I was triggered to think about the issues getting thorium-fueled reactors on the market by a piece from Kurt Cobb at Scitizen.com. Mr. Cobb is a dependable professional writer with experience in the energy field and a long list of sites where his work has found a welcome. The list runs from the Energy Bulletin, 321energy, Le Monde Diplomatique, EV World, The Wall Street Journal Online’s Energy Roundup, Life After the Oil Crash, Peak Oil News & Message Boards, and many others. Credit given I’ll just say I agree with him some, but not all by far. Yet the slant creeps in – he’s a peak oil supporter, and it shows despite the high level of professionalism. That’s not all bad as he’s had a look into thorium fueled reactors and that’s a topic well worth strong attention.

I’m already prepared to support a major effort to add reactors and wherever possible re-equip reactors with thorium fueled units. I want that energy and I want that energy still stored in the national inventory of used uranium fuel.

Mr. Cobb asks the question, “Advocates say that already existing thorium fuel and reactor technology could provide centuries and perhaps millennia of safe, abundant nuclear power. Are they right? And comes up with the right answer, sort of.

His story offers a strong piece to offer others that are curious or a little concerned or interested. I do recommend this for linking and its information rich enough for new folks to get a handle on what the potential is for the nation. A large vocabulary is required.

My puzzle is how to get the thorium matter into 100 million minds. Maybe a carbon cap and tax slamming into electric bills would do it, but I’d rather a transitional evolution at falling rates instead of a slow going economic disaster in electric rates driving the revolution.

Starting off with breeder reactors isn’t going to get the matter in millions of minds, as sensible as it is, it sails way over most folk’s heads. But Cobb hits three matters squarely.

  • First, thorium fuel elements can be designed in a way that make it difficult to recover the fissile uranium produced by breeding for bomb making. This reduces the likelihood of nuclear weapons spreading to non nuclear nations that adopt thorium-based fuel technologies.
  • Second, the waste stream can be considerably smaller since unlike current reactors, which often use only about 2 percent of the available fuel, thorium-fueled reactors with optimal designs could burn nearly all of the fuel. This is the main reason besides its sheer natural abundance that thorium could provide such long-lived supplies of fuel for nuclear power.
  • Third, the danger from the waste of the thorium fuel cycle is potentially far less long-lived. The claim is that the reprocessed waste will be no more radioactive than thorium ore after about 300 years. This claim is based on the idea that virtually all of the long-lived radioactive products of breeding will be consumed in the reactor before the final round of reprocessing takes place.

Cobb wings right by the established nuclear industry with the uranium fuel source that by no means plan on a revolution at their expense. But he does note that a fuel infrastructure for thorium has yet to be built. The chicken or the egg matter is barely missed.

But the story resets – the thinking in the story is working the breeder idea – thorium to uranium to power.

So then Mr. Cobb gets to molten salt reactors, finally. From which he concludes plausibility of a vastly expanded course to thorium fueled power generation. Without the proliferation, fuel supply and waste issues.

That’s a start and shows how a sophisticated professional writer can just miss an established, researched and well-proven technology. Liquid fluoride reactors got missed.


Well, Scitizen isn’t a giant web presence, but its got good traffic. It’s a little disappointing that quality people like Cobb and sites like Scitizen miss the technology trends that are already 40 years old and known to be workable. Molten salt is nice but misses the big picture.

OK, I know nuclear is a big topic with lots of specialty areas. But the U.S. and the rest of the world need much more electrical power at dirt cheap rates to keep and expand the standards of living many have come to expect and other hope to attain. Disappointing them with selfish special interests might prove dangerous when someone figures out the “puzzle” – explaining thorium fueled reactors to the masses measured in millions.

Argh. There’s no big money behind thorium. No big money behind liquid fueled reactors. Only a few well informed and one senator, Orrin Hatch who could use a boost. That leaves the millions of voices as the necessary driver.

Somehow, there has to be a way to spark the interest and keep it going. Ideas?


2 Comments so far

  1. Robert Hargraves on April 10, 2009 6:53 PM

    A graphic, tutorial introduction to the benefits of the liquid fluoride thorium reactor is at http://rethinkingnuclearpower.googlepages.com/aimhigh.

  2. crj on April 16, 2009 7:08 AM

    PBS has a new program that takes user submitted stories and produces a TV program every month. Could be a great opportunity to get some more visibility for Thorium power.

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