On extracting uranium and thorium, and what it means for social impact.

It is a logical conclusion that you cannot have nuclear power without a consistent fuel supply. I am not sure how many Malaysians know that Malaysia is home to companies that offer the extraction of radioactive fuel supply for power generation – although we do not yet have our own power reactor. SGS is just one example of a company offering such services. Of course, they are not merely serving Malaysia and uranium mining is just one sub-segment of their many businesses.

The Malaysian nuclear agency is looking to thorium as an alternative fuel resource to uranium as they consider the former to be more efficient, to be more resistant to reprocessing for proliferation purposes, and therefore, as potentially producing less waste. However, even if thorium is comparatively better than uranium, it remains to be seen as to what that means in absolute terms for the environment and for nuclear waste management, as well as for social impact. This is because the main source for thorium is monazite, a rare earth phosphate mineral. From history, any kind of activity associated with the extraction and processing of rare earth materials had seldom go down well with the local community, because of distrust and fear of contamination. Moreover, the World Nuclear Association claimed that much work in the R&D side must still be done before the deployment of thorium could be considered certainly cost-effective (or less disastrous for the environment than uranium).

That said, Physicsworld recently reported that future mining technology would involved the electrochemical of uranium from the sea, through the deployment of old-fashioned electrolysis, involving the use of anodes and cathodes (if you remember your chemistry/science lessons from school). It is uncertain how this would be done in the big scale, and what this would mean in terms of how one could control the supply of uranium fuel (given that the availability of uranium is supposed controlled).


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