Thanks to a link at Instapundit I’ve just read a truly fascinating article at Wired Magazine online, “Uranium Is So Last Century – Enter Thorium, the New Green Nuke.” The opening of the article speaks of Kirk Sorensen as he started his career at NASA and Sorensen’s chance discovery of a book on a colleague’s shelf. That book, Fluid Fuel Reactors, launched Sorensen on a years-long research quest on the matter of using a different approach to nuclear power generation. Rather than use the industry’s preferred fuel source, uranium, Sorensen thought thorium could be the key to better nukes:
But the book inspired him to pursue an intense study of nuclear energy over the next few years, during which he became convinced that thorium could solve the nuclear power industry’s most intractable problems. After it has been used as fuel for power plants, the element leaves behind minuscule amounts of waste. And that waste needs to be stored for only a few hundred years, not a few hundred thousand like other nuclear byproducts. Because it’s so plentiful in nature, it’s virtually inexhaustible. It’s also one of only a few substances that acts as a thermal breeder, in theory creating enough new fuel as it breaks down to sustain a high-temperature chain reaction indefinitely. And it would be virtually impossible for the byproducts of a thorium reactor to be used by terrorists or anyone else to make nuclear weapons.
If that’s not a paragraph that grabs your attention then… well, you’re just not paying attention. Read the rest of the article and it just gets more fascinating. Thorium, it seems, is pretty plentiful. The US alone has an estimated 175,000 tons of the stuff. It’s a radioactive substance, but at such a low level that it would be safe for you to carry around a thorium rock in your pocket.
In short, there are tremendous advantages to this approach. It’s not all sunshine-and-flowers, of course, and you should read the article to see the challenges. But most of the challenges revolve around initial commercial viability and industry inertia. If the current administration is looking for some meaningful change and stimulus, they could do very well by getting those stimulus dollars they’re so eager to spend behind an effort like this one. At least we’d wind up with something tangible at the end with the continuing benefit of power production using stuff we don’t have to pay OPEC nations for. Quick statistic from the story: if we could somehow convert every current reactor in the nation over to thorium designs overnight and started fueling them with just our own reserves of thorium, we could run those reactors for 1,000 years. Or, think of this: triple the number of reactors and we could run them into the 24th century. That’s some breathing room we could use and I’ll wager we could figure out how to make those reactors more efficient along the way.