Did Winning the Cold War cost us Energy Independence? Enter Thorium!

[tweetmeme]In the Dec. 21 issue of Wired magazine, Thorium is described as the “new green nuke” that could be the key to the world’s energy future.   In 1958 Alvin Weinberg published, under the auspices of the Atomic Energy Commission as part of its Atoms for Peace program, Fluid Fuel Reactors.   A book on the research conducted at Oak Ridge National Lab, on experiments producing nuclear power with an element called thorium.  Thorium is a lustrous silvery white metal that is only slightly radioactive.   According the Wired article, it was bypassed as a nuclear power source in the 1960s because the United States chose to build uranium-fueled reactors in part because they could produce plutonium for nuclear weapons.

  • Weinberg and his men proved the efficacy of thorium reactors in hundreds of tests at Oak Ridge from the ’50s through the early ’70s. But thorium hit a dead end. Locked in a struggle with a nuclear- armed Soviet Union, the US government in the ’60s chose to build uranium-fueled reactors — in part because they produce plutonium that can be refined into weapons-grade material. The course of the nuclear industry was set for the next four decades, and thorium power became one of the great what-if technologies of the 20th century.

Thorium can be a remarkably efficient fuel: It’s abundant; you need less of it, so that much less waste is left behind; and because it’s used in a liquid form in fourth-generation reactors, it’s much easier to control and thus safer.  According the article  “you could carry a lump of it in your pocket without harm.”  The most exciting part is that with known reserves in the United States there is enough Thorium to power the country for 1,000 years.   “A design for a new liquid fluoride thorium reactor, or LFTR (pronounced “lifter”), which, according to estimates would be some 50 percent more efficient than today’s light-water uranium reactors.  If the US reactor fleet could be converted to LFTRs overnight, existing thorium reserves would power the US for a thousand years.”

The Wired article, at http://www.wired.com/magazine/2009/12/ff_new_nukes/all/1 points out that other countries are pouring research dollars into thorium. India, in particular, is betting heavily on it.   In the United States, thorium research is just getting going and it isn’t being supported by the existing Nuclear industry.  Their bread is buttered with the status quo.

  •  “there will need to be lots of startup capital if thorium is to become financially efficient enough to persuade nuclear power executives to scrap an installed base of conventional reactors. “What we have now works pretty well,” says John Rowe, CEO of Exelon, a power company that owns the country’s largest portfolio of nuclear reactors, “and it will for the foreseeable future.””

 

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