While lots of folks don’t watch or read Wired Magazine, lots of young people do.  Wired runs to the younger set, which is getting older, and more of a voice as the last election made clear. Once riled up, the count and solidity of the demographic is impressive.

Richard Martin of Wired wrote ‘Uranium Is So Last Century — Enter Thorium, the New Green Nuke’ that went online back on Monday December 21, 2009. It nicely sets up the thorium fueled liquid fluoride thorium reactor, or LFTRs as we know it.  But better yet:

Martin applies impressive journalist skills with a story beginning with Kirk Sorensen the leading light over at Thoriumenergy.blogspot.com. From there the story lightly covers the efforts of Alvin Weinberg who could be called a ‘father’ of the LFTR that culminated in 1973 when Weinberg simply was shown the door.

But by then an enormous amount of work was done, albeit shelved at the time, that if acted on could and still can reverse, increase and greatly drive down the costs of electrical power generation.

The story cycle gets to Sorensen coming to realize, as he’s managed to show a lot of us, that thorium has huge potential.  Martin also notes that “Industry players are looking into thorium, and governments from Dubai to Beijing are funding research. India is betting heavily on the element.”  The U.S and other western countries are at risk for getting left behind.

Martin took the short course on reactor fuel elements and nicely condensed it to a few paragraphs.  For some, the arcane and puzzling word ‘actinides’ is explained, a clever metaphor using pool balls in 3D explains the chain reactions, and why the actinides used today are the ones of choice for more than 50 years.

It’s a lot of intro, practically a script for a teacher or documentary writer.  By half way or so Martin gets to the meat of it:

“In 1965, Weinberg and his team built a working reactor, one that suspended the byproducts of thorium in a molten salt bath, and he spent the rest of his 18-year tenure trying to make thorium the heart of the nation’s atomic power effort. He failed. Uranium reactors had already been established, and Hyman Rickover, de facto head of the US nuclear program, wanted the plutonium from uranium-powered nuclear plants to make bombs. Increasingly shunted aside, Weinberg was finally forced out in 1973.

That proved to be “the most pivotal year in energy history,” according to the US Energy Information Administration. It was the year the Arab states cut off oil supplies to the West, setting in motion the petroleum-fueled conflicts that roil the world to this day. The same year, the US nuclear industry signed contracts to build a record 41 nuke plants, all of which used uranium. And 1973 was the year that thorium R&D faded away — and with it the realistic prospect for a golden nuclear age when electricity would be too cheap to meter and clean, safe nuclear plants would dot the green countryside.”

Martin reports that Sorensen’s group having made a vigorous catching up effort with some more modern know-how has a fresh design that’s likely 50% more efficient than the current nuke fleet.

Over a few paragraphs Martin covers the current world political outlook, which is to say, much better oversees than in the U.S. as thorium fuel is concerned.

Then Martin makes the ‘conflict mistake’ common to journalism.  He had to find the detractors, whose big issue is the time the used fuel loaded molten salts have to be stored, still quite hot.  Somehow, with all the research Martin did he missed that, as Sorensen puts it, “The high-nickel-alloy Hastelloy-N was proven by Oak Ridge scientists and engineers to be compatible with fluoride salt at the elevated temperatures at which LFTR would operate. Discovering Hastelloy-N and proving it would work was one of their great accomplishments.”  Many of us have been aware of this for a long time . . . Not to mention that ‘quite hot’ still has a lot of potential in binary generation systems even though dry steam temperatures wouldn’t be attainable.

The other missed swing, is that Martin reports the control issue, in a framework that might be so, but flies right over the physics fact – they have to be kept running or they’ll shut themselves off.  Admittedly it’s a reversed take going from “runaway reactors” to “made to run reactors.”  But objectively, how often do popular press stories get so much right?

Martin’s story then winds out to Russia where Alvin Radkowsky’s Thorium Power, now renamed Lightbridge is busily working on an intermediate step called Seed-and-Blanket, a mix of thorium and uranium.  Martin misses the advantage that Seed-and-Blanket variations could offer to use the remaining energy in existing spent uranium fuel and plunges into the premise that rebuilding reactors to Seed-and-Blanket offers other, simpler advantages, which it does.

Nuclear Fuels Systems Compared. Click image for the largest view. Credit, Wired.

The Radkowsky effort is important for several reasons, but as Sorensen knows as we do, it a half measure to massive power generation.  There is little sense in building new light water reactors with old, inefficient and waste producing technology when LFTR is essentially ready.

This is where Martin lets down the readers.  He touches, but barely covers the major issues that thorium faces in the governmental regulatory framework, the money required and time involved.  Martin notes that a lot of the Lightbridge experience is in Russia, and not likely to come over well, but all that is not much more than what’s been on the shelf in the U.S – since 1973.

Martin’s story is still great.  As a writer I know space is an issue, even more so when going to print on paper.  I suppose Mr. Martin could and would have said more or had more time to check more thoroughly. But it’s a salute to Martin – its not often when popular press gets so much right, and it gets to the people, the important demographic of Wired’s readers.  It’s their future more than anyone’s today.

With all this in mind, click over and read the Martin story.  Better yet pass the link along, about 300 million Americans need to know what Martin wrote.

Thanks again to Brian Wang over at NextBigFuture, again.  I don’t watch Wired every day, more like twice a month, but I do check Brian’s site every day.  He caught it early, helping us catch it, too.


7 Comments so far

  1. Matt Musson on December 28, 2009 10:05 AM

    Uranium reactors already have places like Savanna River where their biproducts can be processed out (into Bomb grade material and waste). There is no existing facility to handle the waste from Thorium. (which is modest in comparison to U reactors.) This will need to be a multi-billion dollar facility.

    Of course, the other obstical is the permitting.

    It’s still easier to get a permit for a uranium reactor that creates significant bomb-grade material and has possible melt-down issues.

    Still – the advantages of LFTR are overwhelming. Once the reprocessing plant is in place for THorium – Coal fired utilities could economically be converted to Thorium reactors.

  2. Vegard on January 2, 2010 3:30 PM

    Does anyone know what kind of education is needed to do research/work with Thorium as a nuclear energy source?

  3. Mark Christianson on April 6, 2010 10:36 AM

    There is an excellent article on LFTR by Kirk Sorenson in the March 18,2010 issue of Machine Design magazine. The article is clear and concise. To answer Vegard, I would hazard a guess that inorganic chemistry and nuclear physics would be a good start. Beryllium fluoride is hazardous stuff to work with.

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