How ‘Thor’ May Save the World:
Unbeknownst to most climatologists that decry nuclear energy for its environmental liability (in the form of radioactive waste and potential Chernobyl/Fukushima meltdown), there is a friendly and feasible cousin to the Uranium reactor that uses Thorium (yes named after the Norse god of thunder).
Thorium is an element much more abundant than Uranium in the Earth’s crust (comparable in abundance to Lead), and is already produced industrially as a byproduct of rare-earth-metals mining. Thorium reactor designs (using liquid Fluoride as coolant) consume atomic fuel far more efficiently than Uranium reactors using pressurized water as a coolant. Furthermore, these reactors are ‘incapable of meltdown’ and produce hazardous radioactive materials lasting only 300 years as opposed to 10,000 years for Uranium, in relative quantities of 1 ton instead of 35 tons, respectively. Unlike Uranium reactors, Thorium does not pose a proliferation risk because none of the products or reactants present viable materials for creating an atomic bomb.
Ironically, this is one of the primary (and only) reasons why atomic energy in the United States went the way of Uranium, because Kruschev was making ICBMs like SAUSAGES! and we needed plenty of fissile material to account for our perceived lag in the ability to end life on earth.
Thorium reactors are NOT new technology. Research and development started in the early 1950s. From 1965-69 scientists and engineers had successfully operated a working plant for 15,000 hours. Glenn Seaborg (of Seaborgium fame) announced to the Atomic Energy Commission in 1968, “I think that some day the world will have commercial power reactors of both the uranium-plutonium and the thorium-uranium fuel cycle type.” The future for Thorium seemed bright! However in 1973 Alvin Weinberg, the foremost advocate for Thorium energy, lost his position as director at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, effectively because he was unwilling to throw Safe Energy under the bus of Mutually Assured Destruction.
Due to its lack of genocidal application, the obscurity of Thorium reactors persists to this day. Most people, including nuclear scientists, know little about it. From Chemical and Engineering News: “it’s possible to have a Ph.D. in nuclear reactor technology and not know about thorium energy.” Nuclear physicist Victor J. Stenger first learned of it in 2012: ” It came as a surprise to me to learn recently that such an alternative has been available to us since World War II, but not pursued because it lacked weapons applications.”
It seemed suspiciously as if Thorium had been erased from the books altogether. I tried to surmise whether there is an ‘old-boy’ coalition of military generals, politicians, and Uranium miners keeping an impish hand in the face of Thorium advocates. However it’s probably just mass incompetence again; the International Atomic Energy Association seems amenable to Thorium-based reactors, though pessimistically contradicting Dr Joe Bonometti with regards to the fuel’s abundance in the Earth’s crust, and the reactors’ cost of operation. Watch Bonometti’s talk titled The Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor: What Fusion Wanted To Be or the short version (recommended).
Currently Thorium nuclear energy is finding a large niche in India, who has lots of Thorium-rich monzanite deposits and very little Uranium (and a huge number of people). India has plans for 62 mostly-Thorium reactors to become operational by 2025. Other players are China, and Norway (Thor Energy, how pagan!) and the US who is “quietly collaborating with China” on reactor designs, and has found some lofty advocates like Harry Reid and Orrin Hatch after 40 years of obscurity.
If this technology indeed has proven reserves capable of lasting (by one estimate) 1000 years at current energy consumption rates, and would (by one account) be cheaper than coal, and significantly safer than Uranium fuel-rod reactors, what is to stop it from capping the climate crisis (right in the knee)? Talk about it to your nuclear engineer and tree-hugger friends!