Tough Sell for a Nuclear Energy Radical

Focus: ENERGY

Takashi Kamei zealously travels the globe pitching thorium, an alternative to uranium for which a commercial reactor application has proved elusive, writes April Yee of The National.

Takashi Kamei criss-crosses the globe with a packed briefcase, spreading his creed like an evangelist. His dream is straightforward: raise $300 million, build the world's first commercial thorium-fueled reactor, and then convince the world to copy it en masse.

Scientists have experimented with thorium as a safer alternative to uranium for atomic power plants for half a century, and ever since, a fanatic few have doggedly advocated bringing those designs to reality. Waste from thorium has a much shorter half-life, easing the dilemma of storing radioactive waste, and poses less of a risk of proliferation, they say.

Yet an integrated industry stretching from Moscow to Nigeria to the Andes of Argentina has been slow to give up supply chains and technology built around uranium. Thorium poses challenges too, because by itself it is not fissile enough to power a reactor, and if it did, it would produce dangerous gamma rays.

But the March 2011 triple meltdown at Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant has prompted a rethink. Italy, Switzerland, and Germany vowed to shut down nuclear plants early or abandon plans to build new ones, and in Japan all but two of the nation's 50 operational reactors are shut down.

"What I am doing myself has not changed after Fukushima, but the response has changed," says Kamei, the Japan representative of the International Thorium Energy Organization, based in Sweden, and the chief strategic officer of a startup called Quan Japan. "Because my reactor is much, much safer and so they recognize we need electricity."

chart
Click to Enlarge

Kamei was in Abu Dhabi last month to present his ideas at a conference and seek investors for Quan, which hopes to market a neutron accelerator to turn thorium into a fast-reacting fuel, since one of the problems with thorium is that it is difficult to spark a reaction.