Thorium can be used as a nuclear fuel through breeding to fissile uranium-233. Although not fissile itself, Th-232 will absorb slow neutrons to produce uranium-233 (U-233)a, which is fissile (and long-lived). The irradiated fuel can then be unloaded from the reactor, the U-233 separated from the thorium, and fed back into another reactor as part of a closed fuel cycle. Alternatively, U-233 can be bred from thorium in a blanket, the U-233 separated, and then fed into the core.
In one significant respect U-233 is better than uranium-235 and plutonium-239, because of its higher neutron yield per neutron absorbed. Given a start with some other fissile material (U-233, U-235 or Pu-239) as a driver, a breeding cycle similar to but more efficient than that with U-238 and plutonium (in normal, slow neutron reactors) can be set up. (The driver fuels provide all the neutrons initially, but are progressively supplemented by U-233 as it forms from the thorium.)
However, there are also features of the neutron economy which counter this advantage. In particular the intermediate product protactinium-233 (Pa-233) is a neutron absorber which diminishes U-233 yield.
The use of thorium as a new primary energy source has been a tantalizing prospect for many years. Extracting its latent energy value in a cost-effective manner remains a challenge, and will require considerable R&D investment.
Thorium is a naturally-occurring, slightly radioactive metal discovered in 1828 by the Swedish chemist Jons Jakob Berzelius, who named it after Thor, the Norse god of thunder. It is found in small amounts in most rocks and soils, where it is about three times more abundant than uranium. Soil commonly contains an average of around 6 parts per million (ppm) of thorium.
Thorium exists in nature in a single isotopic form - Th-232 - which decays very slowly (its half-life is about three times the age of the Earth).
When pure, thorium is a silvery white metal that retains its lustre for several months. However, when it is contaminated with the oxide, thorium slowly tarnishes in air, becoming grey and eventually black. Thorium oxide (ThO2), also called thoria, has one of the highest melting points of all oxides (3300°C).
The most common source of thorium is the rare earth phosphate mineral, monazite, which contains up to about 12% thorium phosphate, but 6-7% on average. Monazite is found in igneous and other rocks but the richest concentrations are in placer deposits, concentrated by wave and current action with other heavy minerals. World monazite resources are estimated to be about 12 million tonnes, two-thirds of which are in heavy mineral sands deposits on the south and east coasts of India. Thorium recovery from monazite usually involves leaching with sodium hydroxide at 140°C followed by a complex process to precipitate pure ThO2.
Thorite (ThSiO4) is another common mineral. A large vein deposit of thorium and rare earth metals is in Idaho. (World Nuclear Association, Forbes, 9/11/2011)