Thorium and the Defense Lobby

Could our nation’s love affair with the defense contractors sabotage a possible solution to global climate change? Nuclear power is much more efficient than coal and natural gas, there just was that little problem of nuclear (uranium) waste.

But the book [Fluid Fuel Reactors] 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.

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.

[Click to continue reading Uranium Is So Last Century — Enter Thorium, the New Green Nuke | Magazine]

Perhaps the contemporary energy crises will encourage nations, and their engineers, to re-examine thorium.

What it is

From Wikipedia

Thorium is a naturally occurring, slightly radioactive metal. It is estimated to be about three to four times more abundant than uranium in the Earth’s crust.

Thorium was successfully used as an alternative nuclear fuel to uranium in the molten-salt reactor experiment (MSR) from 1964 to 1969 to produce thermal energy, as well as in several light-water reactors using fuel composed of a mixture of 232Th and 233U, including the Shippingport Atomic Power Station (operation commenced 1957, decommissioned in 1982). Currently, officials in the Republic of India are advocating a thorium-based nuclear program, and a seed-and-blanket fuel utilizing thorium is undergoing irradiation testing at the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow. Advocates of the use of thorium as the fuel source for nuclear reactors state that they can be built to operate significantly cleaner than uranium based power plants as the waste products are much easier to handle.

[Click to continue reading Thorium – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia]

I have slightly more than zero knowledge to apply to this question, but I’m intrigued by the thought of thorium becoming more widely utilized. What are the downsides to transferring nuclear power plants to thorium from uranium, other than cost? What is this somewhat celebratory article leaving out? What’s the flaw? Nothing is ever this simple. I don’t think…

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