Thorium’s nuclear magic

Last week, This Space put forth its now annual pro-nuclear popsicle, triggered this year by the horrid mess in the Gulf. Since then, a couple of readers wrote to me and, as we used to say, raised my consciousness. Their message was simply, “The nuke thing is viable and should be on the table. But uranium ain’t where it’s at. Would you please check out thorium?”

Wired magazine, in its January 2010 issue, had a nice report on thorium power, titled “Uranium Is So Last Century—Enter Thorium, The New Green Nuke.” The case made by author Richard Martin is seductive. He quotes Kirk Sorensen, an aerospace engineer/thorium champion who is sounding the piper’s call via his website, Energy From Thorium. Some of the reasons Sorensen is convinced “Th” is the way to go include: (1) The waste problem, which has plagued uranium-burning plants from the beginning, is almost moot when thorium is the fuel. When burned in a reactor, thorium leaves behind “miniscule amounts of waste.” (2) The waste is radioactive for only a few hundred years, not the geological eons of plutonium. No heavy-duty, expensive reprocessing required. (3) Which means the waste from a thorium reactor is unacceptable for use in nuclear bombs. (4) We got a lot more thorium out there than uranium. Our thorium stash would be good for hundreds of years. (5) Thorium plants would be smaller, safer and cheaper to operate than uranium power plants. (6) A golf ball-sized pellet of thorium would yield enough electricity to take care of all your personal energy needs, reader, for a lifetime. Including your electric car!

So, if thorium is so clearly superior, why did the United States choose to go down that dirty Uranium Road in the first place? Remember The Cold War. Back in the ’50s and ’60s, the waste from uranium-fueled nuke reactors was actually a positive, desired by the feds for the plutonium needed to stuff our ever-bulging sack of nuclear bombs. In this tense context, thorium and its relatively peaceful waste were given the snub.

It’s also interesting to note that thorium has now showed up on the radar of two western clout-wielders, Sens. Harry Reid and Orrin Hatch. This pair of unlikely bedfellows (but who have both fought to keep federal nuclear waste dumps out of their respective states) have created the Thorium Energy Independence and Security Act, a bill that will give 250 mill to the Department of Energy to push ahead with various aspects of thorium power research. As Hatch said, “I don’t know of anything more beneficial to the country, as far as environmentally sound power, than nuclear energy powered by thorium.”

Usually, I wouldn’t quote an old bark-eater like Hatch, but in this case, he’s on to something, something that could really make a big difference in the energy picture of the future.