Friday, October 16, 2009

Nukes for hippies.

There are a lot of ways humans have degraded the environment. Some people worry that we may have already screwed the pooch, that our actions have already triggered the eventual cause of our doom. I don't deny that's possible, but it's not a certainty, so let's assume we actually survive.

We need clean energy. The era of fossil fuels will eventually be over. Whether actual shortages of petroleum happen in my lifetime or the lifetime of the next generation or the one after that, it is just a handful of decades away. Wind and solar and tides are good options, but they aren't enough.

My friend Ken Rose told me about the hope a lot of people have for thorium based reactors. Thorium is much more plentiful than uranium, and more importantly, the waste materials created by a thorium plant have half lives measured in decades instead of millennia. Even better, thorium based reactors can use some of the waste products from other nuclear reactors as fissile material.

It's like a cleaner car that runs on waste products. Nukes for hippies.

Currently, India and the United Arab Emirates are in the forefront of the technology, but the U.S. ran an experiment back in the 1960's that proved thorium reactors are practical. Last year, Orrin Hatch and Harry Reid introduced a bill to approve federal funding for a thorium project, but the bill didn't make the senate floor. They have promised to re-introduce the bill this year.

People are afraid of nukes. The fear is not unfounded. Accidents like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl can still happen. But they really are rare and the real problem, long term waste storage, effectively vanishes with thorium based reactors. The question now is will people overcome their fears and take advantage of a positive technology.

Just as it was in the 1930's, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

And spiders.


Abu Scooter said...

Nice catch. Here are a few additional points:

- Thorium-based reactors are "breeders," meaning that some of the fuel is used to produce more fuel. To start up a thorium reactor, you'd need an outside neutron source (like "wastes" from other nuclear reactors). Once the reactor starts, the fission neutrons turn the thorium (Th-232) into uranium-233, which is fissile.

-Internally, it's easier to shut down than a conventional reactor, and with a little bit of engineering, you can get it to shut itself down before any serious accident can occur.

-In terms of proliferation, it's a problem. As a breeder reactor, it produces weapons-grade material. (You probably wouldn't want to give North Korea one of these right now.)

arcs_n_sparks said...

"-In terms of proliferation, it's a problem. As a breeder reactor, it produces weapons-grade material. (You probably wouldn't want to give North Korea one of these right now.)"

Love to give them one. Much more complicated to extract any bomb material than the reactor they have, which is why no one has ever used a civilian power reactor to make bomb material: too complicated and expensive relative to other means. Non issue.

Mia Ousley said...

Let me put in a plug here for my employer. DBI ( has developed a unique nuclear reactor, designed specifically for thorium, that offers the following advantages over conventional nuclear technology (even conventional thorium-based technology):

1. Could reduce long-term waste over time by 90% without reprocessing, and not produce any waste for 30-60 years.

2. The fuel will be impractical and dangerous for weapons use, even with any attempted costly enrichment.

3. reduces risks to human and environmental health in multiple ways (fuel cycle on 5 steps, reactor can't reach critical meltdown, and more)

4. eliminates high economic costs related to construction, operation, financing, and liabilities -- DBI Thorium Reactors are small (big-rig size), modular, and can produce energy for 4-7 cents/kilowatt-hour.

There are more advantages, but you can contact us if you'd like to know more.

The research is completed; we're now looking for funding (that won't compromise our IP) to advance a proposal made to the DOE to construct a demonstration reactor.

ken said...

There's no real risk of proliferation. One of the main reasons the US dropped them was that they're lousy for making bombs, which was something we wanted to do in the 50s & 60s. Also, besides making U233, they make a trace of U232, which decays fairly quickly into some isotopes that are very powerful gamma emitters. Powerful enough that a device just a few months old would be so radioactive that its own control electronics would be fried.

A thorium reactor does need a startup load. That can be used fuel from a conventional reactor or some of the several thousand tons of U233 that the US has in stockpile somewhere in the desert.

There's lots of information at, and there are several Google tech talks on the subject. In one of them, the presenter holds up a small stone - smaller than an egg - and says that it's a low-grade thorium ore with only about 0.5% thorium, but there's enough energy in it to put an SUV in orbit.