Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Thorium: The Energy "Silver-Bullet" to Replace Uranium?

Last May we covered a Financial Sense Newshour interview with Kirk Sorensen, founder of Flibe Energy - he made the case for little-known element thorium as the potential “silver bullet” to our energy problems.

Today, Casey Research energy expert Marin Katusa dives into the thorium topic once again, to see if it has realistic hopes of becoming a potential alternative to uranium...

Why Not Thorium?

By Marin Katusa, Chief Energy Investment Strategist, Casey ResearchMarin Katusa

The Fukushima disaster reminded us all of the dangers inherent in uranium-fueled nuclear reactors. Fresh news last week about Tepco's continued struggle to contain and cool the fuel rods highlights just how energetic uranium fission reactions are and how challenging to control. Of course, that level of energy is exactly why we use nuclear energy – it is incredibly efficient as a source of power, and it creates very few emissions and carries a laudable safety record to boot.

This conversation – "nuclear good but uranium dangerous" – regularly leads to a very good question: what about thorium? Thorium sits two spots left of uranium on the periodic table, in the same row or series. Elements in the same series share characteristics. With uranium and thorium, the key similarity is that both can absorb neutrons and transmute into fissile elements.

That means thorium could be used to fuel nuclear reactors, just like uranium. And as proponents of the underdog fuel will happily tell you, thorium is more abundant in nature than uranium, is not fissile on its own (which means reactions can be stopped when necessary), produces waste products that are less radioactive, and generates more energy per ton.

So why on earth are we using uranium? As you may recall, research into the mechanization of nuclear reactions was initially driven not by the desire to make energy, but by the desire to make bombs. The $2-billion Manhattan Project that produced the atomic bomb sparked a worldwide surge in nuclear research, most of it funded by governments embroiled in the Cold War. And here we come to it: Thorium reactors do not produce plutonium, which is what you need to make a nuke.

How ironic. The fact that thorium reactors could not produce fuel for nuclear weapons meant the better reactor fuel got short shrift, yet today we would love to be able to clearly differentiate a country's nuclear reactors from its weapons program.

In the post-Cold War world, is there any hope for thorium? Perhaps, but don't run to your broker just yet.

The Uranium Reactor

The typical nuclear-fuel cycle starts with refined uranium ore, which is mostly U238 but contains 3% to 5% U235. Most naturally occurring uranium is U238, but this common isotope does not undergo fission – which is the process whereby the nucleus splits and releases tremendous amounts of energy. By contrast, the less-prevalent U235 is fissile. As such, to make reactor fuel we have to expend considerable energy enriching yellowcake, to boost its proportion of U235.

Once in the reactor, U235 starts splitting and releasing high-energy neutrons. The U238 does not just sit idly by, however; it transmutes into other fissile elements. When an atom of U238 absorbs a neutron, it transmutes into short-lived U239, which rapidly decays into neptunium-239 and then into plutonium-239, that lovely, weaponizable byproduct.

When the U235 content burns down to 0.3%, the fuel is spent, but it contains some very radioactive isotopes of americium, technetium, and iodine, as well as plutonium. This waste fuel is highly radioactive and the culprits – these high-mass isotopes – have half-lives of many thousands of years. As such, the waste has to be housed for up to 10,000 years, cloistered from the environment and from anyone who might want to get at the plutonium for nefarious reasons.

The Thing about Thorium

Thorium's advantages start from the moment it is mined and purified, in that all but a trace of naturally occurring thorium is Th232, the isotope useful in nuclear reactors. That's a heck of a lot better than the 3 to 5% of uranium that comes in the form we need.

Then there's the safety side of thorium reactions. Unlike U235, thorium is not fissile. That means no matter how many thorium nuclei you pack together, they will not on their own start splitting apart and exploding. If you want to make thorium nuclei split apart, though, it's easy: you simply start throwing neutrons at them. Then, when you need the reaction to stop, simply turn off the source of neutrons and the whole process shuts down, simple as pie.

Here's how it works. When Th232 absorbs a neutron it becomes Th233, which is unstable and decays into protactinium-233 and then into U233. That's the same uranium isotope we use in reactors now as a nuclear fuel, the one that is fissile all on its own. Thankfully, it is also relatively long lived, which means at this point in the cycle the irradiated fuel can be unloaded from the reactor and the U233 separated from the remaining thorium. The uranium is then fed into another reactor all on its own, to generate energy.

The U233 does its thing, splitting apart and releasing high-energy neutrons. But there isn't a pile of U238 sitting by. Remember, with uranium reactors it's the U238, turned into U239 by absorbing some of those high-flying neutrons, that produces all the highly radioactive waste products. With thorium, the U233 is isolated and the result is far fewer highly radioactive, long-lived byproducts. Thorium nuclear waste only stays radioactive for 500 years, instead of 10,000, and there is 1,000 to 10,000 times less of it to start with.

The Thorium Leaders

Researchers have studied thorium-based fuel cycles for 50 years, but India leads the pack when it comes to commercialization. As home to a quarter of the world's known thorium reserves and notably lacking in uranium resources, it's no surprise that India envisions meeting 30% of its electricity demand through thorium-based reactors by 2050.

In 2002, India's nuclear regulatory agency issued approval to start construction of a 500-megawatts electric prototype fast breeder reactor, which should be completed this year. In the next decade, construction will begin on six more of these fast breeder reactors, which "breed" U233 and plutonium from thorium and uranium.

Design work is also largely complete for India's first Advanced Heavy Water Reactor (AHWR), which will involve a reactor fueled primarily by thorium that has gone through a series of tests in full-scale replica. The biggest holdup at present is finding a suitable location for the plant, which will generate 300 MW of electricity. Indian officials say they are aiming to have the plant operational by the end of the decade.

China is the other nation with a firm commitment to develop thorium power. In early 2011, China's Academy of Sciences launched a major research and development program on Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) technology, which utilizes U233 that has been bred in a liquid thorium salt blanket. This molten salt blanket becomes less dense as temperatures rise, slowing the reaction down in a sort of built-in safety catch. This kind of thorium reactor gets the most attention in the thorium world; China's research program is in a race with similar though smaller programs in Japan, Russia, France, and the US.

There are at least seven types of reactors that can use thorium as a nuclear fuel, five of which have entered into operation at some point. Several were abandoned not for technical reasons but because of a lack of interest or research funding (blame the Cold War again). So proven designs for thorium-based reactors exist and need but for some support.

Well, maybe quite a bit of support. One of the biggest challenges in developing a thorium reactor is finding a way to fabricate the fuel economically. Making thorium dioxide is expensive, in part because its melting point is the highest of all oxides, at 3,300° C. The options for generating the barrage of neutrons needed to kick-start the reaction regularly come down to uranium or plutonium, bringing at least part of the problem full circle.

And while India is certainly working on thorium, not all of its eggs are in that basket. India has 20 uranium-based nuclear reactors producing 4,385 MW of electricity already in operation and has another six under construction, 17 planned, and 40 proposed. The country gets props for its interest in thorium as a homegrown energy solution, but the majority of its nuclear money is still going toward traditional uranium. China is in exactly the same situation – while it promotes its efforts in the LFTR race, its big bucks are behind uranium reactors. China has only 15 reactors in operation but has 26 under construction, 51 planned, and 120 proposed.

The Bottom Line

Thorium is three times more abundant in nature than uranium. All but a trace of the world's thorium exists as the useful isotope, which means it does not require enrichment. Thorium-based reactors are safer because the reaction can easily be stopped and because the operation does not have to take place under extreme pressures. Compared to uranium reactors, thorium reactors produce far less waste and the waste that is generated is much less radioactive and much shorter-lived.

To top it all off, thorium would also be the ideal solution for allowing countries like Iran or North Korea to have nuclear power without worrying whether their nuclear programs are a cover for developing weapons… a worry with which we are all too familiar at present.

So, should we run out and invest in thorium? Unfortunately, no. For one, there are very few investment vehicles. Most thorium research and development is conducted by national research groups. There is one publicly traded company working to develop thorium-based fuels, called Lightbridge Corp. (Nasdaq: LTBR). Lightbridge has the advantage of being a first mover in the area, but on the flip side the scarcity of competitors is a good sign that it's simply too early.

Had it not been for mankind's seemingly insatiable desire to fight, thorium would have been the world's nuclear fuel of choice. Unfortunately, the Cold War pushed nuclear research toward uranium; and the momentum gained in those years has kept uranium far ahead of its lighter, more controllable, more abundant brother to date. History is replete with examples of an inferior technology beating out a superior competitor for market share, whether because of marketing or geopolitics, and once that stage is set it is near impossible for the runner-up to make a comeback. Remember Beta VCRs, anyone? On a technical front they beat VHS hands down, but VHS's marketing machine won the race and Beta slid into oblivion. Thorium reactors aren't quite the Beta VCRs of the nuclear world, but the challenge they face is pretty similar: it's damn hard to unseat the reigning champ.

[Marin has an enviable track record in the uranium sector, with one current pick up nearly 1,600% since he first recommended it to his subscribers 39 months ago. Now he's targeting a little-known company that possesses oil-recovery technology that could reward investors with similar gains.]

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Why Silver Bulls May Rejoice Again on May 26, 2013

When Will Silver Reach a New High?

By Andrey Dashkov, Casey Research

In last week's Metals, Mining, and Money from Casey Research, Jeff Clark estimated that given the magnitude of the correction that started last September, it may take until May 2012 for gold to reach a new high. Let's take a look at how long it may take for silver to rebound.

It's a commonly known fact that silver is more volatile than gold. Already in this decade, silver has risen by a factor of 12 from its ten-year low ($48.70 vs. $4.07), while gold has seen about a sevenfold climb ($255.95 vs. $1,895).

This volatility – as you'll see in a minute – holds for corrections as well. On average, silver's retreats have been deeper and longer than gold's. The three big gold corrections we looked at last week averaged 22.8%. Take a look at the three biggest for silver, along with how long it's taken to recover and establish new highs.

(Click on image to enlarge)

The three biggest silver corrections in the current bull market average to 42.1%.

Our recent correction is the second biggest on record since 2001, but what really makes it stand out is the duration. The 2004 and 2006 declines took only five and four weeks respectively to reach their low points. And it was 31 weeks after the crash of 2008 that silver bottomed. Our current decline, measured from the peak reached on April 28, 2011 to its December 29, 2011 low, spans 35 weeks… quite the determined downtrend.

It also takes silver longer to recover than gold: gold's three biggest corrections required an average of 57 weeks and 6 days to regain their old highs, while it's taken silver's three biggest falls an average of 98 weeks and 4 days to catch up.

So how long will it take to recover from the 2011 slump? We don't know the future, of course, but the current correction is close to the average of the three in the chart, so let's apply the average recovery time to our current situation. The average 42.1% correction took 98 weeks and 4 days to recover; using the same ratio, a 46.3% correction would take 108 weeks and 3 days. Counting from the previous peak of April 28, 2011, we wouldn't break the $48.70 high until May 26, 2013 (based on London PM Fix prices).

It shouldn't come as a surprise that silver will take longer to return to its old high than what we found with gold in last week's article. Why? Half of silver's use is industrial, so a weak economy can drag down its demand. We certainly saw that in 2008.

And an exact date is pure conjecture, of course, and ignores fundamental factors that directly influence the price. 2011 is not 2008. In fact, we've already seen an interesting shift in investment activity in both gold and silver markets. The Silver Institute pointed out in a recent market report that "investor activity" was the biggest contributing factor to both last April's rally as well as September's selloff.

Meanwhile, demand for physical metal has not only held firm but was projected by GFMS to reach a new record high in 2011.

Investment demand is rooted in the metal's monetary characteristics. It's not a stretch to say that we expect silver to regain its currency appeal soon, given the amount of worldwide fiat currency destruction. This will be perhaps the strongest catalyst for prices going forward. We wouldn't want to be without any silver.

If there's anything that sticks out from this bird's-eye view of the past ten years of data, it's that corrections are normal. And just as obvious is the fact that corrections end.

As with gold, the silver bull market is far from over, regardless of any weakness we may see in the near term. Don't be the impatient investor who gives up too early. And trying to time the market for a short-term profit shouldn't be the strategy in the midst of a long-term bull market. Instead, keep silver's fundamentals in mind: its industrial uses are growing and, like gold, silver is money.

That said, we believe that the window for buying silver at $30 won't be open for too long. The profit you someday realize from silver will be made buying now, when the price is low.

[Precious metals and precious metal stocks can be a solid way to store wealth, but only if you invest wisely. Don't let yourself be robbed.]

An Underappreciated Bullish Catalyst for Gold Stocks

A New Reason Gold Stocks Will Soar

By Jeff Clark, Casey Research

There are a number of reasons why many of us believe gold stocks will shoot for the moon before this bull market is over – they've done so many times in the past… the gold price still has a long way to climb… and producers are generating record revenue and profits. But I think there's another reason why gold stocks will soar – one that hasn't dawned on many in the industry yet.

The premise for my theory first lies in how gold itself is viewed. Some investors see gold as strictly a commodity or the infamous "barbarous relic." This group sees no compelling reason to buy the metal and so own little to none. Others view it as a play on a rising asset or because of supply and demand imbalances; they buy while those reasons are positive and sell when they turn negative. Still others view gold as a store of value, an alternative currency, or a hedge against inflation; they tend to buy and hold.

Ask yourself why you own gold. Is it because it's just another asset that offers diversification? Are you buying because it's going up and someone like Doug Casey thinks it will continue doing so? Or is it due to a genuine concern about the dilution of your currency, both now and in the future?

What's interesting to note is the shift in the number of investors wanting exposure to gold. Many who ignored it a decade ago are now buying. Those who started buying, say, five years ago, continue purchasing it today in spite of paying twice what they paid then. Slowly but surely, it's becoming more important to more people. To wit, increasing numbers of investors are viewing gold as a must-own asset.

So, what happens when it becomes a must-own asset to a substantial majority instead of a small minority? Sure, the price will rise, probably parabolically, but putting aside speculation on the price of gold for now, have you thought about what happens if you have trouble finding any actual, physical gold to buy?

I think what many bullion dealers warned of regarding supply in last month's BIG GOLD could come true. Andy Schectman of Miles Franklin insisted that the bullion market "will ultimately be defined by complete lack of available supply." Border Gold's Michael Levy cautioned, "If an overwhelming loss of confidence in the US unfolds, the demand for physical gold and silver will far outweigh all known inventories." And Mike Maloney of GoldSilver.com warned that if shortages develop, "physical bullion coins and bars might become unobtainable regardless of price."

Here's a trend to consider. The following chart shows the growth in the world's population vs. the total supply of gold from around the world. By this I mean new supply from mines, not the existing holdings of refined gold of various sorts held by governments, institutions, and individuals around the world.

The population of planet Earth has grown roughly 15% just since the year 2000, while the new supply of gold from all sources (mining, scrap, de-hedging) has fallen 4.2%. The rate of growth in the world's population last year was 1.1%; while this is roughly similar to the increase in annual mine production for 2011, the trend right now is clearly for the growth in population to surpass the global supply of gold coming to market.

At the same time, demand keeps growing. China imported 3.3 million ounces of gold last November – and total global mining production outside China is just 6.4 million ounces per month. Gold bullion held by the world's central banks is at a six-year high – but it's roughly 15% below the amount they held in 1980 and has fallen in half as a percent of their total reserves.

Silver supply and demand paints an even starker picture: last year, for the first time in history, sales of silver Eagle and Maple Leaf coins surpassed domestic production in both the US and Canada. Throw in the fact that by most estimates less than 5% of the US population owns any gold or silver and you can see how precarious the situation is. A supply squeeze is not out of the question – rather it is coming to look more and more likely with each passing month.

This is great for gold owners and speculators, but it has further implications: As increasing numbers of people view gold as a must-own asset, and as supply is not keeping up with demand, where is the next logical place for investors to turn to get exposure?

Gold stocks.

Imagine the plight of the mainstream investor who calls a bullion dealer and is told they have no inventory and don't know when they'll get any. Picture those with wealth finally becoming convinced they must own precious metals and being informed they'll have to put their name on a waiting list. Imagine a pension fund or other institutional investor scrambling to get more metal for their fund and being advised the amount they want is "currently unavailable."

Mining equities would be the fastest way to meet that demand.

It's already happening on a small scale. Don Coxe, the Strategy Advisor to BMO Financial Group and consistently named one of top portfolio strategists in the world, stated that, "Gold has in the past decade evolved from being a curiosity, to a speculative investment, to a sound and necessary investment." He then urged investors to "emphasize the miners at the expense of the bullion ETFs."

David Rosenberg, chief economist and strategist for Gluskin Sheff, wrote, "If we accept the premise that gold is acting like a currency, in a world where central banks in many countries are bent on depreciating their own paper money, one could conclude that bullion will rally against all these units. Gold miners offer an attractive way to play this bullion rally. Because input costs tend to be heavily concentrated in the early years of a rally, history has shown that gold miners' shares tend to dramatically outperform bullion in the later stages of a gold bull market."

And it won't be just investors buying stocks; sovereign wealth funds will buy entire companies. China proposed to buy Jaguar Mining in November – a producer that can barely turn a profit – for a 74% premium, double the typical amount. China National Gold Group purchased five gold mining companies over the past four years, spending almost a half billion dollars to do so.

Then there was this from Mineweb last week: "A consortium of Indian companies led by Steel Authority of India has turned its sights to gold and copper exploration."

And this: "Afghanistan has now invited bids to develop gold mines in the provinces of Badakhshan and Ghazni…"

Keep in mind that the market cap of gold stocks is small – Apple and Exxon Mobil are each bigger than the entire gold sector. The boring water-utilities industry is almost three times larger. The sometimes-hated life insurance industry is more than 11 times bigger.

Meanwhile, most institutional investors are underweight gold and gold stocks, if they own them at all.
The average pension fund devotes approximately 0.15% of its assets to gold stocks; doubling its holdings – still just one-third of one percent – would represent $47 billion of investment in the gold industry. If they wanted 1% exposure, $117 billion would flood our sector. And don't forget about the needs of hedge funds, sovereign wealth funds, mutual funds, private equity funds, private wealth funds, insurance companies, ETFs, and millions of worldwide retail investors like me and you.

All these entities could easily view a shift into gold stocks as a viable way to gain exposure to precious metals. It'll be the next logical step to take – maybe the only sensible step available if the supply of physical metal remains constrained. It will feel like the most natural thing in the world for them to do.
Make no mistake: if this bull market continues, gold stocks will truly soar. An increasingly desperate clamor for exposure to gold could light a short fuse for our market sector. It's not here yet, but when the rush starts, it will be both breathtaking and life-changing.

Are you positioned?

[You can buy deeply discounted gold today, getting yourself positioned for handsome profits ahead. Learn how to do it.]

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