The Thorium Dream

Nuclear energy is powerful, but it can look even worse than the others, given persistent waste storage issues and the threat of proliferation.

Nov 9 2011, 6:14pm

Chances are you are reading this and watching the video above on Mac or a Windows computer, or maybe on an Android or iOS device, or maybe even Linux or BSD. Those obvious possibilities represent only the tail end of many not-so-obvious choices, the ones that determine, for better or worse, the direction that technology takes. Some things win and other things lose; some operating systems succeed, building on previous ideas, and others end up in the trash can of history. Or, in the case of Windows (which Apple once claimed “stole” the idea from Mac OS), the Recycle Bin. The trash is where Xerox’s Alto operating system ended up after inspiring both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates to develop their own graphical user interface, the front-end of computers that we now take for granted.

There’s much to take for granted in the evolution of technology, or at least in the way that technology appears to us today – refined, perfected, ever cutting-edge. In the case of energy, where innovation has never been more sorely wanted, what we take for granted are a set of circumstances that are both entrenched and terrible. Coal and oil and natural gas seem like the only sure-fire ways of providing base-load energy, if your only criteria is cheap electricity. Globally, if they don’t look paltry, our energy and resource supplies are becoming increasingly costly to extract and use. Demand has never been higher; ditto levels of CO2 and other terrible greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Nuclear energy is powerful, but it can look even worse than the others, given persistent waste storage issues and the threat of proliferation.

So fixed do these set of circumstances sound that when the topic of thorium nuclear energy comes up at a party, or in a webpage comment string, it elicits angry dismissals, or heaps of praise.

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 story was enriched, so to speak, by the multiple meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, which shed new light on the drawbacks of the aging reactor technology that beat thorium-based reactors to the punch in the 1960s: the uranium-based light water reactor. Another in a long line of technological lock-ins, this was the result of great, bullish investment into a design that was born before safety and proliferation were major concerns. The thorium story, then, is not just one of new opportunities, but a cautionary tale about the mistakes we make on the paths we take. They aren’t always paths toward progress, but with the right guides, and the right questions, new trails might be blazed – hopefully in better ways and toward better directions than the previous ones.

There are many lingering questions about thorium, including sourcing the fuel, regulations, industrial inertia and persistent fears about radiation. While the disaster at Fukushima raised the specter of atomic destruction and pushed countries like Germany and Switzerland to announce an end to their nuclear programs, it’s also proved to be another teachable moment about how and why technologies come to be, and how to improve them. In the interest of cutting greenhouse gases, prominent climate scientists and environmentalists and technologists and presidents still argue that nuclear is a worthy enough technology to keep researching and improving. Before Fukushima, Obama’s nuclear policy was that safer nuclear plants are a “necessity,” and in February of 2010, he committed $8 billion in loan guarantees for new plant construction. His tune hasn’t changed – a reflection perhaps of the success of the industry’s lobbying and donations.

The confusion and trepidation and sluggishness that have set in around the world make improvements look harder than usual. But they also offer up opportunities for reflection, a chance to calculate new approaches. Progress will depend upon on how much we’ve really learned from history, how smart we choose to be about weighing our needs against our fears, and how willing we are to test new ideas. Even if and especially if those ideas were buried in the garbage a long time ago.