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The idea of building small, thorium-based nuclear reactors – thought to be dramatically safer, cheaper, cleaner and terror-proof than our current catalog of reactors – can be shooed away as fringe by some. But the germ of the idea began with some of the country's greatest scientists, in the U.S. government's major atomic lab, at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, in the 1960s.
And then it was left by the wayside as the American nuclear industry plowed ahead with its development of the light water reactors and the uranium fuel cycle. It's only in the past half-decade that the idea has picked up steam again on the Internet, thanks to enterprising enthusiasts who have chronicled the early experiments, distributed documents, and posted YouTube videos. But if thorium's second life on the Internet has grown the flock of adherents exponentially, it's also pulled in more than a few people whose nuclear expertise doesn't extend far past Wikipedia, adding a sheen of hype to the proceedings.
Still, the idea has legs, if new research programs by India and China are any indication. The former has just announced a prototype thorium-based advanced heavy water reactor, while the latter is researching a liquid fuel reactor based on the 1960s design. In the U.S., the race is being advanced not by the government but by some of the central movers and shakers of the Internet movement.
One of them, Kirk Sorensen, left his engineering job to study nuclear physics and start a company devoted to building small, modular liquid fluoride thorium reactors. The goal now may be to build some for the military, a tactic that would circumvent many of the challenges of building commercial reactors in the U.S. We met Kirk at the Thorium Energy Alliance summit in Washington, as well as an Army colonel focused on energy, and the head of the alliance, the thorium advocate and industrial engineer John Kutsch. We also interviewed Alexis Madrigal, senior editor at the Atlantic and author of Powering the Dream, a history of green technology evangelism, David Biello, associate editor at Scientific American, and Phillip Musegaas, the director of Riverkeeper's Hudson River Program, which keeps careful tabs on the Indian Point Power Station, one of the country's many aging nuclear plants located about 30 miles from New York City. The nuclear physicist Alvin Weinberg, who led the first thorium reactor experiment, makes a cameo as well.
The upshot of someone else making electricity, someone else makes profit and the government collects taxes.
The upshot of individual homes making electricity, we all become energy independent and pay no taxes on it too.
If it a contest between the 1% rich and the 99% working folk, I say the game is rigged and the 1% will win and the government is bias towards the 1% rich.
For all those home tinker-ers, please continue on and please publish your results as soon as possible.
We working folk of 99% need you, badly. Thank you.
Thanks for the video, PopSci! Very interesting stuff.
I agree completely with Robot. When something is simple and maintenance free, there is little value in it to the companies that would be put in charge of implementing the tech. On top of that, there would be a lot of jobs lost at powerplant facilities with this thing. Imagine being the president that signs off on making our grid plug-and-play and killing thousands (if not millions) of jobs.
There would still need to be maintenance on the transmission and distribution system, but there would not even be a market to trade energy. A lot of jobs lost.
It's a sad trade-off that would need to be made.
Unfortunately, as a race, humans are not interested enough in the advancement of ourselves and technology. Being able to free up people from one task should allow them to focus their efforts on another. The problem is there aren't enough tasks to go around.
I love the thorium reactor concepts that i have seen. However they are still fission and still suffer (even if in lower quantities) similar issues. I credit the technology most with simpler fuel transport and reduced chances of proliferation in overseas application.
I like thorium as it is pretty much "The best of what we have now". However, I hold out with greater hope that ITER and NIFs competition will pay off, yielding a viable solution for commercial fusion. Time will tell...
When Flibe energy or the Chinese start factories producing Molten Salt Reactors at a mass production cost of less than a penny a KWh - the world will change forever.
The oh so stupid politicians like Chu (stupid is as stupid does) and his gang of greenie backroom fools and ghouls now running the DOE that refuse to support the MSR and the GE Prism IFR concept will join Bill Clinton as enemies of America. Clinton accepted Big Oil lolly in exchange for shutting down the IFR in 1996 but the Brits appear to be onboard.
Advanced Nuke power gets lip service service only from the Obama adminstration riddled with Big Oil purchased bureaucrats pushing the Big Oil's politically correct and lucrative renewable/gas backup agenda. Here's IFR advocate Stephen Kirsch begging the nuclear obstructionists betraying their country in the White house to let the IFR go.
China is spending spending $500M annually developing the American invented MSR (MSR). The UK is looking at building the blueprinted IFR (GE Prism) for service in 5 years. India's first of 5 to 2020 fast breeder is going into service this year at half the cost of new American designed AP1000's.
Green people need to understand that the biggest roadblock ending the imminent threat of a peak oil GHG holocaust is the Green movement's ill conceived, opposition to nuclear power.
I disagree with your assumption that thorium, a potential for cheaper energy, will make "millions" of people lose their job. A.) it might be thousands not millions, B.) it will open up thousands mroe in the making of reactors, the production of thorium as this will start as world run on thorium and increase the production in the US(lower energy costs, lower the manufacturing cost of many products. I think the closing of the fossil fuel door for energy will through open many doors due to the cheapness of this energy
Think of how many Pony Express riders, horse keepers and blacksmiths lost their jobs when the telegraph went through!
Yes, Thorium is disruptive in liquid-fuel reactors -- utilities would runa city of about $30k of Throium fluoride from most any supplier, rather than millions of $ of enriched Uranium solid fuel supplied by just a few, self-protective companies.
This geeky-tech era loves "disruptive". However, our wise scientists knew decades ago that everyone's future depends on "disruptive".
Dr. A. Cannara
By the way, AlexP, one of the more significant "cults" is that of pop media -- what you write into on deadline.
This is a great example, because the key is not simply Thorium, but liquid fuel. That's where PopSci & this author could have made a great contribution to readers' understanding of the broad range of meaning in "nuclear power".
If, for example, Fukushima had been using molten-salt reactors, with or without Thorium, the result would be nothing to write home about. Yet, because the solid-fuel industry has been dominant for over 50 years ion civilian power, the Japanese had this...
The liquid salt fuel for the ORNL reactor operated in the 1960s is still in its safe storage tanks, underground, 43 years after shutdown. It's ready to be remelted & pumped back up into the reactor for operation, much as Fukushima MSRs, had they been built, would be ready for restored operation.
PopSci needs to do a bit more on the "Sci" side.
Dr. A. Cannara
Why now, this thorium is the greatest thing and we have known about it since the 60s?
Besides, if the spent wasted off of thorium cannot be used to make nuclear bombs, and it being such an wonderful energy source, one would think IRAN would be all over this nuclear type power.
Unless, IRAN like the USA in the old days of nuclear bomb research, wants the byproducts of their current nuclear energies development. And USA currently is more interesting in producing energy and less in making of nuclear bombs.
It kind shows the priorities of countries and why they pursue the type of nuclear research they do, hmm?!
1. I said thousands, and in parenthesis, said "if not millions." So I'm pretty sure I don't need correction there. And if you factor in the number of people working at power plants around the country, plus all of the mom and pop places that are springing up to put panels on your roof, I would say there is potential to disrupt over 1 million people in the energy industry.
2. Do you really think there will be reactor manufacturing in all of the locations where there are currently power plants? Manufacturing these things will be a race to the bottom. If it requires no service, then it is/will be a commodity, and will continue to drop in price as it will be produced by the lowest bidder. As such, you may as well just chalk it up as already being built in China.
Obviously there will be some market around these things. However, a "magic bullet" tech like this, with little maintenance, is designed to remover the maintainer.
That said, I still wish they would be built. The energy that would be produced would be cheap and could create possibilities for advances in other arenas. The problem would be that lull between when people lose their jobs because of these nukes, and those other arenas becoming apparent.
If it is so safe, where is the safety record? Exactly how many hours has one of these worked?
I am still waiting for the Enrico Fermi molten sodium project to work. Molten salt may be some great on paper calculation but in real life it is very difficult to do. I assume this is meaning molten sodium and not molten salt. Salt is like 2500 F boiling where the sodium is a almost cold 1600 F. If they can't get sodium to heat up correctly then how they going to handle salt?
Hey, I am sadly for nuclear energy. This is not a totally safe way to create energy. It may be a choice if it ever gets built and tested and we find some way to store waste. I agree production of fuel is a bit safer.
I would like to clarify something that media outlets like this miss time and time again. There is no such thing a thorium powered nuclear reactor. All thorium based reactors are breeder reactors and as such often require high enrichments. In a reactor that contains thorium the thorium is converted into uranium which then fissions to create energy; however, to convert thorium to uranium enough uranium must be mixed into the fuel. To this end thorium fuel is really Th-U-oxide or some other mixture. The require amount of uranium presents a severe challenge in creating these reactors and any reactor of reasonably achievable and legal enrichment will look like CANDU reactors from Canada. In a CANDU reactor fuel must be constantly rotated out to maintain a critical reaction. However, the point here being that thorium is not a fuel it is a precursor to a fuel. Now this being said, research on thorium based fuels will and should continue; however, I wouldn't hold my breath on seeing a thorium based power reactor in the next decade maybe even two especially in light of a global trend to eliminate highly enriched fuels.
This is just another version of the same. Someday people willl look at the thorium reactors like we look at the steam engine. The developements are just going to replace and replace and replace.
I do agree @robot, with the fact that we ave known this since the 60s, and now it is oh-so-wonderful, we-must-have-more!
What I do not agree is that the rich own everything, and that gov't leans toword the rich. The rich CONTROL the gov't throught lobbying, and the gov't actually punishes the people for being rich, as we have seen in the Obama administration (not trying to trod on peoples toes, just pointing out what I have seen).
Every statement can be interpreted as it can be, just as every tech can be an angel and the devil himself at the same time, just like nuclear tech today could meltdown and kill millions, the tech still produces enough energy to keep them alive.
I so adore diverse opinions. I learn a lot!
fossil fuels- nuclear reactor-solar power-forgot one!-and thurium fule- are all good. ways to make energy , !!depending on the circumstances and demand!! time tells with such a big benefit from one PRODUCT- like machine- yes such a big benefit, such a good pro, such a good energy saver there will always be an equally sense of responsibility. which will be big. looks like you guys came up with a more than resonable way to make constant affordable energy keep going more power to you............(in no ways being egotistical)-but my own plan or invention of a better aboundant supply of enrgy was doomed itself. self analysis tells me that a patent, the highly usefullness of the product, and the unselfishness in intentions of the invention. doomed it. i can claim that its so meny tymes more productive than solar power but it has to face the prime obsticle COMPETITION..... tell me i have to pay a price to patent my idea and you self defeat your own progress to a free energy source in the speach of one sentence.
you know why the big wonderfulness of nuclear power fissled out. one reason is that the first initial intention to harness power from dividing atoms-expirements was to benefit humanity. then to my dissapointment some offical force decided it would be more benefitial to make nuclear bombs out of the original purpose.dual porpose energy source// get out of here.... only thing that official entity wanted was dominance in war a one solution weapon... so much greed man its humiliating...