Norway's thorium option 'should be kept open'

18 February 2008

Current knowledge of thorium-based energy production and the geology of the natural resource are insufficient to determine the potential value to Norway, according to a report to government.


The report, entitled Thorium as an Energy Source - Opportunities for Norway, was commissioned by the government in early 2007. The Research Council of Norway (RCN) was given the responsibility to organize this study and the Thorium Report Committee was established in March 2007. The committee was chaired by Mikko Kara, executive vice president for the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland.


The committee was given the mandate to produce a report establishing "a solid knowledge base concerning both opportunities and risks related to the use of thorium for long-term energy production." In addition, the study was to "assess Norway's possibilities for participating in potential future development of thorium as an energy source."


The use of thorium-based fuel cycles has been studied for about 30 years, but on a much smaller scale than uranium or uranium/plutonium cycles. Basic research and development has been conducted in Germany, India, Japan, Russia, the UK and the USA. Test reactor irradiation of thorium fuel to high burnups has also been conducted and several test reactors have either been partially or completely loaded with thorium-based fuel. So far, only India is taking concrete steps to develop thorium-based nuclear power generation.


The report states: "According to the US Geological Survey, Norway has one of the major thorium resources in the world. The listed resources, i.e. 170,000 tonnes, have a potential energy content which is about 100 times larger than all the oil extracted to date by Norway, plus that of the remaining reserves." It adds, "Most of the thorium enriched minerals are situated within three main regions: the Fen Complex in Telemark County, the Permian Oslo Province, and on the southeast coast of Norway, in the Kragerø and Langesund area."


However, the study concluded that: "Due to a lack of data, it seems impractical to develop meaningful cost projections for any nuclear energy system using thorium. It seems obvious that the contribution of the raw material to the cost structure of the electricity generated will be small, comparable to that of the uranium cycle or even lower. The main economical challenges to the development of a thorium based energy production will be the acquisition of funding necessary to carry out the required research and development."


The report recommends that the "potential contribution of nuclear energy to a sustainable energy future should be recognized." In addition, the committee said that an investigation into Norway's thorium resources should be conducted in order "to assess whether thorium in Norwegian rocks can be defined as an economical asset for the benefit of future generations." It also suggests that testing of thorium fuel in the Halden Reactor in Norway should be encouraged. The OECD Nuclear Energy Agency's (NEA's) Halden Reactor Project has been in operation for more than 49 years. It is supported by approximately 100 organizations in 18 countries.


The report also suggests that Norway should strengthen its participation in international collaborations by joining the Euratom fission program and the Generation IV International Forum (GIF) program on Generation IV reactors suitable for the use of thorium. It also suggests that Norway should join the European effort in the development of an Accelerator Driven System (ADS) using thorium.


The committee recommends that "the thorium option be kept open in so far it represents an interesting complement to the uranium option to strengthen the sustainability of nuclear energy."


On receiving the report, Norway's minister of petroleum and energy, Åslaug Haga, said: "I register that the report neither provides grounds for a complete rejection of thorium as a fuel source for energy production, nor does it offer enough reason for embracing it as such. The government's viewpoint has not changed, meaning that there exist no plans to allow construction of nuclear power plants in Norway."


She added, "The government wishes to prioritise the development and deployment of renewable energy sources like bioenergy and wind power, in particular offshore wind turbines. I want as many as possible to have the opportunity to have their say in this matter, and have therefore decided that we will consult the broader public through a hearing."