- Motherboard explores a common but relatively unknown nuclear fuel called thorium
- Said to be safe and clean, idea of using thorium was born in '60s but never came to fruition
- A tight-knit group of enthusiasts exists online and is breathing new life into the idea
If, like many of the world's leaders, you are eager for a dependable and cheap energy source that doesn't spew toxins and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere -- and that doesn't result in terrible, billion dollar accidents -- you can end your search now.
At least, that's the news from a tight-knit collective of energy blogs, dedicated to a common but relatively unknown metal called thorium.
In the right kind of nuclear reactor, they say, thorium could power the world forever -- and without the problems that come with the nuclear energy we use today, from Fukushima-like meltdowns to the difficult by-products of plutonium that leave behind radioactive waste and weapons material.
The idea certainly sounds like the stuff of fringe internet conspiracists, but it was actually born in the U.S. government's major atomic lab in the 1960s under the auspices of one of the country's most respected nuclear scientists, and the inventor of today's most common kind of nuclear technology, the light water reactor.
But the research into the alternative idea of using thorium in molten-salt reactors died when Alvin Weinberg left Oak Ridge National Lab in the 1970s, as the American nuclear industry plowed ahead with its development of the light water reactors and the uranium fuel cycle.
Only in the past half-decade has the idea picked up steam again on the internet, thanks to enterprising enthusiasts who have chronicled the early experiments, distributed documents, and posted YouTube videos -- a kind of crowd-sourced "scientific" research that's never been possible before. And yet, while 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, at least 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.
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, environmentalists, 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 nuclear industry's heavy lobbying and donations.
At Motherboard, we like to tell stories about the more human side of technology, and the thorium story, for all of its difficult, nerdy details, is ultimately a very human one. It's about the way technology develops and our love for awesome gadgets, and the ways we can get stuck with gadgets that we don't necessarily like. More specifically, it's about the dream of harnessing infinite power, how that beautiful dream became a complicated and ugly reality, and how those realities give rise to yet more new dreams.
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 when those new ideas have been sitting in the trash bin for 50 years.