It is ironical for nuclear physicist Abdul Rahman to trot out a proposal about using thorium waste as nuclear fuel without revealing the disadvantages involved in using it this way, points out Choo Sing Chye.
I guess a few weeks ago, Malaysia woke up to the best news of the century – a waste product that could generate RM2–4 trillion for our country.
Who cares about the radioactivity of the by-product? It can never penetrate our thick skin, but for our thick skull, well … nobody can guarantee that it would not.
Take for example, the detractors of Ambiga, if you shine a torchlight (not radioactive) through one of their ears, it would definitely come out from the another. Anyway let’s leave these pendulum butts aside.
Obviously this waste product is touted to bring in mega bucks, so they say, and the matter (atom size) is so tiny that we cannot see with our naked eye; so, why argue?
Okay, let’s get back to the ‘trillion’ ringgit news. Nuclear physicist Abdul Rahman Omar told a parliamentary select committee (PSC) that the thorium waste produced by Lynas is a future money spinner, i.e. one tonne of thorium generates the same amount of energy as 10m tonnes of coal (Malaysiakini).
Here’s what he said: “It can generate 1 gigawatt of electricity in a year which is worth RM1bn to RM2bn, multiply this by the 2000 tonnes a year that the factory will produce, then it is worth between RM2 trillion to RM4 trillion in electricity.”
Now wait a minute, didn’t we hear this one before?
Okay, before we salivate at the trillions of ringgit profit from the thorium waste, let us set the clock back to October 1986, when Dr Fowler, a nuclear energy consultant from the United States, engaged by Asian Rare Earth said the very same thing as Abdul Rahman Omar.
Dr Fowler said, “I have deliberately referred to the Thorium cake (from ARE) as a residual by-product, rather than a waste product, since it may have a future value as a fuel material for nuclear electric power plants” (From my unpublished book, The Truth about the radioactive waste in Bukit Merah).
But fortunately, foreign experts brought in by the NGOs on behalf of the residents of Papan, Bukit Merah and Menglembu then, strongly negated Dr Fowler’s invalid proposal 26 years ago.
Today it is ironical for nuclear physicist Abdul Rahman to bring out the same proposal again without revealing the disadvantages of using thorium hydroxide as a nuclear fuel.
Because of this fallacy, I wish to republish what the foreign experts said on this issue 26 years ago.
One, thorium hydroxide cannot be use directly as a nuclear fuel. It has to be converted in a special nuclear reactor to uranium 233, before use. This conversion will take between 20 and 60 years.
Two, the potential future use of the waste is unrealistic. For example, if Malaysia is to use the thorium waste to fuel its reactors, she has to build special thorium cycle reactors because normal reactors cannot run on this fuel. Thus, the Malaysian government has to cough out millions of ringgit to build new thorium cycle reactors.
Three, Britain, Canada and Norway have closed down their experimental thorium cycle reactors. The remaining thorium cycle reactors in the United States are facing numerous technical problems and it would not be long for these reactors to be shut down.
Thus, the molten salt reactor (MSR) in Tennessee (1968 to 1972) was abandoned because of numerous technical problems and not just the overproduction of uranium as suggested by physicist Abdul Rahman (Malaysiakini).
Now, the question is, if the cost of uranium falls, then more so in the case of thorium hydroxide, which needs further expensive process to make it usable to fuel the thorium cycle reactors, which themselves face numerous technical problems. In fact, if the cost falls, then thorium hydroxide will have no value at all.
Apparently if all the hype of the profitability of thorium hydroxide is true, the Japanese would be the first to store it in their country because the Japanese government at that time was planning to build 21 nuclear reactors by 1996. But sadly, they were not thorium cycle nuclear reactors. Nobody wants this type of nuclear reactors except the Malaysian government.
I wish to end this article with a quote from Terry Prachett: “Eight years involved with the nuclear industry have taught me that when nothing can possible go wrong and every avenue has been covered, then is the time to buy a house on the next continent.”