Uranium, because it can be easily processed into fissile material, has been the main choice of nuclear fuel since the 1940’s. Even though effective, Uranium has some major drawbacks. The first major drawback is that uranium is not naturally abundant. The World Nuclear Association (WNA), as seen in figure 1, predicts a dramatic increase of nuclear power plants throughout the world due to increasing energy demands. This will not only hasten the depletion of uranium stockpiles but also cause the price of uranium to rise possibly making the power it can generate not economically feasible. The second drawback is the amount of nuclear waste uranium produces. Currently, 3% of spent uranium fuel is unable to be recycled (WNA, 2013). The Nuclear Energy Institute estimates that an average nuclear power plant produces 20 tons of this high-level waste each year. The only current method of disposal is to store the high-level waste until it naturally becomes nonradioactive, which can take up to a thousand years. Paying for nuclear waste storage is very expensive and costs an average nuclear power plant about 10% of the revenue that is generated. (NEI, 2013)
Previous and current research has discovered an alternative nuclear fuel source known as thorium. Thorium was first studied for its potential use by the United States government for a nuclear fuel in the late 1940s; side by side with uranium. During those studies the U.S decided to shelve thorium research and pursued using uranium because it was extremely difficult to get weapon grade fissile material from thorium and the United States was in a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union. Research began again in force with thorium in the 1990’s by many countries, the U.S included. Thorium run reactors have been built in many countries primarily India, Canada, and U.S. Thorium is gaining popularity because it is more naturally abundant than uranium and its fuel leaves minimal high-level nuclear waste. (Thorium One, 2012)
As of 2014, Duke Energy runs and maintains six nuclear power plants. These plants currently are run with uranium dioxide as their fuel source (Duke, 2014). The ability to run and the economic feasibility of these power plants are going to come into question in the near future because of the increasing cost of using uranium. This report contains a comparative analysis of uranium and thorium in the following areas: natural abundance, the process of making each a nuclear fuel, ability to be used in Duke Energy’s reactors, energy generation, and nuclear waste produced. The report concludes with an analysis of whether or not it would be worth it for Duke Energy to further explore the possibility of switching to the thorium fuel cycle in the near future.
Element Abundance (grams/ton)
Table 1: Natural abundance of a few elements in the earth’s crust. . Ragheb,...