Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Nuclear Power: The Thorium Revolution

I've written in support of nuclear power before, and I stand by everything I've said, but I'm even more excited after reading the article below.   It's an introduction to a whole new type of nuclear power which seems like it could be the answer to the world's energy crisis.

Nuclear power from Thorium. Here's a link to the article in Wired magazine.


Allow me to sum up. Nuclear power is the best bet we have for replacing coal and other fossil fuels. It's safe (with today's technology), relatively inexpensive, and clean...except for all the dangerous nuclear waste. And that's no trivial issue. Nuclear waste requires hundreds of thousands of years to decay to the point that it is no longer dangerous. Finding a place to keep it safe that long reliably is difficult, as is transporting the waste to storage facilities. And all the while there is the very real possibility that the waste could be weaponized, if highjacked.

Thorium solves all of these problems...a little bit of history.

Thorium reactor technology dates back to the '50s. It was being developed simultaneously with the Uranium-based reactors currently forming the core of the nuclear power industry. Oddly enough it was one of Thorium's benefits that caused it to be ruled out. Thorium-based reactors produce very little waste because of Thorium's low radioactivity and the fact that it can support a very long chain-reaction. Uranium on the other hand produces plenty of radioactive waste, some in the form of Plutonium, an element commonly used in the construction of nuclear weapons. Since nuclear energy and nuclear weaponry were developing in tandem, the U.S. government favored Uranium, as it supported both efforts.

As a result Thorium technology was scrapped. But it's making a resurgence now, thanks to a dogged band of scientists. Here are Thorium's benefits over standard Uranium reactors.
  1. It's a carbon-free energy platform, just like its Uranium cousin, but...
  2. It produces minuscule amounts waste compared to Uranium. Waste that requires only hundreds, not hundreds of thousands of years to decay.
  3. It's very common in nature, and given the small amount needed for reactions, the supply is nearly limitless. Just the amount that's stockpiled by the U.S. right now could power the entire country for a thousand years.
  4. It creates a very efficient, long lived chain-reaction, meaning that very little is needed to produce large amounts of power.
  5. And because it's common in nature and extremely efficient, it's a very inexpensive way to produce power. Per gigawatt of power output a Uranium reactor requires 250 tons of raw Uranium at a cost of 50 to 60 million dollars. A Thorium reactor, per the same gigawatt of power output, requires only one ton of raw Thorium, at a cost of only $10,000.
  6. Because of the nature of its chain-reaction, contained in specially engineered reactors, Thorium is infinitely safer than Uranium. It's self-regulating, meaning that if it begins to overheat it loses part of its mass, dropping the temperature automatically, returning the reaction to safe limits. This entirely eliminates the chance of a meltdown.
  7. A standard Uranium reactor requires 200,000 to 300,000 square feet of space, plus a low-population density buffer area surrounding it, in case of meltdown. As states, a Thorium reactor has no meltdown risk, so no buffer area is necessary, and the reactor only requires 2,000 to 3,000 square feet to be built.
  8. There is no nuclear weapons proliferation risk with Thorium. Its waste is minuscule and cannot be weaponized. This is not true with Uranium.
You don't need to be a nuclear physicist to see that the benefits of Thorium-based nuclear reactors are staggering compared to standard nuclear power, coal power, and even other green power initiatives like wind, water, and biofuel.  The question is whether the political will exists to allow the Thorium revolution to take root.  I for one hope very much that it does.

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