19 Jun 2012

Is Thorium a Super Fuel?

Yesterday, I pitched up at Cambridge University's Engineering Dept to hear thorium evangelist Rick Martin talking about his new book, Super Fuel, subtitled Thorium, the Green Energy Source for the Future.

For those of you not familiar with the buzz about thorium, it's an alternative to using uranium as a fuel for nuclear reactors. It's abundant, it's much easier to manage and the waste and proliferation issues are greatly reduced (though not eliminated). I could go on, but you'd do better to look at the book.

What's just as interesting to me is that thorium has evangelists. Evangelists like Apple used to have evangelists? Yes, not so very different. But why would anyone evangelise nuclear power? Well, just as Apple was once a David pitching itself against Microsoft's Goliath, so thorium is very much a minnow when pitched against mainstream nuclear power. It's not just the fuel, it's how you use it and the buzz is all around liquid fluoride thorium reactors, known in thorium circles as Lifters, which don't need pressurising and have in-built passive protection against meltdowns.

This is not new technology. A Lifter was built and run for a while at the Oak Ridge Labs in the USA in the 1970s by Alvin Weinberg, the godfather of the thorium brigade. It worked fine but it got closed down because the USA decided that uranium reactors suited them better (at least in part because they could be used to produce enriched uranium for bombs). Since then very little has happened until very recently; the Chinese are now building a couple of lifters, and India is also starting to use thorium though as a solid fuel, not a liquid.

In the West, it's mostly down to the evangelists, notably Kirk Sorensen in the USA - you can watch his TED talk here:it's only 10 minutes and, boy, does he sound like Steve Jobs. Rick Martin seems to be his John the Baptist, not as technical but just as keen. Sorenson's and Martin's enthusiasm is infectious because, due to them, we know have our very own British evangelist, Bryony Worthington, who just happens to have a seat in the House of Lords. Worthington started out as an anti-nuclear campaigner at Friends of the Earth but re-assessed her views after coming into contact with Kirk Sorensen and finding out about thorium. There is also a Weinberg Foundation dedicated to spreading the thorium message.

I'm afraid I'm a sucker for all this. I don't know enough about nuclear physics to judge whether thorium is quite as wonderful as the evangelists make out, but there is such a buzz about it that it's hard not to get excited about the possibilities, especially as I feel so bleak about so many of the other options facing us. Hell, thorium even has its own skeptic, Arjun Makhjani, who makes nit-picking points about why it might not be such a great idea. You can hear him debate with Rick Martin here. Somehow, having a tame skeptic makes it all the more believable.

Martin made the telling point that nuclear R&D pretty much ground to a halt after Weinberg was sacked from his job by Nixon in 1973. Then, after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, it all just froze up. Nuclear power went right out of fashion and no young grad student worth their salt ever considered dedicating their life to nuclear research. Renewables were just so much more fashionable. But now it's changed. Martin said the current situation reminds him of Silicon Valley c 1980 when there was IBM who were everything in computing and all these little start-ups with very different visions of what might happen.

This tacitly acknowledges that thorium lifters are not the only nuclear game changers in town and that there are other vision of where we could go with nuclear slowly gathering momentum, notably the travelling wave reactors which are being backed by Bill Gates. There are other designs too - known generically as 4th Generation Reactors. And let's not ignore the €10 billion being spent on the experimental Iter fusion reactor in France.

After decades in a semi-moribund state, nuclear research has once again come alive, promising solutions to many of the age-old issues that have dogged the industry. But to date it's only thorium and its lifters that seems to get evangelists excited. It's hard to know quite why this is but I feel that in large part it's because of the back story of how the initial research was shelved and forgotten and how it's been unearthed by an unlikely, non-establishment hero. There is a touch of the fairy tale here, a touch of magic. Nuclear power badly needed re-branding and Kirk Sorensen may just be the man to do it.

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