Thorium – Sometimes It’s Who Notices That Matters

Let it be said here, again, if you really want the news as clear as the press ever gets it – read the Wall Street Journal. For thorium fans a minor breakthrough took place as Keith Johnson wrote an Environmental Capital piece late on June 5th 2009.

That’s of note because more people who have some sense read the WSJ and can trust it than any other mass media publication. While Johnson understandably doesn’t come out with an endorsement, the piece does suggest that thorium as a fission fuel is worth close examination. We knew that, but the hundreds of thousands of WSJ readers who aren’t blog readers may well have seen the headline “New Nukes: Thorium Power and the Nuclear Renaissance” with new, nukes and thorium leading the text. That’s more impact than anything seen anywhere else in the mainstream media. Thanks Mr. Johnson, it’s a favor to the nation, well done.

Thorium Fuel Rods
Thorium Fuel Rods

Just to set things straight, its well past time to investigate the potentials from thorium fuels. Not just as “new nukes” either, the thorium reactors are very different in construction and could very well be added to existing power plant sites at no or minimum risk, saving huge generator, transformer and grid construction costs. Moreover when adding capacity the grid can be improved solving in a major way the time to acquire land rights for new lines. It’s truly a ratepayer’s dream of relief for some incredible investment expenses that have been suggested for other plans.

Johnson points out the three major political advantages to thorium, easy abundance, dramatically lowered waste issues and nearly or practically, immunity to proliferation. Thorium fuels when spent would be useless to a terrorist without billions of dollars in facilities and transport to comb out fissile materials and a very long time as well.
The bad news comes out of Congress where Hatch, a Republican and Reid a Democrat have tried twice over the past two years to get thorium centered up in the U.S. nuclear power program with no result. It’s email and phone call time.

Johnson suggests that the holdup is the more costly “fuel cycle” due to a need to add a bit of uranium or plutonium to trigger a reaction. Somehow that spooks the industry with problems aplenty now. There is also the matter that no commercial reactors exist in a business decades into designing standard units because of the licensing path that more resembles a paper hurricane than a license as regular folks understand it.
It’s more likely that with the regulatory establishment in the way, married to the existing technology, thorium would be a cold start into the unknown. All knowledge to date would have to be regulatory challenged, sent through the process and approved . . . someday. The Congressional effort to date to draw the necessary due diligence at appropriate speed isn’t hopeful. Fast tracking things like miracle drugs still takes huge sums of money and time with deaths adding up with no concern to the deaf dumb and blindness of bureaucracy. It could be done, but a serious emergency isn’t in the cards for power generation. The only thing that would work is intense public pressure, but herding the cats in Congress is one thing, imagine herding public opinion into pressuring them for more nuclear power with mostly unproven questions and answers in hand.
As Johnson notes, pressure is going to mount. The Yucca Mountain money pit, useful as it is, is near certain to close leaving a huge inventory of dangerous stuff at over 100 sites across the U.S. Obama is on record killing Yucca Mountain now and pours a non proliferation message on the rest of the world. Thorium would answer those matters and offer a shot at electrical power in very large scales to support energy independence. He might want to hurry, someone is going to shorten up the message and hand it to the Republicans solving the acceptability matter of nuclear power for a much larger part of the voters.

Johnson offers the link to Energy From Thorium in the text unlabeled, so I’m making it clear here. Right at the top of the page is the introductory information, well worth one’s time to be cognizant and informed. The site does have a marriage to the liquid fluoride reactor, something that may well be improved on over time.

Thorium Fueled Molten Salt Reactor Block Diagram.  Click image for the largest view.
Thorium Fueled Molten Salt Reactor Block 

Even more close to full public discussion is Professor Robert Hargraves course pages from which you can go through his materials that been acquired since his discovery of thorium now over just two yeas ago. It’s amazing how some solutions, with thorium as an example today, can impact thinking when the results are understood.  Here is his Google Tech Talk.
That’s where I’ll stop for today with the point thorium fuel is still looking for the message for public attention. That’s the problem actually. The technology isn’t that much of an issue so far as we know, but a lot of the intimate details have died with the early researchers. The sooner those dusty old notes and records are reviewed and exposed to the lessons of the two younger generations of engineers – the better.
Let’s say that the fusion guys are delayed by one or two decades, Dr. Mill’s BlackLight isn’t real, then thorium is should be the hottest process to power in North America. It’s a matter looking for an emergency or a message. Lets hope the message comes first and it’s a good one!

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