Instapundit links to this fascinating article in Wired on thorium, which seems to be a great alternative for uranium in nuclear reactors.
[T] horium could solve the nuclear power industry’s most intractable problems. After it has been used as fuel for power plants, the element leaves behind minuscule amounts of waste. And that waste needs to be stored for only a few hundred years, not a few hundred thousand like other nuclear byproducts. Because it’s so plentiful in nature, it’s virtually inexhaustible. It’s also one of only a few substances that acts as a thermal breeder, in theory creating enough new fuel as it breaks down to sustain a high-temperature chain reaction indefinitely. And it would be virtually impossible for the byproducts of a thorium reactor to be used by terrorists or anyone else to make nuclear weapons.
Weinberg and his men proved the efficacy of thorium reactors in hundreds of tests at Oak Ridge from the ’50s through the early ’70s. But thorium hit a dead end. Locked in a struggle with a nuclear- armed Soviet Union, the US government in the ’60s chose to build uranium-fueled reactors — in part because they produce plutonium that can be refined into weapons-grade material. The course of the nuclear industry was set for the next four decades, and thorium power became one of the great what-if technologies of the 20th century.
Today, however, Sorensen spearheads a cadre of outsiders dedicated to sparking a thorium revival. When he’s not at his day job as an aerospace engineer at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama — or wrapping up the master’s in nuclear engineering he is soon to earn from the University of Tennessee — he runs a popular blog called Energy From Thorium. A community of engineers, amateur nuclear power geeks, and researchers has gathered around the site’s forum, ardently discussing the future of thorium. The site even links to PDFs of the Oak Ridge archives, which Sorensen helped get scanned. Energy From Thorium has become a sort of open source project aimed at resurrecting long-lost energy technology using modern techniques.
And the online upstarts aren’t alone. Industry players are looking into thorium, and governments from Dubai to Beijing are funding research. India is betting heavily on the element.
The concept of nuclear power without waste or proliferation has obvious political appeal in the US, as well. The threat of climate change has created an urgent demand for carbon-free electricity, and the 52,000 tons of spent, toxic material that has piled up around the country makes traditional nuclear power less attractive. President Obama and his energy secretary, Steven Chu, have expressed general support for a nuclear renaissance. Utilities are investigating several next-gen alternatives, including scaled-down conventional plants and “pebble bed” reactors, in which the nuclear fuel is inserted into small graphite balls in a way that reduces the risk of meltdown.
It is surely obvious that I know even less about nuclear physics than I do real estate (well, at least as little – can you go below absolute zero?) but this sounds promising. Too bad that Iran isn’t really interested in electricity generation because thorium would seem to offer an answer to their stated desire for fuel while easing the rest of the world’s fear of Iran having nuclear weapons. For the rest of us, though, maybe this is where we should be headed.