Is This The Dawning Of The Age Of Thorium?

by Jack Lifton on February 4, 2009

in Legislation, Nuclear Energy, Thorium

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There’s great rejoicing tonight in Salmon, Idaho, because Salmon is the closest town to the Lemhi Pass, and the Lemhi Pass is the location of America’s largest and possibly the world’s richest high-grade thorium oxide deposits.

“So what?” Well, here’s what’s what.

On October 2, 2008, Senator Hatch (R-UT) and Senator Reid (D-NV), then as now the Senate Majority Leader, introduced into the agenda for consideration by the United States Senate, a bi-partisan bill, S-3680, entitled the “Thorium Energy Independence and Security Act of 2008“.

The press release put out by Senator Hatch’s office that same day, contained the following paragraph:

“Using thorium for nuclear power has a number of potential benefits over conventional uranium. As a resource, thorium is abundant in the U.S. and throughout the world. A thorium fuel rod would remain in the reactor about three times as long as conventional nuclear fuel, cutting the volume of spent nuclear fuel by as much as two-thirds. Also, thorium nuclear fuel would significantly reduce the possibility that weapons-grade material would result from the process. Finally, a thorium fuel cycle could be used to dispose of existing plutonium stockpiles, which is the national security goal.”

The above paragraph sums up the arguments for using thorium-based fuel as an alternative to uranium-based fuel for nuclear reactors, which I myself first wrote about elsewhere in 2006 in an article I called “Thorium: An Alternative to Uranium”. I updated that article in early 2007 in my next thorium-themed article,”Thorium, An Alternative to Uranium, 2007 Update“. Later that year I wrote “Thorium, the Answer to the Question ‘How Do You Hedge Uranium?’”. In February 2008 I wrote “How to Invest in Rare Earths and Thorium”, and now one year later, I think that my timing has been right on the mark, and I want to tell you what has happened and what the natural resource investment opportunities for thorium are now, and are going to be.

I want to direct your attention to news releases that have been published since the beginning of 2009. If they don’t quicken your interest in the potential of thorium, especially when combined with the Hatch-Reid Bill, then you are simply uninterested in the future direction of non-proliferative low-waste nuclear power. This technology uses a natural resource the United States now possesses in significant abundance. American mining and refining technology for minor metals, and radioactive metals in particular, is the most advanced and safest in the world.  This situation could make America the principal producer, refiner and exporter of the thorium fuels that are being developed around the world, because, my dear investing public, America probably has more accessible high-grade deposits of thorium that anyone else.

Back to the 2009 news: Check out the International Herald Tribune for February 3, 2009, and you will see the analytical news piece called “A model nuclear-power deal?” This details the negotiations and agreement between the USA and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, such as Dubai and Kuwait, that was done in Condoleezza Rice’s last days as Secretary of State. It would give the Emirates the right to buy nuclear power reactor technology from American companies, in return for the agreements of the Gulf governments not to ask for or obtain any technology that can be used to make nuclear weapons. As the article points out, a good way to achieve this goal, with no possibility of cheating by either side, is to utilize thorium-based fuel for the reactors. This deal has been announced since the Obama administration took office, and therefore we must assume that it is in line with the new President’s policies for reducing greenhouse gas emitting power plant construction and reducing and stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons. It can be no coincidence that the Hatch-Reid Bill is about to be re-introduced into the new Congress. Clearly, the administration has signaled its support for amending the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 to include funding for research and development of thorium-based fuels, thorium reactors, and thorium reactor waste disposal techniques.

I am personally aware of the fact that, even as I write, major American, Canadian, French and British nuclear engineering companies are forming strategic alliances to seek funding under Hatch-Reid, to go forward with the development of thorium-based nuclear power reactors for the production of electricity for civilian use.

One year ago at the SME, the USGS sponsored the first annual rare earths seminar. The second annual one will be held at the SME annual meeting this year in Denver on February 26. I attended last year’s conference in Salt Lake City, and I asked, as did others, about the thorium normally found in rare earth ore bodies in North America. The uniform answer from almost all of the miners attending, was that “we contain it.” It is removed early on in the separation of the light rare earths, lanthanum to neodymium, and is then contained by being put aside and immobilized. There is often uranium as well as thorium associated with rare earth ore bodies, so I was told that thorium containment is “no problemo” as some miners put it at the conference.

I noted that although everyone at the conference had knowledge of the possible use of thorium in non-proliferative low waste reactors, they viewed that as a rather distant possibility and clearly then, in February 2008, classed thorium as a liability and as a cost to be contained.

As the song says, “What a difference a year makes.” The Indian Atomic Energy Authority announced at the beginning of 2009 that it would convert an existing reactor to use thorium-based fuel, with the thorium coming from India’s own monazite sands.

Even earlier than that in Hong Kong in September, I was told that the Chinese government had asked an American manager of a Bayanobo mining operation to tell them just what happened to the thorium separated there from the rare earths. He told me that he was instructed to gather and hold thorium concentrates from now on, and that they would be picked up by the Chinese nuclear power authority, because China was going ahead with the design and building of thorium-based fuel for “thorium” reactors, since China has so much thorium as a byproduct of its world’s largest rare earth mining operations.

Last week, Canada’s Great Western Minerals Group (GWMG), which told the SME conference in 2007 that its Hoidas Lake, Saskatchewan rare earth deposit was particularly low in thorium, and saw that as a positive, announced that it had bought a concession in the Republic of South Africa to reopen a mine for rare earths that was developed in the 1950s by AngloAmerican originally to produce thorium. GWMG further disclosed that a South African utility had made a deal with GWMG, to have it “contain” the thorium produced in the rare earth mining operation in concrete, so that the utility could take it to their own site when they have prepared it. The utility told them that the South African government has evinced a strong interest in building thorium-based nuclear reactors, and that the utility wants to have a domestic fuel source.

So now, what does this have to do with Salmon, Idaho? The answer is that it is the closest town to the claims of the private junior mining company, Thorium Energy, which announced last year at the SME that its Lemhi Pass, Idaho and other nearby properties were being validated with regard to reserves and resources of thorium, which the company said looked like they might be the richest and most extensive in North America. The USGS has now recognized that the company’s thorium reserves and resources are among the largest in the world and recently amended its Commodity Survey of Thorium to reflect that. Thorium Energy’s claims also contain substantial quantities of the rare earths, particularly of the light rare earths. An engineering manager at an American nuclear engineering company moving forward on the development of thorium reactors, pointed out to me last week that Thorium Energy could produce thorium as a product ,along with rare earth elements as a secondary product, or the other way around. In the one case, he noted that Thorium Energy would become and could well become, the world’s first primary thorium miner in half a century, and perhaps the largest one ever, if the validation is accurate.

The engineer thought that as a step towards American energy self sufficiency and independence, it was potentially a giant step. Perhaps we are about to step into the age of the last of the power metals to be developed for mankind’s use, thorium.

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