Nuclear radiation and decay are often perceived as dangerous and harmful. In 2011, at the Fukushima Daiichi Accident, following a major earthquake, a 15-meter tsunami disabled the power supply and cooling of three Fukushima Daiichi reactors. An average of 400 mSv/hour (accumulated background radiation dose) was produced which is 40,000 times the amount of radiation in a dental X-ray. Although nuclear radiation can cause extreme harm on rare occasions, it has more positive outcomes than negative ones.
As an illustration, nuclear radiation is used in X-rays to see if bones are broken. X-ray radiation passes through the skin and then is stopped by the teeth or bone allowing us to visualize the inside of the human body. There is also radiation in our phones, televisions, and us, many people do not even know it but humans are radioactive, we accumulate 2.4 mSv a year, so why are we afraid of it? Nuclear radiation and decay is the process of nuclei losing energy by emitting energy particles or rays. This action occurs when an isotope (atoms that have the same number of protons and electrons but a different number of neutrons) becomes unstable. Atoms with unstable nuclei are called radioisotopes, which undergo nuclear decay. Radiation is only emitted once, the decay of the radioactive element occurs at a fixed rate. The half-life of a radioisotope is the time required for one-half of the amount of unstable material to degrade into a more stable material, this is reversed for isotopes.
There are three different types of decay, Alpha, Beta, and Gamma. Each type emits a particle from the nucleus; alpha particles are high-energy helium nuclei containing two protons and two neutrons. Beta particles are negatively charged like an electron; however, gamma decay is when a nucleus dissipates excess energy by a spontaneous electromagnetic process. In gamma decay, there are no subatomic particles emitted but rather rays are produced. Fission is the division of one atom into two, whereas fusion is the combination of two lighter atoms into a larger one. Fission is used in nuclear power reactors since it can be controlled, while fusion is not utilized to produce power since the reaction is not easily controlled and is expensive. Nuclear power stations could be a climate change solution – if we were not so afraid of it. The issue with nuclear power now is in order for humans to be able to utilize it; we need a lot of it. It is currently made out of uranium, which in large amounts can cause illnesses such as kidney disease. In small doses, Uranium is safe and will be able to function things like x-rays, but in reality, accidents can still occur. So what do we do? Scientists from the Shanghai Institute of applied physics are investing 3.3 billion dollars in a prototype of a thorium nuclear reactor by 2021. Other countries like India are planning to invest in thorium, as it is believed to be safer, cleaner, and more abundant than normal nuclear power (uranium-235). Studies by a company called ‘Seeker’ show that thorium power can be kept in a liquid form as a liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR). They proved that it is more efficient, produces less toxic waste, and can be designed to shut down safely in case of an accident. You might be asking why did we not think of this earlier. Well, since the focus was on building nuclear arsenals, thorium was overlooked as it does not generate as much plutonium. The only issue with LFTR’s is finding a material that can resist the highly corrosive molten salts, however, the Shanghai scientists believe that they have developed alloys and coating materials that solve the major issue of corrosion in the reactors. If this experiment is successful, then it will highly benefit the considerations nationally and globally, otherwise nuclear power through uranium is safe for local means as it is dosed in smaller and less harmful amounts.
People fear nuclear radiation, these fears are understandable based on historical nuclear disasters but these fears can be alleviated if uranium-235 is replaced with thorium, less toxic waste will be produced, therefore, positively impacting climate change. Thorium reactors only have one negative aspect, which is finding a material that can resist the highly corrosive molten salts; this is already believed to be solved by the Shanghai scientists. Climate change however has multiple long-term issues such as temperatures rising, changes in precipitation patterns, increased droughts and heatwaves, more intense hurricanes, rising sea levels, and the arctic ice will eventually melt. Climate change poses far greater long-term risks than thorium nuclear energy. With no extra safety or accuracy concerns and its various positives like it being safer, cleaner, and abundant, thorium nuclear energy should be considered as a new substitute for uranium-powered energy. It is time to see thorium nuclear energy as a solution, not a risk.