thorium Power, Inc. has told me that they already have the technology to "switch over" from uranium to thorium more than 60% of the reactors in use today in the world.

They said that a switched over or built from the ground up thorium powered reactor has for the "blanket" a total of three times the life of a uranium powered reactor. This would mean that the savings during the first fuel cycles will pay for the changeover in the case of a "retrofit." The core can be used to burn fissionable grade plutonium to non weapons grade material while the blanket will be made from thorium and uranium-233, not 238, so that no weapons grade plutonium-239 can be produced in the reactor.

In the last analysis of what keeps the uranium reactors running is unsurprisingly your tax dollars. The U.S. Federal Government subsidizes the storage of "spent" fuel from nuclear power plants. It (with our taxes) pays "private" utilities to store dangerous-because weapons grade material can e extracted from it and it is intensely radioactive to boot-spent fuel rods while awaiting that far off day when there will be a national repository for such waste. It has become a lawyer's trick to sue the Federal Government on behalf of a utility that needs more storage space or operating funds claiming a breech of the contract implied by the government's promise to maintain a safe operation and to defend the country.

If this subsidy were to be phased out or reduce ed it would immediately point the utilities towards the longer and thus cheaper fuel cycle of thorium power, which produces less waste, as well as towards reducing the security aspect of the cost of storing and transporting materials from which weapons grade materials can be extracted.

The public is generally unaware of the history of thorium as an alternative to uranium for the production of electricity by nuclear reactors. Those that are aware believe that thorium technology was a dead end path undertaken and finished many years ago. Long term investors might want to gamble that global warming will shortly reveal that the public needs a re-education with regard to the utility and future of thorium power.

About the Author
Jack Lifton

Jack Lifton is a leading authority on the sourcing and end use trends of rare and strategic metals. He is a founding principal of Technology Metals Research LLC and president of Jack Lifton LLC, consulting for institutional investors doing due diligence on metal- and material-related opportunities.

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