The question was asked by Baroness Angela Smith of Basildon, and the government’s response was given by Lord Marland of Odstock, who is Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Energy and Climate Change.
Here is a transcript of the discussion:
Asked by Baroness Smith of Basildon
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what research they have undertaken into, and what assessment they have made of, the use of thorium in nuclear reactors.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Lord Marland): My Lords, the Government are in the process of assessing the benefits of next-generation reactor technologies, including thorium, for the longer term, and the Secretary of State has asked the National Nuclear Laboratory to prepare a report. A previous NNL assessment of a number of claims made by proponents of thorium fuel concluded that while the theoretical science is reasonably sound, the risks and resources involved in achieving commercial deployment are significant.
Baroness Smith of Basildon: I am grateful to the noble Lord for his response. It is helpful, and I certainly welcome the fact that the Government are taking this more seriously. He will understand that despite greater acceptance of nuclear power there remain concerns about nuclear waste, both because of its potential military or terrorist use and because of the costs and difficulties of long-term storage—as he and I have discussed on many occasions—as it cannot be disposed of. Liquid fluoride thorium reactors generate no high-level waste material, and can reduce existing stockpiles of waste. Given that, while I welcome the Government’s assessment and the expected report, is there more that the Government can do to test the technology? Also, on a wider basis, have the Minister and his department given any thought to whether this is a technology for nuclear power that could be safely developed in all parts of the world?
Lord Marland: I am grateful for the noble Baroness’s question. The reality is that we have waste, so it will not improve the situation with regard to nuclear waste. This Government are very concentrated at the moment on recovering from 25 years of no nuclear activity with what we have. We have to concentrate on the reactors that are available, which we have had approval for, in order to get our next-generation nuclear power off the ground. We know fully that thorium reactors will take 10 to 15 years to develop. There is a high cost in that development and, at the moment, I would not put it as a priority unless the research report that comes out at the end of this summer advises us otherwise.
Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, please forgive my ignorance, but what is thorium?
Lord Marland: If only my O-level science teacher could see me now. I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for that question because I have learnt a lot about thorium recently. For those who wish to know, it is named after the Norse god Thor. It comes out of monazite sands, which are largely found in India and Norway, and is generated by a sifting process. The noble Baroness will be pleased to know that it is dimorphic, which I am happy to explain means that it changes from face-centred to body-centred. However, other noble Lords are far more qualified than me to inform us about thorium. All I would say is that it requires two neutrons to process it rather than one. The noble Baroness can find all sorts of other facts in Wikipedia, as, indeed, did I.
Baroness Worthington: My Lords, does the Minister agree with me that this is a serious topic? We have just seen a disaster in Japan that has reminded us that existing nuclear technology has inherent problems. Thorium is much safer. As my noble friend said, it does not generate waste and cannot lead to the proliferation of weapons and to terrorism. It is a very abundant and available source of fuel, unlike uranium. Given those advantages, does the Minister agree that we should have a programme to develop proof of concept of this technology?
Lord Marland: I am very aware of the noble Baroness’s views and read about them in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago. By the way, that was an excellent and most thoughtful article on this subject. However, the reality is that the nuclear accident in Japan to which she referred did not cause loss of life and we have reacted calmly to it. We are committed to the course that I have just amplified. Government funds are not available at the moment to explore new technologies. However, as I said earlier, if the National Nuclear Laboratory comes up with other suggestions at the end of the summer, we will be very happy to listen to those and explore them further.
Lord Taverne: My Lords, while some very interesting work has been done in India and interesting developments have occurred on the thorium-based reactor systems, is it not true that even those who feel that the research is very useful admit that it will remain very much a second string for a long time? Is it not vital that the Government should not be diverted from the fastest possible programme for building nuclear power stations? Should it not be noted by the anti-nuclear lobbies that the German decision to close down nuclear power will make Germany much more dependent on fossil fuels and will greatly increase carbon emissions from Germany?
Lord Marland: My noble friend makes a valuable point. He is referring to the Kakrapar plant in India, which the Indians are trying to develop. Clearly, we must press on with our nuclear programme. We are disappointed that Germany has taken a different attitude. I pay tribute to all those involved in the nuclear industry and in this debate, particularly in this House, who have kept a steady nerve while all around us things are going pear shaped. As a result, we will come out with a very careful and committed process for new nuclear generation.
Lord Broers: Does the Minister agree with me that we must fully fund R&D in nuclear, including thorium, so that we develop a mature understanding of this, but, almost more importantly, that we should focus our R&D in such a way that we enable our industry to bid effectively for the contracts that will be put out to build our nuclear plants, as, indeed, the Germans have done in the supply of train carriages?
Lord Marland: I think the noble Lord was referring particularly to training. We have to show a very clear pathway, as we have done recently. Last week, we announced six new sites for nuclear reactors. Clearly, we have to develop a training programme for the 60,000 jobs that will be required in the nuclear industry. The Government remain very committed to it.
Lord Willis of Knaresborough: My Lords—
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Lord Strathclyde): My Lords, we must move on to the next Question.
I think my favorite part of the entire proceeding was when Baroness Trumpington asked: