Thorium reactors again in the news

Earlier this year I reported on a link I got from Instapundit that told me about a concept for nuclear power generation that I’d not heard of before: thorium-based reactors. Thorium is a relatively common, radioactive substance with some interesting properties. The fact that it can be used as a power generation fuel and yet is so low in radioactivity that you can literally hold a chunk of it in your hand safely is already a serious advantage over uranium. Thorium also has another trick up its sleeve: it produces no weapon-grade byproducts. Oh, and what little waste it produces – significantly less than uranium systems – is considered hazardous for for only a few hundred years as opposed to a few hundred thousand.

Thorium-based systems are being proposed and systems related to those designs are being tested in Japan, India, and Russia. Popular Science reports on a UK Telegraph story that went to print this week that called for Western leaders to make refining and implementing these designs now. The claim is being made that we could wean ourselves off fossil fuels in 5 years if we did.

That’s a staggering claim. The thing is, the science seems to be on the side of the claim and not the skepticism. Earlier tests during the mid- to late-60’s and again in the 80’s indicated that thorium-fueled reactors would produce power without several of the more serious issues of current nuclear reactor tech. In addition, the reaction doesn’t require massive pressure vessels and the waste is pretty much all gasses. These factors significantly reduce the size and complexity of the reactor. The Norwegian company Aker Solutions has decided it’s got enough potential that they bought the patent for a thorium reactor from a Dr. Rubbia at CERN. Dr. Rubbia’s design doesn’t reach for the multi-gigawatt brass ring. Rather, it goes for a more manageable 600 megawatt generation goal. Dr. Rubbia and, I assume, Aker Solutions believe that having a grid of these smaller reactors would serve the power generation needs of a nation better than a few huge ones. Given that a thorium reactor operates practically sealed for years, it’s conceivable that we could just do it – we could literally stop burning fossil fuels for power generation.

I said back in January that this was a project worthy of the stimulus money. Building a reactor is no small backyard project; it would employ thousands if done right and create a knowledge and technical base that could be marketed to the world. Rather than a trillion dollars going out to various projects that don’t, in the end, leave us with anything in exchange and most certainly aren’t putting people to work, a major push toward bringing on 21st-century power generation would see a tangible result from the expense. I say let’s give it a go!

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