The Fukushima nuclear plant incident that occurred in Japan in March 2011 caused many observers to question the use of uranium as a source of nuclear energy and perhaps cast doubts on clean energy overall. However, this may have been a premature conclusion as there are other elements that can be used in the nuclear cycle to create power. In addition, there are safer, better alternatives for nuclear power that are much less harmful to the environment. So what do we use instead of nuclear energy powered by uranium?
Some alternative energy sources have been around for generations. They include thorium, solar power, natural gas, and hydrogen. It's likely that in the modern age, increasingly government and scientists will look towards these alternatives in establishing sustainable energy supplies. As recently as March 2019, bipartisan legislation was reintroduced under the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act to "boost nuclear energy innovation and ensure advanced reactors can provide clean, safe, affordable, and reliable power to meet national and global energy needs."
Thorium is an element that can be used as a fuel in the nuclear cycle. It is an alternative to uranium, and the technology to facilitate the use of thorium has been around since the 1960s. Many scientists and others are advocating the use of this element based on its many advantages over the current uranium fuel cycle in place at most plants worldwide.
First, thorium is a more abundant element than uranium. India, Brazil, Australia, and the United States hold the bulk of the world's reserves of 6.4 million tons. Additionally, all the thorium mined can be used as fuel, compared to less than 1% of mined uranium. Scientists who have studied the thorium fuel cycle maintain that the process produces less waste and is safer than the uranium fuel cycle currently used at nuclear facilities.
Several countries have taken the lead in promoting the use of thorium to produce energy. China is pursuing the development of a molten salt nuclear reactor that uses thorium as a fuel. The Chinese Academy of Sciences said the technology was "environmentally safe, cost-effective, and politically palatable."
India has also identified thorium as an energy source in phase three of the Nuclear Power Program that the country adopted in the late 1960s. India is working on the advanced heavy water reactor design to implement this technology.
The United States was one of the leaders in developing this technology generations ago and was among the first countries to have small scale thorium reactors operating. However, these have all been shut down and, because the United States lacks a cohesive energy policy, no thorium reactors are currently being considered. Most recently, 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang went on the record backing thorium reactors.
Solar power is abundant, inexhaustible, and arguably the best known of the alternative energy sources. The most common method of harnessing this energy is through the use of solar panels that convert sunlight to electricity that is then distributed to the end-user.
Another potential use of solar power is to create transport fuel for use in automobiles and trucks. Sundrop Fuels uses a technology called solar gasification, which involves applying concentrated solar power to heat biomass to temperatures of approximately 2,370 degrees Fahrenheit. This process creates a gas composed of carbon monoxide and hydrogen which is further processed into usable gasoline or diesel fuel.
Natural gas can also be used as one of many better alternatives for nuclear power and has several advantages over oil, which is the typical fossil fuel that is currently refined into gasoline. Natural gas emits less carbon and other harmful pollutants into the air when burned and has seen a rapid increase in supply in the United States as the industry has perfected the technology to release the huge amounts of natural gas locked up in shale rock.
Natural gas used as a transport fuel can either be compressed natural gas (CNG) or liquefied natural gas (LNG). It is also cheaper than gasoline, with CNG selling on average about 41 cents less than gasoline on an energy equivalent basis according to the January 2020 analysis by the Department of Energy.
Another alternative source of fuel is hydrogen, which can be used in conjunction with a fuel cell to provide transport. Hydrogen burns clean, it can be produced domestically, and it can be as much as three times more efficient than a typical gasoline-powered engine.
Hydrogen can be produced through many different processes including from fossil fuels, biomass, or electrolyzing water. To get the most benefit from hydrogen as a fuel source, the best method would be to use renewable energy sources to produce hydrogen.
The Bottom Line
There are many cleaner, better alternatives for nuclear power or fuel that can be used instead of uranium. Some of these have been around for decades, are proven technology, and are much less harmful to the environment. The pursuit of these alternative types of energy such as thorium, solar power, natural gas, and hydrogen must continue despite the tragic accident in Japan.