Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Safe Nuclear Power - for real?

There's been much debate in America about the wisdom of building more nuclear power stations.

Currently, America's had a moratorium on building new stations for almost 30-years - and has hurled itself back three decades in the process.

While countries like France generate no less than 80% of their power through nuclear energy, the United States continues to rely on gas and coal generators, and suffers rolling blackouts through much of the summer as a result.

Yet there are legitimate concerns about building new nuclear power stations - not least of which are the radioactive waste materials produced.

While popular opinion in France supports nuclear power, there's a growing movement there which points to long term health affects they attribute to poor management of radioactive waste. In a country like America - which is notoriously litigious - getting rid of the radioactive materials presents a significant challenge.

Secondly, there's the safety aspect. While nuclear power has an excellent safety record, the sheer potential for devastation worries us all.

The word 'Chernobyl' remains on people's lips, and most Americans are aware of how close we came to our own Chernobyl when the reactor on Three Mile Island suffered a partial core meltdown in 1979. Nobody wants a potential nuclear bomb sitting on their doorstep, or to run the hypothetical risks of living in close proximity to a nuclear reactor.

Finally, there's the cost. Despite hurling almost a trillion dollars at wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, many of the more conservative members of Congress are appalled at the idea of investing in America's infrastructure (and hurting the cause of their corporate paymasters in the fossil fuel industry when they do so.)

But the inimitable Mycroft pointed me towards a substance that could solve all three of these questions, and revolutionize America's infrastructure virtually overnight.

Thorium!

I'd never heard of it before (but I'm woefully ill-informed and a writer, not a nuclear physicist, so I'm not going to feel bad about it.)

But this naturally-occurring, radioactive metal is theorized to be a significantly superior nuclear fuel than uranium (what we currently use) and infinitely superior to current fossil fuels. What's more - it's safe. In fact, so safe that using it to produce nuclear fuel could also burn up current radioactive waste as well!

A single ton of Thorium produces as much energy as 200 tons of uranium, or three and a half million tons of coal. It can't be used to produce weapons-grade material (so we could ship it to Iran and North Korea with impunity.) Even more importantly, it's impossible to make it go 'boom' in a nuclear meltdown.

It's like the answer to all our energy prayers. As the Daily Telegraph reported: "it could put an end to our dependence on fossil fuels within three to five years." Plus, there's enough naturally-occurring Thorium in the United States to meet our current energy needs for the next ten centuries.

So why the hell aren't we doing anything about it?

Well we are - very, very modestly. In Texas, they're experimenting with a modest reactor. The military is also funding research into a destroyer-sized nuclear reactor. That's about it.

Meanwhile, in India, they're close to turning the switch on the first full-sized Thorium reactor next year - and have already started building five more. The effect this could have on the nation's infrastructure is unprecedented. Currently one of the biggest consumers of fossil fuels, this could be turned around within a decade - making India the power to watch as the world's industrial hierarchy shifts.

The fact is, America needs to get cracking. We're already being outpaced in 'clean' technology by nations like China. To miss an opportunity like this - to totally transform our nation from fossil-fuel addiction to energy independence - would be a slap in the face to every intrinsically American value we have.

The problem is, to do so would involve combating the complacency and self-serving attitudes of our current crop of porcine politicians. Just look at who is ranking member of our Committee on Energy and Commerce - none other than Republican Joe Barton, who apologized to BP when they caused the greatest oil spill in history (and fought bitterly against wind farms because he believed they'd 'slow down' the wind - no joke!)

The fact is, America can't continue her addiction to dirty, expensive, inefficient fuels bought from nations who fund our greatest enemies. But the fact also is; we don't have to.

We have at our fingertips the opportunity to cut those puppet-strings and start a new era for this great nation - one which sees us embrace clean, cheap, plentiful energy to benefit everybody.

Whether or not the powers-that-be will let us do so? Sadly, that remains to be seen.

Find out more about Thorium from the Thorium Energy Alliance - finally a 'TEA' party I'd be proud to be a member of!

3 comments:

One Salient Oversight said...

Actually I think it can be used to make Nuclear bombs - but not as powerful as those made from uranium/plutonium. the danger is there though.

The other danger is that the processes which render the Thorium usable in a nuclear reactor can also, I believe, be used on uranium.

So what concerns me is how to power third-world nations on Thorium. If you build Thorium reactors in third world countries, will those countries then have the ability to create weapons grade nuclear material (either made from Thorium or Uranium).

I don't think Thorium is the solution - but there is a nuclear reaction going on underneath our feet called the Earth's core, and the heat that the core generates can be used to boil water and spin a turbine. The way to access that heat is to dig a borehole around 14km down and connect it up to another borehole drilled nearby. It's called Geothermal Energy and, depending upon the underlying geology, you can pretty much build it anywhere on earth.

Sarah said...

I happened on your page while researching possible undergraduate projects. I'm a chemical engineering student and this sparked a mad frenzy of chemical research. One of the main disadvantages of Th232 reactors is that it can produce U233 (my research is unclear of the process of Th232 decomposition at this time) which has all the dangers of nuclear reactors to this day. Th is also HIGHLY flammable! The element must be extracted from (basically) clay because the element combusts on contact with air as a pure element. The extraction is fairly straight forward, but it is to be noted that it does take highly concentrated acid which has it's own issues within any process.
You are correct that it produces less toxic waste than U. However, it is known to cause cancer and increase the likelyhood of liver disease. Along with many other "possible" side effects.
I will have to do more research to be able to fully argue if it is a more "clean" energy than the current methods. But I feel the potiential is there in comparision to U. I still have hesitation and feel that renewable energy would be the best investment at this time.
I am open to hear anyone more knowledgable about the subject. I would be interested in the chemical process, kinetics, and well the impacts! :)
Thanks, I enjoyed reading!

Roland Hulme said...

Sarah! Thanks so much for your comment! You apparently know a LOT about this, so I'm fascinated to learn about how it isn't quite such a find after all.