The Thorium Solution

by Gerald Celente      

Once again, the world teeters on the edge of war. Once again, the conflict is in the Middle East. Once again, the conflict is over energy.

For years, Iran has been developing nuclear power. For years, the world has disbelieved Iran’s claims that its atomic energy would be only for peaceful, domestic uses.

The United States, Israel, the EU and other nations contend that Tehran is lying, and have imposed crippling sanctions on Iran. These embargoes now increasingly deny food and other staples to the Iranian people while costing companies around the world customers and markets.

On February 14th, the sanctions tightened: owners of more than 100 oil supertankers announced that they would no longer load crude from Iran’s oilfields, cutting off the country’s only meaningful source of income.

A day later, Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, visited the Tehran Nuclear Research Center to witness the loading of the first domestically-made uranium fuel rods in a reactor that the country claims will be used solely for medical purposes.

The conflict is careening beyond control. In 2009, Iran lost the use of hundreds of centrifuges – devices that spin on an axis like the hubs of a wagon wheel and use centripetal force to separate things, including the isotopes of uranium. In June 2010, it was discovered that the problem was due to the infamous Stuxnet computer worm, which had damaged the centrifuges by causing them to spin suddenly at wildly varying speeds.

A year later, an explosion at an Iranian military base reportedly damaged a facility where Iran was developing long-range missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads. In the past two years, four Iranian nuclear scientists have been murdered – one just last month on the streets of Tehran. Iran blames the sabotage and murders on Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, and the CIA. In what are now being termed revenge attacks, Thai authorities charge two Iranians with a series of bombings in Thailand this week and Thai investigators claim possible links between these attacks and the attempted murder of Israeli officials in India. And, Israel has also accused Iran of planting a car bomb (that was defused) in an Israeli embassy vehicle this week in the European country of Georgia.

Meanwhile, the US military has held a series of press conferences and are hosting mainstream media reporters on navy warships patrolling the Persian Gulf. All of the war drum beating, assassinations and sanctions are made under the pretext of Iran’s alleged intention to use their quest for nuclear power as a cover for the building of nuclear weapons.

The Celente Solution: If Iran is sincere that it seeks only peaceful uses for its nuclear energy, the crisis can easily be defused.

The problem isn’t that Iran seeks nuclear power. The problem is that, like the rest of the world, Iran has made a poor choice of nuclear fuel.

Uranium, the fuel that runs the world’s nuclear reactors, is lethal even when it’s not packed in a bomb. It’s absurdly complicated to handle, its behavior is touchy and unpredictable, and its waste is fatal to humans for millions of years after we’ve wrung the small amount of energy from it that our technology allows.

Instead, Iran can follow the lead of China, India, Brazil, and other nations and turn to thorium.

Thorium is an obscure, mildly radioactive metal produced as a waste product from the mining of rare earth minerals. This waste sits in piles on the ground in China, which produces most of the world’s rare earths; it’s locked away underground in most other countries, which have followed the US’s lead in banning the mining of rare earths because the process produces radioactive waste – in the form of thorium.

Yet when thorium was tested as a nuclear fuel in the 1950s, it was found to be both cleaner and safer than uranium. It can’t melt down or spontaneously explode when a “critical mass” of it is piled up; and it produces mainly alpha radiation, which is so weak that it can’t penetrate skin. Although thorium does produce a trace of radioactive waste that endures for billions of years, the amount is vastly smaller than uranium’s leavings.

Thorium also is more easily accessible around the world than uranium and more plentiful – it’s about three times as abundant as tin. In theory, a lump of thorium the size of a golf ball could supply the lifetime energy needs of a typical American – and more than that of an Iranian.

Even better, the technology to produce thorium is close at hand. International Thorium Energy & Molten Salt Technology, Inc., a private Japanese firm, intends to produce a 10-kilowatt thorium reactor within five years. China and India also are engineering thorium reactors. With some re-engineering, thorium even can be combined with uranium to make cleaner, longer-lived fuel rods for conventional nuclear reactors already in service.

In the years it would take Iran to build a conventional nuclear reactor, with its hundred-foot cooling towers and thousands of miles of plumbing, the nation could make a factory to turn out small thorium reactors. Iran has modest rare earth deposits and China, as Iran’s largest trading partner, could easily supply the reactors’ fuel. China and also India could share their growing technical expertise with Iran, not over international objections but with the approval of the rest of the world.

These small generators would present no regional or global threat and would serve Iran’s internal needs even more effectively than its current plan: the smaller thorium reactors can be made relatively quickly, with consistent quality, in a factory and then shipped and installed right where power is needed – at a factory, a mine, a military base, or as an incremental addition to a conventional generating plan. Iran could quickly achieve a strategic goal of western nations: the simultaneous expansion and decentralization of the electrical grid.

As is often the case, the current crisis is an opportunity. If Iran truly wants only peaceful nuclear power, it can choose thorium as its nuclear option … and the US, Israel, the EU and other nations can choose peace.

Gerald Celente is founder and director of The Trends Research Institute, author of Trends 2000 and Trend Tracking (Warner Books), and publisher of The Trends Journal. He has been forecasting trends since 1980, and recently called “The Collapse of '09.”